Lines of Beauty: Swiss Colored Pencils Elegantly Endure

Elderly customers can be seen often going into a Caran d’Ache shop to ask for a single absent color, as a replacement for their own worn down pencil; such is the cult of these finely crafted pencils where a customer will stay loyal from childhood and keep replacing pencils though their lifetime. Caran D'Ache/Creative Art Materials

I am an unashamed Helvetia-phile; show me almost anything Swiss, and I will show you something made to exacting standards. After all, this mountainous, landlocked country is the classic appellation d'origine contrôlée of horology; and the attention to detail required of the country's master watchmakers infuses every aspect of life here. The commitment to precision is one reason Swiss goods are so reliable. It is true even of the cigars—I have never had a cigar from Davidoff (whose parent company is headquartered in Basel) that did not draw anything other than perfectly—and it is equally true of the crayons and colored pencils, as I found a couple of years ago when I toured the Caran d'Ache factory on the outskirts of Geneva.

Set up in 1915 and originally called the Fabrique Genevoise de Crayons, it became Caran d'Ache in 1924. Its owner, Arnold Schweitzer, appropriated the sobriquet adopted by French cartoonist Emmanuel Poiré, who in turn had borrowed the name from the Russian language ( karandash is the Russian word for "pencil").

When it comes to colored pencils, Caran d'Ache enjoys the same sort of status as Rolex does in the watch world: reliable, well-crafted, elegant and very Swiss. Every fall, most Swiss schools give children Caran d'Ache pencils as part of their back-to-school supplies.

While colored pencils may be primarily enjoyed by children, making them is a serious business—as I discovered in the firm's laboratory. Surrounded by the sort of equipment that would not look out of place in a pharmaceutical company or university lab, white-coated boffins carry out research and experiments with the sort of diligence that wins Nobel Prizes, cures deadly diseases or—in this case—develops such miraculous products as a colored pencil of outstanding lightfastness called Luminance 6901. This pencil was developed after the firm's U.S. distributor discovered in the early 2000s that some museum curators were advising against purchasing and exhibiting works created using colored pencils because of its propensity to fade when exposed to light.

Caran d'Ache took personally this slur against the good name of colored pencils. For more than a decade, the research lab experimented and experimented (at one point leaving drawings in the Arizona sun for six months) before announcing in 2008 that it had come up with an antidote to the lightfastness issue: luminance. That would allow colored pencils to be used in fine artwork.

Water-soluble pencils are a Caran d'Ache icon; in 1931, the company designed Prismalo, the world's first colored pencil with a water-soluble lead. "They are museum quality," says Carole Hubscher, whose great-grandfather ran the firm in the 1930s. "You can put them under the sun, and the color won't disappear. It has a very high lightfastness and combines a high concentration of extra-fine pigments with excellent solubility."

Adults color, too

In summer 2013, the company launched a new lightfast product, the Museum Aquarelle—watercolors in the form of a pencil. Unfortunately, both the Museum Aquarelle and luminance arrived a bit late for Miro and Picasso, who were Caran d'Ache men, but the products ensured the brand was well-placed to exploit the uptick in adult coloring books. In the U.S. alone, Nielsen BookScan registered a jump from 1 million adult coloring titles in 2014 to 12 million last year. "We are not working three shifts yet, but we are working two shifts," says Hubscher.

Her theory about why adult coloring is taking off is simple: In a world dominated by smartphones and computer screens, the pencil is a wonderfully analog piece of technology that we can all understand. "People want to do things by hand, and they want to do things themselves," says Hubscher. "Many adults coming to the Caran d'Ache stores, say, 'Oh, no, I don't know how to draw.' But once they have paper in front of them that already outlines the drawing, they don't have this white paper fear. They think, Maybe I can do it."

Many adults find the activity relaxing, even therapeutic. "With new technology, to a certain extent it's about consumption, and with our products it's creation," says Hubscher. Instead of crunching through data and processing information, you are creating something by hand.

"There is a direct link between your head and your soul, to your hand."

As well as linking head, soul and hand, Caran d'Ache pencils link us to our childhood. When it comes to luxury brands, Caran d'Ache pencils are probably the first prestige product with which many of us come into close personal contact: the aroma of cedar wood as a large tin is opened; the sight of so many colors carefully arranged like a box of jewels; the feel of the hexagonal instrument in the hand. What's more, the pencils often carry a kind of heirloom status, passed down from generation to generation: It's not unknown for grandparents to go into a Caran d'Ache shop and ask for any absent colors in their childhood box of pencils to be replaced before passing it—and the sense of wonder that it holds—on to their grandchildren.