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Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Everyone wants a puzzle

Once dismissed as a boring family activity, jigsaw puzzles have gotten the Instagram treatment.

“It’s something that I’ve been doing for years and years,” YouTuber Karen Kavett says in her video of 10 expert-level tips for doing a jigsaw puzzle. “Look at any poster or image or view through a window and think to yourself, if this was a jigsaw puzzle, how would I go about putting it together?” The rest of the video runs through other practical tips — like sifting new pieces through a colander to remove the puzzle dust, or storing edge pieces in a separate zip-lock bag.

Kavett is part of the growing presence of jigsaw puzzlers on social media. Since 2018, she has hosted Karen Puzzles, which focuses on jigsaw puzzle reviews, advice, and hauls. Her account has more than 14,000 subscribers, which, while modest for an internet celebrity, is robust for something this niche. It helps that Kavett is no stranger to YouTube — she has a DIY channel with 193,000 subscribers and is also on HGTV Handmade, a collaborative YouTube channel that features videos from a number of crafting celebrities and influencers.

Puzzles have become increasingly popular — especially for millennials — in a way that outweighs what I thought might be the white noise of my personal preference for them. On Instagram, hashtags like #jigsawpuzzles and #puzzlesofinstagram yield tens of thousands of posts. TikTokers and YouTubers often post time lapses of themselves assembling beautiful, difficult jigsaws. (It’s a subject the MIT Technology Review has written about in greater detail). Trendy retailers like Madewell, Urban Outfitters, and Anthropologie stock puzzles.

“We’re seeing more millennials enjoying puzzling than ever before,” Thomas Kaeppeler, the president of Ravensburger North America, one of the largest puzzle brands, wrote to me. Founded in 1883, the German purveyor began publishing puzzles in 1964 and has since sold more than 200 million. “In particular, social media is playing a role in this growing popularity. We see puzzlers posting their in-progress — and then completed — puzzles on Instagram, YouTube, and Reddit, which in turn is building a wider community.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the humble jigsaw puzzle has also become an object of self-care. Millennials are famously the generation most invested in self-care, due in large part to our perpetual state of burnout. As of 2018, self-care was valued as an $11 billion industry, encompassing everything from face masks to Goop’s $66 jade vagina eggs. When true solutions are scant, it’s easier to spend on the idea of respite — if you can afford it. Therapists are expensive and difficult to find; a Boy Smells candle is a comparatively low $35 and you can have it shipped within days.

Of course, Instagram has helped commodify this “homebody economy.” A steaming mug of tea and a copy of Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, a shelfie of Glossier products — these ironically imply investment in briefly escaping late-stage capitalism through buying into it. Puzzles are now stylish enough to be shared on Instagram in a way that signals the same kind of covetable self-investment.

It’s playing out at this very moment, as those who are socially distancing to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus look for ways to manage anxieties and stay entertained. The seventh-most-searched product on Amazon on March 24 was “puzzles for adults,” according to Forbes. And in the last two weeks of March, Ravensburger’s sales in North America were up 370 percent compared to last year. Even Ellen DeGeneres recently posted a series of videos to Instagram of her attempts at assembling a 4,000-piece jigsaw puzzle while isolating indoors.

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The Instagrammified aesthetics of social media have come to define much of what the modern puzzle looks like, just as it has infiltrated our toothbrushes, our vitamins, and our mattresses. This is especially true of newer puzzle companies, whose products embody the kind of visual uniformity associated with millennials: pastel pinks or richly saturated palettes, and minimalist presentation. (LA-founded Piecework is a great example.) Instead of the dusty Thomas Kincades you might have assembled as a kid, these get shared on The Strategist, Bon Appétit, Elle, and Popsugar.

“There are definitely new companies popping up that are making puzzles that look good on Instagram,” Kavett said, though she noted it’s difficult to know since she’s so embedded in the community. “Puzzling is a hobby I’ve had my whole life.”

One of Kavett’s favorite types of puzzles, the gradient, plays a large role in the ascension of the ’grammable jigsaw. The completed gradient looks beautiful on Instagram, and there’s something intoxicatingly meditative and ASMR-like in watching videos of such puzzles being put together. Kavett’s most popular upload is a time lapse of Cloudberries’ 1,000-piece Gradient; though it was posted a year ago, Kavett said the spike in views happened quite recently. “In general, I find people like when I do really difficult puzzles, like if there’s some twist to them,” Kavett said. These include gradient puzzles as well as Ravensburger’s famously difficult Krypt, where the “image” is just a single color.

There are two gradient puzzles that really kicked off the obsession, both of which came out in 2014. Artist Clemens Habicht’s 1000 Colours puzzle was the first full rainbow or CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) puzzle. “Each piece is its own colour,” Habicht’s co-publisher Jeremy Wortsman confirmed; it has sold “tens of thousands” of copies. That said, if you own a gradient puzzle, it’s probably from Areaware and is a two-tone where one color transforms into the other. (Mine is next to me, on my bookshelf, at the time of writing this.)

According to Areaware sales and marketing director Elisabeth Roeleveld, the company’s creative director initially spotted the puzzle at an art show. In 2013, Bryce Wilner presented his run of blue-to-red puzzles “inspired by his twin.” Apparently, his parents struggled to tell the identical twins apart and painted their toenails red or blue. Wilner had only “sold 25 copies” at the time, according to the Roanoke Times. But they hit the mainstream in 2018 — four years after Areaware began printing them — after being featured on Oprah’s Favorite Things list. The puzzles are now stocked at over 500 retailers, including the MOMA, Ban.do, and design boutique Poketo. Companies like BetterCo. also have their own take.

Areaware’s success reveals an emergent model of a modern puzzle company. Companies like Galison, Nervous System, Artware, and Areaware added puzzles that fit their existing design catalog. “At the root, all of our products are design objects,” Roeleveld explained. “How can we elevate a puzzle so it’s not in a closet in your grandma’s house but by your coffee table books?” Case in point: Though Kavett didn’t love Areaware’s gradient puzzles as much as others in her collection, she held onto them because the boxes are so pretty.

Newer puzzle companies are similarly using package design to elevate the product experience — an interesting evolution for puzzles, which have typically featured art without actually being artful. 1,000-piece Ravensburgers hover around $20, while a Jiggy’s 800-piece is $48, though it comes in a glass tube with a corked top and includes puzzle glue. Inner Piece’s are $30 (comparable to Areaware) and come in a reusable canvas zip complete with a cute pin. “Talking to US puzzle manufacturers was hard because we had very specific ideas for what we wanted to do,” said Amanda Kahle, co-founder of Inner Piece. “The shape of the boxes, not using plastic, colored backing. People making puzzles have been doing it for so long and are very old school.”

Just like the coloring-book trend of the 2010s, the language of self-care now reverberates throughout modern puzzle branding. Oprah’s endorsement of Areaware’s gradient puzzle in her 2018 Favorite Things blurb read: “If any puzzle can help you reach nirvana, it’s probably one of these contemplative and colorfully ombré 500-piecers.” Areaware’s own description is “a vibrant way to meditate on color.” Inner Piece “spreads quiet time in a loud, distracted world.” Even Springbok, the oldest puzzle brand in America, has a blog post stating: “Escaping into the calm of sorting and piecing together for 20 minutes relieves anxiety.”

“We’re seeing a big trend with ‘coziness’ and first-person point-of-view,” said Ravensburger’s Kaeppeler. “Customers have told us they feel peaceful when putting it together, which helps with their relaxation process.” Inner Piece’s Kahle also said their first capsule was “loosely themed around the idea of home” and evokes a very similar kind of coziness.

It’s hard to find actual research that quantifies the mental health or cognitive benefits of jigsaw puzzling. I reached out to Dr. Susanne Jaeggi, who is now a fellow at University of California Irvine’s Center for the Neurobiology of Learning and Memory. She was cited in Springbok’s post, saying “25 minutes engaging in puzzle games increases your IQ by 4 points,” but clarified that the research in the pullquote wasn’t related to jigsaw puzzles. “We’re not doing anything that has to do with jigsaw puzzles in my lab, nor do I know anyone who is doing that,” she wrote to me. Similarly, searching for research about jigsaw puzzles and anxiety yielded little information.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits. In a literal sense, focusing on a jigsaw puzzle does deliver a break from screen time, and there’s anecdotal evidence from folks who find puzzles personally beneficial. “We recently completed a jigsaw puzzle and had a very meaningful experience with it,” Dr. Stefanie Goldstein at the Los Angeles Center for Mindful Living wrote to me. As a way of managing novel coronavirus anxiety, USA Today recommends puzzles alongside coloring, knitting, and yoga. There is also a growing body of research around active leisure time and mental illness. Some of these studies have found that creative, “actively embodied” (like yoga or walking), and social activity can help women handle depression in ways that are different from the positive effects of medication.

Before coronavirus descended and brought with it new rules of social distancing, jigsaw puzzling had emerged as an unlikely social activity in urban areas in the past few years. The Ace Hotel, for example, hosted the Little Puzzle Club, a monthly puzzle meetup in partnership with Areaware. According to Amanda Dissinger, the Ace employee who thought of the event, it usually consists of roughly 30 people working together on puzzles ranging from 50 to 1,000 pieces.

“I rarely see people taking out their phones for the two hours of the event unless it’s to take a photo of the puzzle they finished to proudly post on Instagram,” Dissinger wrote to me. “I love the fact that people are making friends and having conversations, and it allows everyone a chance to unplug.”

Hopefully an enduring social shift of the modern trend can be that of genuine camaraderie. While people shouldn’t be puzzling in person right now, the trend continues to thrive on Instagram, where it broadcasts comfort and coziness.

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