In this chapter the origin of chess is discussed. Subsequently we describe
how chess spread in the Persian and Arab period. Via the Mediterranean
chess arrived in Spain and Italy. During the Middle Ages chess was played
almost entirely by the European nobility and in monasteries. The Arabic
pieces, with their abstract geometric shape, gradually changed and were
decorated with Christian motives. Chess sets in that time were scarce and
made only for the rulers and nobility from precious materials. Chess pieces
from this period are almost only to be found in museums.
In Europe a considerable number of chess pieces were unearthed.
Also in the Netherlands. Some pieces will be shown and discussed.
In this chapter the influence of the Renaissance, humanism and the
Reformation on the design of chess pieces will be discussed. Chess
sets are shown from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Bayerisches
Nationalmuseum in Munich and the Bellerive Museum in Zürich.
In 1616 the Duke Augustus II the Younger of Brunswick-Lüneburg published
in Germany under the pseudonym Gutavus Selenus his comprehensive work
“Das Schach oder König Spiel”, Chess or the Kings Game. A certain design
of chess pieces is ascribed to Selenus as Selenus style. We doubt that
Selenus designed them. The Duke mentions in his book the chess village
Ströbeck. A village were all inhabitants for several centuries were obliged to
This century is the time of the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution.
In Paris the first encyclopaedia of Diderot and d’Alembert was published.
Paris is the centre of the world of chess. In Café de la Régence the great
chess masters Saint Aman and Philidor meet. The great philosophers
Voltaire, Rousseau and Robespierre frequent the same café.
Benjamin Franklin, the American envoy in Paris and Napoleon were regular
visitors. In Vienna the legendary chess machine “the Turk” was constructed
by Wolfgang von Kempelen. In the meantime the production process to
make porcelain was reinvented in Germany. Meissen and Wedgwood start
the production of porcelain chess pieces. In this chapter a section is
dedicated to different kinds of animal ivory and to vegetable ivory.
In the beginning of this century the French armies under Napoleon’s
command occupied a large part of Europe. In The Battle of Waterloo
Napoleon was finally defeated. London is now the centre of the chess world.
Famous English craftsmen like Calvert, Merrifield, Lund, Hastilow and
Jaques rushed to the production of chess sets mostly made from ivory.
Naturally, explicit attention is given to the Staunton set and the story
behind it. In Germany the art of iron casting is refined and the chess sets
by Zimmermann are fine examples.
The introduction of the locomotive and the rapid expansion of the railway
system give an impulse to the design and production of travel sets. Due to
the high labour costs in Europe English producers decided to have their sets
made in India and Burma. Also in China, especially in Macao, a large
number of sets were produced for the European market. These sets are of
exquisite quality and great craftsmanship.
During this period several artistic trends influenced the design of chess
pieces. We see that exemplified in the sets of Josef Hartwig (from Bauhaus)
and of Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp en Max Ernst. The set of the sisters
Danko “Reds and Whites” reminds us in an impressive way of the Russian
October Revolution of 1918. Before the Second World War the Nazi’s
misused chess to prepare the German people for the war. Special chess
sets were sent to the German and English soldiers.
After the Second World War chess sets were designed and produced all
over the world based on different themes, often sold as a souvenir.
We have made a selection of sets from Africa, Brazil and Mexico.