This French gaming set or “Boite de jeu” from 1735 was created half a century before the revolution. It is made of porcelain embellished with polychrome enamel landscapes and flowers. The gaming chips, inscribed with the name “Louis” after the king of France, came in different denominations for laying down bets.
I think about the life style of the players who owned such objects.
Dinner is over. Candles glow. Players sit together at gaming tables, they lift the porcelain lids of their sets, perhaps ignoring their imagery of flowers and landscapes, perhaps absorbed in the challenge ahead. Four smaller boxes are snug inside. Each box holds chips. Chips are perfectly flat and nestled in the four boxes, themselves perfectly nestled in the outer case. Possibly, each piece was shaped, dried, bisqued, glazed, painted, and fired again. How many were flawed and discarded? I want to touch them.
Did they throw the chips on the green felt of the table? Did they set them into neat piles by their drink, or did they slide them forward one at a time to enter their bets?
What sound did the chips make went they touched each other? Did they sound like tiny bells? Porcelain rings sharp or thuds. Were they sometimes broken?
Did the players warm the chips in the palm of their hand, and count them with a fingertip? Did they enjoy their shiny and cool surface, and their bird like weight? Did they caress them like worry stones, with their rings shining in candle light while they tallied their winnings or losses? Were some of the chips lucky?
Betting Chips are fragile slivers of porcelain. They are painted with sprays of rose buds and gold scrolls. They weigh nothing but ruled fortunes.
I imagine that they were ordered from the best craftsmen; delivered wrapped in pink leather cases lined with lavender silk and tied with velvet ribbons. There was no end to luxury and embellishment.
I look at my images and I remember a sunny October afternoon at the Chicago Art Institute which owns this piece. In our hard cityscape, the porcelain gaming set is a bubble of exquisite charm. But it carries social implications.
I think about the life of the owner, and that of the maker. The maker worries about impurities in the clay. He worries about warping, cracking, and waste. Will he be paid in time or paid at all by his wealthy and powerful customer? Are the apprentices tired and hungry? How hard is it to stoke the kiln all night? Do they sleep on a closet floor? I think about the hardship, the technical knowledge and the artistry that produced it for a smart and dangerous pastime.
But somehow the day is colored by its pink loveliness.