Saturday, March 5, 2011

Crafted to last

Crafted to last

Article in The Star newspaper

April 2010

Sunday April 11, 2010

Crafted to last


A pen-maker combines technology and aesthetics to produce creations that one dreams of owning.

FANCY a Swiss company that started out making pencils producing a pen that costs 1mil (RM4.3mil).

The Caran d’Ache 1010 Diamonds has 850 of those precious stones individually cut and set into the pen’s body by master jewellers to maximise brilliant light reflections.

What about the 1010?

Shukor Yahya with one of his Arabic Kufi paintings entitled 24. AlThalak: 2-3, a Quranic verse.

“All advertisements for watches always show the time at 10 minutes past 10. That’s why we have different 1010 collections,” explains Angelo Ponzetta, Asia Pacific president at Caran d’Ache’s Japanese subsidiary.

And that’s precisely the convergence the company is touting – fine watch-making, fine jewellery and fine writing as part of Swiss craftsmanship. Even the decorative theme of gear wheels on the 1010 Collection alludes to watches.

Amidst all the sparkle and dazzle, it can almost be forgotten that the 1010 Diamonds is actually a fountain pen with a piston pump made from white gold and a nib in 18-carat rhodium-plated gold. It was showcased at BaselWorld 2010, a renowned annual international watchmaking and jewellery show in Basel, Switzerland, recently.

Humble roots

In 1924, Arnold Schweitzer established the Caran d’Ache Swiss Pencil Factory, taking its name from the French caricaturist and comics creator Emmanuel PoirĂ©, who signed his work Caran d’Ache, a French transliteration of “karandash” (Russian word for pencil).

The ¤1mil pen: The 1010 Diamonds is embedded with 850 diamonds.

“Everybody in Switzerland knows our name because as schoolchildren, we all used Caran d’Ache colour pencils,” Philippe de Korodi, the newly appointed company CEO says over a meaty Swiss-German dinner in Basel.

According to the website (, the company launched the world’s first water soluble colour pencils in the early 1930s, then diversified into ballpoint pens in 1953. Its first fountain pen, the Madison, was launched in 1970.

It claims to be “the world’s only Swiss manufacturer of pencils, fine arts products and writing instruments”, all designed, developed and manufactured in Thonex, near Geneva, and sold worldwide.

While it may not have a great deal of historical pedigree in pen-making, Caran d’Ache has witnessed a swift rise in this area in recent years.

“We are producing works by hand and these are fixed (high) costs,” Ponzetta explains. “If we were to make plastic pens we could not compete with Asian manufacturers. So 15 years ago, we decided to go into the luxury market, focussing on fine craftsmanship.”

He estimates that Mont Blanc has about 48% of the pen market, and the rest is shared among other luxury names, including Caran d’Ache. “It’s taken time to build our brand, but our strategy is very clear, to be the top exclusive brand in pens.”

Drawing analogies from the watch market, he likens Mont Blanc pens to Rolex, and sees his brand as the Patek Phillippe of pens. “Not everybody can afford one but it should be a dream to own one,” he says.

Korodi underlines that the great Swiss manufacturing tradition is about working with passion and rigour.

“The combination of technology and aesthetic appeal has reaffirmed Caran d’Ache’s positioning as Maison de Haute Ecriture (House of High Writing),” he says.

Its brand-building lifted off in the 1990s with various high-end collections, including the Modernista Diamants, which entered the Guinness Book of Records in 1999 as the most expensive fountain pen in the world. It was selling at “merely” RM968,719 then – a figure now more than quadrupled with the 1010 Diamonds (which, by the way, is still available).

The Kufi Art Limited Edition pen.

A little more down-to-earth is what Angelo calls the company’s first pen created for the Islamic market, the Kufi Art Limited Edition, which retails at a (relatively) modest 2,000 (RM8,500). This is inscribed with square Arabic Kufi script designed by Malaysian artist Shukor Yahya.

“There are seven major types of Arabic scripts but Kufi was the one used to transcribe the Prophet Muhammad’s divine revelations,” says the artist.

There are many variations of Kufi. Shukor’s manager, Richard Abas, explains that the square form of Kufi emerged in the 13th and 14th centuries (during the Mongol era) when the Muslim world had more contact with China, which had the square seal script (a square chop used on documents).

Emblazoned in golden lacquer on the pen’s hexagonal body (made of solid, black ebony wood) are what look like square patterns, but are actually Arabic lines which declare:

Art is the ultimate expression of the human soul.

It tells of tales long past and dreams yet to be realised.

Shukor worked in graphic design and branding for 21 years in the Malaysian advertising industry. He was the former art director at Ted Bates before leaving in 1998 to become a painter as he was “tired of being treated like a slave” to people who tried to dictate to him.

“In advertising agencies, we used to party a lot,” he recalls. “Then I was showered with divine light in 1997. Nowadays I only go for art show openings. I also travel overseas regularly, for both business and missionary work.”

On his part, Abas is keen to emphasise the possibilities of Kufi and shows me what looks like a maze of different colours.

“It’s actually the Negaraku,” he says, smiling. “Kufi writing does not have to be Islamic, it can also be used, say, for a company logo, a Chinese New Year card or to write Satu Malaysia.”

For the Chinese market, another pen unveiled at BaselWorld is the Phoenix Limited Edition, which is graced with symbols of the mythological bird and topped with a citrine gemstone to usher in positive energies. (The solid gold version retails for 35,000 or RM150,000.)

The Phoenix and Kufi Art editions should be available in Malaysia soon.

Ponzetta says that Caran d’Ache remains a relatively small family-owned company. “We prefer to expand step by step.”

Hence the company has been opening boutiques in China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia only in recent years.

“These will reinforce our after-sales service as we provide a lifetime guarantee on our writing instruments,” Korodi says.

He adds that the KL boutique, opened three years ago, was chosen to be the first in South-East Asia due to the “expounding growth” of connoisseurs and collectors in Malaysia. “We believe there are many wealthy people in South-East Asia who are interested in our pens,” says Ponzetta.

“Three years ago, we introduced a Limited Edition 1010 rhodium series, of which there were 10 pieces in solid gold. It was over 200,000 Swiss Francs (RM595,000). Three were sold in Hong Kong and one, Malaysia.”

Caran d’Ache also produces custom-made pens. “One was ordered by the fourth wife of Macao casino billionaire Stanley Ho for his 70th birthday.”

Ponzetta stresses that Caran d’Ache pens are meant for a lifetime. Or even lifetimes.

“It’s not like a plastic pen which you use and throw. It’s something to be given as an heirloom to sons and daughters.

“Our pens are unique. It’s about expressing yourself personally. Even if kings had the same pen, your writing would still be different. It’s not just a pen, it’s a piece of art.”

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