British-Indian billionaire Nirmal Sethia’s love for tea has made him an avid collector of accessories
When it comes to a cup of tea, British-Indian billionaire Nirmal Sethia is hard to impress. If offered tea with milk and sugar he will send it back, but not before taking the server through a history of the beverage, and what he believes has been reduced to a watered-down industry.
There’s no arguing with the 72-year-old founder of Newby Teas, who has been a tea-taster since he was 16.
Sethia has also amassed the single-biggest collection of tea accessories with 1,700 pieces, valued at US$200 million (Dh734 million), under the Chitra Collection, named after his late wife.
The N Sethia Foundation is the custodian of this rare collection, which includes pieces dating to 10th century BC, and precious gems-encrusted caddies designed by Sethia.
Among his collection are pieces from the Chinese Ming dynasty, Song dynasty and the Russian Romanov dynasty. A silver bachelor teapot engraved with the initial “N” that belonged to admiral Lord Nelson, the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar, US president Theodore Roosevelt’s tea caddy and tea sets owned by the Swedish Queen dating to 1809 are some of his famous pieces.
In August last year, the Guinness World Records awarded a diamond-adorned teapot – which was commissioned by his foundation – the title of the world’s most valuable teapot at US$3 million (Dh11m).
“Tea is like a beautiful woman, never to be judged for her appearance. She has to be judged by her character,” says Sethia, who recently relocated from London to Dubai.
“You see, the last 100 years has brought damage and destruction to the tea culture. Tea was at its highest glory in the Middle East and Europe from the 17th to the 19th century. Then silk tea bags came along in 1908, which was an easier way to have good tea without the leaves floating around in your cup.
“However, unscrupulous traders took advantage of that and started buying cheap low-grade teas that they would then pack and sell for less.”
With his new venture, Sethia wants to convert the fervent coffee-loving community in the UAE into tea drinkers, who will appreciate the meticulous tea picking and processing his factory in Kolkata undertakes.
Newby Teas was set up by Sethia in 2001; 49 per cent of the company is owned by the foundation, which provides education, medical, healthcare and environmental support to underprivileged communities. Its preservation, storage and packing facility opened in 2005.
Tea leaves are sourced from India, China, Japan and Taiwan and are shipped to the facility where they are preserved, blended and sealed in special multi-layered packages to prevent light, heat and moisture from destroying the flavour.
“The finesse and quality of the tea leaves depends on the latitude, longitude, weather conditions, and most of all, the dedication of the people who pluck the tea. Different weather conditions will produce different types of tea.
“That’s why we source tea from only certain countries. Heat, humidity and contamination are the biggest enemies of tea, so we do our best to preserve the character of tea in our facility.”
Sethia was born into a wealthy family, but he chose to leave it behind to forge his own path. He started out as an assistant in the tea-tasting department in a British tea plantation when he was 14.
“My father was one of the richest men in India. Coming from a Rajput family in Rajasthan, we had certain traditions, but that wasn’t what I wanted. So I found myself a job. While my seniors were tasting tea, I used to taste the leftovers. I started reading more about tea and sensitising my palate to the subtlety and notes of the tea. Tea became a meditation for me,” he admits.
By the time Sethia was 16, he had established his own tea business in Assam, India.
“I spent 11 months there and designed a tea factory myself.”
After his father passed away when he was 23, Sethia strayed away from his “first love”, and served as the chairman of Sethia Group, which was one of the largest exporters of jute in the country. But it was his ailing wife who reminded him that his destiny lay in the tea business.
“She was confident I would be successful in this venture and I had to do it for her,” he says.
“As soon as I got back into it, it all came back to me.”
After his wife died in 2010, Sethia felt the need to do something grand in her honour, so he began buying antique tea accessories for his Chitra Collection.
“I looked around museums and each one had a few pieces that preserved the tea culture from history. So I decided to take the onus of preserving it by buying pieces, some of which go back to 10th century BC. This collection has a very strong provenance.”
Sethia says these efforts are to protect the history of tea and create an awareness about high-quality tea at a premium price.
“Cheap can’t be good and good can’t be cheap,” he says.
Published: March 27, 2017 04:00 AM