Over the course of 2018 we'll be highlighting pencil history from a new country each month. As we endeavor this year to get the best currently available pencils from every country that's still making them we thought we'd share some of the stories that make them special.
France isn't a country that pops up on the radar much these times but as far as pencil history goes, France played an integral role in the very beginning of the modern pencil. Let's back up a little bit for the sake on context. Graphite was discovered in the mid-1500s and was immediately used for things including writing, sheep marking and drawing. Germans quickly took to making a pencil of sorts out of it, though these were made from cut chunks of pure graphite. Once the supply of super pure graphite became harder to get and other less superior mines were discovered, American and German pencil makers tried tirelessly to find a way to make a decent pencil out of what was available. Spermaciti (from a sperm whale) and different pastes were used to bind ground graphite but it was still scratchy to write with a fragile to use. This is where the French came in.
In the late 1700s, in the wake of the Scientific Revolution and the American Revolutionary War , the Anglo-French War and later the French Revolution pencils were plentiful and necessary as they were the only easy-to-use, portable writing instrument around. The first fountain pens didn't even exist until the end of then century, so as you can imagine, writing while at war was, well, complicated. The demand worldwide during this period of time was greater than the few pencils makers could keep up with as they were still mostly being hand-made. England, Germany and the US were the sources of most, if not all of the pencils in circulation. I would go too deep into French history, but as you might know, the Declaration of Independance was signed, France was in debt because of King Louis XVI and Napoleon took over.
Fast forward a tiny bit--the best pencils were coming out of England and England wasn't exactly pleased with France. As far as being able to obtain decent pencils, France was in serious trouble. To solve the problem, the French Minister of War, Lazare Carnot tapped a man by the name of Nicolas-Jacques Conté to find an alternative. Conté was an interesting choice because he was actually an engineer, a hot air balloon specialist, to be exact. At the time he was known mostly for being a major contributor to the development of the hydrogen gas used to fly them. However, he was severely injured in a balloon explosion that did major damage is his left eye. With one eye out of commission, he was looking for something less dangerous to work on.
According to legend, in 1794 at the age of 39 in a mere eight days, Conté figured out that if you grind graphite to a fine powder, mix it with powdered clay and water and fire it in a kiln (like ceramics) the result was a significantly stronger, more useable graphite core. Whether or not he actually did it in 8 days I can't confirm or deny, but the breakthrough was revolutionary. Conté and his team of pencil makers went to work making these new, better French pencils and kept their secret as guarded as they could. Not long after all of this other pencil makers came to the same conclusion, though it's not known whether or not they had knowledge of Conté's discovery. The cool thing is that even today, over 200 years later the Conté Method as it's now known is still the best way to make a pencil core.
Conté didn't stop there--he used his experience making pencil cored to develop compressed pastels, called Conté Crayons and other variations of wood-cased drawing tools. As a brand, Conté still exists and operates in France, though little attention is paid to their limited graphite offerings as their other items have since taken the spotlight.
In the 1940s, Marcel Bich set up shop in Clichy, France to mass product ballpoint pens (a fairly new invention at the time) under the brand name BIC. To this day, BIC is a brand name synonymous with French writing instruments. BIC has made variety of pencils over the years but no longer manufactures in France.
There's only one pencil manufacturer left in France, a company called La Compagnie Francaise des Crayons. CFC only makes custom products for larger companies like Conté as well as for smaller stationery brands. If a pencil is stamped "Made in France" today, it's made by CFC.
France's pencil history is deep and important and though modern history doesn't account for much it's important that we recognize how vital Conté work was to the pencil as we know it. Who knows how long it'd have taken to figure out how to make a high functioning pencil core without him! It's a perfect example of innovation grown from need and urgency.
Photos: a portrait of Nicholas-Jacques Conté, a graphic from the CFC website about the types of pencils they manufacture.