A brief History

This wonderful game has a history which probably pre-dates any other game played by man. The ancient Hindu game Chaturanga from eastern India dates back to about 2500 B.C and remained popular for over 3,000 years. Chanturanga differed from the modern game in being four handed and, like bridge, opposite players partnered one another. A board like a chessboard was used, but each player had eight pieces positioned in his corner of the board. The object was to win ones opponent's kings, but a die was thrown to indicate which piece to move, each number on the die indicating a different piece. 

The Chinese game of Chang-Ki developed from Chaturanga but the next major change took place in the 6th century A.D when the pieces assumed their modern day layout at commencement, but retained most of their earlier powers. The four players were reduced to two. This game was called Shatranj and it slowly spread westward into Persia, Turkey, Syria and along the North African coast, crossing to Spain and Western Europe in the 8th century. England was reached about 900 A.D.
Caxtons printing of 'The Game and Playe of Chesse' translated from the French in 1740 heralded the opening of the modern period of chess, when several important changes in the functions and power of the pieces were made. The game has remained virtually unchanged right up to the present day.

Chess pieces - from Lewis to the present day.
There are in existence a few odd European Chess pieces attributed to an earlier date, but the group of seventy-eight pieces found in 1831 in a cave on the Isle of Lewis off Scotland are unquestionably the earliest and most important European Chess pieces found to date. They are carved in Norse Ivory, which is fossilized ivory from walrus tusks, once plentiful, and date from the early 12th century. Their design suggests a Norse origin.
Few sets have been found dating from the next 400 years, but about 1500 the development of the modern game heralded a substantial increase in the number of chess players and many more sets are extant. These suggest everyday use and the designs are invariably of a fairly simple nature. Two and a half centuries later a similar position existed but the Industrial Revolution was starting to gather momentum and many ivory turners, both in France and England, were beginning to develop more elaborate designs.

Ivory turning at the time was of course a fairly large industry as many domestic articles had ivory turned handles, plastic not having been invented! Many French craftsmen emigrated to England at the time of the French Revolution and a certain Thomas Jaques' father, possibly an ivory turner by trade, may have been one such émigré. At any rate, young Thomas gained employment at an ivory turners in London, married the proprietors niece, and set up in business on his own in 1795. In the early 1800s Thomas began to specialise in games of many types and for over 200 years not only has Jaques remained a family business, but it has passed from father to son for eight generations and can now claim to be the oldest sports and games manufacturing company in the world.

As the game side of the business developed, Thomas and his son John became more interested in Chess Sets, and with increasing affluence in the country at this time more and more ornate and fanciful chess sets were produced at no small expense for wealthy customers. So much so that the great diversity of the designs made it well nigh impossible to readily recognise the different chessmen, and players were refusing to play with each other's pieces.
The time was, therefore, ripe for a major advance in chess set design and Nathaniel Cook, an accomplished chess player, and also editor of the national daily newspaper, The Morning Herald, and John Jaques the thirds father - in - law to be, set out to design the perfect chess set with the help of his close friends, John Jaques and Howard Staunton. Staunton was World Chess Champion for a decade in the middle of the 19th century. His objective was to create a perfect aesthetic design with each piece readily identifiable by competitors during play.

Jaques Staunton Chess Pieces were born, and to quote from a famous book on early chess 'Throughout its history, nothing had made such an impact on the design of chessmen as the introduction of the English Staunton Chess Pieces'. Simple symbols were used for each piece, a crown for the king, a coronet for the queen, a mitre for the bishop and a castle for the rock. The horse's head for the knight was taken from the marble sculptures on the Parthenon in Athens, collected by Lord Elgin and known as the Elgin Marbles, and the pawn was based on the Freemasons Square and Compasses. The set was launched in late 1847 with the benefit of a) Staunton's name- a byword in chess at the time, and b) a considerable amount of free publicity in the Morning Herald, a whole front page column being devoted to its introduction. With these advantages and a superlative design, success was virtually guaranteed and within ten years nearly all important chess games were played with Staunton Chessmen, which is still the case today.

Staunton Chess Sets have been produced continually by John Jaques from 1847 up to the present day, except during wartime. Production ceased on ivory sets in the early 1930s, but Boxwood sets continued right up to the outbreak of war. After the war it was almost impossible to obtain ivory or ebony, but production recommenced using Boxwood only and black staining and polishing for the black pieces. In the 1970s as collectors became interested in early Staunton Sets, ebony was used once again and the pattern reviewed in order to exactly resemble the shape and finish of the earlier sets. No sets have been made in ivory since the war, partly due to an enormous increase in the cost of raw ivory and it's later ban and partly due to the waiting list for the Boxwood and Ebony sets. This interest by collectors gave rise to considerable discussion as to ways of dating authentic Staunton Sets, this however has unfortunately proved a very difficult task. Firstly because designs have remained virtually unchanged since inception and secondly because at any one time the shape of the pieces would vary within certain limits simply because many individual craftsmen were making sets at the same time. However the following points could prove helpful. 


Firstly, genuine Jaques Staunton Sets were normally supplied in either a polished mahogany case or a papier-mache Carton Pierre moulded casket. The famous green Original Staunton label was attached inside the lid. The ivory sets were normally stamped with Jaques name under the base of at least one king, often both, and the stamping was and still is on the base rim of either one or both kings in the case of a genuine Original Staunton Set, but we now come to the difficult problem of dating the set.

All early sets came complete with the rule book and sometimes these were dated. Though not conclusive proof, a set is very likely to be at least as old as the rulebook. A general observation, though again not always the case, is that the cushions or bases of the pieces became fractionally more elongated and less flat after about 1900.

Design Registration.
These rather sparse guidelines are all one can go on unless one is lucky enough to find a set made between 1847 and 1869 with registered design stickers still adhering to the bases of the pieces. These sets are very few and far between, but a set in this condition can be dated to within three years with fairly good certainty.
The design registration regulations came into force in 1843 and continued in this form until 1869. An applicant could register a new design of any product and was issued with an individual diamond shape stamp containing letters and figures. The product could be stamped or stickers used if preferred. This registration only lasted for three years, but could be renewed after each subsequent three years. However, when renewal was made a completely new set of figures was issued, the old group becoming out of date. Therefore, unless old stickers were being used up, any set with stickers can be dated to within three years. This registration procedure however got out of hand as renewals increased to enormous proportions and eventually the government introduced the present once for all registration numbers.

Presentation Sets.
Staunton Sets have always been popular for prizes or presentation for long service, and often these were in a double set form, one ivory and one Ebony and Boxwood set together in an inscribed presentation case, often dated.

Method of Craftsmanship.
The turning and crafting of the pieces is, of course, mostly done on the lathe. The queen, bishop and castle being completed by hand out of the lathe. The kings cross is turned and then the two sides cut away. The rough shape of the knight is made with a pattern copying lathe, but the ears, eyes, teeth, and mane are still hand carved, quite a lengthy operation. Remember each piece has to be identical and considerable skill is needed to achieve this result.

Information for Collectors.
The aesthetic quality and historical connections of Staunton Sets has resulted in keen collecting interest in recent years, but the following points may have relevance.
Firstly as a general guide the condition of the set has a great bearing on its value. This may vary between £500 at least for a slightly damaged modern set to £5000 for a perfect early ivory set of good colour in a virtually undamaged case. All ivory sets being made from African Ivory have some slight yellowing, which is inevitable, but excessive yellowing will detract from the value and this yellowing, due to exposure to light, also occurs in Boxed Sets. More important is the condition, as once a knights ear, for example, is broken no repair can replace the originality of the piece and this will considerably reduce the value of the set. This applies to both ivory and boxwood sets.
This brings us to the original Staunton pieces produced today. These are made in exactly the same materials and to the same specifications as the original Boxwood and Ebony sets and they are polished by hand, no lacquering being used. This brings out the natural colour and feel of the wood.


Posted by Carl Miceli on 20 February, 2015 1 comment
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  • Hervé - September 02, 2017

    instructif…et très intéressant.

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