Bona Fide Playing Cards

Bona Fide's Nouveau series: Four seasons of genuine French beauty

I love words from other languages. English is my native language, but throwing in the occasional foreign word feels sophisticated and adds extra colour. It can be fun to roll around a word from another language on your tongue, and produce it at an appropriate moment in conversation. Sehr gut! Very good! Muy bien!

Apparently I'm not the only who enjoys throwing in the occasional multi-lingual touch. The folks at Bona Fide Playing Cards must enjoy this too, because they've turned to Latin for their name. The expression bona fide has migrated into the English language from Latin, where it literally means "in good faith", and so hence today: genuine, real, sincere. Yep, these guys are genuine, and so are their playing cards!

The Bona Fide team is based in Spain. They describe themselves as "We are a young and creative Spain based group devoted to the design of unique and original Playing Cards and accessories intended for all interested parties. We put great effort and interest in every single detail because we value the meaning behind an intricate and unique design." Despite their relatively short history, they have achieved the honorable distinction of having one of their designs being chosen as the United Cardists annual deck for 2016. I've corresponded several times with team member Karin Yan, and she's certainly come across as genuine, caring, and friendly. Bona fide indeed!

So guess what language Bona Fide's signature deck is. Latin? Nice try, but: no. Spanish? Again: no. The correct answer is French. Bona Fide has produced a series of decks called "Nouveau", which is a French word meaning "new, fashionable; newly arrived or developed". The decks of Nouveau Playing Cards are also inspired by the Art Nouveau style of 19th century France, which we'll get to later. And the court cards feature elements that go back to the original French playing cards.

Given this French touch, it won't come as a surprise to you that nouveau isn't the only French word you'll find in the Bona Fide catalogue. Try these French words for size: bourgogne (= burgundy), bijoux (= jewelry), and perle (= pearl). Well, now you know the themes and colours of the entire Nouveau series! Because besides the original Nouveau deck, there is a companion Nouveau Bourgogne deck, which (you guessed it) is in burgundy colour. Then there is a sequel deck called Nouveau Bijoux, which (you guessed it) has a jewelry inspired design. And besides the Nouveau Bijoux deck, there is a companion Nouveau Perle deck, which (you guessed it) is in pearl colour.

Bona Fide Playing Cards actually consists of several siblings who work together, one of them being Karin Yan, who is the actual creator and designer behind the Nouveau decks. Karin has an enthusiasm and passion for art, and drawing and design is something she has long enjoyed as a hobby. She loves the creativity and versatility that this offers, and is particularly drawn to classic drawings and designs. So it's no surprise that in the Nouveau series she has created a number of designs that go back to the roots of French playing cards, and is also inspired by the Art Nouveau movement of the late 19th century. Let's find out more about these bona fide beautiful French-styled cards from Spain!

Nouveau Playing Cards

Our journey into the world of Art Nouveau begins with the Nouveau Playing Cards, two companion decks featuring basically the same design but different colour schemes.

The main Nouveau deck featured an embossed tuck box, while the Bourgogne deck has a similar design, but a more luxurious look with the addition of gold foil, plus different colours.


As mentioned already, the original Nouveau deck has two main influences. First of all, it depicts the characters that have been traditionally featured in French-style playing cards since the 16th century. Secondly, it uses a style that has its origin in the philosophical and artistic Art Nouveau movement, which was popular in France in the late 19th century.

The deck itself has the honour of being selected as official United Cardists 2016 Annual Deck, and this distinction is reflected on the tuck box.

Designer Karin Yan turned to France in order to choose an artistic style to use for two reasons: firstly because the Nouveau decks are intended as a tribute to the original French deck; and secondly because France has long been associated with the world of art. The Art Nouveau style used is considered "a style of decorative art, architecture and design promoted and popularized in Paris in the late 19th century and characterized by intricate linear designs and flowing curves based on natural forms."

The interwoven curves of this Art Nouveau style are a chief feature of the intricate and elegant back design seen here, which also includes the year of publication in Roman numerals (MMXVI = 2016), and a reference to United Cardists with a delicate UC monogram in all four corners. The circular shape draws your attention inwards, and magnifies the impact of the ornate designs which emerge from the center of the card in a variety of colours that complement each other beautifully.

In French-style playing cards, there's a long tradition that every court card is associated with a particular figure in history and literature. The Nouveau deck goes back to original images of these heroes and heroines as the inspiration of its artwork.

While scholars aren't in entire agreement about which characters the court cards represent, and there is no universally accepted consensus, various names keep returning, and the Nouveau deck has opted to go with the following choices:

Diamonds: King = Julius Caesar (Roman leader); Queen = Rachel (Biblical character); Jack = Hector (Greek mythological hero)
Clubs: King = Alexander the Great (Greek leader); Queen = Eleanor of Aquitaine (French leader); Jack = Lancelot (legendary knight)
Hearts: King = Charlemagne (King); Queen = Judith (Biblical character); Jack = √Čtienne de Vignolles (aka La Hire, French military commander)
Spades: King = David (Biblical character); Queen = Pallas Athena (Greek goddess); Jack = Ogier the Dane (legendary character)

As you can see, the source material includes mythology, theology, and history. But interestingly, to enhance the sense of authenticity, Karin has drawn on actual sculptures and famous art works depicting these characters as the basis for the designs of her court cards! Below you can see several images of historic figures from the world of art alongside Karin's sketches for the cards. This adds an extra sense of historical realism, and connection with the past!

It's also interesting to know that there are several different theories about the meaning of the four suits. One common theory about the original French suits is that the Spades represent nobility, Hearts the clergy, Diamonds the merchants, and Clubs the commoners and the peasantry. This is the theory Karin has adopted, and used as background for her artwork choices for the four suits in the Nouveau decks. Clearly a lot of research and thought has gone into this!

The number cards also feature custom pips and a very elegant design with oval borders that accentuates a long and slender feel, while the indices are deliberately small to emphasize something that is delicate.

Special mention should be made of the beautiful and ornate Aces, which are very detailed and eye-catching. Like the court cards, there is a beautiful tiled background in which the pip shape is a central feature.

The Jokers represent two stock characters used in late 19th century Commedia dell'arte ("theatre of the professional") in Paris: the clowns Pierrot and Harlequin. They add an element of playfulness and vibrance, and help bring the time period to life.

Here's an uncut sheet showing the entire deck:

Since this deck was created as the United Cardists 2016 deck, UC's Mike Ratledge was also involved in shaping Karin's design. Not only does the deck make explicit reference to the fact that it is the United Cardists Annual Deck on the tuck box, Ace of Spades, and Jokers, but there are also subtle references like the UC monogram on the card backs as well.

This deck - and all the others in the series - were produced by Expert Playing Cards, using their quality Master finish.

Unquestionably rooted firmly in a well established and historic tradition, with a very definite and genuine (bona fide) French connection, the Nouveau Playing Cards is a deck that well-deserved to be selected by United Cardists as their annual 2016 deck.

Nouveau Bourgogne

The companion deck to the original Nouveau deck is the Nouveau Bourgogne deck.

The obvious difference immediately evident in this companion deck is a changed colour scheme, with a rich burgundy colour now dominating instead of the green.

The lavish gold foil on the tuck box complements the deep red colour beautifully, and is another striking addition to this deck, which only serves to enhance its beauty even further.

The card backs and card faces are mostly unchanged in design, but feature an entirely different colour palette, one which makes for outstanding and beautiful card backs!

The same heroes and heroines are featured on the court cards, albeit in a different colour scheme.

But there are some more subtle changes as well that the attentive observer will notice, beginning with the style of the pips, which are more elaborate and ornate in this version.

This is especially evident in the number cards, which have dispensed with the oval background, but have pips with a very exquisite tiled design.

The bordered background on the cards is also different in the Bourgogne version, and the tiled look in the Bourgogne deck has the appearance reminiscent of stained glass or a mosaic.

To me, this deck feels even more rich and lavish than the original Nouveau one!

A classic look, and yet a very fresh design - many will fall in love with the Nouveau Bourgogne deck the moment they start taking the ornately decorated cards from the lavish tuck box!

Nouveau Bijoux Playing Cards

The next pair of decks in the Nouveau series are the Bijoux, or jewelry, decks. Once again, this is a set of two decks that have a matching design to each other, but in different colours.

These decks continue the main ideas of the original Nouveau design, but takes the original concept in a somewhat new direction, with the design now inspired by Art Nouveau jewelry. As Karin explains the theme: "Unlike Nouveau Playing Cards, BIJOUX adds an extra touch to this inspiration with a design that reminds us of the intricate nouveau jewelry. With a redesigned tuck, back, aces, pips and significant changes on the courts, BIJOUX brings the jewelry feel with each and every card. "

The Bijoux deck is the main deck, while the Perle (= pearl) deck simply has a different colour scheme. Both decks come with custom seals and exquisite looking tuck boxes.

Nouveau Bijoux

The Nouveau Bijoux deck is the main deck, and green and yellow are the dominant colours on the ornately decorated tuck box.

The colour scheme is reminiscent of the original Nouveau deck, but the elaborate design on both the card backs and the Aces is entirely different and original.

Once again the court cards reflect the same historical and mythological characters depicted in the original Nouveau deck, which go back to the figures believed to be used for the creation of the first decks of French playing cards in Rouen during the 16th century.

But in the Bijoux deck, these characters have been given a white look that makes them look like actual sculptures! Also the background is no longer a tiled mosaic, but a lattice in a gold colour that matches the artwork including the colour used for the pips.

The pips have an extra degree of ornamentation, to give them a jewelled look in keeping with the theme. They look like jewels set delicately in gold by a master craftsman!

While this adds an extra degree of sophistication, this jewelled ornamentation does also make it somewhat harder to distinguish the suits, especially the clubs and spades. On the positive side, the numbers are in a bigger and clearer font.

The two main colours in the this deck are a turquoise green and a burgundy red. Notice also how the Joker is quite different from the previous two Nouveau decks.

Here's a look at the entire deck:

The Nouveau Bijoux deck has very pleasing aesthetics, and stands well apart as an independent design from the Nouveau decks that have preceded it, with the additional ornamentation that is produced by the Art Nouveau jewelry inspiring the design.

The colour theme is reminiscent of the original Nouveau deck, but in the Nouveau Bijoux, it certainly results in an entirely different look, due to the different design.

Nouveau Perle

The Nouveau Perle deck is clearly indebted to its Bijoux sibling for its good looks.

But unlike the Nouveau and Bourgogne pair, which are simply differently coloured twins, the Bijoux and Perle pairing don't just change the colours of the artwork, but of the background as well, with a deep ocean blue now being used.

This has the interesting effect of emphasizing the white sculptured look of the court cards even more!

Here's a look at some number cards, with their ornately decorated pips.

By having a somewhat minimalist colour palette, the details feel even more stark, sophisticated and stylish.

And the use of blue for the card faces and backs results in a whole new look.

Out of the entire series, this deck's colour choices make it feel the most unique, with a very artistic look that reminds one of white sculptures and frosted ornamental glass. It produces a cold, delicate, and thoroughly beautiful look!


The Four Seasons

Solid series: I really appreciate how all the decks reviewed above fit together as part of a larger series. These decks complement each other very nicely as a set. Yet there is also considerable variety, with the Bijoux card backs having a very different design from the original Nouveau card backs; similarly the Perle deck distinguishes itself very strongly from the Bijoux deck by using blue card backs and faces, creating a very different look within the parameters of the same design.

It might not be the designer's intention, but in my view the four decks of the Nouveau series beautifully capture something of all four seasons, one deck corresponding to each. The original Nouveau deck is most colourful, with court cards in bright red and blue, and represents the hot days of Summer, with a blazing sun above a blue ocean. Then with Nouveau Bourgogne, the there's a transition from Summer to Autumn/Fall, with the leaves changing colour and turning red/brown. Nouveau Perle represents the cold of Winter, and a world of snow and ice. Then with Nouveau Bijoux, Spring arrives, and while there's still some winter white, some spring greens start to appear. This seasonal approach is certainly one way to look at and appreciate these four decks!

And here's another look at the four seasons of Nouveau, journeying with card backs from Summer (Nouveau), to Fall (Bougogne), to Winter (Perle), to Spring (Bijoux)!

What do I think?

Classy tuck boxes: The tuck box is your first point of contact with a new deck of playing cards, so it needs to make a positive impression. While I like all the tuck boxes in the Nouveau series, I especially love the Neouveau Bourgogne tuck box. The intricate detail of the circular design really comes to life with the gold foil, and the combination of gold and burgundy looks immediately stylish. It's a very elegant and classy look, that is finished with a lovely gold coloured seal, for a beautiful appearance all round. All the tuck boxes in this serious do a good job of making an immediate introduction to the delicate Art Nouveau style within.

Traditional characters: I like the sense of historical connection that this deck has with the French-style playing cards from the 16th century, particularly the influence this has had on the court cards. While the exact choices used in the Nouveau might be the subject of debate, the historic roots of the drawings are clearly obvious, and this ensures that these decks have a classic feel that fits within a long tradition. I especially appreciate how the designer has turned to actual sculptures and period artwork where possible, to determine the shape and styles of the characters featured on the court cards, which adds an additional degree of authenticity.

Art Nouveau style: The 19th century Art Nouveau style is one that works very well for this deck. It ensures a consistent approach, in which designer Karin Yan has make an independent design, but still one that is rooted in a very well established and proven style. My favourite cards are probably the beautiful and ornate Aces, which are encircled with an exquisite mosaic styled design; I'm also very partial to the French styled Jokers from the original two decks, which really add character to the deck. I also love the tiled backgrounds used for the court cards in the original two decks. There's a lot to love about the Art Nouveau style!

French love: The two main influences of this deck both originate in France: firstly the characters chosen date back to the original and early French playing cards, and secondly the art style is firmly in the Art Nouveau tradition which was popular in France in the late 19th century. This ensures that both the subject material and the artistic mode of expressing this material have some unified idea that brings them together, in this case, origins in France.

Elegant colour combinations: It can be a mistake to overdo the number of colours used in a deck of cards, especially if the artwork is intricate and detailed. The complex patterns and designs that are a prominent feature of this deck require a relatively simple colour scheme in order to maximize their effect. I love the colour choices used for these decks, i.e. the burgundy and gold of the Bourgogne deck, the green and gold of the Bijoux deck, and the blue/green and white of the Perle deck. And instead of stark black and red for the suit colours, the decks use green/gold and burgundy/pink, which are non-standard colours but fit well with the colour combinations used for the artwork. The colour choices are simple and striking, complementing each other, while at the same time drawing attention to the lovely artwork.

Jewelry inspired artwork: I like the new direction that the Bijoux deck takes the Nouveau series. The use of white figures for the court cards gives a sculptured feel which works very well, and looks especially stunning against the dark blue background of the Perle deck. The Perle deck has a wintry look, produced by the stark white along with a cool green and maroon. The only disadvantage with the jewelled ornamentation of the pips is that it is much more difficult to distinguish the different suits (e.g. spades vs clubs) at a quick glance, unfortunately making these latter two decks less practical to use for gaming.

Recognized designs: Producing a United Cardists deck is a real honour. The two decks that Bona Fide produced for United Cardists in 2016 are a fitting design that represents something of what the site is about, and is a stylish tribute. Karin Yan has the unique distinction of being the first female designer to contributed a United Cardists deck.

Quality cards: Expert Playing Cards is one of the industry leaders in the world of modern playing cards, and the cards produced in their factory in Taiwan are known to be among the best in the business. I particularly appreciate the very clean cut of their cards, which is easily superior to industry giant USPCC. Bona Fide has opted to use the Master Finish for all these decks, which is a card-stock that feels thin, but proves very snappy and is extremely durable. It handles and shuffles very smoothly and neatly, and is among the best finish you'll find.


Latin? French? Spanish? These are beautiful decks no matter what language you speak! Clearly these playing cards have been produced as a result of a genuine (= bona fide) passion for playing cards, for their history, and for art.

The Nouveau Playing Cards from Bona Fide Playing Cards are a wonderful tribute to the origin of playing cards, as well as a wonderful contribution to the world of custom decks. Looking for some genuinely beautiful playing cards? These ones are Bona Fide indeed!

Want to learn more? Bona Fide Playing Cards:

Direct links for the decks featured in this review:
- Nouveau Playing Cards (sold out)
- Nouveau Bourgogne Playing Cards
- Nouveau Bijoux Playing Cards
- Nouveau Perle Playing Cards

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