Card games with quaint names like Piquet, Quadrille, and Spinado were the rage in the 18th and 19th centuries, as popular as today’s bridge, poker, and blackjack. Although the games are long gone, their mother-of-pearl gaming chips live on as collectible antiques and highly fashionable jewelry.
The most beautiful antique chips are the ones carved and engraved by the Chinese between 1720 and 1840. These undervalued mother-of-pearl chips are readily available. Most important, they often can be dated. Provenance can frequently be determined from engravings on the chips, and, since the chips were transported from their place of manufacture, still-extant shipping records document details such as who commissioned them and what price was paid.
From China to the United Kingdom. British and early American aristocrats who commissioned porcelain tableware and matching gaming chips from China would have the items engraved with designs such as armorial crests and monograms. But while armorial porcelain tableware can bring high prices at auction – up to $15,000 for a plate – the matching gaming chips may cost as little as $15.
Aristocrats often arranged to purchase exotic gaming chips through sea captains and agents of the Honourable East India Company (HEIC). As part of their salary, crew members were allocated a small area in the cargo hold in which to transport items to sell personally back in the motherland. The shipping companies themselves were primarily interested in major products such as tableware and tea rather than in small trinkets like mother-of-pearl gaming chips.
According to Derek Cowan of Lansdown, England, an internationally renowned collector, the earliest recorded gaming-chip purchase was cataloged by HEIC in 1716 and included three dozen fish counters (the fish being the Chinese symbol for luck) along with six dozen others, commissioned and purchased by Lady Griselle Baillie. Because transit time would customarily be two to three years, Lady Baillie would have received her gaming chips around 1718.
Shape, design, and value. The value of antique Chinese gaming chips depends on your point of view. To exonumiasts (collectors of coins and tokens), value is based on the number of chips produced, whether they were personalized or provenance can be determined, the armorial design (if present), the detail and expertise of the carving, the chip’s shape and thickness, whether the border includes serrated or carved edges, and the design of the engraved scene. Engravings of doves and flowers, which appear on thousands of gaming chips, are less prized than armorial chips, particularly those that belonged to “the first governor of New York” or other colonial notables, says Cowan.
From the jewelry designer’s point of view, the overall shape, border details, quality of the engraving, and design of the engraved scene are the key factors.
Because collectors and jewelers base their value judgments on different factors, the highest-value gaming chips generally aren’t used in jewelry. Instead, these chips are purchased by serious collectors like Cowan. In order to obtain a top-valued piece, a collector may have to buy 1,000 less-prized chips, which he or she may resell to jewelry designers or others.
Most antique game-counter shapes are round, rectangular, square, cushion, marquise, oval, single fish (carp), or two crossed fish (dolphins). The single carp and crossed dolphins were the two most frequently commissioned shapes. According to Inge Sarosi, a Los Angeles designer and manufacturer of gaming-chip jewelry, the circular and square chips lend themselves best to jewelry; however, these shapes are the hardest to find. Rectangular chips, while more rare than fish-shaped, look “too much like a business card” and therefore are not as valued by designers, she says. Border details add interest to the piece, so designers seek out edges that are serrated, carved, or carved and pierced.
Designers will use interestingly shaped chips in their entirety for jewelry and will cut up older, damaged game pieces, using the better-quality portions. Armorials are typically kept in one piece, mainly because of their value to collectors.
The engraving on gaming chips is often highly detailed. Early engraving designs include scenes from Chinese poetry or philosophical stories; many depict Chinese flora and fauna, as well as views from everyday life. However, once the British got interested in gaming chips, their influence became evident. There are four types of British engravings: the coat-of-arms, displaying helmet armor (“helm”) and crowns (“coronets”) representing the history and wealth of the family who commissioned the chips; the buyer’s monogram; numbers from 1 to 1,000, for games requiring point tallies; and card suits and game names.
Beware the fakes. Cowan, Sarosi, and other experts are concerned about the proliferation of faux Chinese gaming chips. It’s very difficult to distinguish the new hand-carved chips from the antiques, even for those who know what to look for. The key to determining the fakes is to note the absence of cross-hatched engraving underneath the principal scene. No one as yet has been able to reproduce the fine engraving seen on the antique chips. The engraved design can also be a sign of the fake, depicting “current Chinese inspiration,” as Cowan puts it. The faux chips use no armorials or monograms.