Collectors of chess sets apply this term to three different categories of sets.
First, small sets like the ones made for dollhouses. In particular the products from Geislingen, Germany, deserve to be mentioned because of their intricate fretsaw work in bone and the minute turned chessmen making very attractive ensembles. The tables were supplemented by chairs and other miniature furniture. In the Victorian age, dollhouses were very popular and can be admired in many museums. It is not surprising that the turners and carvers from Geislingen exported their work to England. These trade routes – going back to the middle of the 18the century – also comprised other goods like carved chess sets and many other items of everyday use.
Second, small traveling sets that were miniaturized to allow easy transport. It frequently happens that these sets were pegged for secure play in carriages, trains and ships.
Third, miniature sets that only served the purpose of demonstrating the skills of the craftsmen. Such sets are very attractive and often sought-after by collectors. A chess set made of bone where all the pieces fit into a hollowed walnut was naturally fascinating and desirable as a souvenir.
Overall, the materials used were wood, bone (cattle), ivory, various metals including bronze, tin, lead, silver, etc, and plastics, among others.
Some gold and silversmiths were literally possessed by the thought of creating the smallest chess set in the world, but which is still playable. The race is still on! If one wishes to play with such small sets, a magnifying galls and a pair of tweezers is a must. The technical solution to keep the chessmen movable yet fixed to the board presents a real challenge.
Miniature bone set from the last half of the 19th century. Batons are oversized, and can be removed when playing. Sold in Vienna. Source: chess-museum.com