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The World’s Most Beautiful and Unusual Chess Sets

Pieces so pretty you won’t mind losing.

Pieces from the 1923 "Communist Propaganda Set." The two sides were divided into communists and capitalists.
Pieces from the 1923 "Communist Propaganda Set." The two sides were divided into communists and capitalists. All Photos: Kevin Dutton/Courtesy Master Works: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World/ FUEL Publishing.

In 1923, the year after the founding of the Soviet Union, the Lomonosov Porcelain Factory in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) produced a unique chess set. Since originating in sixth-century India, chess designs had been inspired by military battles, royalty, even nature; now, the inspiration was ideology. 

The chess set produced in Lomonosov had two very distinct sides. For the pieces in white, the king is a skeleton, wielding a femur bone as a scepter. The queen unashamedly displays an abundance of riches. The bishops are the tsar’s imperial guards, and the pawns are bound in chains. These are the pieces for the capitalist side.

The communist side—in red, naturally—is led by the king, who is a blacksmith, and queen, who carries wheat. The pawns are female farm workers and the bishops, red army colonels. The message wasn’t subtle, but it was evidently popular: the Communist Propaganda Set became one of the most copied in the world.

This extraordinary set is just one example of the designs featured in Master Works: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets. As the book shows, even with the apparent limitations of structure—32 pieces across 64 squares—there is capacity for unusual and inspired design. 

Some designs, as with the Communist Propaganda set, arose from ideology. Some were born out of wealth, such as the opulent rock crystal and silver set from 16th-century France. And some were made from necessity, such as the cardboard pieces created during the 900-day siege of Leningrad in World War II.

AO has images of these unusual designs, and more, from Master Works.

A John Company—the informal name for the East India Company—chess set, made in India c. 1830.
A John Company—the informal name for the East India Company—chess set, made in India c. 1830.
A 1905 Fabergé set, one of only two ever made by the company.
A 1905 Fabergé set, one of only two ever made by the company.
Elegant pieces from German designers Michael and Anton Edel, mid-19th century.
Elegant pieces from German designers Michael and Anton Edel, mid-19th century.
An improvised Russian chess set, made from bent wire in a gulag in the 1970s.
An improvised Russian chess set, made from bent wire in a gulag in the 1970s.
An ivory and mother-of-pearl chess set created in South Asia. In 1712 it was gifted by the Emir of Bukhara to a Polish prince.
An ivory and mother-of-pearl chess set created in South Asia. In 1712 it was gifted by the Emir of Bukhara to a Polish prince.
An insect chess board, created in Italy in the late 18th century.
An insect chess board, created in Italy in the late 18th century.
A Chinese chess set from the early 18th century. The pieces are depicted as rats, the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. Carved from ivory, the eyes are pieces of ruby and amber.
A Chinese chess set from the early 18th century. The pieces are depicted as rats, the first animal in the Chinese zodiac. Carved from ivory, the eyes are pieces of ruby and amber.
A 16th-century set made from rock crystal, topaz and silver, commissioned for royalty.
A 16th-century set made from rock crystal, topaz and silver, commissioned for royalty.
The king (left) and queen from Max Ernst's surrealist chess set, 1944.
The king (left) and queen from Max Ernst’s surrealist chess set, 1944.
The set designed for cosmonauts on board the 1970 Soyuz 9 mission.
The set designed for cosmonauts on board the 1970 Soyuz 9 mission.
An intricately carved ivory chess set, which has been called "the most incomparable chess set in the world", created in China in the late 18th century.
An intricately carved ivory chess set, which has been called “the most incomparable chess set in the world”, created in China in the late 18th century.
An improvised chess piece produced during the siege of Leningrad in WW2, consisting of a cardboard box printed with the shape of a Staunton Set piece.
An improvised chess piece produced during the siege of Leningrad in WW2, consisting of a cardboard box printed with the shape of a Staunton Set piece.
The late 18th-century amber chess set commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia.
The late 18th-century amber chess set commissioned by Catherine the Great of Russia.
The cover for <em>Master Works: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World</em>, published in February by FUEL publishing in association with World Chess by Agon Ltd.
The cover for Master Works: Rare and Beautiful Chess Sets of the World, published in February by FUEL publishing in association with World Chess by Agon Ltd.