Japanese Dragonware Teacup

I hate it when a little research verifies that an item falls into souvenir status rather than art. I can never look at the item in quite the same way—proving that a degree of ignorance really can be bliss at times.

Anyway, one such item was the geisha lithophane teacup that I looked at in my last post.


Turns out, these teacups led me right to my next souvenir because lithophanes can be considered a type of moriage, a technique in which clay is layered so as to create a 3-D effect.

To make a porcelain teacup lithophane, some areas of porcelain are thicker than others so that when the cup is held up to a light, the difference in porcelain thickness creates an image. In Japanese export ware of the 1900s, the image was often a geisha.

Concomitant with lithophane teacups was dragonware moriage pottery, made in the late 1800s through mid-1900s, at a time when Europeans and Americans were particularly intrigued with Japonism. Note that moriage is not always dragonware, but true dragonware is always moriage.

teacup and saucer


Various techniques were used to create moriage:

The decorative elements were designed separate from the body of the piece and applied to the existing piece or carefully piped on in narrow ribbons of clay after the body was made. The piece’s designs could have been “slip-trailed” or built up by the act of brushing on successive layers of liquified slip (wet clay) to gain the desired effect. (Verderame)

Moriage itself evolved from Satsuma ware—developed in the 1500s by Korean potters in southern Japan—in which pieces were sometimes decorated with raised designs made of polychrome enamel or even gilt.

The moriage of the twentieth century was far less costly, but was also intended for the export market as part of “fancy” ware destined for the United States. This came about after a dismal showing at the 1893 World Exposition in Chicago. Japanese decorative arts simply didn’t sell!

Americans were instead enamored by fancy European ware that depicted flowers and scenery. They didn’t want blue and white porcelain; they wanted white porcelain table ware that was finely painted (Henley 2008).

Luckily, a few years earlier, industrialists in Seto, Japan, had started producing a “fancier” line specifically for export, with artists beginning to use the more stable and brighter western paints.

Art Nouveau design elements were used for these fancy items (until around 1920, when Art Deco dominated). With an emphasis on sinuous and organic lines, Art Nouveau could be either elegant or powerful.

Japanese artists designed pieces that “adopt[ed] the balanced shape of the intricate curve and roundness” characteristic of Art Nouveau design, and decorated them with:

  • moriage
  • gold raised work and beading
  • raised enamel (placed over gold overlay)
  • wedgwood, imitating the raised clay slip trailing of Josiah Wedgwood’s jasperware (Henley 2008)

These raised elements included flowers, birds and animals, borders, and so on. If classified as dragonware, a dragon—quite obviously—wrapped around the piece.


Dragonware was rarely functional ware, but was intended for decoration. The field of the pottery or porcelain piece usually ranged from matte gray to black in color, and the highly ornamented dragon swirled around the entire item. The dragon’s eyes were originally made of glass beads, often rimmed with enamel work.

Dragonwork changed over the decades, with the glass beads disappearing, the dragon size decreasing, and the work becoming less detailed.

maker mark

The periods of dragonware, according to Daye-Ja Vu (2014) are the following, although she notes that if the piece is marked “Made in Japan,” it must be dated by its design elements.

  • 1891–1921: Marked “Nippon”
  • pre-WWII: Design has enamel, dragon wraps around the entire item, not marked “Nippon”
  • 1946–1947: Marked “Made in Occupied Japan”
  • post-WWII: Dragon on only one side of the item
  • modern souvenir: Poorly made

My miniature dragonware teacup and saucer are stamped “Made in Occupied Japan,” which firmly dates them although I know nothing about how my husband’s late aunt acquired them. The saucer is 2.5 inches in diameter; the cup is 1.75 inches in diameter and just over an inch high.

The dragon, with blue enamel eyes, wraps around three-quarters of the cup, and it’s obvious why moriage is often compared to frosting on a cake.

teacup front and back

Although this diminutive set was made for the export and/or souvenir market, it’s engaging and certainly required some painstaking work, especially considering its small size!

In her book Inside the Head of a Collector, Shirley M. Mueller—herself a collector—notes this:

The reason we collect is simple. It makes us happy. . . . With collecting, we don’t know what to expect. It can take us anywhere. And, we can easily anticipate a whole new world of excitement. (2019:7)

The original collector of this teacup and saucer displayed this set in her home; it made her happy.

When it came into my home, I didn’t know where it would take me—but I discovered things I didn’t know. And that’s always exciting, even if the object collected was “just” a souvenir!


–Daye-Ja Vu, “Japanese dragonware,” Junkbox Treasures Antiques & Collectibles, 5/17/2014.
–Heichelbech, R., “Antique spotlight: Moriage pottery,” Dusty Old Thing, accessed 3/18/22.
–Henley, J., “The mystery of I.E. & C. Co. Japan hand-painted porcelain,” Noritake Collector’s Guild, 3/8/2008.
–Nilsson, J.-E., “Dragonware (Jp.),” Gothenborg.com, 1998–2019.
–Nilsson, J.-E., “Moriage (piling-up),” Gothenborg.com, 1998–2019.
–Verderame, L., “Moriage ware,” Ph.D. Antiques Appraiser, accessed 3/18/22.


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