Among the world’s most beautiful sets, they were made of ivory by the craftsman of the company that controlled trade in British India for two centuries.
Some of the highest-quality chess sets of the 18th and 19th centuries were made in India. One style in particular has traditionally been highly sought-after by chess collectors: “John Company” sets. These ornamental sets were manufactured by the skilled craftsmen of the East India Company, which was informally (and usually) called the John Company, hence the origin of the name of the sets.
The East India Company was a major purveyor of manufactured Indian goods for the British market, starting in 1600, when it received its royal charter from Queen Elizabeth, until its dissolution in 1874. During its heyday in the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries, the company grew so powerful that it enlisted its own private armies, which patrolled vast regions of India in order to maintain political and economic control.
The company’s ivory carving workshops were located in Berhampur (also called Berhampore, Berhampoor, or Brahmapur), which is located on the far Eastern side of India, 100 miles south of the city of Bhubaneswar.
John Company sets are noted for their elegance and attention to detail, as in the following example from my collection.
The set is circa 1830. Kings and queens in John Company sets are always depicted as elephants mounted with royal/upper-class riders in howdahs (i.e. seats or platforms, often with railings and canopies), usually accompanied by mahouts (elephant trainers/caretakers). Bishops are mounted camels, knights are mounted horses, rooks are usually in tower-form, and pawns are foot soldiers. There are occasional exceptions to the form of the minor pieces, such as in this set, in which the knights are depicted as lions (white knights) and water buffalo (black knights). As for the opposing sides, John Company sets are almost always natural ivory for white and natural ivory with stained bases for each of the pieces for black.
A close-up of the king and queen shows the intricate details for which John Company sets are noted.
The carving is so precise that one would assume that the John Company craftsmen had used the most advanced carving tools available. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The following illustration of a John Company workshop comes from an article in the Illustrated London News (ILN), dated April 26, 1851.
Illustrated London News (1851)
An excerpt from the accompanying article:
It would doubtless amuse many people in England if they could see the rough and primitive tools with which such minute and beautiful work is turned out; and more would it astonish artisans and others to witness the use the workmen make of their feet, which to them are equal to an extra pair of hands, the feet being constantly called into play even to picking up their tools when beyond the immediate reach of their hands.
Close-ups from the illustration show the types of tools that the craftsmen used to make these exquisite sets.
Illustrated London News (1851)
Another mid-19th-century source, Dickinsons’ “Comprehensive Pictures of the Great Exhibition of 1851” (published in 1854), provides similar comments when referring to the Indian-made ivory items that were displayed in the exhibition:
The ivory carvers of Berhampore contributed a variety of specimens of their work, and deserved much credit for elaborateness of detail and truth of representation. To illustrate the facility with which they could carve the most minute objects, as well of those of larger size, – there was an elephant enclosed in the shell of a pea, – and that they were capable of doing new things, when required, was shown in the set of chessmen carved from the drawings of Layard’s “Nineveh.”
A comparison of the elephant pieces in the ILN illustration with real John Company pieces shows the similarities between them.
Jonathan Crumiller, Illustrated London News (1851)
Not all of the elephant figures carved at the workshop were chess pieces; some were sold as separate ornaments. But many of them were used for the chess sets.
My collection includes six John Company sets, of various sizes and quality. For an experienced collector, a set’s quality is much more important than its size, though other attributes are important as well. The most important attributes (roughly in order of importance) are quality, condition, rarity, age, artistic impression, size, and (for applicable sets) attribution to a manufacturer and/or provenance of the set.
The smallest such set in my collection has kings that are approximately 3.6 inches (9 cm) tall and is dated mid-19th century.
A close examination of the king and queen clearly shows the precision and level of detail achieved by the artisans.
This next set, dated circa 1800 is even more expressive and elaborate. The display case and glass cover are original to the set.
These sets follow another general pattern for John Company sets: the oldest ones (18th and early 19th centuries) tend to be of the highest quality, with the level of quality slowly declining over time. Latter-19th-century sets are still of good quality, but are noticeably different from the earlier ones. There are even 20th century sets that are called “John Company” sets by their sellers, not based on historical accuracy, but because they have the same basic appearance and motifs. However, it is really just a marketing tactic, and the quality of those 20th century sets is significantly lower than that of the authentic John Company sets.
There are some classic variants for some of the pieces. The first set shown above has knights represented as lions and water buffalo. Other animals were sometimes used to depict the knights as well, as can be seen from several photos from the historical auction catalogs.
Jonathan Crumiller, Sotheby’s, Christie’s
Another classic variant is the awe-inspiring “juggernaut,” in which the John Company bishops are represented as large, elaborate horse-drawn chariots. According to Wikipedia, the term “juggernaut” (including our modern usage as an unstoppable force) originated “in the mid-nineteenth century as an allegorical reference to the Hindu temple cars of Jagannath Temple in Puri [eastern India], which apocryphally were reputed to crush devotees under their wheels.”
The following illustration from 1846 shows Jagannath temple chariots next to several photos of juggernaut bishops from the historical chess auction catalogs.
Granger (1846), Christie’s, Sotheby’s
This next set has several rare features. As usual, the kings and queens are represented as riders on elephants, but this set also has baby elephants representing the Bishops.
Rooks are represented as towers, as they typically are. Some John Company sets have flagmen on top of the towers, but in this particular set, each tower has its own occupant tucked inside!
The next set has a very unusual feature: rooks are as seated elephants.
The sixth John Company set in my collection is my largest one (the kings are 6.3 inches or 16 cm tall), but the overall carving is of slightly lower quality. The theme is a “tiger hunt,” with the pieces poised to track down a tiger.
Only a relatively small number of John Company have been sold in the last 60 years. Of approximately 14,800 chess auction lots in the major chess auctions from 1956 through present, only 23 of them were complete John Company sets, with nearly half of those auction listings having been offered in one or more prior auctions. Most John Company sets are in private collections, and have traded hands via collector-to-collector transactions. So I would estimate the total number of extant John Company complete sets to be somewhere in the range of 60 to 80.
For a collector of antique chess sets, it is normally considered acceptable for the small breakable items to have been restored or even replaced, e.g. swords, spears, or umbrellas. Also commonly, one or more pieces in an otherwise complete set may have been substituted; such pieces are referred to as “associated,” as long as the dating and pattern of the substitute pieces is very close to the dating and pattern of the original set. One set shown in this article, identified as the smallest John Company set in my collection, contains several associated pieces, as identified by slightly taller bases. Antique chess sets with associated pieces are of reduced value, but can still be highly desirable. Each prior owner had had to keep track of the 32 original pieces over the years/decades, which is not easy, even for a high-quality set such as the John Company sets.
In order to see the similarities between each type of piece in the John Company sets, here is a piece-by-piece comparison with each of the six John Company sets I own. From left-to-right and up/down, these pieces are from the following sets:  John Company set in dome, circa 1800;  John Company set with lions and water buffalo, circa 1830;  John Company set, smaller, with several associate pieces, mid-19th century;  John Company set with seated elephants as Rooks, mid-19th century;  John Company set with baby elephants as Bishops, mid-19th century; and  John Company set with Tiger Hunt theme, late 19th century.