Backgammon’s simple set-up hasn’t changed in over 5,000 years: An over-arching rectangular frame divided into four sections. Within those sections, a line of six long, skinny triangles, for a total of 24. Thirty round, smooth checkers. A pair of dice.
But since master craftsman Jean-Michel Andriot began making his stunning, hand-crafted, one-of-a-kind boards five years ago at his Westhampton Beach studio, this classic game never looked so exciting.
“I had occasion to see friends playing and I thought the pieces they have, the board—the game was boring. It was always two-dimensional and always the same triangles. It’s very generic,” says Andriot, the soft lilt of his Provençal accent still a distinct marker of his origins. “And I thought, there’s a way to push it to another level, artistically.”
Push it he has, re-envisioning the Mesopotamian-born game as no one ever has in the long, long history of backgammon.
His goal was never to re-invent the wheel, but to make the board both a practical, play-able game as well as something that was a clear work of craftsmanship; a conversation piece that gets people to put down their phones and pick up a pair of dice.
Who wouldn’t want to master backgammon (or chess—Queens Gambit fans take note: he makes weighted, pewter-filled custom pieces and boards of that game, too) when you see a board that looks like the sea on a sunny day, the usual 24 ho-hum triangles transformed into surfboards or golden sea horses or flora from a deep walk in the woods or the New York skyline. The only limit is Andriot’s wonderful imagination. And, of course, the fine-honed woodworking skills he possesses to create the intricate, custom-dyed and painstakingly laser cut boards, sealed in resin, each personally signed by Andriot like the works of art they are.
“It takes a lot of practice and a lot of trial and error. And sometimes—oftentimes—research and design. Sometimes just to make one piece, I have to do it two times, three times, because I’m working with very fine, very sensitive material,” he says.
Like the thin, delicate sheets of wood veneer he uses for boards and the landing spots for the checkers, their wavy grain and feathery patterns creating a sense of life and movement on the very board itself. Sometimes, Andriot leaves the veneer in a mostly natural state, its pure, naked beauty entrancing all on its own. Sometimes he uses dyes that he hand-mixes himself to create the rich, saturated blues, greens and other hues for specifically themed designs.
The boards take a minimum of 10 days—and up to three weeks to make, depending on the intricacies of its theme or if it’s a completely newly dreamt up concept, bringing into play the design, the drawing, hand-cutting, dying, and curing, the laying and smoothing the epoxy. Andriot works alone. There’s no staff of apprentices or assistants to delegate the details to. And really, that’s how he prefers it, focusing quietly and fully on each step until he gets it exactly the way he knows it should be.
“It requires some patience. And you know, art is the school of humility,” he laughs. “You fail often and you have to do it again. It’s part of the game.”
You wouldn’t know it looking at the pristine, stunning boards he creates, which, due to the intricate, hand-honed nature of the work, start around $1,500. He used to sell them at a smattering of galleries and stores in the Hamptons, but the time-consuming nature of the work meant he couldn’t keep up with the retail side of demand, especially during the pandemic when board games saw a spike in popularity. Now, his boards are all special order through the website.
“The funny part is sometimes when people come with something very difficult, the first thing I do is say, oh, I cannot do that! It’s too difficult. They don’t realize what they’re asking!” he laughs. “The feasibility is not always obvious. But at the end? I never turn anyone down.”
A recent project that upped the ante of the difficulty level had him creating detailed replicas of vintage planes. Or another where a client asked for different, specific surfboard designs for each row. The original idea for that board was actually the creation that started the entire business.
“I was born by the seaside in France,” he says, “and people are surfing there all the time. One day, I came up with this idea: replace one point or two on the backgammon board with surf boards.”
That board quickly became the one for which he is perhaps best known on the east end of Long Island, and he certainly gets orders for them frequently on his website. But every month, there’s a new idea; a new challenge; a new roll of the dice.
“They are all my babies. And it’s never, ever boring!” Andriot says. “I always have a big smile every day when I come to work, and I know [the boards] will be something special. And the next time I look at the clock, it’s already 7p.m.!”