Chess Sets in France

Since its introduction in Europe from the Muslim world on the one hand, and from Nordic countries on the other, the game of chess spread in France at first among mainly the nobility. Indeed, the oldest games belonged to the King, his entourage and other aristocrats.

During the 18th century, the game of chess democratised, thanks also to the development of publications, books and newspapers, as well as the emergence of new meeting places. During the Enlightenment, the production of chessmen became much more developed, due also to the unprecedented enthusiasm that the game experienced during that period. Two main types of production can be distinguished. First, the ones produced in Dieppe and in Paris, focusing on ivory and bone games. The second type includes the production from the tabletteries in Paris and its surrounding region, but also in Lyon and the Jura region. The Paris ivory games are prestigious pieces, were frequently used as official gifts. Some were made by big names in tableting, like Martin Biennais, well-known for his luxury items, of which N. Bonaparte will be a loyal customer. Dieppe games will be produced in greater number for a predominantly French clientele, but also and in particular the English seemed to appreciate the production from the workmen in Dieppe. This also explains why it seems easier to find Dieppe games in the UK and not in France. The game of spades is a special case, because they were produced at the same time than the games of jonchet and were sometimes used with other games as well. They were produced in the 18th century on the pontoons and in the tabletteries of Paris. 

In the 19th century, it is harder to find games of spades but only jonchnet. All other games were productions of tabletterie and share a common point which is the ovoid shape of the pieces, characteristic of the French style. This form, inspired from Italy, include from the end of the 17th century onwards Directoire, Regency (“Régence”), Lyon and Phrygian styled games. These specific styes will spread throughout Europe and will be a reference for more than a century until the advent of the Staunton sets.  

Typically, chessmen were produced for some of the first cafés where chess was played at the end of the 17th century. The Procope café opened in 1695, and the café on the place of the Palais Royal in 1681, and, before changing names, became the Café de la Régence in about 1715. The oldest style, the Procope, was soon to be replaced with the Directoire style, and then by the Regency style, which imposed itself as the French style. Currently, French style chess sets are still being produced in many countries, while other types seem to have disappeared. 

During the French revolution, some games – in particular the ones with crowns of kings and queens – disappeared in order to be conform to the revolutionary spirit. Craftsmen and other producers avoided royal representations, in order not to find themselves under the guilletine, which was quite easy during these particular times. The Dieppe games continued to enjoy the favours of many amateurs until the appearance of synthetic materials, which became much cheaper since the mid-19th century. This area also is the beginning of the decline of the crafts industry. Currently, there exists little research on Lyons type games. There are three types of this style, the classical Lyon sets, the inverted ones, and the Phrygian. All three varieties are characterised by the balustrades that decorate them. Source: CCI France.