Patrick Stewart once called the world of puzzles a “secret society.” There were always high profile fans, like Hugh Jackman, but most were just whispering their passion.
Now, with much of the world on lockdown and looking to kill time, puzzles have taken on a new role: a tool to save humanity. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison even called the puzzles essential and allowed people to leave the house to buy them.
Celebrities and commoners, stuck at home, showed off their puzzles. Ellen DeGeneres recorded her setbacks with a 4,000 piece puzzle on Instagram.
The jigsaw rush – and even stockpiling by regular enthusiasts – has transformed this quiet hobby and put businesses under pressure as demand rises above Christmas levels.
Ravensburger, a German puzzle maker with global sales of around $600 million, has tried to cope with the sudden blizzard of orders even as social distancing measures have limited the number of puzzles it is able to produce at its factory in southern Germany.
The company cannot easily increase production, as each new puzzle takes weeks to create.
Each piece of the puzzle should have a unique shape, to prevent one from accidentally getting placed in the wrong place. That means 1,000 different shapes for a 1,000-piece puzzle, each hand-drawn by workers. Before a puzzle is first cut, each piece is sketched out on a sheet of paper draped over the finished image.
Pieces of metal are then shaped to form an elaborate cookie cutter designed specifically for this puzzle; it takes about four weeks to build one. The cutter can only be used a limited number of times before its edges are dulled. It can be resharpened once and must then be discarded. At busy times of the year, the business will go through several cutters a day.
But before the pieces are cut, the company chooses the right image for a puzzle.
“It’s very rare that it works well to just take a nice picture and put it on a jigsaw deck,” said Filip Francke, general manager of Ravensburger North America.
People tend to prefer detail-packed images to large swaths of color, unless they want to torture themselves with a monochromatic jigsaw puzzle.
“We’re looking for an immersive image that allows you, as a puzzler, to be somehow transported to a different place, potentially even back in time,” said Thomas Kaeppeler, president of Ravensburger North America. “Imagine that beach scene.”
Images that evoke a sense of comfort (or “hygge”) are always popular. But interests vary by age. A British company, Gibsons, offers a range of puzzles aimed at millennials that feature avocados.
Ravensburger runs focus groups and monitors platforms like Reddit, Instagram and Etsy to identify trends. It creates a profile of a target customer and assembles a visual mood board that represents the type of person the customer is and what else that person might like; a designer works with an artist to create an image.
After the image is glued to the cardboard and the pieces are designed, the die is placed on it and 1,000 metric tons, or about 1,100 tons, of pressure is applied.
Half the world – around four billion people – is now under some sort of stay-at-home order.
Retailers scrambled to keep up with the sudden demand for puzzles. Older residents of Britain, who have been told to self-quarantine for 12 weeks, have started stocking up.
The surge is a “double-edged sword” for businesses that typically make the bulk of their sales around Christmas, said Charles King, director of Jigsaw Puzzles Direct in the northeast of England. Mr. King was concerned about maintaining customer service because his inventory was low. He was trying to fulfill thousands of orders a day.
Many of his clients are older people — “the gray pound,” he said. “You worry about a lot of your customers.”
Joe Rushton, the director of Yorkshire Jigsaw, another northern England retailer, said he had stopped taking orders from Amazon and was focusing solely on direct sales. The company receives a month’s worth of orders every day and is “pretty much cleaned up” until more puzzles arrive.
Many retailers said customers were calling and saying they would take whatever was available.
“It almost feels like a war footing,” Mr Rushton said.