Essays & Notes
- Chess Museum among the vineyards (Dec.4 / 2016)
- the Baltic Connection
- Looping and Heuer - a note on the (so-called) Heuer chess clock (18.5.2011)
- The most copied chess set in the world - King Arthur by ANRI
- Are plastic sets collectable?
- J.A. Nekvasil - the last manufacturer of Austrian Chess Pieces
Please send comments, protests, counteropinions, or even essays and viewpoints of your own, etc. - will be published if not offensive :))
Chess Museum among the vineyards
a brief visit to Figueiró dos Vinhos - centre of Portugal
The Museum came about basically because local chess player João Rocha, his friends Alvaro Gonçalves, José Bray, Carlos Oliveira and Antonio Curado had been discussing a destiny for their chess collections for years - and the city hall , after acquiring and restoring the Malhoa chalet, was looking for some content for this little architectonical jewel, in order to create one more touristic asset for their town. But in fact, the narrow little house with its hand - painted ceilings - where José Malhoa and his friends used to stay and paint - and where Malhoa died - is used for all kinds of social occasions, receptions and vernissages - it stands next to, in fact dwarfed by the massive concrete box of the local Arts Center, providing an eery impression of opposites. The Arts Center runs special shows - when I visited a show on "The Lions" movement had just closed - and the chalet comes in handy for receptions, and - to store all kinds of stuff from next door....
The Chess Museum proper - based on the donations of the 5 collectors - leads a hidden existence in the cellar of the chalet - this is where José Malhoa used to indulge himself by making his own wine. In two small, well adapted vaults a number of chess sets are set out under plexy covers, a few books are lined up on the spindle staircase to the upper floor, and a few paintings with chess motives adorn the walls. To visit, You have to ask for the cave to be opened - and lighted.That's it, folks !
I do not know the extent of the donations, but my friendly lady guide from the Art Center assured me it "there is a lot more". That is very likely - just Antonio Curado to my knowledge owns one of the world largest collections of chess philately, chess publicity, catalogues and brochures, chess posters, graphics and other printed matter. At the 3. International Chess Tournament "Prince of Asturias" in Oviedo 1993, Antonio Curado presented a selection of his holdings which covered about 40 square meters on exhibit walls, and mentioned having more than 10.000 printed objects in his collection! And the other members of the founders quintet have gathered tons of mementos, chess sets, literature and printed matter in their 40 years of chess activity, some of it unique for its historic value. Since none of this is visible, we have to content ourselves with imagining it - but the general impression is there is not enough in the "cellar" because most of the possible exhibits - are in the cellar!
In order to deserve the name, a museum must have a continuous activity - the objects should - nay, must! - be shown in determined and periodically renewed contexts, with the necessary explanations, special shows must be composed on a central theme etc. In fact, be run as a Living Museum, which connects to the surrounding society and people, gets folks interested in the matter shown, and draws in visitors from far away. But for that, at least three things are needed, namely " money, money, money"! But principally a curator(ess), who is informed on the Museum holdings, goes through the objects, constitutes a catalogue, selects objects for special shows, maintains contacts with all interested parts, exchanges show pieces with other museums and vice versa, in fact works fairly constantly at propagizing what the Museum has to offer.... Unfortunately the local chess animator João Rocha has deceased, the local chess club has gone into hibernation, and the other collectors - live quite a distance away.
That said, it is a great pity the Museum is not explored to the full - the chess theme potentially has a greater attraction than the tenuous memories of some painter deceased a hundred years ago! Also, the city does not own a lot of Malhoa paintings, or works by the other Figueiró artists - but it disposes of an immense amount of chess objects.....Figueiró is a lovely little town, with cobblestone lanes leading past slightly decrepit medieval walls and baroque to 19th century palaces, a magnificent church, an old iron mine to explore etc. In their Museum folder, the city fathers proudly proclaim having instituted the "First Chess Museum" in Portugal! We can only hope that the city will go one step further and turn the present rather insipid chess show into a working example of what a Museum should be nowadays.
(c) Nicholas Lanier 2016
Something like this happened when this set (set A) joined the Museum's holdings, to my great delight. It is heavily weighted, definitely a playing set, and the contrast between the multiple rings on king, queen and bishops with the banal but workable knight is quit striking. The pawns are grippy, the top ball is oval, and they whole experience of moving the pieces on a board is most agreeable.
I confess to having fiddled it a bit: when the set arrived, one rook was missing, and the kings and queens finials were in white plastic - for both sides! The rook has been copied, and the finials replaced with bone carvings - much more to the general idea of the set.
Plastic finials on wooden chess men is quite normal in Soviet/Russian sets after 1960 - apparently plastic was considered just as noble a material as wood, and the technical argument for serial production of finials is unbeatable.....
1. The finials - a stumped cone on the kings, a ball on the queens - are the same as on set B ,
2. the bishops are very similar to those from set A and B,
3. the knights feature the same cropped throat between the top and the base,
4. the pawns are almost a copy of the pawns from set B,
5. rooks from D are turned in the same simple round top crenellation as all the rooks from sets A, B and C.
6. the shoddy textile pads under the pieces from A and D are typical of Soviet times cloth pads.
The other features are lantern or urn-like tops for king and queen (symbolizing crowns?), good, wide bottoms on pawns and minor pieces, an elegant swerve in the king and queens stems from the wide bottom to the top, a slight steeple from rooks to kings, and simple and rugged knights and rooks. Set A, B and E are very much made in the same style, set C does differ through the somewhat bizarre outlines, set D shows some details in common with the main style. Sets A, C and D are weighted - A heavily so - set B is unweighted, and set E most likely also is. Set A is beautifully varnished, set D is shoddily varnished - the typical Soviet colour overflows on the pieces - sets B and C are unvarnished, Set E boasts patina! The colour scheme is always natural wood and black. Set A has cloth pads, set B and D those shoddy poverty cloths, set C leather pads!
Latvia and Estonia until WW 1 and partly after WW 2 had a sizeable german minority - the Kurlanders and Livlanders - mainly in the cities and among the land-owning classes. But it would be highly speculative to attribute this chess style - the Latvian style - to the strong german influences, especially as I know no german chess sets even marginally reminiscent. My feeling is these chess sets originated in one manufactory, but this speculation awaits confirmation yet. Comments from readers, especially from the Baltics and the former Soviet Union, are most welcome, I shall quote them with the source in future editing of this note.
C 2014 Chess Museum
" The main style is Baltic (or at least typical for use in Baltic) I can confirm that.
By the means of Russian-Mainland (it is not the official definition) I speak of RSFSR (Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic)... biggest towns of course are Moscow and Leningrad but usually every chess board (if the set were purchased in the shop with the wooden folding board - normal practice in USSR) had the makers label and very often small villages or towns had their own wooden factories and manufactured chess sets of their own design or sub-design (of course these parameters of the figures were standard but You cannot find similar figures manufactured at the other place...)...
About why the finals of the kings with cross were eliminated in Latvia after WWII, I think the main reason is not the political, but just the simplification of the technologies, due to the modesty of the living level of Soviet people. This is my version about that fact..."
Janis sells on ebay with the handle bulkcover - check out his EXTRAORDINARY offer of chess pins and other chessica!
Kristjan Sander from Riga:
"Are the supposedly Baltic sets post-Soviet?
If I remember correctly, plastic chess sets were manufactured in Riga Ausma factory in the Soviet times. I do not know about the wooden ones....there were many factories producing chess sets in the Soviet Union (in Leningrad, Moscow, Minsk, others) and the output of these was sold in every corner of the state. Without stamps it is utterly impossible to tell about the place of manufacture. I have bought from Tallinn a set definitely made in Moscow.
Soviet playing sets (not the souvenir ones) always shared many common traces with the Central-European / Austrian ones as you have correctly observed.
Looping and Heuer
A note on the (so-called) Heuer chess clock
A few weeks ago, while strolling through ebay adverts I was struck by a little chess clock announced as the Looping clock - and which looked uncannily like the well-known and rightly famed Heuer.
Heuer is one of the oldest Swiss watch companies, which in the turmoil of the 80ies was taken over by the one of the most glamorous of the all glamourous swiss watch companies, TAG, whose involvement with Grand Prix and Olympic timing is legion. In 1999 TAG & Heuer - as the company by then was called - in its turn became part of the rattlebag of luxury companies LVMH assembled by french millionaire Bernard Arnault.
So I bought the thing - I can resist anything except temptation (Copyright Oscar Wilde). With the result, that I can now safely state :
Heuer never produced any chess clocks of its own - but marketed chess clocks made by other companies under its brand and logo!
When the clock arrived in its custom-made carton, I was in for a surprise! It was the exact picture of the Heuer clock - but when I opened it another surprise was in stock, because both delicately made precision works were marked
"Looping SA Swiss - four 4 jewels - unadjusted".
A search on the web quickly provided some enlightenment - namely address and phone numbers of a company called "Looping & Amyral"in the Kanton Solothurn - plus a thin trail of notices on traditional Swiss analog alarm clocks! I called the company up, had a very lively conversation with the owner and single operator Mr. Edgar Sutter, and here is the story:
The Looping company dates back to before 1932, when the presently produced precision clockwork was designed, as a middle size clockwork at odds with the general concentration on pocket and wrist watch works prevalent in Switzerland. In fact, the Looping clockwork today is the ONLY mid-size mechanical clockwork for alarm clocks made in Switzerland!
Sometime in the 50ies or 60ies an enterprising Heuer sales executive saw some possibilities in the company and its mid-size clockwork - and being a chess player, or having good connections to the chess scene started to turn out a chess clock. Probably due to the distribution possibilities of Heuer the clock came to be marketed under the larger brand - and became a favorite of Swiss chess clubs, Swiss tournaments and a much-coveted implement in adjoining regions. When and in which quantity the clock was also marketed under the original company name Looping , is unclear. At some time either the owner(s) decided to stop providing Heuer with the clock, or they always sold the clock under their own brand, parallel to the major client Heuer.
Heuer as we know still tried to bridge the gap by selling the German Jerger plastic clock (see Clocks) under their logo, but this came to an end very soon - when Mr. Jerger hanged himself in his workshop! I wonder if it has anything to do with the problems related to a small company - Looping or Jerger - working with an industrial mastodon like TAG . Pressures, payment delays, price reductions - wouldn't I hang myself if I was subject to this kind of treatment?
As for Looping , the company went bankrupt in 1980 - chess clock production must have stopped many years earlier - and this is the moment when Edgar Sutter , the present owner/manager, bought brand, patents, machinery and know-how in order to continue producing one of the most longlived swiss clock works, and the beautiful little mechanical Looping alarm clock which is unique and charmingly anachronistic, given today's habits of quartz-tones and handy-alarms. Check as well the older Looping alarm clocks on this page - it is well worth seeing !
"When I took over the company, the making of chess clocks had stopped long ago, " Mr. Sutter recalled in conversation . " With dwindling demand, the company had been selling off finished stock for the last years, a few were still left in the warehouse." After setting up in production, Sutter had conversations with chess functionaries about making a major compounded order via the Swiss Chess Federation - but these talks came to a swift end when the owner/clockmaker perceived the chess folks thought they were doing him a favour, and wanted rock-bottom prices! Plus the environment was changing to electronic and digital timing in chess, making the beautiful and precise Looping obsolete as most other mechanical chess clocks! Mr. Sutter wisely decided not to take up making chess clocks in the company's "second life"!
All this means, that if clocks branded Heuer were not made in immense quantities, - even less were made with the company branding "Looping"! A recent look on ebay found only one Heuer for sale, for a whopping USD 500.- Not bad for a 30 year old vintage chess clock!
Any of the happy owners of a Heuer - that is, the one that looks like the Looping - is welcome to grab a precision screwdriver and open his clock to verify - it's a "Looping" inside! Chess players generally know a good chess clock - precise movements, reliability, button sounds, action of clock stoppers and the the mounting of the shiftover lever. No wonder, then, that almost anybody one mentions the Heuer to will wax lyrical on the clock's qualities - it is a truly respected and appreciated marvel of a clock, unsurpassed in its tranquil functioning. The button action is almost inaudible, none of the screeching or resistance as in some other clocks, just the subdued ticking of a swiss precision clock work. It is a supreme tournament clock for fixed time modes - there is no other clock that can match it, certainly not among smaller clocks, only larger timers like the Koopmans, big old HAC /Jaques and their Russian copies, or the impressive Tanner timers come close....
J.A.Nekvasil - the last manufactory of Austrian Chess Pieces
Sometime in the 80ies the placid Viennese chess community was rudely disturbed by the news that the business of Jan Anton Nekvasil in the outlying Ottakring district was about to close for good - and was selling off all remaining stock at breakneck prices. A steady stream of old customers, chess fans, coffeehouse keepers and chess rats of all sorts started to trickle into the small shop set in the Outer Thaliastrasse and went about to deplete the thinly stocked shelves. I was not there in those days - what I heard is that the sales lasted very briefly - in two weeks it was all gone, who missed out on the bonanza could only rue his bad luck. Thus it came about that the last chess piece manufactory in Austria, with almost a hundred years of tradition, vanished from sight in a fortnight, leaving as traces only the numerous chess sets they had produced since the heydays of the 19th Century!
The Nekvasil shop in Ottakring
The Nekvasil shop plus production had existed for ages in the location in Ottakring, consisting of a street shop with games galore - mostly made in house - and a narrow cellar where two ancient workmen beavered away among suffocating clouds of wood dust and varnish and glue fumes with lathes, saws, drills, etc. At the time of closing, production had probably dwindled to a small scale of products - but over the whole postwar era the business produced quite a large range of chess games.
Traditionally Austrian chess pieces - some people prefer to call them Old Vienna chessmen - come with a folding board which housed the chessmen - or with chess tables with or without drawers for the pieces - and Nekvasil sold a large part of their chessmen with such folding boards. The mainstay was off course the turning of chess pieces in the traditonal Viennese/Austrian style, with pointed hats and three rings around the stem for the kings. Most of the chess sets were for home use, but Nekvasil also made club size sets with imposing 110 mm kings, and slightly smaller ones with king sizes of 96 mm or less for leisure use. These pieces were produced in a decreasing scale of sizes, down to miniatures with 66 mm kings, and were generally sold in the mentioned folding box /board with a horseneck clasp (later tip down clasps).
"Coffeehouse" Chess Sets
Since chess in Europe first flourished in coffeehouses, it has become a habit to typecast all Austrian chess sets as coffeehouse sets. For Nekvasil and his predecessors the coffeehouses certainly were an important part of their customers. Nekvasil turned out rugged chess sets without pretence to artistic excellence, for use in Vienna's numerous coffeehouses - where a few chess boards used to be part of the arsenal of games and entertainment provided for the guests - for the toy trade, for all kinds of shops all over Austria and neighbouring areas, and also small amounts of other games like draughts, domino, dice and cups - not all made inhouse, though.
It is reasonable to assume that chess clocks and all other kinds of chess paraphernalia were sold in the Ottakring shop as well. The chess sets were made in quality standards varying from the simple and gross to the very fine and well finished - for example the folding box boards could be ordered in veneer or even marquetry inlay, or simple offset -imprinted boards. The chess sets were produced in unvarnished condition, with a simple varnish , as well as polished versions with very fine varnish. As the years went by, and the market started to go stale, products in general became cruder in appearance and sloppier in finish. Boxes that had been joined in traditional carpentry joindry (swallowtail or connecting triangle) , were simply glued or nailed together board on board - chess boards were not inlaid in marquetry any more, but veneered and later just printed on.
Chess Capital Vienna
According to chess historian Michael Ehn , Jan Anton Nekvasil was the last in line of a family business that had started out as Jacoby and Company well before the First World War, possibly going back to the 2.half of the 19th Century. Nekvasil is a Czech name, reflecting the massive influx of Bohemian craftsmen into Austria throughout the 19th century. In those days before WW I - in the "World of Yesterday" - and throughout the interwar years, Vienna was one of the leading chess capitals,, with chess mainly concentrated in the Vienna coffeehouses like Cafe Central, Café Herrenhof or Café Museum, and sporting the grandest Chess Club in the World, the Rothschild-sponsored Wiener Schachclub, as well as a powerful and extensive proletarian chess movement. The "Wiener Schachzeitung", edited under the patronage of Rothschild, was the leading chess magazine and fountain of tournament reports in Europe, far outdistancing its German or British competitors like the "Deutsche Schachzeitung" or the "British Chess magazine" in volume, content - and chronical lateness in being published! According to Ehn, who has written several articles and monographs on Viennese chess history, Vienna in the 30ies sported a good 220 coffeehouses, where chess was one of the daily pastimes, with chess sets provided by the house! Considering this number, and adding the many coffeehouses in the provincial towns, in former cities of the K.u.K empire like Budapest or Ljubljana or Brno or Czernowitz, it is easy to conclude that making chess pieces and sets in those days must have been a going business.
Following the 2. World War, the tumultuous changes in living style led to a steady diminution of the numbers of people playing chess - the survival struggle after the war, the Four- Power occupation of Austria till 1955, the arrival of Television and a lessening of coffeehouse frequentation must have weighed hard on the fortunes of the small chess shop. Add to this the arrival of huge toy chains, of supermarket and shopping malls bringing about the demise of smaller toy shops and gentlemens tobacco shops - all of this social change must have contributed to steadily diminish sales turnover.
At one time or another Nekvasil must have undertaken major efforts to go with the tide and innovate - and in one of these moments started to produce a very crude Staunton chess set, probably responding to demand from the coffeehouse and club trade, and in line with the FIDE recommendation dating back to 1924 to use only Staunton sets for tournament play. I know that these recommendations were ignored in Austria for a long time - as late as in the 70ies we used to play local league meetings and tournaments with Austrian chessmen. Even after 1924 and Fide's option for Staunton chessmen, the grand tournaments of Semmering 1926 and Karlsbad 1929 - to name just a few - were played with Austrian chessmen in the long established form.
"Kaffeehaussterben" in Vienna
Starting in the 70ies and even more the 80ies droves of traditional coffeehouses had to throw in the towel faced with rocketing rents, dwindling rentability and lessening trade. The press - journalists being eternal coffeehouse inmates by nature - used to comment the end of each coffeehouse with woeful laments, ending in a virtual dirge about the "Kaffeehaussterben" (coffee house epidemic). Drug stores, banks and utility markets replaced many a centennial and traditionial café - and since clubs usually camped in their local coffeehouse, speeded up the disappearance of one chess club after the other - with the ensuing repercussions on sales of chess pieces and chess goods.
Nekvasil made one other attempt to improve his fortunes, and must have had at least one mold made for injecting plastic chess pieces in the Old Viennese style. I own one tiny set in white and black plastic in one of the crude cardboard boxes with a Nekvasil logo on top - most likely this mold was intended to provide some extra income by providing the toy trade with cheap little chess pieces to put into family compendiums or chess sets intended for children. But as we know from other experiences, when plastic starts to replace wood it also speeds up the demise of the craft production - and the small chess pieces in wood Nekvasil formerly had produced were undercut by cheaper plastic pieces, amounting to something akin to a shot into the own foot!
Chessmen in Austrian style
The traditional Viennese or Austrian chess pieces had very early in the 19th century found their form - and as so many things, after the abrupt break with the past which the 1. World War produced - many products from before the war were simply continued. The fabulous Austrian upright sets of the fin de siecle found a late ressonance in the FIDET sets produced in Czechoslovakia - but the simpler Austrian sets solidified into their form and continued to be made until the 1960ies and 1970ies. It is easy to note that the forms get cruder, finish gets simpler and the forms of for example the knights get more stereotypical as the Nekvasil/Jacoby business survives other turners, and finally remains alone on the field as chess piece maker - under severe competition from imported Staunton chess sets but without any competitor in its own field. If You look at the many Austrian chess sets appearing for example in collections or on ebay You almost get the idea that with minor or major changes - a slightly different knight here, longer or shorter or no filials on kings and queens there - almost all chessmen are more or less variations of Nekvasil chess pieces! Or that Nekvasil postwar pieces with their appealingly crude knights, massive forms, and shoddy paper pads are just a degenerated end version of a long line of Austrian chess pieces! If You compare older sets with the latest Nekrasil produce You also begin to suspect that the Jacoby/Nekvasil company must have accompanied the subtle changes in the canonized Austrian form from further back than we think.
Deep research needed
It remains for a dedicated private historian to delve into the history of the company via company records, the commercial register and other sources to try to fix the start of their extended production run in chessmen, and their position and importance in comparison with other makers of Austrian and South German chess men - who unfortunately mostly have faded away into anonymity as well! One might argue of course that it is totally indifferent to delve into the dusty fortunes of a vanished turning workshop, especially 20 years after the fact. But the fortunes of chess - and of chess piece turners, naturally - are symptoms and indicators of larger trends and developments in mankinds stumbling progress towards - where? It is good to keep in mind the old adage that societies that negate or forget their past are condemned to repeat it again and again and again........
An archetypical Nekvasil Club Set
110 mm kings, oilpaper pads under pieces covering a lathe borehole, crude onepiece knights, onepiece bishops, black top painted on, massive appearance....most likely from around 1950 - 1970....
Copyright Nicholas Lanier 2009 - reprint only with consent of the author!
Are plastic chess sets collectable?
This is quite obviously a rhetoric questions - especially if you browsed though my Plastic section. Anything is collectable, and people will collect the oddest artefacts from triglobites via bottlecorks to railway pins, for the most diverse reasons. The question, put correctly is rather whether is is worthwhile for a chess set collector to collect plastic chess sets.
Before going into this, lets lay out a few facts - opinions, as we know, come a dime to a dozen, tastes vary - but facts are facts! Plastic was invented by an englishman named Alexander Parkes in 1855, mixing clelulose with nitric acid and a solvent. At the same time, a frenchman named Lepage produced a kind of moldable artificial wood, mixing sawdust with binderwhich could be formed in molds and polsihed to a smooth consistency ("bois durci" or hardened wood). But the first real plastic - in the sense of being a synthetic polymer - was Bakelite, a mixture of Formaldehyde with Phenol, named after the inventor Henri Baekeland, who set up a production company to produce the stuff. When his patent expired in 1930, the british Catalin company took over the process, eliminating some of the problems inherent in Bakelite, and creating new colours and applications. Bakelite was used in growing amounts for all kinds of products, some of which have become highly sought after collectors items today - Bakelite radios, brushes, hearing aids, and of course games and chess sets. After WW1 plastics industry developed like a bush fire, with new products being for example Polyamid (Nylon), Polystyrene and todays omnipresent Polyvinylchloride (PVC). During WW" the germans came up with synthetic rubber (Buna). Polyurethan was developed by Bayer in Germany, Polyethylene and Polypropylene came about after WW2.
The word plastic means simply that the material so designed is formable in molds, compressable, malleable and usable in multiple ways. This was of course the fulfillment of the dream of scientists and industrialists who had been researching and developing new materials to replace the age old basic materials existing in nature or syntesized from natural materials like metal, wood, horn, stone plus glass.
From our standpoint, it is important to note that older plastics were relatively cheap in their day, ideal to substitute the dearer natural materials, and permitted the use of machines in producing sequential products in line with much greater facility than ever possible with wooden, glass or metal objects.
Plastic chess pieces in bakelite days were produced by simple molds under pressure - the first injection machinery was also patented in the second half of the 19th century, one of the first products being billiard balls from cellulose! This process has considerably changed over time, but the principle is the same: hot plastic mixture is injected into a two-piece mold, which after cooling is opened releasing the formed object. Imagine the whole process at breakneck speed, and you have an idea how injected plastic chess pieces are produced.
Early plastic cobjects sought to imitate the refined form and looks of handmade products, and therefore conserve a bit of the indirect charm of top handicraft. In chess pieces, we may safely say bakelite pieces from pre-WW2 days are usually well made, although the material does age quite a lot and gets brittler with age. Such pieces are obviously interesting, the material is heavy and solid, and all kinds of artistic forms were experimentally undertaken. I mention for example the colourful Catalin sets of Grey's of Cambridge, the disk sets of Military Service renown in England, the US butterscotch variations of phenol chess pieces. But all of these pieces are not really rare, and were made in hundreds of thousands or units - discount the natural loss over time and they are still mass products. This means that the inherent value of chess sets of these days is not very high - the market value of course is determined by the interest generated under certain circumstances - the impulse of a heated auction or the gleam in the buyer's eye.
In those heady days from 1920 to 1940 wood chess sets were still going strong, much preferred by actual chess players, and therefore plastic sets were directed to the novelty and toy market rather than the club and chessplayer clientele. This means that even with old sets supply was plentyful, designs were tooled for the amateur, and chess sets are generally not in club size. All in all the conclusion has to be: early plastic sets are possibly interesting for their forms, as cultural exhibits, and for the unusual weight or characteristics of the material - but they are not "valuable".
Industrial production may invent or generate new forms - but in most cases imitates older forms. Forms or designs are difficult to patent or protect even nowadays - and more so in former days. Therefore many later plastic designs are simply slipshod copies of older originals in wood, metal, bone or ivory. With bakelite chess sets we do find original designs, but a lot of imitation of older forms as well. With newer chess sets in plastic, this tendency for mimikri gets even stronger - the motivation for ordering a plastic mold is not to create new artistic forms, but to make a profit by reducing the production costs by a large margin.
Lets look at the question from a different angle - from the point of molds. Molds nowadays last a lot longer than in the bakelite era, although the pressure used in injection is much higher. Molds today are milled from special steel - special stainless steel mixtures - but have to be serviced and regularly restored. This means that during the lifetime of a mold the produced artefacts will change subtly as the mold is polished up again and again. A mold that is out of use and not properly conserved will rust rapidly and deteriorate to a point where restoration is more expensive than milling a new one! All in all, modern mold technology allows just any kind of mold to be made, and that means there is no limit to the forms a chess pieces might take that is being mold injected.
An infinity of materials is available, hundreds of mixtures of the most various components that can be dissolved and injected to create certain consistencies, hardness or softness, colours and resistance to heat or sunlight for example. Raw materials for mold injection are not cheap - many of them are based on crude oil - and the choice of mix preterdmines unit cost of injected objects!
The most interesting fact is therefore that anything is possible - but market conditions will dictate which materials are used, which quality of product is intended, and which price the finished object will have. Nowadays chess pieces and chess molds are a risky affair as chess is receding in the western countries - although expanding in some third world countries - and the market for plastic chess pieces is certainly not growing.
I could imagine an interest composed out of a scientific or morbid curiosity about the copycat appearance of plastic chess sets, reflecting older originals - or a simple collecting of forms, any kinds of forms regardless of material - plastic chess sets of course come in an infinity of declinated forms, although the gros are some variation of Staunton sets. I also know somebody who is fascinated by the variety of Staunton plastics, and takes a certain perverse pleasure in meditating on the original designs which were commercially ruined by the mass copies! Thw whole idea being to collect continuous evidence of the degeneration of our material culture via industrial mass production! This is not really a typical collectors interest, but rather a private form of industrial sociology and archeology - if not a complicated form of cultural and civilisational masochism, documented via chess pieces!
The fact is, there are a great amount of chess pieces in plastic substances around. One spanish company I know - long gone bankrupt - started out in the 40ies by commissioning handcarved chess sets from carvers and craftsmen, then progressed to replicating them in machine-aided carving (robbing the craftsmen...), progressed to resin/sawdust mold copies, then to mold injected plastic pieces painted and packaged in executive type carry cases - then to importing Taiwan plastic chess pieces - and then mercifully went out of business! What a slide down the chute from high standards to the dregs of industrial prostitution - a fate shared by many companies and craftsmen in adjacent crafts all over Europe and probably the USA as well.
If there can be a conclusion for collectors - from my point of view - it is not to be innocent and dewy-eyed in regard of plastic or bakelite chess pieces. It is of course true that extraordinary objects can be fashioned from plastic - vide my Russian plastic chess set which was specifially commissioned by the Russian Plastics Association to prove the possibilities of the medium! - but the normal run of things would not go in that direction, in respect to interesting chess pieces, or artistically accomplished objects in general - most of them are at best competently made utilitarian toys, useful as a tupperware bowl when new, cheap and prone to hit the trash bin when not attractive or needed any more!
Without doubt the countless types of plastic and resins in use today permit the most astonishing chess set to be made - irisating, opaque or partly translucent sets ("Lucite"), fragile forms, massive weights or lightweight. One US producer some time ago was proposing heavy Staunton sets in 19th Century style, turned and milled from kevlar blocks! But the most interesting plastic sets seem to have been made some time ago - the abstract set by victor Vasarely in plexyglass, the US bakelite sets of the thirties mounted on a central screw and detachable in sections, or the various opulent sets made in the former Soviet union in plastic materials.
Plastic is a dead material, it does not appeal to humans by touch, smell or taste, has practically no electrical current or magnetic field It is an alienated material, like concrete. For me, there are exceptions where plastic chess sets are very attractive - but I only need to close my eyes to see hordes of plastic Staunton chess pieces advancing, to the phut-phut- sound of thousands of injection machines, in order to experience a slight twinge of unspeakable horror.....
The most copied set in the world ?
Strictly speaking, the most copied form of chessmen is the Jacques/Cooke Staunton design patented in 1849 - which immediately started to get copied or emulated by competitors and copycats abroad, despite strenuous attempts to maintain the exclusivity from the part of the patentees.
But in recent times, one set has become the object of numerous copies - legal, halflegal and illegal - and that is the King Arthur set from the 1960ies, designed in the manufactory of Anton Rifesser in Val Gardena, vulgo ANRI. It is not my intention to discuss the legal background of copying or protecting designs - I am not qualified for that, and do not have the information from ANRI - but simply to show some of the numerous metamorphoses these pieces have undergone in secondary and tertiary copies all over the world. It is fairly easy to distinguish authentic ANRI sets - by virtue of the brand sticker, the patent boxes and the meticulous finish - but for the layman there is a confusing variety of emulations, starting with Toriart resin versions, via Lowe's Renaissance ANRI set in plastic, down to gross chinese plastic copies.
King Arthur was made by ANRI between 1958 and 1993, both in natural and polychrome versions. It stands to reason that this was the second most sold chess set, after the Monsalvat small size set (with 3 " kings). A halfsize version of King Arthur in ebony and ivory was produced between 1961 and 1964.
Renaissance Set by Lowe
Contained in a showy carton, these pieces are very close to the orginal.
Here is another version in plastic - probably made in Taiwan or China.
Another chinese copy, possibly from the same mold as the one above - "Made in Taiwan" sticker - strangely enough imported into Spain by a major spanish games house.
King Arthur in polystone
A polystone (resin cum plaster) version - perhaps on the basis of something similar to those SUPERCAST rubber molds so popular formerly.
Roxy Chess version
A slightly altered version - to avoid legal problems? - by a company called Roxy Chess. Take note of the flat bases - to avoid legal wrangles?
Garden set in plaster
A huge garden version in plaster...
Three versions - the original in the centre, a plastic copy left, a Val Gardena copy right. Unfortunately not as sharp a foto as called for....but You can see that the Val Gardena followup is the same height as the original with a separate base - the plastic version is "baseless" and a bit smaller...
The crowns are revealing - plastic, wood, wood.
Very intersting the kights - the orginal on the left, the local wood reevocation with a less fiery steed, the plastic horse with a strong support, molds have to produce contingent pieces...
Sli8ght alteratin in the wood copy (middle), runt size for the plastic rook.
Original pawn on the right - feisty and blocky copy in the middle, small plastic version on the left.
The copycat bishop on the right sports a differnet expressions, and a more massive head - the plastic bishop is in the middle.
The numerous copies give a slight idea of the dramatic battle for market share that must have taken place in the postwar years for carved showpieces - with the traditional European centres of soutern Germany, Val Gardena, North of Spain being pressured by cheaper chinese or eastern machine-carved imports. Plus the struggle to survive for carving houses via downmarket versions of their costly and luxurious products, the licensing of mold-injected versions and other kinds of follow-ups.
We know what happenend - the market went down the drain - and a large part of European carving handcraft followed suit - with the exception of the Val Gardena carvers, who managed to cling to an elite and luxury market thanks to their quality and top promotion strategies, focusing on the largest market for handicraft products in the world, the USA. Today ANRI in the USA is a well established brand, with a large following, collectors clubs, regular changes in their collections, and a thriving and pricey secondhand market. That applies also to the chess sets, even the resin toriart versions - of which only the Montsalvat continues to be made.
Copyright Nicholas Lanier 2009 - reprint only with consent of the author!