In several attempts to organize my parents’ home, I came across a number of boxes filled with childhood items that certainly had a hand in shaping my adult life. My flute, that I carried to school for years crafted my love for music, a baseball mitt which was just as cherished as my dolls in establishing my love for sports and a starter chess set that my Dad spent hours teaching me the basics and how to strategize moves. Learning chess, as a child, was particularly frustrating because of my lack of concentration, which resulted in never beating my Dad. Due to my impatience and sore loser attitude, unfortunately, I put the board and chess pieces away for decades until I rediscovered it in a box of other forgotten childhood toys.
As an adult, I developed quite a respect and appreciation for the game in realizing how intricate chess is; not just learning what each piece represents, the rules and understanding openings and endings. Yet there are psychological components learned as to how emotions play a role, determining your opponent’s thinking and the role of capitalizing on (or recovering from) successes and errors that occur during a game.
Chess proponents promote numerous benefits of chess which involve sharpening your mind and IQ, improving problem-solving skills, cultivating creative thinking, building self-control and maintains a healthy brain as we all get older.
Chess is such a coveted part of our world history, proven by how high of a value a collector assigns to a respected chess piece. This past July, a newly discovered Lewis Chessman, (the set was discovered in 1831 on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides) was bought in 1964 for $6 by an antique dealer and like my childhood items tucked away in a drawer by the spouse until it was sold at a Sotheby auction for $758,000.
The history of chess figurines dates back to early A.D. in several European regions including Albania, Uzbekistan, and Spain as figurines were made of ivory and bone. In more Icelandic countries such as Norway, figurines were constructed out of walrus’ tusks. The typical designs that we see today were crafted by John Calvert in the late 1700s, created with crowns on the King and Queen, a miter (a tall headdress) on the bishop, and the Rook was a tower on a pedestal. In the early 19th century the most common chess designs were the St. George, The English Barleycorn and the Northern Upright.
In the mid-1800s the game of chess went through what we now would refer to as a “ disruption” by standardizing the chess pieces to cut out the confusion of players from different cultures which was called the Staunton Chess Set. There is some debate as to the journey of the original design, yet credit is given to architect Nathan Cook and commercially created by London’s leading wood-maker and purveyor John Jacques, once it was endorsed and named after the master champion, Howard Staunton. Even with several updated design changes, it maintains its standard shapes and is considered the international standard and the preferred pieces for tournament and championship use.
When it comes to the type of wood selected for carving chess pieces, the highest grade of wood used includes Boxwood (most common), the dark and heavy Ebony, the rich brown Rosewood, Sheesham(or Golden Rosewood) from India, and Red Sandalwood. In addition, other materials used for carving chess pieces are marble, granite, alabaster, onyx, jade, and soapstone. Marble is the most luxurious of the stones due to its weightiness and the beautiful natural veins wound throughout.
With regards to the chessboard, the woods mentioned above are also used, in addition to maple (for the light squares), walnut, the endangered tropical wenge (located in Africa), mahogany, palisander (dark Brazilian rosewood), and teak. Certain wood is considered almost extinct due to deforestation and ecological concerns, such as the Brazillian Rosewood which is now illegal to harvest. Veneer plywood (although ebony and walnut veneer will be used for luxury boards) is used for mass production and being promoted as better for the environment, yet is throwaway wood really a better solution?
Purchasing a new set or upgrading takes into account a number of factors depending on the recipient of the chess set. Other components in completed a chess set may include the storage box for protection (usually high-end boxes will be made of high-grade wood with soft velvet or even leather interior to protect the pieces, an analog or digital chess clock and a decadent built chess table for both functionality and display.
The following companies sell exceptional handcrafted luxury chess sets with price points ranging from $500 to several thousand dollars:
Of course, if purchasing a chess set, why not go to the source that started it all! House of Staunton offers lovely chess sets, hand-carved and hand-turned by master artisans. Pieces are made out of high-grade boxwood and genuine Ebony and luxury chess sets can be customized to the purchaser’s tastes.
Chess and Bridges sold at Harrods
Harrods offers three distinct sets with rosewood and maple boards and the figures designed either from brass or a mixture of ebony and rosewood
For chess connoisseurs with a passion for recognizable city landscapes, Steve Vigar offers handcrafted collectible wood chess sets in which the playing pieces are recreated from the architectural styles of three urban cities: New York, Chicago, and San Francisco. Each piece is modeled after distinct landmarks and architecture including high rises, churches, tourist sites, etc respective to the particular city.
Contemporary sets all made by hand, from the chessboard with leather tiles with stitches along the border to the polished nickel and gold plated brass playing pieces.
For chess players who prefer a tech component to board play, The Anniversary Edition Revelation II combines a luxurious wooden chessboard and pieces with an integrated chess computer system which has the capability of being connected to a PC.
Needless to say, a player can learn or improve their chess game through the numerous online chess apps to test his or her skills, either with a computerized version or with a live opponent. But certainly for a diehard lover of the game, nothing beats the ability to face a worthy opponent across a meticulously handcrafted chess set built by a master artisan. -AJ
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Thank you to the following sites for providing content on the world of chess:
Hat Tip to Unsplash and Pixabay photographers for capturing chess magnificence!
Phil Shaw – header photo of chess pieces
Jacqueline Macou – marble chess pieces
Maarten van den Heuvel – vintage chess pieces – human figurines
SK – header pic white chess pieces
Lou Levit – Vintage chess pieces – human figurines
Jachhym Michal – chess pieces at sunset
Robert Katzki – Hamburg, Germany
Jad Mabsout – Vintage chess pieces