Waterford Puzzle Company’s Popularity Isn’t So Puzzling

Oprah Winfrey, Hillary Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth are among former customers of what is now Waterford Puzzle Company.

By Jesse Ellison
Photographed by Ryan David Brown
From our December 2021 issue

When people first encounter puzzles created by the Waterford Puzzle Company, the common initial response is sticker shock: the priciest ones can run into the four figures, with a 1,000-piece puzzle running just shy of $3,000. “Some people just gasp,” says Lisa von Hasseln, who’s worked for the company for 26 years, first as a part-time cutter and now also as the office manager. “But once they’ve done a puzzle, they’re hooked. There’s nothing like it — just the tactile experience. They love it.”

Co-owner Lizzy Bean worked in graphic design before getting into first the cross-stitch and then the puzzle biz.
Co-owner Lizzy Bean worked in graphic design before getting into first the cross-stitch and then the puzzle biz.

Each puzzle is custom made by a team of veteran cutters working in either their homes or the company’s Bridgton workshop. Customers begin by choosing from among hundreds of images or submitting their own. The image is then screen-printed onto a transfer and heat-pressed and laminated onto African okoume wood. Then, cutters use scroll saws to carve pieces according to a customer’s preferences for size, piece count, and difficulty. Each of Waterford’s six artisans “signs” her puzzles by cutting and including her own signature piece — a moose, for example, or a rose or a bird. Von Hasseln’s signature shape is of her dog, Emmett, a doodle with a short tail. Customers can also request their own shapes: objects of personal significance, perhaps, or words and numbers representing meaningful names or dates. “You’re not just putting together a picture,” explains Lizzy Bean, who owns the company with her husband, Spencer. “You’re putting together a piece of art.”

When Von Hasseln started working at the company in the mid-’90s, it was called E.L.M.S. Puzzles, after the initials of Elizabeth “Betsy” Stuart, who founded the business in 1987. Stuart died in 2007, and for a little over a decade, her husband, Fred, steered the ship. He was 90 before he started considering retirement. The Beans — who had their own small business, doing custom cross-stitch — had been advising E.L.M.S. on social-media strategy since 2015 and had fallen in love with the company, where Lizzy’s aunt was a longtime puzzle cutter. In 2018, they bought it and changed the name to Waterford Puzzle Company, for the Maine town where Lizzy’s parents have a camp.

Interest in their puzzles reached a “fever pitch” last year, the Beans say, after the pandemic hit the U.S. New members poured into Waterford’s rental club, paying a one-time $100 fee, then renting puzzles for three-month stints at $120 to $275 a pop. Some customers even ordered puzzles to commemorate the pandemic year, printed with images of people in masks and featuring special pieces that spelled out “COVID 19” and “2020.” “Not to celebrate,” Spencer says, “but to remember.”

Over the years, von Hasseln says, she’s seen how customers incorporate their puzzles into family traditions and meaningful moments: people propose with them, order one for each holiday, or commemorate anniversaries, graduations, and birthdays with them. Beloved by the Bush family, Waterford’s puzzles were once found around Camp David. “You get to know these families,” she says. “Some people do puzzles to keep their brains healthy. For some people, it’s what gets them through the loss of a loved one. You can’t think about other things when you’re puzzling. You have to pay attention.”

Puzzle cutter and office manager Lisa von Hasseln, art specialist and office assistant Beth Perron, and puzzle cutter Kristin McGough.
Left to right: puzzle cutter and office manager Lisa von Hasseln, art specialist and office assistant Beth Perron, and puzzle cutter Kristin McGough.

Shop for Waterford Puzzle Company puzzles ($80–$2,955) at waterfordpuzzles.com. Call 207-803-8181 to become a member of the rental club or to arrange a tour of the Bridgton workshop.


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