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Ebony Chess Pieces – Are They a Good Investment?

Ebony has been prized for its density, dark colour and high sheen when polished since the beginning of recorded history, and remains one of the most sought after woods to use in the production of luxury chess pieces. However, this popularity, combined with the ebony tree’s rarity and the unusually long time it takes to reach maturity, have led to values of the wood reaching levels that may make its future use for chess pieces unviable, except at ultra-luxury price points. This, then, begs the question: are ebony chess pieces a good investment?

Why is Ebony So Expensive?

Ebony’s high price – many times more than common woods such as white oak – is the result of a combination of factors on the demand and supply sides. Its extremely high density (some varieties are so dense that they won’t float in water) and decorative nature have meant that it is highly sought after for use in a range of applications, from musical instruments to religious artefacts such as crucifixes.

On the supply side, ebony trees have historically been over-harvested in many countries, leaving relatively low numbers of the slow-maturing trees available for future generations to utilize. The trees themselves are fairly small, typically growing to no more than nine metres in height, and, as they don’t respond well to competition with other trees or plants, tend not to be densely packed. These factors, combined with the fact that the most desirable, darkest wood, comes from trees that are a century or more old, severely restrict supply.

Is Availability of Ebony Decreasing?

Several varieties of ebony are now extinct and Diospyros crassiflora, often known as Gabon ebony, African ebony, West African ebony, or Benin ebony, is listed as vulnerable under criteria A4c of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

The majority of the world’s ebony trees are located in developing countries in Africa and Asia. The combination of attractively high prices for the wood, and high levels of poverty in these countries has often resulted in unsustainable, and sometimes illegal, harvesting of ebony trees. Gabon ebony, for example, has experienced a 50% population reduction in the past three generations, and even varieties that have a relatively stable population, such as Ceylon ebony, have been subject to exploitation restrictions in their native countries.

Whilst ebony as a whole is not currently subject to the kinds of regulations imposed on rosewood by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, the current direction of travel for the wood is one of increasing scarcity and further trade restrictions.


What’s the Difference Between Ebony and Ebonised Chess Pieces?


When demand for ebony for use in furniture, decorative objects and musical instruments began to outstrip supply in the 19th century, craftsmen sought a process that would imbue more ubiquitous woods, such as boxwood, with the dark hue of ebony. The most effective mechanism they discovered was ebonizing, which uses the chemical reaction between the wood and an acidic solution to permanently alter the colour of the material. Unlike painting or staining, this alters the tone of the wood at the atomic level, creating a finish that has startling verisimilitude with real ebony. This Video explains the ebonising process and how the very convincing ebony look is achieved.



Of course, these pieces don’t attract the same kinds of values or investment potential as those made from actual ebony, but they do represent a more inexpensive entry point for those who appreciate the aesthetics of a traditional chess set.

Will My Ebony Chess Set Increase in Value?

 Whilst we can’t guarantee that any investment will appreciate over time, a Staunton set, with the black pieces in ebony, is the most likely of any chess set either to hold its value or become increasingly valuable over time.

The Staunton design is widely recognised as classic from an aesthetic point of view. Ebony sets usually take the basic Staunton features and add extra embellishments, particularly to the knights, which often have exceptionally detailed features. This level of craftsmanship is likely to become more expensive over time, as labour costs in India, where all of the most detailed sets are produced, increase, and the availability of skilled craftsmen declines. Combine these factors with the likelihood that ebony will become increasingly rare over the coming years, and the fact that chess has experienced a sustained upswing in popularity in the last decade, and you have a recipe for rising prices on the new market, which has a similar effect on used prices.

Ultimately, though, a chess set should be purchased with the aim of bringing joy to the individual who owns it. Whether that is through using it to play games or admiring it from an aesthetic viewpoint, its monetary worth will generally be a secondary consideration, albeit, one that can help to justify the initial outlay.

Published by julian

Julian Deverell is the owner and founder of the Regency Chess Company. He set the business up in 2005 and established the Regency Chess brand in 2008. He's still heavily involved in the day to day running of the business and also has involvement with some other e commerce projects that are not chess related.

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