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Thanks Robb, but I can't ask an unidentifed maker of a 100-year-old chess set, and even my two modern sets were bought 20 years ago from a retailer, not the manufacturer, so I can't ask about them either. I have gone through the links you've provided, I really have, and I've read more besides and nothing I've found deals with the question I asked. Okay, so you say use a blacklight, but what are the "other means" already described? I just don't understand why you won't just help me out here and tell me. Why is it such a big secret?
Geez... I'm done with thread... Buy hack saw... Cut the heads off of each chess piece... Send in for chemical analysis... Take pictures... Post here... Can't wait to see the 100 year old one.
I'm sure it's helped you guys with the already provided information, links, etc. CHECKMATE!
Okay, thanks, Robb. I don't understand your unwillingness to help and your seeming hostility, but so be it.
To anyone else still interested, I haven't found any way for the average person to tell if a completely black ebony chess piece is a naturally completely black piece of Gaboon, or a naturally completely black piece of Macassar, or a piece of ebony with stripes that has been dyed completely black. According to the Wood Database website, Macassar, Gaboon, and Ceylon ebony all usually have straight grain and similar endgrain. Macassar is slightly heavier and denser than Gaboon, with Ceylon the lightest and least dense, but all ebony is known as hard, dense wood. Fluorescence under a black light can be used to tell some types of wood apart, but I have found nothing that says that the various species of ebony can be differentiated in this way by a casual observer. Perhaps it is possible under laboratory conditions.
In summary, I do not believe that there is any easy way that I or anyone else can confirm what species of ebony has been used for a chess set or if the wood has been skilfully dyed. If anyone else can correct me on this, please do. Strngdrvnthng, perhaps you know?
As for wanting to see my 100-year-old set, I'm not sure if you were being sarcastic there, Robb, but in case you weren't, here it is. I'm sorry it's not set up, but I saw your post only minutes before I had to leave for work, so this was all I could do. (I don't take or keep photographs of my chess sets.) The set is known among chess collectors as "probably an Ayres" because it is suspected by many that these sets were made by the English toy manufacturer FH Ayres. Some, however, think that they were made by Jaques as a more budget line. (I think it's fair to say that those people are in the minority.) If you look closely, you can see the crown stamping on the black and white rooks. House of Staunton modelled their New York 1924 set on the "Ayres" set. This particular set has suffered a few dings over its lifetime, so it's off to Alan Dewey soon.
Since Jaques apparently used the "finest Macassar ebony" in their sets, I think it's likely that the "Ayres" sets used Macassar or Ceylon, and the pieces are beautifully black. I've handled only one Jaques set in the flesh, but its ebony pieces were completely black.
From my experience working with various species of exotic woods both solid and veneers, Macassar Ebony is striped not uniformly black. I learned the trade in Scotland. In the UK mid-nineteenth century there was a hair product commonly used by men (to remove the grey) called "macassar"...I believe it was made from ebony oil. I think that perhaps maufacturers referring to solid black ebony as Macassar Ebony was a mistake and that the species used was Diospiros ebenum and not Diospiros celebica. I have several sets from the nineteenth century and they certainly do not appear to be stained at all. Alan Dewey is very knowledgeable about chess piece construction, restoration, and is very approachable. I contacted him by e-mail regarding one of my Jaques Whittington travel sets and he provided me with lots of helpful advice and info. If you google Alan Dewey chessspy I believe you'll find him. Hope this helps, best wishes, John C.
I have found a lot of interesting information on this forum line.
I am not an expert on this topic, but it is of my understanding that even the darkest ebony will shown spots of brown when hold against the direct ligth, So I guess if the set doesn't do this it is fair to think it was colored.
If you want to make sure what kind of wood you have, i would sugest scarp some of it from a non visible part, like the bottom of it, and put it on a microscope.
Yes, I know Alan Dewey; he has already fixed one of my antique chess sets and he knows this one is coming to him next.
That is a very interesting suggestion that the reference to Macassar ebony was a nineteenth-century mistake, except that it does not explain why Alan today uses Macassar ebony to repair Jaques sets. See, for example, the description of his "reclaimed" 1851—55 4.4" Jaques from Ebay and his series of photographs and video of same on Picasa. Note that, for this set, he had to create complete missing pieces. In the video at 2.00, he says ""The black side is of course the best Macassar ebony, very black and very dense. And it just looks beautiful." I would expect Alan to know his ebonies!
PS. After posting, I noticed that in one photo you can see blanks that show typical Macassar striping. This means that the heart is much blacker (unlikely, I would have thought) or the process makes the pieces turn black or Alan dyes his black pieces. Whatever the case, we still end up with jet black Macassar ebony pieces.
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