Tagua go stone

Published 23 Jul 2020 by antti (last edited 23 Jul 2020)
tags: tldr

High-quality go stones are traditionally made of slate and shell. The cheapest, relatively thin stones cost around €150–200 for a set, and the highest-quality, thick stones can easily cost €10,000 or more.

Recently, in Japan it has become a problem that big enough hamaguri clams, which are used for white go stones, are getting increasingly rare due to overfishing. Because of this, the price of stones that originate from Japan is getting ever higher, and traditional go stone manufacturers have started importing clams from abroad, most notably from Mexico, for cheaper raw material.

A few months ago I came upon a material called ‘tagua nut’‚ often nicknamed ‘vegetable ivory’ or ‘faux ivory’ due to the fact that when cut, its colour and consistency resemble that of ivory. Tagua has traditionally been used for buttons and even chess pieces, but it seems to have lost out to plastic in mass manufacturing.

I got intrigued by the material, and went so far as to get myself a few nuts and see if they could be made into go stones. Here is the result:

The stone in the above picture is still imperfect – for instance, it is not yet completely round and smooth because of the basic equipment that I made it with (hacksaw, sand paper and a lot of time). Also, the stone would have to be dyed white or black to function as a go stone, as its natural colour is too close to the go board. Luckily, I’ve read that the nuts take well to dyeing.

Tagua nuts are much more quickly renewable than hamaguri clams, and their production (according to my research) doesn’t involve any kind of animal cruelty or major environmental hazards. Ethically, they are a superior alternative to the overfished hamaguri.

Here are some qualities of the tagua go stone:

  • Properly ground, the tagua stone feels at least similarly pleasing to touch as shell. In my experience, shell stones can be a bit sticky when you touch them with greasy fingers; tagua doesn’t have that quality. Tagua also seems to have better friction and is therefore easier to grip.
  • The tagua stone in the photo weighs a bit less than the surrounding shell stones, even though it is considerably thicker. Some people may prefer the shell stones’ weight, but in my opinion the tagua stone is heavy enough to not feel ‘cheap’.
  • The tagua and shell stones give a fairly similar sound when placing them on the go board. Initially it was actually even difficult to make out a difference, but probably the shell stones make a slightly higher sound. This is more easily found out if hitting shell stones against each other, as compared to a shell and a tagua stone; here, the latter sound is distinguishably lower.
  • Since the tagua stone cannot really be used in its natural colour, how it looks after dyeing will be vitally important. An initial googling indicates that the result should be pretty, however, so I am feeling confident.
  • While the shell stones are odourless, the tagua stone gives off a very slight nutty aroma, a bit like cashew or coconut.
  • According to a googling, some people can be allergic to tagua; whether this is still an issue with processed and dyed tagua go stones is something that remains to be seen.

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