Hole & Corner's Sam Walton visits the Caran d’Ache factory in Geneva… while his dad sketches
Featured in the Movement Issue
It all starts with a sketch. Even with all our technological developments, the pencil continues to be the starting point for a designer. And one has to assume it played a pivotal part in creating the machinery to make the pencils at Caran d’Ache. We are visiting the Geneva factory during the carbon period – aka the winter months (carbon production require more heat, so to avoid unpleasant working conditions for the staff, the hottest work is scheduled for the coldest months). So rather than a rainbow of bright colours passing through the vast array of industrial machinery, we are instead treated to a unique take on shades of grey.
It’s incredible to witness the many machines needed to produce something we take for granted and pick up every day. It’s a captivating process; the shiny graphite carbon, mined from the mountains surrounding Geneva, being spat out of a conveyor belt and shepherded into storage tubs; delivered to another room to be passed through high compression chambers to form metre upon metre of thin grey carbon (not unlike producing sausages) – which are then cut into uniform lengths that quickly form piles as the leads stack up.
On another conveyor belt, cogs are tacked on here and there, seemingly at random, to re-align the rows of leads heading to the next stage. Sheets of Californian cedar wood are routed with grooves, soon to be filled and then sandwiched together. Starting to look a little more familiar now, the pencils go through the repeated process of being painted, dried, varnished, dried, varnished, dried – until great racks and rows of brightly coloured pencils sit glistening in the light from the windows at the end of the factory.
When ready, the distinctive snow-capped white tips are added; a beautifully slow and delicate process amongst the buzz and hum going on all around us. Finally comes the sharpening, complete with James Bond-style fast spinning blades.
Et voila! – a Caran d’Ache pencil.
Or, more to the point, boxes and boxes of them, separated into different groupings, all ready to be shipped around the world.
Meanwhile, Stewart has been perched on his stool, sketchbook in hand, among the machines – drawing the process as it unfolds (it just didn’t seem right to take a photographer to a pencil factory). It seems fitting to be here with the old man: family is at the heart of the brand, and it’s clear from the passionate conversation we share over lunch with Carole Hubscher, president of Caran d’Ache and Eric Vitus, head of Fine Arts Development, that Caran d’Ache is a brand for all ages.
We might be here strictly for the pencils (the company name is itself derived from karandash, the Russian word for pencil) but a walk through the pen workshops soon reveals a new production process: everything clinical and lead-free. The building must look like ying/yang symbol from above, such is the contrast.
Something else for the old man to draw, no doubt...
Illustration Stewart Walton
Words Sam Walton