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Chris Wirth’s puzzle-making journey may look familiar to those who have returned to puzzling during the pandemic. For years, he rarely touched the wooden edges of his mother’s prized Falls Puzzles, which were hand-cut during the 1930s. The antique jigsaws would come out on family vacations but disappear in the hustle of everyday life. On a trip to Puerto Vallarta in 2003, that would change. “I said out loud, ‘You know I bet if I could make and sell these for $100, there’d be a market for them,’” he recalls. “That was the light bulb going off. This is not just some parlor game. It’s a social experience.”
Wirth, 53, started Liberty Puzzles with family friend Jeff Eldridge in Boulder in 2005. Over the last 15-plus years, he has helped the company transform from a two-man outfit into one of the foremost puzzle makers in the country, using laser-cutting technology to create high-quality, modestly priced wooden jigsaws. As Liberty Puzzles grows, so does Wirth’s social messaging. Now amid the coronavirus pandemic, Wirth is tapping into an increasingly receptive audience searching for screen-free, at-home activities to reconnect families and friends.
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Wirth is an odd candidate for a puzzle maker. His father is the former U.S. Senator from Colorado, Tim Wirth. His mother, Wren, is the president of the Winslow Foundation, a philanthropic organization that funds environmental causes. His younger sister, Kelsey, is the co-founder of Align Technology, the maker of Invisalign. A Stanford University graduate with a J.D./M.B.A. from the University of Colorado Boulder, Wirth had the credentials to do just about anything, including following his father into politics. “I saw that world up close and personal,” he says. “And it just wasn’t that enticing to me.”
Those who know Wirth never envisioned he would follow in his parents’ footsteps. “Growing up with a father in a position like that serves as inspiration to become your own person,” Kelsey says. As a child, Wirth gravitated toward games—solitaire, Stratego, chess—the more complex the better. He would spend hours sitting on the concrete floor of his parents’ basement playing Dungeons & Dragons with friends. “He would sometimes choose to stay inside and read these thick instruction manuals instead of coming out to play with me,” Kelsey says.
But it wasn’t until he was a teenager that Wirth first got a glimpse of his mother’s Falls Puzzles. “My mom held them back from us because she knew they were fragile and valuable,” he says. On family vacations to Crested Butte, he and Kelsey would stay up half the night competing with their parents to see who could finish a puzzle first.
When Wirth went off to college, puzzles were not at the top of his mind. Instead, he studied political science and art history at Stanford, and taught math and history before attending law school at CU Boulder. “After my first year, I knew I wasn’t going to be a lawyer,” he says. “So, I immediately joined the MBA program and I still wasn’t that interested in it.” He spent four years in the financial industry before he decided he needed a change. “That’s when I stumbled into the puzzle idea,” he says.
As Liberty Puzzles evolves, Wirth maintains his steadfast commitment to the jigsaws of his youth. Like Falls Puzzles, Liberty emphasizes whimsy pieces cut into shapes that often match the theme of the puzzle. In most of Liberty’s puzzles, they make up 20 percent or more of the pieces. “We started out wanting to fit as many as possible,” Wirth says. “And that’s still one of our hallmarks to this day.”
But the real goal of Liberty Puzzles is to create social instruments to build connections with loved ones—after all, the company’s motto is “Sit Long, Talk Much.” “It is something you can do in the background. And you can have a whole other social experience while you’re doing it,” Wirth says. “It’s an amazing activity because it allows you to multitask in a way that’s positive.”
During the pandemic, people are catching on. “When people realized they were going into quarantine, demand just exploded,” Wirth says. Before Colorado’s lockdown in late March, orders were coming in so quickly that Wirth and Eldridge had to turn off their website. When it went back online in April, they had to implement a waiting list, which at one point reached 60 business days just to place an order for a single puzzle.
According to puzzle historian Anne Williams, puzzle sales often swell during crises. Jigsaws reached the height of their popularity during the Great Depression. In February 1933, American puzzle makers were churning out 10 million puzzles per week. “In times of crisis, people don’t have much control over their lives,” Williams says. “But you can do a puzzle and solve that problem.”
Eldridge sees puzzling in much the same way. “The pleasure that people get from the activity has a lot to do with being able to have [their] focus put toward a positive activity,” he says. “It takes away from the all-encompassing feeling of stress that we carry around.”
The coronavirus pandemic has shown Liberty Puzzles to be its own kind of social vehicle, and Wirth continues to emphasize that message as more customers flock to his puzzles. But even after the pandemic fades, Wirth isn’t worried about the company’s longevity. In today’s world, screens are ubiquitous. “It is the perfect antidote to that,” he says.