November 28, 1983 12:00 PM

Buddha solved the puzzle of existence under a tree. Ben Franklin suddenly understood electricity when he was struck by a charge of it. Steve Richardson saw the light on the Garden State Parkway near Newark, N.J., en route to his high-anxiety consulting job. But his enlightenment didn’t solve puzzles: It created them.

Richardson, you see, decided to chuck consulting for puzzle-making. Call them jigsaw puzzles for lack of a better term, though it’s like calling a Châteauneuf-du-Pape 1955 “an old bottle of red wine.” The jigsaws that are painstakingly turned out by hand at Richardson’s Stave Puzzles are fiendishly difficult conundrums, as intoxicating and beautiful as they are expensive. He gets his raw material from illustrators, then cuts it to pieces. The result: puzzles for puzzlers whose devotion certainly is puzzling. Most of Richardson’s clients need lavish amounts of both time and money, and such families as the du Ponts, Mellons, Dows and Armours have paid from $185 to $1,400 per brain bender. When they want them customized, they pay more.

If it were not for the special horror of that Jersey commute, Richardson, now 44, might be pulling down $100 grand a year as a senior executive instead of jigsawing around his cozy workroom in little Norwich, Vt. in a flannel shirt. The son of an insurance man in Attleboro, Mass., he had gone to Colby College in Maine, got his M.B.A. at Michigan, leapt expectantly into the business world and found “the grind.” Then, traffic-bound that fateful morning 14 years ago, Richardson suddenly realized that life might consist of more than popping Rolaids by day and Librium at night. “I said to myself, ‘I’m a high-energy guy and I’m dying behind this wheel.’ My mind was going numb and I was belching a lot.” So he bagged his life-style, grabbed his wife, Martha, and their two small sons and went off into the wilderness of Norwich, where, one day after several struggling years making crosswords and board games in partnership with graphic designer Dave Tibbetts, he got a phone call from a Bostonian who wanted a wooden jigsaw. The partners made one, put an ad in The New Yorker for more orders, and Richardson had found his true calling.

“I’m not obsessed with piling up millions in the bank,” he now says. “I just love to give people a million dollars’ worth of fun.”

By fun, Richardson means maddening, perverse complexity. “The more diabolical the puzzle is, the more pleased my customers are,” he explains. “They drive me crazy to drive them crazy. One woman spent a year on a puzzle and couldn’t complete it. They almost had to put her in a home.”

Richardson does his best to please. First, many Staves (for Steve and Dave) are huge, consisting of some 2,000 pieces. Second, there is no pictorial guide to the finished product. Third, many don’t provide a squared border—the lifeline of the amateur—just an ornate, wavering edge that leaves the puzzler without bearings. Cruelest of all, a few can be assembled in more than one way—”Go Fish” can be put together in more than one million different configurations—but only one is correct. Sometimes he even throws in a piece that fits but doesn’t belong in the final picture.

“Abhorrent, detestable, odious, bloodcurdling, vile, ghoulish and loathsome” were some of the words one customer used about his purchase. “Your screams of protest are like trophies on my shelf!” Richardson crows, when clients complain like that. Each puzzle also contains bonus mysteries—word games, shapes within shapes, jokes, errant clues and, when custom-ordered, personalized figures and messages. Every piece is cut by hand and backed with hand-rubbed African mahogany.

All this costs. “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for example, is a two-tiered mural with 600 riotous pieces that evokes the magic and whimsy of Shakespeare’s original. Delightful; beautifully wrought. Price? $1,200, please. Richardson’s four-parter on the theme “All Things Bright and Beautiful” (inspired by author James Her-riot), with trees that rear up vertically, commands $1,860. But such investments pale beside that of Shelly Shelton Melton, a 28-year-old Texas woman who has commissioned Richardson to create the largest jigsaw ever—10 feet by 20 feet. It will have 52,000 pieces and run in the neighborhood of $65,000. Melton plans to mount it on a wall of her condo. Her puzzle passion is boundless—her marriage fell to pieces because jigsaws occupied an inordinate amount of her time—and, she says worshipfully, “Steve’s puzzles are the finest in the country, hands down.”

Even so, Richardson is not yet rich. Stave makes $150,000 a year but Richardson pays himself $40,000. He finds that comfortable, partly because he no longer has to wear suits. A couple of years ago he gave them all to a rummage sale. “I was burning a bridge,” he says. “I’m just giving people happiness and fun.” And he’s not belching anymore, either.

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