Googling 'Koh-i-Noor' frequently results in either listings of Indian restaurants or references to the famous diamond that adorns the Queen's crown. But look a little further and you will see that Koh-i-Noor is also a rather good manufacturer of pencils, pens and general art supplies; in fact, they're one of the world's largest.
You wouldn't think that pottery and pencils had a common denominator, would you? But they do, at least in the case of the company that eventually became known as Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth. In 1789, Austrian entrepreneur Josef Hardtmuth invented a new kind of earthenware - Vienna ware - and promptly established a factory in said city. He subsequently went on - as you do - to invent artificial pumice and an unbreakable blackboard. He then discovered a way of mixing powdered graphite with clay, and succeeded in revolutionising the concept of the pencil. Up until his discovery, pencils were simply sticks of pure graphite glued between bits of wood. Perfectly serviceable, but a bit brittle, and quite expensive as production relied on having whole pieces of good quality graphite to hand. Josef's new method meant that every grade and condition of graphite could be used - including floor sweepings probably - which lowered production costs and made pencils affordable for the masses.
Josef died in 1816 but his enterprising ways enabled the continued success of the company. His two sons took up the mantle and in 1848 operations moved from Vienna to České Budějovice in what is now the Czech Republic, where raw materials, transport and labour were all cheaper. Two decades later, pots were pushed aside and pencils proliferated: the earthenware branch of the company became a thing of the past, as the demand for good pencils grew.
By now, Josef's grandson Franz was on board. A talented engineer, he succeeded in transforming manufacturing methods. Not only did he improve production efficiency, his innovations enabled the birth of the HB gradation system: H for Hardtmuth (or hardness), B for Budějovice (or blackness) and F for Franz (or the grade between HB and H). The new pencil range - released under the sequence number 1500 - was unveiled at the World Fair in Paris in 1889. Available in no less than 17 grades the pencils were yellow - quite startling in a time when most pencils were either painted a dark colour or not painted at all - and were named for what was then the largest diamond in the world, the bright yellow Koh-i-Noor. The name of the pencil became the name of the company and the 1500 pencil range is still going strong, except there are now 20 grades to choose from.
There was no stopping them after that. During the early 20th century, Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth was the largest pencil plant in the world, with the factory in České Budějovice turning out more pencils than all the factories in Germany put together. In 1913, an astonishing 300 million pencils were produced, a record that - as far as we know - remains unbroken.
The ensuing world wars, along with the change of regimes in Eastern Europe, meant that Koh-i-Noor Hardtmuth took a battering along with just about every other form of business. But they soldiered on and survived, managing to turn the changing tides into opportunities for other enterprises, including the manufacture of coffins at one point!
These days they stick to what they do best - producing a vast range of exceptional quality school, art and office supplies, including some of the world's most renowned pencils, even 'Magic' ones. First patented as far back as 1936, 'mosaic' - or multi-coloured - lead was originally intended for use in government departments, perhaps as a way of making it difficult to forge signatures. Now, of course, they're best known for being a unique way of creating and colouring in pictures, even by somebody as celebrated as Milton Glaser, a graphic designer probably best known for his posters but also the creative brains behind the 'Mad Men' campaign. He says: 'I use everything – crayons, magic markers, watercolors, pen and ink – but my favorite is the Koh-I-Noor multi-colored Magic Pencil. I buy them by the dozen. When you use one, it makes even a simple drawing look complex and difficult, so the client thinks you spent more time on it than you did.' They caused a sensation when they were first introduced at the Frankfurt fair in 2012.
But if you'd rather deal with a 'one pencil - one colour' type of situation, Koh-i-Noor's Polycolor Art Pencils are a delight to use. Beautiful, butter-soft, blendable pencils in a vast range of colours, we have them as singles, or in good quality tins of 12, 24 and even 72.
More of a mechanical pencil type of person? No problem. Koh-i-Noor make a range of lovely clutch and automatic pencils, many with sturdy metal barrels. And to complement the pencils, they have obviously created the leads to feed them, from a pleasingly plump 5.6mm down to a super-slimline 2mm.
And how about less common pencils? There is something curiously satisfying about both the Progresso and Jumbo Woodless Graphite pencils, for completely different reasons: the first because it's so slender and sleekly understated, and the second because it's so fat and 'in your face'. Both are heavyweights and both will make a mess of your fingers, but the Progresso lends itself more to someone who creates delicate line drawings, while the Jumbo is the sort of pencil that you can imagine flamboyant, slightly mad artists would plump for.
But whatever your tastes, Koh-i-Noor is bound to have something to suit. And you can rest assured that whatever you choose will be top quality. And won't be quite as expensive as their namesake…
8 September 2015