My life-long love affair with pencils began with a tin of Caran d'Ache Prismalo pencils that my mother brought back from Italy when I was a child. Those pencils disappeared shortly after and were recovered many years later when the very mother who gave them to me found them while cleaning out her desk. I've since forgiven her for losing them but with their rediscovery I was reminded of how much joy they brought to me. I've always had a secret theory that she'd 'lost' them because maybe she didn't think I'd appreciate them until I was at least in the double digits, or maybe because she wanted them for herself (she, the pencil snob whose genetics I share). Regardless, they remain one of my most prized possessions and have appeared in many stories and anecdotes about why I opened a pencil shop.
As most of you probably know, this week I had the enormous pleasure of visiting the actual, real-life Caran d'Ache factory in Geneva with my ever lovely Deputy Pencil Lady, Caitlin. Until we arrived there it hadn't really hit me what exactly we were doing. The evolution of my one-woman shop in the past year has happened very quickly, and sometimes I feel like I haven't been up for air long enough to realize what exactly it has become. No longer is it a one-woman business and no longer do I fear that the world won't understand why the pencil deserves its own shop. It took a quick minute to fully comprehend that I, Caroline Weaver had been invited to THE factory for which I owe a large part of my pencil obsession . I felt like Charlie going to Willy Wonka's Factory.
If you're a fan of Caran d'Ache products you know that they are very proud to make everything in Switzerland. There's always so much chatter here about 'Made in the USA' that this isn't something I'd really given much thought to beyond the fact the home-grown is always better. When we arrived, it was immediately evident that not only is everything really made in Switzerland but that the pride in which it is made is most definitely justified. Geneva is a city nestled right next to the Alps where everything seems infinitely more beautiful because of the surroundings. The factory is no exception. At the gate is a giant pencil and inside the entrance way is an employee shop that is as beautifully laid out as the ones in the city and an enormous frame on the wall that houses a perfectly intact collection of every product made by Caran d'Ache in 1929 displayed for the World's Fair in Spain.
Upon arrival we were greeted by Urs, our host, and Mr. Nicolas Muller (a former Caran d'Ache engineer of 40 years) who was to guide us on a tour. First let's just point out that everything that happens at Caran d'Ache happens here. Not only is the entirety of the factory on the premises but so is the corporate office. Mr. Muller took us through a long hallway and then up the stairs past a collection of old advertisements to another long hallway which is painted a nostalgic sage green. From here the noises of machinery can be heard and heavy plastic door strips flap open and closed as people go in and out. Once through the flaps, we were lead from room to room where pigments were being mixed, crayons were being cut and pencils were being painted. We weren't permitted any photos as all of the Caran d'Ache machinery is specifically designed by them for their own products but I'm quite certain that I'd have been too distracted to take photos anyway.
I truly don't think I've ever had a more visceral experience. There were just so many sounds and smells and processes to witness. Much to my surprise we were encouraged to get up close to everything, to touch things and to interact. Not only did we see how pencils are made from start to finish but we were given the opportunity to better understand just how much care and attention goes into this seemingly simple product. There are globs of color in bins and wiggly little sticks of pencil core neatly piled at the base of the machines. The floor is dark and slick with a coat of graphite. Things are going in and out, up and down from one process to another while wooden boxes of pencils in various phases on manufacture are stacked about. Caitlin and I were giddy. Actually giddy--like children at Disney World for the first time.
Though I am a pencil lady first and foremost, I was also amazed to see how pens are made. We learned that the only thing about a Caran d'Ache pen that is not made in the Caran d'Ache factory is the ball in a ballpoint pen. This was a whole different experience--much cleaner, much quieter and much more hands-on. The pens are all hand-assembled, hand-polished and checked for quality on machines that actually stretch them, push them and scribble with them in a way that I never though was a real thing.
Following our tour and after a wonderful lunch with Jean-Francois (CdA's CEO) in the on-site cafeteria (Seriously impressive food, by the way) we were taken to the top floor to meet with Adrian who is a product developer for some play time. It's been years since I actually tried to draw or paint something so this part made me a bit nervous, but Adrian encouraged us to get messy and have fun. We crushed clay and natural graphite with stones to make our own pencil paste and learned so many tricks and facts about colored pencils (which we promise we'll share!). Really, it was the most fun I've had with pencils in a long time. Almost like elementary school art class for adults. While we took a break we were led through a weird dark room full of props and store displays to a fire escape from which we could see the peak of the Mont Blanc. The view from up there was so indescribably breathtaking, I think this is when I really felt aware of the day and the moment.
The fact that this thing I created, this little pencil shop can afford such opportunities to explore and learn make me feel so full of gratitude. As I get adjusted to my normal schedule again and start to think about future adventures I feel as though I have a newfound appreciation for the industry that I've fallen into. Not just for the objects it products but for the unfaltering passion with which its done. If only my mother had known what she'd started when she gave me those colored pencils.
Top: All the Prismalos!
Middle: A piece of a funny mechanical set of dioramas depicting what happens in the factory. No, they don't actually drink while operating machinery.
Bottom: Caitlin and I attempting to utilize water-soluble pencils (Technalos)