Pieces Crystal and Osnabruck Set

Islamic pieces, unlike their European counterparts, are never figurative. It is principally by their size that the king, the minister (roughly equivalent to the queen in the West), the elephant (bishop), chariot (rook), horse (knight) and foot soldier (pawn) are recognisable. Rock crystal, indeed hardstone in general, was particularly prized. This predilection is not new to Islamic arts: from the Fatimid period, chess sets, ewers and phials have been carved from rock crystal It was also used in the West from the Carolingian period up to at least the nineteenth century.Although generally medieval rock crystal pieces are mentioned to stem from Fatamid Egypt, however also Cordoba and Iraq are mentioned for the production sites.


Charlemagne / Osnabrück Chess Set

The Osnabrück chess set is a according to legend from Charlemagne. The pieces are old, but there is no evidence to substantiate this, putting this legend to doubt. Fourteen pieces remain in the treasure of the Osnabrück Cathedral (in the 17th century they were 25 or 26 pieces according to information left behind by a French Abbot that visited the location) and from their characteristics it can be seen that they belong to three different Chess sets. This appreciation is not only due to their size, but also because of the type of ornamental carving found on the lateral sides, like ribbing in “palisade” fashion. The remaining reddish tincture on the base of some of the Chess pieces reveals an attempt to differentiate both sides, as is the case with the Lleida pieces.

The Charlemagne Chess Set is divided in three style sets:

1. Palisade-motiv

7 pieces (1 King, 1 Queen, 3 Bishops, 2 Rooks)

2. No motiv

5 Pieces (2 Bishops, 1 Knight, 2 Rooks)

3. Palmette motiv

2 Pieces (1 Knight, 1 Pawn)

Schnütgen Museum Cologne

Knight with a palisade motiv. This piece is probably also from the Osnabrück set brought there by Fritz Witte the Museum Director.

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Cathedral Halberstadt

King with a palisade motiv.

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San Millan de la Cogolla

In the 11the Century monastery of Yuso of San Millán of the Cogolla (Logroño, NW Spain), a reliquary-box was built for the remains of San Felices, the teacher of San Millán. In the upper cover, there are three chess pieces made of rock crystal.A kKnight and two Pawns are embeded into the relrquary as ornamentation. They are better dated than those of Celanova and Urgel because it is recorded that they were donated by Sancho III of Navarre in 1033.

San Rosenda de Celanova - Diocesan Museum

Together with the crystal chess pieces conserved in San Millan de Residuals la Cogolla and Urgel, the lot of Celanova is among the older chess materials dating from the early Middle Age. The monastery of Celanova is located in the mountains of Orense, although, more recently, the chess pieces have been transferred to the Diocesan Museum of the capital of the county, probably to avoid pillage or theft.

The pieces, eight in total, are of greater variety than those of the other lots and therefore probably date further back. Camón Aznar attributes them to the first half of the 10th century because there is a donation letter to the monastery for the year 938. So, this lot is slightly newer than the St. Genadio pieces.

The Agar Chess Set

The Ager chessmen forms one of the most wonderful medieval set and also, one of the oldest extant in Europe. Their trace is apparently found back in the will of Ersenda d'Ager wife of count Arnau Mir de Tost in 1068 or in the will of Arnau himself in 1071. Arnau was a powerful and mighty knight in Northern Spain, lord of Urgell in Catalonia, in the 11th c. He had re-conquered Ager from the Saracens.

According to regretted Prof Calvo, from the original 96 pieces of 1071, only 44 remained five centuries later. These 44 crystal chess pieces were also seen in Ager at the beginning of 19th century by Villanueva. 13 of the pieces must have been lost during the 19th century, and only 14 pieces remained in the parish of St. Vicent d'Ager in 1887. In 1907, these 14 chess pieces appear in a private collection and reappeared recently in a public auction. The Emir of Kuwait purchased the lot, which was plundered by Iraqi soldiers during the Gulf War. The pieces would be now back in Kuwait. The Ager lot now in Kuwait

This lot contains the finest pieces. The material, rock crystal, points clearly to a foreign origin, because this kind of carving is considered a typical production of the Fatimid Egyptians. The abstract Islamic design reinforces the assumption that these chess sets were not produced in Urgell, but imported from a Muslim zone.

The monastery of Ager was closed in 1857, and a part of its properties went to the bishop of Lerida, included among them, 19 chess pieces fashioned in rock crystal. Until recently, the bishops kept the pieces in their private sleeping quarters. They are now conserved at the Museum de Lleida (Lerida) Dociesa i Comarcal.

The material is, in every case, transparent rock crystal. Only one bishop displays a smoky, darker colour. The overall design is abstract, following the well known Islamic pattern. Pawns differ slightly in shape and in size. Basically, the form is conic, the diameter of the circular base being in average some 16mm and the height, approximately 27mm . Lateral carving also differs. One of the pawns is larger than the others, and so, it would appear as though they belong to two different chess sets, unless this particular "pawn" represents a ferz or "queen". The two opposing chess parties of Islamic chess, red and black, composed the collection. Red pieces were fashioned by adding a reddish resin in the bottom and the black pieces by using another kind of smoky rock crystal.

The Ager-Paris-Kuwait- Iraq chess pieces, are much bigger and more elaborate. Although less pleasing aesthetically, the humble lot left in Lleida could be older.

Victoria & Albert

Rock crystal chess piece cut in form of two unequal lobes, curved at one end and flat at the other. The piece has a hole on top of the protuberance and was probably used as a reliquary. It is carved with the representation of two birds confronting one another, a band diapered with crosses and opposed scrolls. From the smaller lobe arises a pointed stem with projections resembling the stem of a lopped tree. On top of the object, there is a small hole about 0.5 cm deep. Originally thought to be a Byzantine object.

Place of Origin: Egypt / Iraq (possibly, made)
Date: late 9th century-early 10th century (made)
Height: 6.3 cm
Height: 3.8 cm (of front protuberance)
Diameter: 4.5 cm (of base)

Kuwait National Museum - Kuwait

Rock crystal chess pieces. Egypt, 10th century AD. Kuwait, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya, inv. no. LNS i HSa-j (photograph courtesy of the Al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya,).

Rock crystal chess pieces. Egypt, 10th century AD. Kuwait, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya, inv. no. LNS 2 HSa-e (photograph courtesy of the Al-Sabah Collection, Dar al-Athar al-Islamiyya).

800 AD - Rock Crystal - Found at Basra Iraq

A Fatimid rock crystal chess piece

Egypt, 10th—12th century
4.4 cm. (1-3/4 in.) high
Sold at Sotheby's in 2005

15th century The "St. Louis" Chess Set - Louvre Museum

The "St Louis" chess set comes from the Crown collection, but the tradition attributing it to Louis IX of France (1214-1270) is certainly mistaken. This set, made of rock crystal and smoked quartz, was in fact created in the late fifteenth century in Germany (the board) and France (the pieces). Extensively altered over the centuries, it nevertheless remains a fine example of the artistic inventiveness of the fifteenth century and of the magnificence of the French Crown collection.

A chess set of crystal, quartz, and silver

The board is composed of thirty-two squares of rock crystal alternating with thirty-two squares of smoked quartz, all cased in silver. Each square of rock crystal is backed with a silver foil bearing a silver flower with red enamel petals and green enamel leaves. Similarly, each square of quartz is backed with a black foil adorned with a gilt silver flower with leaves of silver. These flowers are thus visible through the opaque squares. Half of the pieces, which are not all original, are carved from rock crystal (the white pieces), and the other half (the black pieces) from smoked quartz. Each piece is six-sided, carved from a single block and mounted in gilt silver.

A chess set within a chess set

Arranged around the periphery of the board's sixty-four squares are eight small compartments covered with rock crystal lids. Inside are little boxwood figurines, both civilian and military, seated, standing or on horseback. Painted red or blue, they seem to echo the chessmen. On two of the sides, the tiny figures occupy the squares of a reduced chessboard of white and black metal. Each of these sixteen-square boards is framed by two bouquets of silver flowers on a ground of imitation greenery, which also appears inside two other compartments containing soldier figurines represented in a forest. The military figures are modeled on German soldiers of the late fifteenth century, suggesting that the board was made in southern Germany.

The chess set: Modifications and history

In 1791 the sides of the board were still embellished with gilt copper on a ground of blue enamel. Now the sides are plated with a stamped silver frieze of foliage added in the nineteenth century. The corners rest on the heads of chubby winged cherubs in gilt bronze dating from the seventeenth century. Added in the eighteenth century, these may be of Italian workmanship. Royal inventories often listed chess sets made of semi-precious stones. The presence of the little boxwood figures links this set with others listed in inventories as belonging to the Palais du Louvre. This set was listed in the inventory of the collections of Gabrielle d'Estrées (1573-99), and later in the gem collection of Louis XIV under number 31. As one piece was lost, Louis XVIII gave the set to his first valet de chambre, Thierry de Ville-d'Avray.


Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul

13th century Pawn, Shah, Vizir, Knights and Rook, Arabic chess set, Rock-crystal and smoken topaz -
Topkapi Palace Museum, Istanbul, Turkey

16th or 17th century The Topkapi Sarayi set - Istanbul

The Topkapi Sarayi set contains thirty two pieces in rock crystal have geometric forms: a slightly concave, cylindrical body with a domed top. These forms may be simple (in the case of the king and the queen); decorated with two grooves (for the pawn) or in the form of a baluster pillar (for the knight and the rook). Only the bishop (?), in a palmette form, is more complex. Another set of pieces of Iranian or Ottoman origin in agate and turquoise, also held in the Topkapi Palace, are almost identical in shape.

Two types of precious stone embellish the chess pieces to distinguish each player. The rubies probably came from Burma or Afghanistan; however, from the end of the sixteenth century, emeralds from Asia were increasingly neglected in favour of more beautiful stones brought back from Colombia by the Portuguese. The stones were table cut (a gold work technique which survived in Byzantium and the West from the early Middle Ages) and then set in lobed mounts to secure them to the crystal. The beginnings of stone inlays on precious metals dates back to the twelfth century in eastern Iran but it was probably only under the Timurids (1370 – 1506) that craftsmen began to inlay precious stones. This practice continued in Iran into the sixteenth century and expanded into India and to the Ottoman Empire following the capture of many Iranian works and artists after the conquest of Tabriz in 1514.

Indian Rock Crystal Chess Set - Kuwait

Tareq Rajab Museum Kuwait
India, early 19th century
Largest Piece : 5.3cm High
Smallest Piece : 2cm High

Carved in squat and tapering cylindrical forms with domed tops, painted in gilt with flowersprigs enclosed by borders of interlacing flowers, the undersides painted green and red. One part is painted red, the other green.

Modern Crystal Chess Sets

Even today Crystal Chess Sets are wanted, but can be very expensive, just look below:

Baccarat Chess Set

Price: $287,684

Swarovski Chess Set