Putting the Pieces Back Together

Incredibly, all six of us made it. Economic travails had nearly derailed our long-planned girls' weekend, making a trip to Malibu seem like an unnecessary extravagance amid the lost jobs and uncertain futures some of us faced. But there we were, blessed with the perfect setup: a borrowed beach house, gorgeous weather, a million possibilities. So how did we spend our four precious nights? Clustered around the kitchen table, laboring over three wooden jigsaw puzzles found in the closet. "Let's not tell anyone what we did," said one of my friends.

We needn't have felt silly. Historically speaking, there's nothing quite like a puzzle during a recession. In fact, despite their educational origins, puzzles tend to peak in popularity during times of economic distress; the first jigsaw "craze" occurred during the Panic of 1907. As the stock market dropped 50 percent that year, anxious businessmen turned to puzzles to calm their nerves—some under doctors' orders—and J. P. Morgan reportedly used them to clear his mind before closing a deal. The practice spread through wealthy living rooms and Newport, Rhode Island, house parties, and by the time the economy recovered, jigsaws were a staple leisure-time pursuit of the upper class.

The Great Depression ignited a second craze, but this time the introduction of mass-produced, die-cut, cardboard puzzles meant more people could afford them. "Completing a puzzle was an accomplishment during a time when there was very little to celebrate," says Anne D. Williams, who has documented jigsaw history. Puzzle clubs and lending libraries sprouted, and milkmen in Maine delivered puzzles along with dairy. By 1933, 10 million puzzles were being produced every week.

But the flooded market didn't prevent two jobless New Yorkers from creating a luxury model. Starting in 1932 at their dining-room table, Frank Ware and John Henriques developed a line of high-quality jigsaws crafted on commission. Par Co. jigsaws were hand-cut from three-ply Honduras mahogany, featuring cleverly personalized figural shapes—a rake, say, for a gardener or a wine bottle for an oenophile—cut in "trick" styles meant to challenge the puzzler. Eschewing the static pastoral themes of traditional puzzles, the pair introduced customers to prints by Picasso, Dalí, Matisse, and Van Gogh. By the 1940s a custom Par jigsaw sold for as much as $1,500.

Today's recession finds us on similar terrain. A recent report in the trade journal Playthings noted that puzzle sales were up 13 percent in the first quarter of 2009, despite an overall decline in the traditional toy market. Sales have also remained strong at the luxury end. Britain's Wentworth Puzzle Co., which makes laser-cut wooden puzzles, recently introduced a Platinum Collection to its heirloom-quality line, featuring limited-edition prints with pieces twice their standard thickness. Buyers can customize a Platinum design with a variety of "whimsy" figurals, such as animals, musical instruments and letters (from £350; jigsaws.co.uk). Paula Tardie of Stave Puzzles, the world's premier maker of hand-cut jigsaws, confirms that "sales are strong, if not better than ever."

Stave, founded in 1974, now holds the spot once occupied by Par at the top of the market, and its designs have brought a higher order of challenge to puzzling. Stave puzzles are cut from cherry-backed, five-layered wood and incorporate a multitude of trick features, such as split corners and irregular edges. Apprentices spend a year or more perfecting their technique on jigsaws fitted with whisker-thin European blades; if cut just right, a completed puzzle can be lifted by one corner and held aloft without losing a piece. Prices range from several hundred dollars for a small "Teaser" puzzle to several thousand for a limited-edition work. Customers include Bill Gates, Barbara Bush, and Queen Elizabeth (stavepuzzles.com).

While Stave's puzzles are crafted in secret, visitors to Paris can watch artisans hand-cutting jigsaws in the shops of Puzzle Michèle Wilson. Here, puzzles are made from poplar and feature gorgeous fine-art reproductions from museums all over the world, including complicated Tibetan mandala and Persian carpet designs. Prices run from €100 for a 500-piece puzzle to more than €600 for a 5,000-piece image (pmwpuzzles.com).

And for those whose budgets don't include Paris, there's always another option: borrow a beach house and bring your best friends. With a puzzle, a little shared effort always brings order to the chaos.