April 18, 2019

Behind the scenes of a century-old Swiss pen company, Caran d’Ache

Paid partnership with Caran d’Ache.

behind the scenes of caran d'ache factory

Get in touch with me to take me on a factory tour and the likelihood is I’ll bite your hand off for the opportunity – I love a good behind the scenes action me. I’ve been to a paper factory, a pottery factory, a paint factory – all the p’s of the world apparently – but never a pen factory. You’d have thought someone would have been in touch already. Thank goodness for Switzerland’s only manufacturer of luxury writing instruments, Caran d’Ache, who invited me and a bunch of other creatives along for 36 hours exploring Geneva and their Thônex-based factory.

Bunch of other creatives = Mat from Buckets and Spades, illustrator Aurélia Durand, Sebastian from Sebastian’s View and Berlin-based artist Cyril Vouilloz.

pigment manufacturing with scoops and spades at caran d'ache

An introduction to Caran d’Ache.

I can pretty much guarantee that at some point in your life you’ve had access to Caran d’Ache. Pronounced ‘Karen Dash’ for those of you who struggle to bring their French game, the brand was a staple in my own childhood and my time at university studying Graphic Design and Illustration. Picasso and Miró favoured these products so you know I was in good company.

Located in Geneva since its inception in 1915, Caran d’Ache is a luxury writing goods and fine art manufacturer. In Switzerland, every child receives a Caran d’Ache pencil on their first day of school and continues to use them throughout. The brand is just as well known as fondue to every five-year old Swiss human.

bloggers being given the tour of caran d'ache
Image Credit: Igor Laski

Originally named ‘Fabrique Genevoise de Crayons’, translating literally to “Genevan factory of pencils”, founder and visionary Arnold Schweitzer changed the name to Caran d’Ache nine years later to distinguish it as a global brand. There were a few inspirations behind the name change. Take your pick as to which you like the most.

The name Caran d’Ache comes from the word  “karandash”, the Russian term for pencil. It also nods to the Turkish root “kara tash” or “black stone” – the origins of graphite. This natural material is found in the mountains of Switzerland.

coloured pigment at caran d'ache factory

Behind the scenes of Maison Caran d’Ache.

Don’t forget that Switzerland is known for its long tradition of luxury watch making and jewellery manufacture. Granted, it’s hard to miss when you land to the influx of luxe advertisements, but you’d be silly to think that they’d give any less effort to pen manufacturing. Swiss precision is certainly a thing.

coloured wax at caran d'ache factory
coloured crayons at caran d'ache factory

From crayons to acrylic paint, Maison Caran d’Ache handles every product with care and due diligence. Getting insight into the manufacturing process at the Maison was hard work for a long time; it’s only since Carole Hubscher’s takeover that it has become a little more normalised, so I feel very privileged to have seen it. When you realise just how much work goes into creating something like a pen or a pencil here, you understand that you need to hold them a little closer. No biros are ever going to cut it after a visit to Caran d’Ache.

coloured pencils at caran d'ache factory
coloured pencils at caran d'ache factory
Emma Jane Palin shooting coloured pencils at caran d'ache factory
Image Credit: Igor Laski

Much like any other factory, the Maison is divided into areas for each process – while machinery is responsible for a lot of the manufacture, there is still a huge number of people involved in the creation process. A lot of the rooms are top secret so I’m not able to share all my knowledge but the colour and pattern should provide you with just enough inspiration. Honestly, I’m still waiting for my call to become a Chief Recipe Maker / Wizard. The pigment room filled with its brightly coloured hues was my idea of heaven. For now though, the job goes to Eric Vitus, Fine Arts R&D Manager, who probably likes colour just as much as me. JUST.

pencils in cedarwood blocks at caran d'ache factory
behind the scenes photography of the caran d'ache factory
Image Credit: Igor Laski

Making a pencil sounds simple, right? Well, no. It’s an art form in itself that took years for the brand to perfect. Making a pencil requires specialist materials, people and machinery. Caran d’Ache uses Californian cedarwood for its pencils to sharpen without splintering, ensuring that it’s sustainable and FSC certified, but also smells good too. The specialist formula used to create the waxy interior of a pencil is knowledge that has developed over decades, something that the brand will never spill the beans on.

rows of yellow pencils at caran d'ache factory
quality control and packaging of coloured pencils

Process and quality is of huge importance to Caran d’Ache, so each stage of the making has its own quality control checks. Some of the processes are extremely rare, such as the art of authentic Chinese lacquer done by hand in the ancestral manner. These are skills that machinery can’t quite grasp to the same effect as a hand that has been artfully doing it for the last 20 years, and this is what the brand prides itself on. Craftsmanship is well and truly at the heart of this century-old brand.

filing a pen at caran d'ache factory

The ‘Claim Your Style’ Collection.

There was a specific reason for our visit to the factory. As well as fine arts, Caran d’Ache has become known for its elegant and chic 849 pen, originally introduced in 1969. Identifiable by its hexagonal shape, no rolling here, the 849 has a light and robust aluminium body, clip and varnished button. You can refill them too, so no need for endless wasteful biros – just don’t lend it to anyone.

assembly of 848 claim your style pens at caran d'ache factory
assembly of 848 claim your style pens at caran d'ache factory
Image Credit: Igor Laski

The Claim Your Style collection offers six brightly coloured models of the ballpoint pen; hot pink, a khaki green, turquoise, grey, blue and a very on-trend nude. Each features alternatively coloured clips and buttons and it takes one week to manually hand mount just 1000 of these pieces. After that, a small selection will be click tested around 10,000 times before the batch is released to the public.

assembly of 848 claim your style pens at caran d'ache factory
Image Credit: Igor Laski

The limited edition collection aims to offer everyone an opportunity to choose a Caran d’Ache pen that reflects their individual style and personality, joining them on journeys for the rest of their lives. You can write up your travel memoirs, sketch out a new fashion collection, record your thoughts or just write those endless to-do lists. Whatever the use, you’ll be doing it in style. My personal favourites are the pink, green and nude options.

claim your style caran d'ache competition
Image Credit: Emma Jane Palin

This is a paid partnership with Caran d’Ache but all concept and love for the brand is my own. For more interior inspiration, colour clashing and general life admin, check out the rest of my blog. Follow me on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter for more of the EJP in your life.


  1. MsPink says:

    What an amazing trip Emma, love all the containers of coloured pigment and the fact that every Swiss child gets a Caran D’Ache pencil on their first day at school. Also, I was momentarily surprised thinking, ‘I didn’t know the founder was a Hollywood muscled hardman’!

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Emma Jane Palin is a freelance art consultant, interior stylist and multi-award-winning blogger residing in Margate, UK. She has worked with various home and lifestyle brands not limited to West Elm, Apple, John Lewis, Habitat, MADE, Caran D'Ache + No.3 Gin. Emma is also a regular contributor to Hunker where she writes about design trends and interior advice.

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