Patrick Stewart once called the world of jigsaw puzzles a “secret society.” There were always high-profile fans, like Hugh Jackman, but most only whispered about their passion.
Now, with much of the world under lockdown and looking to kill time, jigsaw puzzles have taken on new role: a tool to save humanity. Australia’s prime minister, Scott Morrison, even referred to jigsaws as essential, and allowed people to leave the house to buy them.
Celebrities and commoners, stuck in their homes, have shown off their puzzles. Ellen DeGeneres recorded her travails with a 4,000-piece puzzle on Instagram.
The rush to get hold of a jigsaw puzzle — and even stockpiling by regular enthusiasts — has transformed this quiet hobby and put companies under pressure as demand surges past Christmas levels.
Ravensburger, a German puzzle maker with global sales of about $600 million, has been trying to meet 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 the south of Germany.
The company can’t easily ramp up production, because each new puzzle takes weeks to create.
Each puzzle piece must be uniquely shaped, to avoid one accidentally fitting into the wrong place. That means 1,000 different shapes for a 1,000-piece puzzle, each drawn by hand by workers. Before a puzzle is cut for the first time, each piece is sketched on a sheet of paper draped over the finished image.
Pieces of metal are then shaped to form an elaborate cookie cutter made just for that jigsaw puzzle; it takes about four weeks to build one. The cutter can be used only 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 company will go through several cutters a day.
But before any pieces are cut, the company chooses the right image for a puzzle.
“Very rarely does it work well to just take a good-looking image and put it on a puzzle package,” said Filip Francke, the chief executive of Ravensburger in North America.
People tend to prefer images jam-packed with details, instead of broad swaths of color — unless they want to torture themselves with a one-color puzzle.
“We’re looking at an immersive image that allows you as the puzzler to kind of get transported into a different place, potentially even time,” said Thomas Kaeppeler, president of Ravensburger in North America. “Picture that beach scene.”
Images that evoke a sense of coziness (or “hygge”) are always popular. But interests will vary by age. One British company, Gibsons, has a line of puzzles targeted 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 kind of person the customer is and what else that person might like; a designer works with an artist to create an image.
Once the image is pasted onto cardboard and the pieces are designed, the cookie cutter is laid on top and 1,000 metric tonnes, or about 1,100 tons, of pressure is applied.
Half the world — about four billion people — is now under some sort of order to stay in their homes.
Retailers have been scrambling to deal with the sudden demand for puzzles. Older residents of Britain, who have been urged to quarantine for 12 weeks, have started stocking up.
The surge is a “double-edged sword” for companies that usually make the bulk of their sales around Christmas, said Charles King, the director at Jigsaw Puzzles Direct in northeast England. Mr. King fretted about maintaining customer service as his inventory ran low. He was trying to fulfill thousands of orders a day.
Many of his customer are older people — “the gray pound,” he said. “You’re worried about a lot of your customers.”
Joe Rushton, the director of Yorkshire Jigsaw, another retailer in the north of England, said he had stopped taking orders on Amazon and was just focusing on direct sales. The company has been receiving a month’s worth of orders each day, and is “pretty much cleaned out” until more puzzles come in.
Many retailers said customers were calling and saying they would take whatever was available.
“It almost feels like a war footing,” Mr. Rushton said.