As consumers look away from their screens, business has never been better for the pencil brands experiencing sharp growth.
How many of the words we jot each day are written with a graphite nib? In workspaces, universities and home offices, the act of writing has become more an exercise in speed-typing. Headed paper, letter openers and paperweights are no longer desk essentials; they are more likely to be ornamental. Yet one segment of the stationery industry has survived the onslaught of digital devices and emerged intact. With about 29 billion units made, 2016 was the best year on record for the humble pencil.
Despite email and iPads, global pencil sales are showing no signs of going blunt. It seems counter-intuitive but business leaders with a sharp sense for an opportunity never doubted the desirability of what is still the simplest writing instrument on the market. Massimo Candela, the jovial CEO of Fila, Italy’s most famous maker of pencils and felt-tip pens, is one such loyalist. “It’s a segment we invested in at a time when others wouldn’t have,” he says, standing in his office at the company’s headquarters in the Milan suburb of Pero. “But in a world that’s changing because of digital technologies, this sector hasn’t been – and won’t be – hit.”
A staple of every Italian schoolchild’s pencilcase since its beginnings in 1920s Florence, Fila (which is an acronym for Fabbrica Italiana Lapis ed Affini, or “Italian factory for pencils and similar items”) had grown modestly over the decades by the time the computer took over in the 1990s and forced the brand into a rethink. Where many competitors jumped ship or diversified into wildly unrelated products, Candela decided to stay true to the company’s colours and poured more money into its much-loved pens and pencils. “And we were right to do so,” he says, a large grin spreading across his face.
His family has run Fila for three generations but it was Candela who transformed a significant domestic player into a brand with global clout. For the past 20 years an aggressive programme of acquisitions of paper, pencil and paint makers around the world has turned it into a group operating in 100 different countries. Just over two years ago Candela decided to launch the company on the stock market and it has since quadrupled in value to €815m. And while its myriad products span the length and breadth of the art-supplies aisle, a solid quarter of its overall revenue of €408m still comes from pencils alone.
There is no evidence that this revenue stream is likely to slow: in each of the past three years Fila’s pencil sales have climbed by 5 or 6 per cent. In part this extraordinary growth is down to the number of adults who have taken up drawing to relieve stress. However easily mocked, the colouring books for adults that colonised newsstands worldwide around 2016 were a symptom of fatigue with screen-staring, which simple pencil and paper have arrived to combat.
For Candela this comes as no surprise. “Every action will create an equal and opposing reaction,” he says, delivering a well-rehearsed maxim. “Digital development didn’t reckon with the brain and its ability to memorise colours, images and forms; it’s something that’s impossible to do in the same way within a digital world.”
If this is true for adults taking up life-drawing classes then it’s even more vital for children learning how to write and count. Despite some schools’ experiments with tablets and laptops, recent studies have shown that using traditional writing implements can aid memory and learning in early-age classrooms. “Colouring helps co-ordinated growth; we already knew this but we were a small voice compared to the tech giants,” says Candela. “We had to wait for a reality check, which proved us right in the end – and gave dignity back to the pencil.”
While adults have become significant buyers in recent years, schoolchildren are Fila’s most dependable customers. This bodes well in a world where the population continues to grow and emerging economies such as China and India are intent on making sure young people are educated properly. Yet, according to Candela, even nations whose citizens are getting older have a role to play. “People live longer so they have more free time,” he says. “Drawing is a hobby that often accompanies people for their whole life – so the mass of consumers keeps growing.”
Catering to such different age groups and needs means Fila’s range spans pencils of varying kinds and quality levels, from the pre-schooler’s short and chubby crayon to the artist’s graphite stylus. The company has set up plants in China, India and Mexico to produce the most basic mass-market versions. But a good portion of the three billion pencils the group as a whole manufactures each year (a figure that puts it roughly level with German giant Faber-Castell) is still made in a specialised factory on the outskirts of Nuremberg. It’s here that subsidiary Lyra turns out the group’s top-of-the-range products.
“Fila acquired us in 2008 because they know Germans focus on quality,” says Lyra’s managing director Nicole Blum from behind a pair of professorial glasses. The brand she leads is 212 years old and thus one of a handful of heritage pencil-makers that all started life in this corner of Bavaria. Many of the most renowned heavyweights in the industry – Faber-Castell, Staedtler and Stabilo – are, to this day, Lyra’s neighbours. The area’s pencil-making tradition may be a source of pride but production methods have, of course, evolved to become almost fully automated.
Yet there’s still something rather ponderous about the machines that inhabit Lyra’s factory floor, suggesting that this process is still rooted in a more old-school manufacturing past. From the large wood-cutters slicing through slates of Californian cedar to the large wheel-shaped compressors that glue a pencil’s elements together – and the conveyor belt upon which the newly painted pencils lie to dry – the atmosphere here is decidedly retro. That the consistency and accuracy of each batch’s colour is inspected by the naked eye of one person (whose sight is checked daily) only adds to the impression that skill and craft are still essential ingredients here.
“Not an awful lot has changed in terms of technology in the past few years,” says Blum with a smile, speaking over the deafening din of the factory floor. Yet given that she rose through the company’s ranks via the r&d department, she’s also adamant that plenty of innovations have shaken things up over the past few decades. “We need to be shinier and brighter, and we need continuous improvement,” she says. “And then we need to improve how reliable a pencil is. If a lead breaks five times when you sharpen it, it means you lose 20 per cent of it.”
Innovation may well be possible in matters of performance but tools of such distinctive shape are much harder to reinvent when it comes to design. Over in California, Blackwing also makes high-end pencils although it’s a smaller enterprise than Lyra. Part of family-owned company CalCedar, the brand’s success can be attributed to its products’ all-black bodies and flat erasers just as much as their “Made in Japan” graphite leads. “Certainly our design played a role: our pencils stand out, it’s easy to spot a Blackwing,” says brand manager Alexander Poirier. “If it looked like a normal pencil, people would glance over it.”
When, in 2010, CalCedar’s president Charles Berolzheimer decided to revive the 1930s-born brand after a 12-year hiatus, he knew Blackwing’s appearance – and its associations with the many creative giants who were wont to wield one, including John Steinbeck – would be a draw. “What we’re selling is a creative lifestyle, as well as a disconnect from the digital world,” says Poirier. “We have an eclectic customer base who are not just traditional artists, woodworkers or architects but people from all walks of life who appreciate the quality of the tool, the look and feel of it – and like to make things.”
The strategy has paid off: within the past seven years the team has grown from a three-person operation to a group of 15, and the company is projected to grow by 17 per cent this year alone. The strength of the brand is evidenced by the fact that its elegant pencils are stocked not only by stationery retailers but also in lifestyle shops, such as Seed People’s Market and Tankfarm & Co in Los Angeles. After breaking into South Korea, the UK and Germany the brand aims to expand further in Japan, one of the world’s largest stationery markets, worth roughly €3.4bn. Judging by the success premium American heritage brands almost always seem to enjoy in Japan, it’s hard to see Blackwing not shining there. And if Japanese stationery retailers are any indication, Blackwing is entering the country at just the right time. “Pencils like Blackwing cost more but they’re popular among adult pencil fans,” says Yoshiko Ichihara, from Tokyo’s eminent stationery shop Itoya. “In terms of sales, the premium pencil range is growing. Perhaps people are rediscovering the fun in handwriting, pencil-sharpening and the smell of wood.”
Where once stationery retailers were perceived to be under threat all over the world – doomed casualties of an increasingly digital age – today the survivors are feeling more sanguine. And this is in no small part thanks to the pencil. “There’s an upsurge in the kind of art supplies that used to be employed by creative businesses but that are now used by a much broader group of people – even those who don’t earn their living in the arts,” says Mark Cass, proprietor of Cass Art, which has shops across London and the UK.
So what’s the lesson we can draw from the continued success of this humble tool? For one it’s that the world is unlikely to ever become wholly digital. In recent years we’ve seen independent booksellers fight back against the slowly stalling Kindle as readers increasingly return to an experience that’s more tactile and tangible. Similarly, demand for the pencil – the perfect antidote to a screen-heavy world – seems to paradoxically rise with the spread of digital devices, as adults and children alike search for an outlet for their creativity and dexterity. As Cass puts it, “It’s going back to where it all started. The pencil is the most efficient mark-maker that’s ever been invented.” Write it off at your peril.
Also jostling for space in your pencil case:
Available in 120 countries, this granddaddy of the trade sold more than two billion pencils in 2017, making it one of the world’s biggest stationery brands. The company has 8,000 employees worldwide but its home remains in Germany, where more than 1,100 of them are based.
The Staedtler Company was founded in 1835 but the eponymous family had been making pencils in Nuremberg for nearly 200 years before that. Now it’s a global brand with manufacturing operations in several markets. But Staedtler never lost its German heart and 85 per cent of its products are still made in the Nuremberg factory.
Caran d’Ache, Switzerland
Switzerland’s first pencil company, founded in 1915. It epitomises Swiss luxury with some of the world’s finest pencils, including what it claims is the world’s first water-soluble coloured version. The company makes enough pencils every day to reach from Geneva to Rome.
While Columbia has existed since 1919, it got into the pencil-making scene relatively late, focusing only on carbon paper and ink ribbons until the 1940s. Since then it has flourished, becoming Australia’s most popular pencil brand. Using the global logistics apparatus it set up to sell office supplies, Columbia pencils are available all over the world.
The Blackwing has had a long history of birth, death and revival. During its hiatus in the late 1990s, these popular pencils could go for $40 (€32) each. But in 2008, CalCedar (California Cedar Products Company) began manufacturing “the world’s finest pencil” again.
It’s such a simple tool but as you stare at the blank sheet of paper, playing with your pencil, you suddenly wonder, ‘So how do they get the lead in there?’.
Pencils of different quality demand different kinds of wood: basswood and poplar are cheaper, while Californian cedar goes into products at the top end of the market. After being harvested in forests from India to Mexico, all timber is cut into progressively smaller slats.
Grooves made in the wood are filled with thin layers of strong glue before leads are slotted in. All leads are pre-prepared: coloured cores are a mixture of wax and pigments, graphite is cooked with clay and dried to strict specifications according to the level of hardness required.
Slats that have been filled with leads are then paired up to create what’s called a “sandwich”, pressed together and left to dry. These are then fed into a machine that slices them into pencil rods. Here they are also given their body shape – either hexagonal or smooth and round.
The rough wooden surfaces are polished before being given up to eight coats of paint. Multiple coats are often necessary for the colour on the outside of the pencil to match the core’s hue exactly.
All additional information – brand logo, details on the strength of the pencil and so on – are then printed on the pencil’s body using foil stamps or engraved directly into the wood.
With the help of a fast-rotating metal wheel, pencils are sharpened in a matter of seconds – and are therefore ready to be packaged up or painstakingly arranged into pencil cases.