'I Made a $4million Chess Set'

I love the game of chess, and that stems back to my childhood. When I was growing up in Australia in the '60s and '70s, we didn't have the internet or modern technology kids have now, so we often played chess. We learned a lot of life skills through games and I like chess in particular because it's strategic and it brings people together.

As a very young man in the '80s, I began making jewelry after completing an apprenticeship as an electroplater. I worked for one of the biggest jewelry companies in Australia, and then started my own business. Using technology I had invented, I took natural flowers and covered them in gold. It's a tough road for young jewellers, but I was really loving the artistic side of it and by the mid '90s I started the process of working on different jewellery projects, which later led to making members' rings for teams in the Australian Football League (AFL) and for the V8 Supercars Championship, which was like America's NASCAR racing.

By 2007, I was living in Broome in north-western Australia. Its history as a pearl town is famous around the world and it's known for the South Sea pearls farmed off its coast. At the time, my son was a pearl diver there and I was doing a lot of work with South Sea pearls. A piece that I was making looked sort of like a chess piece, which prompted the idea that I should make a chess set.

I decided that if I was going to do it, I had to do it with real meaning and feeling. I wanted to bring the characters of the chess set to life, so I began to scribble designs down and spoke about it to a few of my peers. I felt that South Sea pearls were key to that and that they should be the head of each piece. I thought one side of the set could use white pearls the other could use black pearls.

Then, I had to really think about the game itself and the history of chess. The 1849 Staunton chess set is really significant as it's the set that is used championship tournaments. I wanted to make sure I made my set to that standard, I didn't want it to have a cartoon feel. By 2009, I thought I had the design worked out, but then I became busy with other projects. It wasn't until 2018 that I realized I wasn't getting any younger and I decided I was going to stop everything I was doing and make art for the rest of my life.

The chess set was very high on my priority list, so that's when it really started to evolve. But it took around 3 months to actually make. I created an original design and named the set The Pearl Royale. Then we printed the wax moulds for the pieces. For the King piece alone, there are probably 10 or 15 individual wax moulds. Then each piece had to be cast in 18 carat gold, soldered together and set with stones. I coated the 18 carat white gold with rhodium which is what gives each piece a platinum finish. It also keeps the white gold shiny and beautiful.

Colin Burn jeweled chess set
The $4million Pearl Royale chess set designed by Colin Burn Chess.com

There are also 20,000 diamonds across the 32 pieces; that's a lot of stone setting. And, the diamonds are all different sizes. Part of bringing the characters to life was creating the shape and because of the tapering of each piece, the stones had to be graduated in size. I could have easily used one size stone, but that wouldn't have had the same aesthetic appeal. I had to assemble a small team of highly skilled setters to help me put the stones in absolutely perfectly. A lot of detail went into every little step.

As well as the South Sea pearls in black and white and the white diamonds, the queen piece has some pink diamonds set into her crown. The set also has also has 202 of the finest Ceylon blue sapphires. They are incredible stones and typically feature in royal jewelry.

When I was designing the set, I wanted there to be a reveal when the King is knocked over as the game is won. The last thing in the world I wanted was to put felt on the bottom of each piece, so I decided to set diamonds into the base of each instead. For the board, I used beautiful sheets of crystal glass and then coated it underneath to create the pattern for the chess board. The legs of the set are made of gold with beautiful patterning.

At $4 million, it is quite an expensive piece, but the work's value is really in the materials. The value of the best diamonds, sapphires, pearls and gold soon adds up. To me, the high value of the set symbolizes the high value of the game of chess. People all over the world come together to play a game and shake hands at the end; win, lose or draw.

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I have an art agent in America and we saw that the FIDE World Chess Championship 2021 was happening in Dubai in November and December, so we reached out to Chess.com and with them, I'm going to be able to showcase the set during the coverage
of the Championships. I have made three editions available of the Pearl Royale set, but the original set is my artist proof and the one featured during the Championship. So far, no one has ever played on it, not even me.

At the Championships, Fabiano Caruana, ranked number 3 in the world, is going to be the first to use it. That is just phenomenal. My dream when I first thought of this in 2007 was to make the world's best chess set and have the world's best playing on it, so I am over the moon.

People may flock to see the set because it's full of expensive gems, but I like my work to have a message. It's really important to me that I'm not just making a piece of art because it's pretty and expensive. That's not what I'm about. The Pearl Royale was never made to be the most expensive chess set in the world, but I really do want it to be the most treasured.

Colin Burn is an artist living in Perth, Australia. His Pearl Royale chess set will be on display at the 2021 FIDE World Chess Championship on December 3, 2021. It will be broadcast on chess.com. You can find out more about Burn's work at colinburnjewelryart.com

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.