What Makes A Mug Worth $4,000 Or More

When I was 18 years old, I decided to dedicate my life to making a living as a full-time potter. When you commit to a creative calling full-time,  even when you’re not a professional, magic happens.

In five years, I went from barely being able to make a cylinder on an electric wheel to identically hump-throwing 100 cups per day on a kick wheel.

Left: high school, 2005. Right: a few month’s after college graduation, 2010. I learned a traditional style of pottery throwing that has been practiced for over 1,000 years.

Creative callings also compel you to study the best in the world, then seek them out.

I visited professional potters locally in Minnesota, and as far away as Shigaraki, Japan. I saw the same exact styles of “chawan” woodfire tea bowls, but made by potters worlds apart.

As I’ve written about previously, someone new to ceramics could easily mistake a $30 bowl for a $5,000 bowl, since they look almost identical to the untrained eye.

I’ve held both bowls in my hands. They were equal in quality. Each was a true reflection of the clay, fire, and the mastery of the hand of the potter. The price difference had nothing to do with quality. It had to do with choices.

Most importantly, becoming a professional creative requires that you explore what’s rare and valuable. Specifically, rare and valuable…

      • skills
      • relationships
      • objects
      • projects
      • decisions

Luck plays a big role. So does being born with the privilege and freedom to actually choose your career path. All of these reasons are why I’m still lucky enough to be making a living as a potter sixteen years later.

But you also need the guts to explore uncharted territory. I believe it’s our duty as artists to try and create something new and good for humanity. It’s like that famous Bible verse, “To whom much is given, much is expected.”

For these reasons and more (which I’ll explain in detail below) I’m raising the price of one of my mug designs to $4,000 per mug. The craziest part about this (and I’m well aware this might be crazy) is that it’s not even my most expensive mug.

Why is some art more valuable?

Most of our pottery has a retail price between $100-$500.  Anytime I’ve priced lower, it’s nearly impossible to keep our pottery stock because quantity is inherently limited with handmade art.

Higher prices guarantee that we never sell out. If someone needs a mug, they can get it shipped directly to them, quickly, anytime, anywhere globally.

But most people decide to purchase when we offer discounts, offering mugs below $100 for short periods of time, during batched sales.

12 years of pottery business has grown into a team of workers that my wife and I hired, and together we all make Cherrico Pottery possible. The goal is to get beautiful, useful pottery into people’s hands globally.

Shipping about 400-500 pots per month, directly to people’s doorsteps, is evidence we’ve done a pretty good job making things affordable. We do it in a huge variety of ways:

    • “Grab Bag” sales
    • Subscription pottery boxes and 50% off coupons to Patrons
    • Free newsletter sales, including BOGO sales, bonus handmade paper cards or shot cups, flash sales, holiday sales, etc…you name it, we’ve probably offered it.

I believe in offering affordable art daily, that people aren’t afraid to use and enjoy. That’s the nature of handmade pottery.

But I also believe it’s absolutely necessary to participate in the art world fully. This includes exploring the highest levels of what’s possible. $4,000 for a mug seems crazy, but that’s nothing compared to the literally billions of dollars per year in the art market that is regularly spent by art collectors.

That’s why when Sienna and I travel, we always try to visit art museums.

There is no substitute for seeing Jackson Pollock and Vincent van Gogh paintings in person.

The goal, first and foremost, is to simply get inspired. The colors, textures, shapes, concepts…when art brings out emotions, and you can feel something deep in your soul. That’s what makes art rare and valuable.

But it’s also important to understand what it takes to create art that is priceless and timeliness.

Valuable art should also be pioneering: world changing in the future, made possible from discoveries or breakthroughs.

The “Neptune Mug” does all of this for me. It’s the result of 20,000 hours spent in deep practice of the pottery craft. 

Colors are inspired by the gas giant Planet Neptune. I thought it would be a fun challenge to try and make drips move sideways across the mug, inspired by the horizontal spin and blue and white gas clouds.

Left: Neptune Planet detail, photo by NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, 1989. Right: Neptune Mug detail from layering multiple glazes and raw materials.

Like going to outer space, the mug required solving an extremely difficult engineering problem. Two mugs are required to hang sideways, counterbalanced in the kiln, while firing to 2280 degrees F.

 

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Every time I successfully pull these mugs out of the kiln, I’m astonished that this is actually possible. A million things can go wrong. They took me years to develop, and making them is still excruciatingly painstaking.

But they consistently turn out beautifully, and I’ve consistently felt like they’re undervalued. So, I’m making a drastic change.  I’m raising the price of the Neptune Mug more than X5: from $695 to $3,995.

It’s the same mug as before. It doesn’t have anything special, like gold or diamonds. And it doesn’t take hundreds of hours to make each one, although it is an extremely difficult process.

The difficulty of making them seems proportionate to my “Cosmic Wall Platters.” They have been $11,995 retail price for years now, and we’ve shipped almost a dozen (at discounts).

If all I did was value my time, then this Neptune Mug price rise seems proportionate to spending about 1/3 the time it takes to create a Cosmic Platter.

 

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I’ve been able to teach employees to help with clay texture, glaze and gold leaf application to the Cosmic Platters. It’s similar to an orchestra conductor, or how Dale Chihuly directed his team of glassblowers to skillfully handcraft his vision. 

But the Neptune Mugs are so technically difficult…the shape, the glaze thickness, hanging the mugs in the kiln…that I doubt I’ll ever be able to teach someone else to even help create them without things going awry.

 

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Why Professionals Need To Explore

“The place that we write from (or paint from or compose from or innovate from) is far deeper than our petty personal egos. That place is beyond intellect. It is deeper than rational thought. It is instinct. It is intuition. It is imagination…We can work over our heads. Not only can we, but we must. The best pages I’ve ever written are the ones I can’t remember writing.

Steven Pressfield, “Turning Pro” page 118

I always keep a stack of “Turning Pro” in the pottery office. It’s great to give out to guests, but the real reason I keep these books around is because I’m terrified of becoming an amateur again.

The American Craft Council published a series of blog posts I wrote in 2014-2015 called, “A Potter’s Journey.” It detailed all my successes and failures of being a college kid who transitioned to being a professional potter immediately after graduating (even though I didn’t actually become a true professional until eight years after college).

The third post was called, “Conquering Art Major Anxiety.” I did a thought experiment to help clarify my career goals.

Think of your Art as a “vehicle” that affects the audience. If your Art was literally a vehicle, like a car, what kind of car would it be?

A reliable Honda Civic? An original Ford Model T? A hot red Mustang convertible?

My answer was, “a black Lamborghini.” Where the hell did that come from? I was a poor college kid. I’d never even seen a lambo in real life.

How long have I been trying to make the pottery version of this extreme vehicle, and why?

My answer probably isn’t correct, but it’s an honest reflection of what I believed then and still believe now: It’s important to explore what art can do at the highest levels.

Thoughts on How To Price Art

A helpful exercise when pricing your art is to consider the downsides of a high price:

I did this exercise after creating the first “Spiral Cosmic Mugs” in 2014, priced at $35 each. After the Cosmic Mug Kickstarter raised $34,099 in 2015, priced at $49 per Cosmic Mug, I began raising prices to meet demand. Today they sell on cosmicmugs.com for between $195 to $225.

Whenever I raised prices, some people were always upset, yet the art always continued to sell.

What are the potential upsides of a high price?

    • you’ll improve quality, to create new art worthy of a high price
    • you’ll expand styles, to create other art affordable at a low prices too
    • The high end art might actually sell, because the world is filled with people looking for rare, unique art

Don’t get me wrong, raising prices is terrifying. Doesn’t matter if you’re raising prices to $100 or $4,000. Well I guess it kind of matters…because a $4,000 mug feels riskier.

What if someone drops it and breaks it? Well…I’m not sure. I guess it’s the same as if you break your Rolex or get a rip in your tailored suit or fancy purse. Do they have insurance for luxury clothes? Mugs might actually be closer to an expensive liquor, because if you drop it, it will shatter.

My hope is that this art is purchased by a person who fully understands the risks. Because at the end of the day, it’s just a ceramic mug, and broken pottery cannot be repaired.

Every high-end Neptune Mug will be shipped in a durable, protective case. So hopefully that will help people understand and really feel how they need to protect this mug.

I might decided to ship Neptune Mugs in a different case in the future, if I can find a more environmentally friendly solution that protects the mug just as well. Perhaps a handmade wood box, from locally sourced wood, with padding and fabric.

Let’s be clear: I’m raising the price because this art is valuable to me. There’s a big difference between MSRP (manufacturer suggested retail price) and fair market value, agreed upon by seller and buyer.

There is no guarantee I’ll ever actually be able to sell even a single Neptune Mug ever again.

70 Neptune Mugs for Patrons, 100 total per year

I always promise to give Patrons the best deals because they’re my “OG” fans, here from the beginning. It’s a community of collectors who trust us enough to be our Patrons every single month on a subscription– definitely worth giving them crazy good discounts.

Patrons can get Neptune Mugs by subscribing in the current $50/month or $250/month Reward Tiers. At the time of this writing, 18 spots are available in the $50 Tier and 5 spots are available in the $250 Tier. Tiers are limited, no more spots will be added in the future. 

So how many Neptune Mugs can I actually create?

    • 70 per year max, just for Patrons, because the Tiers are limited quantities.
    • 10 or so per year will be reserved for giveaways, totally free, to free subscribers at cherricopottery.com/newsletter or 100% eBay charity auctions or other fun giveaways
    • 20 for me to have available to sell (even though they probably won’t sell) is a worthy goal

100 Neptune Mugs per year. That’s a DAUNTING task, but it’s doable.

Out of all the art I make, from tiny shot cups to huge platters and jars, this art feels like it has the most potential to change art history in powerfully positive ways.

July 1st Price Increase

At the end of the month (about two weeks from writing this) all Neptune Mug prices are rising from $695 to $3,995 per mug. I’m offering one final opportunity for anyone to pre-order a “Random Neptune Mug” at the $695 price today, right here (shipped in regular cardboard and bubble wrap, not the plastic case):

cosmicmugs.com/neptune-mugs

July 1st, 2022 I’m raising the price on all new Neptune Mugs that I create into the future, forever, even if they never sell.

If/when they don’t, I’ll simply move onto other projects. There are an infinite number of mug designs just waiting to be created.

Reverence for Exploration

Only one spacecraft has ever visited Neptune, giving us close up photos: NASA’s Voyager 2 spacecraft, in 1989.

This photo is the only reason the Neptune Mug exists. I based the entire design off this one image. That is valuable and deserves reverence.

I believe there is power in crafting art inspired by discoveries in our natural world, and also the scientific achievements that gave us those discoveries.

Raising the price of my Neptune Mugs is part of exploring how to make scientific truths more mainstream, because I believe that would make the world a better place.

Hopefully, this belief is correct, and will lead to new and exciting things that are good for the art and everyone it serves.

“Science, scientific discovery, especially cosmic discovery, does not become mainstream until the artists embrace the fruits of those discoveries.”

~ Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Origins Project