Ivory Chess Sets
We have seen a lot of chess here at Your Move Chess and Games. We learn about new chess sets from our customers just as much as we do from a trade show or company catalog. In our conversations with customers, we have talked about and learned about all manner of unique chess items out there. It is one of the best ways for us to find new and exciting chess sets to offer as well as discuss some of the unique and interesting chessboards we’ve seen over the years. One thing that often arises is conversation are ivory chess pieces. Some customers are looking for them, and another has an ivory chess set passed down in their family and just wants to show us the amazing item they have. It’s great for us to see these sorts of items, but it often brings up the question of whether or not ivory can be legally sold, and if so, how much they are worth.
(The short answer is that ivory is illegal today, but if you have an old antique set, it is something you can sell and can potentially be quite valuable as an antique).
Ivory chess sets are, to some, the ultimate romanticized idea for a set of chess pieces. For many of us, when we picture a traditional chess set in our mind, it is either classic ebonywood chess pieces or ivory chessmen. The ivory chess pieces stands apart because instead of the natural wood tones of boxwood (the wood most often used for the ‘white’ side of chess pieces), the white is, well, actually white – or very close to it anyway.
The truth is, ivory has a very dark past in our history and has led to the endangerment of several species for needless poaching. In many ways, ivory is the ‘fur coat’ of chess. That is always something to keep in mind before even investigating an antique set.
Availability of an Ivory Chess Set
The problem is that ivory chess pieces, like all ivory products, have not been available since the late eighties here in the US. This means if you’re getting true ivory, it needs to be an antique. Because of our experience (hey, we’ve been around over 35 years now!) a lot of individuals have come to us over the years in an attempt to appraise their chess set, sell it, or even just have us look at something unique. This includes a number of ivory chessmen. While we did have an antique ivory chess set for sale back in the nineties, these sets are now hard to come by and best purchased through a reputable antique dealer. You need to be sure that the ivory used in the set of chess pieces is completely legal for sale (although banned, they are still sometimes manufactured – stay clear! These can be confiscated and you can be fined by the government!)
But how do you know it is true ivory? It’s a bit tricky, and honestly, we don’t like trying to do it. There are a number of methods out there that help differentiate true ivory from fake ivory, plastics, and other bones. If you have a chess set you expect might be ivory it is best to have it checked by a professional. This is another reason why it to have assurances before purchasing from any online seller, and especially auction sites such as eBay.
Value of an Ivory Chess Set
If you already have an ivory chess set, you may be wondering how much it is worth. this is pretty tricky, and again I would highly recommend a professional antique dealer to have a look. The older, the more value – but it is not that simple. The type of ivory also matters – we often think of ivory as being made from mammoth tusks, but actually the tusks and horns of various other animals also qualify – even whale teeth! The classic elephant ivory is often much more expensive.
The detailing also matters. Some chessmen are quite simple, and some are very elaborate. Many of the ivory sets you will find will have been hand carved. If they are painted, they were probably hand painted. They are now heirlooms, and can range upwards into the thousands of dollars.
Alternatives to an Ivory Chess Set
So, ivory chess piece sets are to hard to come by, and if you find one – it’s probably too expensive. What do you do?
The reality is, ivory is a fragile and expensive commodity that has some unsavory ties with poaching and the near extinction of several species. While some may romanticize the idea of ivory staunton chessmen, a high quality exotic wood might be a much better choice. Ebonywood has long been considered for some of the top chess pieces in the world, and other options like Crimson Rosewood (Blood Rosewood, Bud Rosewood, Red Chidar, etc), have grown in popularity as well to take the place of the premier elegant expensive Staunton chess figures. These items have taken the place of ivory in most luxury sellers and are often more thought of as the pinnacle of chess pieces.
That being said, while many prefer the before mentioned wooden chess piece sets like ebony for a truly classic look, some people insist on trying to find ivory, or ivory-like chessmen. There certainly are imitation ivory chess pieces out there as well. While plastic is always an option, you will also see a lot of bone chess pieces. These are usually camel bone, but other bones have also been used. Honestly, we find it a bit morbid and tend to avoid them ourselves, but it is definitely an option and for a consumer who is desperate for the style of ivory/bone, this is a legal option currently available. These chess pieces are delicate, so these are best used for display only even if they do not cost as much!
Finally, there is one really cool option that exists if price is not a concern. Mammoth tusk. Hear me out. I found out that this specific and unusual set of chessmen existed some years ago. I believe the rules go as follows: While elephant tusks are off the table, because mammoths are already extinct, the use of mammoth ivory is technically legal.
It universally comes out of Russia, and costs more than a pretty penny (we’re talking upwards of 15,000 dollars or so!) but if you’re looking for a ‘new’ set of ivory chessmen, this is the one way to do it.
I hope you found this post informative.