Emma Bridgewater is a flagship name in the world of ceramics – their English-made dinnerware, mugs and more, in a range of instantly recognisable designs, can be found in pride of place on kitchen shelves in the UK and further afield.
But who is the woman behind the brand? You’d be forgiven for thinking Emma Bridgewater wasn’t a real person at all – from Aunt Bessie to Captain Birdseye, it would hardly be the first example of a brand using a fictional ‘founder’ as its public face. But Emma Bridgewater is indeed a real person, who founded the company named after her in 1985.
Read on to find out more about the real Emma Bridgewater and the company she founded, including the location of their famous factory and outlet retailers.
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Who is Emma Bridgewater?
Emma Bridgewater was born in 1960 in Cambridgeshire, to Charlotte and Adrian Bridgewater. After her parents separated when she was seven, she and her two younger siblings grew up mostly at their mother’s cottage in North Oxford.
Two years after founding Emma Bridgewater in 1985, she met her future husband, Matthew Rice. The couple have four grown-up children – Elizabeth, Kitty, Margaret and Michael – and live in Oxford.
When did she found Emma Bridgewater?
In 1985, Emma was in her early twenties and had recently graduated with a degree in English Literature from the University of London.
While shopping for a cup and saucer as a gift for her mother, she noticed that the items on sale were either formal, delicate bone china or cheap and cheerful mugs. Seeing a gap in the market for eye-catching, elegant crockery that was also sturdy and hardwearing enough for everyday use, Rice decided to try her hand at designing her own.
With no formal training, she relied on extensive research into the history of china styles and manufacturing to develop designs for a mug, bowl, jug and dish. Taking inspiration from the eclectic assortment of crockery in her mother’s busy, boho cottage, she ultimately created a look that felt both traditional and totally new.
Rice then hired a model-maker from the traditional English pottery heartlands of Stoke-on-Trent to bring her designs to life – sparking a relationship with the city which would become a core element of the brand. She started selling her products from a stall in London’s Covent Market and then at trade shows.
As sales soared, her husband Matthew left his job as a bespoke furniture designer to help his wife run the fast-growing company. He would go on to develop the illustration-style designs of birds and animals which have become part of the brand’s signature style.
As of last year, Emma Bridgewater reported an annual turnover of £23.7 million, and employs more than 350 staff.
Where is the Emma Bridgewater factory?
In 1995, Emma and Michael decided to take control of their manufacturing process, and purchased a former Victorian factory site in the Hanley area of Stoke-on-Trent.
The city had been at the heart of Britain’s booming pottery industry in the 18th and 19th century, home to legendary brands like Wedgwood and Spode, but in the latter half of the 20th century more and more manufacturers moved production to cheaper factories abroad. In fact, Emma Bridgewater is one of the only ceramics brands to manufacture 100% of its pottery in the UK. The vast site employs around 230 people and has been credited with injecting new life into the British pottery industry and reviving traditional craftsmanship.
Emma Bridgewater ceramics are particularly recognisable for their sponge-painted designs, a once-common technique that had almost died out until she revived it in the 1980s. Iconic patterns like Emma Bridgewater polka dots and stars are applied by hand using the method, with the decorator signing his or her initials on each piece they craft.
Where can I buy Emma Bridgewater seconds?
At the factory, you will find a cafe, decorating studio and a factory outlet shop where you can buy Emma Bridgewater seconds – pieces that are structurally sound but failed the rigorous selection process due to small superficial blemishes – at bargain prices. Shop Emma Bridgewater seconds online here.
For more Emma Bridgewater bargains, check out our round-up of the Emma Bridgewater items on sale this month.