Why Are People Obsessed with Lenox China Again?

The legacy of Lenox’s collectible Spice Village endures in kitchens everywhere.

Every year, when my brother and I help our mom carry Christmas decorations from the attic, we predict with sarcastic certainty what she’ll say as she hands us a particular box: “Be careful. Those are my Lenox.” For as long as I can remember, those delicate, milky colored collectibles signaled the arrival of the holiday season, coming in the form of hummingbirds on the Christmas tree, biblical figures in our nativity scene, or serving plates cradling slices of honey-baked ham.

And I know I’m not the only ’90s kid who grew up with never-to-be-touched Lenox dishes lining up this thing called a china cabinet. Such reflections have spurred many questions about the current state of special occasion tableware. Do newly married couples still register for specific china patterns? As younger generations lean into more sustainable lifestyles, is there room for consumption of collectibles? Do these antiques from the ’90s hold any resale value?

On the one hand, collecting for the sake of collecting appears to be a lost art. We’ve uncovered other means of investing money, and the idea of a hobby, predicated on personal pursuit, became somewhat obsolete once we began hyper-connecting on social media. But a recent trend on TikTok has turned that hypothesis on its head, exemplifying how collecting beautiful objects can actually serve as a collective experience.

Up until the pandemic forced the brand to close their last remaining American factory, Lenox was the only major manufacturer of bone china—the strongest porcelain material composed of real cow bone ash—in the United States. American businessman Walter Scott Lenox founded Lenox’s first iteration in 1889, then called the Ceramic Art Company, in Trenton, New Jersey. In 1910, the company produced the first collection of dinnerware made in belleek, a cream-colored clay body with ornate engraving. Lenox became the first American china to be used in the White House in 1918, and since then, six presidents and first ladies commissioned Lenox to issue new state dinnerware services.

“While all the manufacturers of belleek went out of business just about the time the depression came along, Lenox survived,” explains Richard A. Barone, founder of the Museum of American Porcelain Art in South Euclid, Ohio. “It’s the only major company that made it through the depression into the 1940s, and really up until present time.”

In 2019, the brand’s Marchesa Painted Camellia collection featuring tea party–esque pinks and blues graced the tables of the Met Gala. Today, the brand is leaning into more minimal, homespun ceramics, recently launching a limited edition pottery collection in collaboration with The Clay Studio.

While Lenox’s legacy as a heritage brand remains strong, ownership of its bread and butter—collectible tableware—seems to have waned over time. “The younger generation today is not interested in collectibles,” Barone says. “And when they inherit those collectibles, they try to find a way to get rid of them. This even extends to very fine works of porcelain art.”

There is, however, one exception: the 1989 Lenox Spice Village collection, which is nearly impossible to track down, thanks to its resurgence on TikTok earlier this year. The tiny, pastel-painted houses, each designed to store a different spice, were brought back to life by users like Anoosha Syed, an illustrator based in Toronto. When she saw an advertisement for the Lenox Spice Village on Pinterest, she made it her mission to build out her personal collection and brought her TikTok followers along with her.

The hashtag #lenoxspicevillage has over 12 million views on TikTok, with users sharing the houses they managed to score at the thrift market, or taking viewers through their countertop collection. According to Architectural Digest, the Lenox Village line was discontinued in 1993, once consumer interest in collectibles started to decline. Individual spice houses were originally priced at $14.95, while the full collection sold for $358.

Barone explains how authentic Lenox pieces will either be stamped with a label from the Ceramic Arts Company, or CAC, if it was produced before 1906, and with a label from Lenox if it was produced after that year. And because people will always want what they can’t have, discontinued Lenox lines are often more sought after than those still in production.

These days, if you’re looking to get your hands on a house of oregano, your best bet is scouring sites like eBay, Etsy, and Facebook Marketplace. Depending on the spice you’re looking for, they can each range from $12 to $95, with the entire 24-piece set clocking in at as much as $800.

The internet’s obsession with these whimsical pieces of porcelain can be attributed to many things: the rise of TikTok aesthetics like cottage core and coastal grandmother, as well as the general ’90s comeback, which has manifested itself through espresso martinis and low-rise jeans. “If you think back to before the year 2000, there were all kinds of crazes. There were dolls that were being collected, Beanie Babies,” says Barone. “Trying to collect the various pieces gave people something to do, believing that someday they would all be worth a lot of money.”

While the spice village can be viewed as an investment, Barone can’t say the same for other Lenox products. “By the 1980s, people stopped collecting, especially when they found that the prices of what they were collecting were not going up,” he explains. “And this ran through the entire American economy, not just Lenox, but every other producer of collectibles suffered the same.”

When it comes to questions about sustainability, it’s true that a millennial or member of Gen Z might not find value in owning a set of fancy tableware, curtained off from their everyday, bowl-plate hybrids. But they are thrifters, and a love for Lenox might come in the form of kitschy, mismatched items, like quail-shaped salt and pepper shakers or butterfly meadow-lined teacups. 

While Barone doesn’t anticipate a miraculous recovery for collectibles, he does predict that Lenox pieces made in the ’50s or ’60s will see somewhat of a resurgence in the next 10 years. “Take, for example, a Lenox plate that originally sold for $35, went to $75, and today you could buy it for three to five dollars. You can’t produce that plate for five dollars, so it’s inherently worth more,” Barone explains. “If it’s a nice plate, somebody’s going to say, ‘I’ll pay five dollars,’ and somebody else is going to say, a year later, ‘I’ll pay six dollars.’ But I don’t think you’re going to see prices go beyond the value of the workmanship that went into it.”

This resurgence, according to Barone, will follow very simple reasoning: People like pretty things, and everything runs in cycles. It’s very possible, then, that one day I’ll scold my kids for mishandling those cutesy houses.

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Jessica Sulima is a staff writer on the Food & Drink team at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram