Pencil of the Week

photo: restaurant parigi, rue gaite

The beginning and end of this week's 'Italian' feature - except for Marie de Médicis.

Côtes for Breakfast?

by Ric Erickson

Paris:- Monday, 3. March 2003:- Up until tonight's TV-weather news, the forecast for the coming week was uniformly somber. But something must have happened because the prediction now calls for the skies to lighten up a bit as the week goes on.

So instead of gloom, gloom, gloom, we can now expect gloom, partly sunny and mostly sunny - with high temperatures expected to be 14, 15, and 13 for Thursday.

It certainly matches the revolutionary name given to this period of the year, even if the weather hasn't been quite so extreme - lots of rain! - for several years. In short, it is not particularly cold, but it is wetter than usual.

Café Life

When Better Pencils are Built

I haven't been keeping any eye on my pencils lately. If I need to use one, I know I have a couple of nearly new green model '9000' Faber-Castells, to replace the stub of one I was using.

Then last week I mentioned Terrie Blazek's Christmas gifts, which included a whole handy carry-sack full of the super-new 'Grip 2001' Faber-Castell pencils, which have won five design awards since being introduced in 2000.

In Saturday's International Herald Tribune, the front page was graced with a story headlined 'World's favoritephoto: marie de medicis fountain, luxembourg writing tool refuses to be erased.' Writer John Schmid started off, "The world's oldest word-processing and graphics system has no memory and no spell checker. It needs constant maintenance and cannot be upgraded." The pencil has been around for 400 years.

Marie's fountain.

Pencils do need maintenance, but Faber-Castell is constantly upgrading them. I haven't used my new 'Grip 2001' pencils enough to know if they are an improvement over the older '9000' model.

When Count von Faber-Castell took over the 242 year-old family company 20 years ago, he ignored advisors who said that digital pencils would bankrupt the company. Today the company makes 1.8 billion pencils out of a world production of about ten billion per year.

Faber-Castell has its own 10,000 hectare pine tree plantation in Brazil, and grows more trees than needed for its own production. The plantation is home to 137 types of birds and 37 other animal types. More interesting from a user's viewpoint, the pencil maker has developed its own water-based paint which is harmless to pencil chewers.

But the main point about this company's pencils is that they have 'clean' lead. After arriving in Paris and after the box of 20 pencils I had brought were used up, I was surprised to find that not all pencils are equal. 'Unclean' lead does not make immaculate lines.

In the early 1800s it was less Napoléon's shut-out of imports than the exhaustion of Britain's quality graphite that led to serious problems for continental pencil makers. But the Kingdom of Bavaria was founded in 1806 and this allowed more freedom of trade, which was boosted by the first rail line, from Nürnberg to Fürth.

At 22 in 1839, Lothar von Faber took over the family pencil enterprise. He had some business training, plus three years of experience in Paris. Borrowing improvements made by Conté in France, he introduced better quality lead, with different grades of hardness. He turned the pencil into a brand-name, 'A. W. Faber-Stifte.'

Then he took to the road, in Germany, then all around Europe. It wasn't easy because British pencils had the best reputation. Lothar von Faber kept his prices high and dealers wondered if maybe his lead wasn't silver, but he returned to Stein near Nürnberg with full order books.

In 1849 Lothar von Faber opened a bureau in New York, matched with agents in London, Paris and Saint-Petersburg. At home the company opened a kindergarten, built a school and a church for its employees. Bavaria's King Maximilian II gave him the title of Count in 1862 and he joined the royal council.

In 1847 high quality graphite was found in Siberia and by 1856 it was exclusively flowing to Stein in Bavaria, which gave 'A. W. Faber-Stifte' a significant quality andphoto: boat, luxembourg competitive advantage. Cedar wouldn't grow properly in Bavaria, so imports, mostly from California, continued.

The pencils were praised and used by Vincent Van Gogh, Max Liebermann, Wilhelm Busch, Gustav Doré, Horace Vernet, Wilhelm von Kaulbach and Peter von Cornelius.

Marie's sailboat pond.

Lothar von Faber died in 1896 with many honors but without leaving a son and the firm passed to his widow, then to his granddaughter, who married Count Alexander zu Castell-Rüdenhausen in 1898. Thus did the family, and company name change to 'A. W. Faber-Castell.'

Under the new family head the pencil 'Castell 9000' was introduced in 1905. It was a success that continues to this day. In the 1970s the product line included 5000 articles, but some of these - like slide-rules which were a major product - were to be dropped, leaving 1600 today.

The company sticks to what it does best. Since the '90s it has been adding-value and creating prestige lines and premium brands - with 'designer' products - but basically, 'A. W. Faber-Castell' is still a little pencil company in Stein near Nürnberg in Bavaria.

And, since my difficulties in the '70s to find them in Paris, the pencils are widely available here now - not more than five minutes' walk from where I live in Montparnasse.

Dimitri's Breakfast

We have spring fever here. People are either snuffling with colds - the lucky ones! - or ill with the grippe, or just plain kind of sleepy. I ran into Dimitri on Saturday somewhat after noon.

He was hanging on to the bar of the Bouquet, watching a half-full glass of côtes become empty. He told me about how boring Nice is after three days without saying anythingphoto: palais luxembourg about its Carnival or its casino. He absentmindedly ordered another glass.

We agreed hat we should move to the south of France - somewhere a long way from Nice. He said he could fix chimneys and stairways. His glass became half-empty again.

The house that Marie had built.
Continued on page 2...
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