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A signature style

An interview with Philippe de Korodi, CEO, Caran d’Ache

It seems unusual for a manufacturer of writing instruments to exhibit its products during a watch and jewellery show, but Caran d’Ache, the only maker of premium pens in Switzerland, has what it takes to stand alongside the giants. After all, it has its own eminent history and philosophy, which give the company’s products their own extraordinary identity.

Philippe de Korodi, the Chief Executive of Caran d’Ache, speaks about the brand’s distinguished past and its innovative present.

Please tell me about the history of Caran d’Ache. Is this the first time it is participating in Basel?

Caran d’Ache has a very long history. It was founded in Geneva in 1924 and it has always been around with 100% Swiss production. We are the only manufacturers of writing instruments in Switzerland [as opposed to around 250 brands of watches]. So being unique is one of our qualifications. It is not the first time we’re in Basel, we were there last year and several years ago as part of our efforts to meet our customers. We have found that we have customers – be they retailers, distributors, or end consumers – who share the same passion for watches and for writing instruments. So we found it very logical to be in Basel and we will be here for the long term.

What does the name Caran d’Ache mean?

It’s a very interesting story. The name comes from Moscow, and then it went to Paris and came to Geneva. Napoleon Bonaparte went with his army to invade Russia, and he failed, as you know. One of his soldiers was wounded, was taken care of in Russia and decided to live there. He married a Russian woman and they had one son who was called Emmanuel Poiré. He became an artist and a cartoonist. To pursue his career he went back to his father’s country, and settled in Paris which is the capital of the arts at the time. He became a very famous cartoonist and he chose Caran d’Ache as alias, from karandash, which means pencil in Russian. So what’s the link with the company? Arnold Schweitzer, the founder of Caran d’Ache, is a big admirer of the works of Emmanuel Poiré. When he founded the company, he decided to call it Caran d’Ache, which shows that he was very much interested in art. The company started as a color pencil factory so a big part of the business consists of high-quality products for artists – paints, pastels, pencils. We have a big business with mechanical pencils as well as graphite or carbon pencils, which are often used by architects. They are also sold under the brand name Caran d’Ache.

What are the new products being launched this year?

We have a limited edition product, something that you have probably never seen in writing instruments before. Here we have a body made of ebena (ebony) wood. We have selected from equatorial Africa some of the best woods and you can see the quality of the fiber. What we do is we insert mother of pearl pieces as well as white gold, which requires very fine craftsmanship. Ninety percent of Caran d’Ache pens are coated with rhodium because it’s the most resistant of metals, and it gives our writing instruments a whitish metal colour that you will see nowhere else. Durability is very important for Caran d’Ache. Basically, it’s part of the Swiss culture of quality and attention to detail. Using rhodium allows us to give our pens a permanent value. If you buy one, I will make sure that you can pass it on to your children – that’s our philosophy.

The mechanism of a writing instrument seems very simple. Is there any complication involved in making a pen, other than external factors?

As you know, watches have their own complications, which is a magnificent world. In jewellery, you don’t have that level of sophistication but you have design and the stones. Writing instruments are somewhere in between. There are mechanisms. I’ve always been an aficionado of good pens, but I just discovered that the flow of ink is a living thing. To make sure that living things are producing constant quality and results is a very difficult thing to do. I can tell you it’s much more complicated than people expect. One of the characteristics of Caran d’Ache compared to many of our competitors is that we work with noble metals and we have a certain style that will catch the eye of connoisseurs or people with a distinctive taste. So it’s a combination of the three – mastery of the technicalities of writing, mastery of the metals and other materials, and mastery of design.

Are you planning to expand the product range beyond pens, for example, to leather products, cufflinks and others?

Yes, because people who buy writing instruments usually want a kind of accessory with it. For example, we have a lighter, we have cufflinks, and we have pens. However, the core of our strategy is to remain experts in fine writing instruments. You know so many brands that have extended to perfumes and ties and so on. That’s not the way we are going to develop the business. I think we are talking to people with expertise, but we’ll never be a multi-category brand. We’ll stick to our core specialisation in writing instruments, and I think this is why people will recognize us.

How can a pen manufacturing company survive at a time when people use computers and other gadgets more often?

The market is not increasing but it is not decreasing either. If you go to a restaurant for dinner or lunch, look around and you will see everybody has a watch, everybody has a mobile phone and everybody has a pen. People probably use the pen less often but they still use it to sign a document, to make a statement of taste, to write a personal note. So if you need to express yourself beautifully or make a personal statement, you’ll always use the pen. This device is still needed, and interestingly for us, the value of the pen per piece – although not the volume – is increasing. This is a very important development for us.

So the customer who wants to have a good pen is willing to pay extra for it.

Yes! And as I’ve said, we are not in the jewellery business, which means we are not simply sticking stones in our writing instruments. It’s nice to have a good watch, a ring or some other piece of jewellery. Wouldn’t it be nice to also use a premium pen that makes a statement?