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At Caran d’Ache

About coffee and pens and the smell of Inspiration

Whenever I talk to Americans and ask for the brands they associate with their childhood, they immediately say Crayola. If you ask a Swiss Person the same question, their answer would most probably be Caran d’Ache. But Caran d’Ache doesn’t leave you after childhood. The pens and supplies accompany you into your office or your studio if you decide to carry on your pen and color play. I’ve been in love with Caran d’Ache my entire life. I wrote my first ever Lettering with a cheap brush and my Caran d’Ache Gouche palette that I had since first grade. I literally got rid of all my ballpoint pens except my 849s. There was always this sense of nostalgia attached to it, and so many stories are interwoven with materials by this brand. So, when I was asked if I was interested in visiting the Nespresso Recycling Center and the Caran d’Ache pen factory in honor of their collaborative pen launch, I immediately took a day off my day job to take a look behind their doors. And I felt like I was stepping into some kind of pen wonderland.


 
Tuesday Morning, forth of June 2019. The alarm went off at 5.30, an hour before the bus that will be the first stop of my journey from Zürich to Moudon to Geneva. Coffee number two is empty as I leave the house and I am thankful to be welcomed to the Nespresso recycling center with another cup. (There was more coffee on the journey already, because, 5.30 a.m. and coffee addiction.) Nespresso is the coffee capsule and machine brand that seems to be found in almost all swiss households these days. As part of their recycling process there have been collaborations with brands over the last few years with iconic swiss products. There was a peeler, and a swiss army knife and a Caran d’Ache Ballpoint. This is the reason we are here, after last year’s blue edition, this year there is a green ballpoint pen.


I went into this journey slightly skeptical on the coffee side. I am a self-proclaimed coffee snob. Considering the incredible amounts of coffee entering my system every day, I decided very early on that a Nespresso machine would not cut it for me personally, because I had this notion it would be really really bad for the environment. I personally am a huge fan of manual brewing, pour over, French press and the mokka pot are part of my arsenal, paired with a burr grinder that does a wonderful job at creating perfect grounds for each method. I find joy in seeking out local coffee roasteries and supporting small businesses and buying fair trade single origin coffee from all over the world. Coffee has a special place in my heart and I wish everyone would enjoy it like I did. But that is not the case. I take a lot of time every morning to make my cup and it’s a kind of ritual that wakes me up. The usual coffee consumer wants their fix of caffeine fast. Yes, putting a capsule in a machine and pressing a button is really fast. But what happens then?

My parents own a Nespresso machine. One of my best friends owns one. The locations I teach at have one, and there is one sitting in the basement at my work that was in service until we upgraded to a multiple thousand swiss franc hyper fancy espresso machine. Nespresso is everywhere and so are the capsules and the waste that is produced. It was the waste that really concerned me going into this visit. I was wondering, how economical would that pen be? Made from recycled capsules. How much could actually be recycled of those capsules? I didn’t know. I had never really done any research on it.
 
After meeting with the representatives that would be our guides, we started our tour through the recycling center. Nespresso makes recycling really easy, that was one of my personal biggest surprises, a positive one. Nespresso has bags available to collect used capsules. They will be picked up for free at your home and brought to the nearest recycling center. Recycling is important, thus Nespresso will ensure that in every country their brand is sold, there is a recycling facility to take care of the metal and coffee and reintroduce it into the cycle.

Nespresso produces different kinds of capsules, there’s bigger capsules that are mostly used in the US, the classic line and the B2B capsules that are typically used in Offices. The B2B capsules are made from a lower grade of aluminum and will be separated out at the beginning. So there are two kinds of cubes pressed at the center. One from the big and classic lines and one from the B2B kind. This yields a purer result made from the classic and bigger sized capsules. The aluminum will be turned into different things, used in the industrial sector, to make new capsules but also to turn into these iconic products for brand collaborations, such as the Caran d’Ache pen. The coffee will be used to create bio gas.

What shocked me most when we visited the recycling center was the initial sight. The insides of the bags are first sorted by hand. There’s all kinds of wrong materials in the recycling bags. Coffee machines, batteries and capsules from Nespresso competitors. The machines and batteries are obviously at the wrong place here. And also, some of the competitive capsules are. Capsules made from aluminum will be recycled along the original Nespresso ones, capsules made from plastic are sorted out and will be trashed. The box of plastic capsules was the worst for me to see. Aluminum is a great metal because it can be recycled infinitely, because it does not degrade by being remelted and it is more environmentally friendly to recycle aluminum than to produce new one. Plastic on the other hand cannot be recycled as easily. I’m sure all of you know how incredibly bad plastic is for the environment and it is crucial to try and reduce as much single use plastic as possible. So if I learned anything from that trip than that the aluminum capsules are better to use than plastic. However, if you really care about drinking the least impactful coffee, get yourself some beans and a manual coffee maker, or use coffee pads, or grab some of the bio-degradable capsules that are starting to be more and more available.

I came into the Nespresso visit critical, however I was positively surprised that everything of the capsule is recycled. However, the ratio of recycling is still incredibly low. 50% is the ratio in Switzerland. Half of the capsules are still going god-knows-where and even though aluminum can be recycled, if it is not, it can still cause damage to the environment. This is why I think campaigns like the brand collaborations are important. It reminds people that the capsules aren’t trash, they are recyclable and it is very very easy to do so. Talking about the products that are made, and writing it on every pen is a constant reminder that “hey, these pods should be brought back.” Does that render drinking capsule coffee suddenly a super economical way of enjoying coffee? No, but it’s a convenience that can be less impactful than it might be right now. So. if you care about the world (and you really should) and love your Nespresso machine, go ahead and do everyone a favor by buying metal capsules or get bio-degradable ones. And if you opt for metal, bring it back. It’s free and it can be reintroduced to production to 100%. Let’s all work together to get the recycling rate up.

 

After visiting the recycling center and witnessing the tons and tons of metal cubes and seeing them pressed together, we went our way to the Caran d’Ache factory. But before that, we were treated to some very Insta-worthy fancy food. The salted caramel popcorn and quinoa chocolate pudding is still haunting my dreams and I have to figure out a way to make it myself.


At the restaurant we met the Caran d’Ache representative that would be our tour guide and learned a little bit more about the origins of the brand name. Caran d’Ache was founded in 1924 and was originally called “Fabrique Suisse de Crayons Caran d’Ache” (French, Swiss Factory of Caran d’Ache pencils). Caran d’Ache was the pen name used by the French cartoonist Emmanuel Poiré. Arnold Schweitzer, the founder of Caran d’Ache was a big Poiré fan (there is also currently a portrait of Poiré hanging on a wall made out of Caran d’Ache pencils).

Poiré was the grandson of a french soldier that stayed in Russia after going there with the napoleonian army, so Poiré was born in Russia. Once he was an adult, he moved to France and quickly took the pen name “Caran d’Ache” which is a phonetic representation of the Russian word карандаш (karandash) which means pencil.


What stunned me also was that the factory in Geneva is in fact the only production facility in the entire world for Caran d’Ache products. In case you ever wondered why the prices of their goods get so incredibly high outside of Switzerland, they gotta pay swiss wages and there is import cost involved. We also learned that the production site has been the same forever, so we knew we’d be entering a place full of the pen brand’s history. However, they will be moving out of the city in the upcoming years because doing industrial work in a city and driving the goods out into the world from it is quite inefficient. We experienced Genevan traffic first hand… but after being stuck on the streets for a while we finally made it.

The entrance to the parking lot is marked by a giant pencil at the gate and I still hate myself for not remembering to take a picture of it, but it’s big, maybe another time. During summer the facility closes at 3 since production starts a lot earlier to combat the heat. So we knew we were in for a sweat and a bit of a tight schedule. Unfortunately that meant we could not do the big tour through the paint production but we would be focusing on the fine writing section. As a fountain pen lover I knew I’d be super interested but inside I am still aching to see the entire color aspect.

As soon as you enter the door of the factory you are greeted with show windows and framed collections of historical products. On the right next to the door there was a big wall hanging that featured mostly pencils but also pencil cases. It’s crazy how much I connect Caran d’Ache with childhood. I had a friend who had an old metal case by Caran d’Ache that she had gotten from her mother and I remember how much I loved that case and wanted one too as a kid.

I still have this vivid memory of when I discovered my first creative outlet, constructing mandalas with a compass when I was around twelve and I remember I used Caran d’Ache water-soluble pencils that I dipped into a water glass to color them in. They are still the only colored pencils I own.


On the other end of the entrance there was a giant 3D 849 that was a showcase for all the different designs of this iconic ballpoint that was the center of our visit. Everyone present, started pointing out the different editions we all have at home. My teacher in second year of high school gave me a Zebra version as a going-away gift when I transferred to the high school that allowed me to pursue higher education. I remembered chemistry class too, because as part of one of our practical projects we got Caran d’Ache 849 bodies and colored them, I made a teal and dark-blue tie-dye. I have both of those pens to this day, the one I colored myself is scratched all over but it’s still the only ballpoint I carry with me.

I’m twenty-five and I only barely remember the show-windows that Caran d’Ache used to have in most major train stations. But Caran d’Ache has always had a history for creating “Automats”, automated puppets, or moving elements as part of their branding in these show windows. A collection of those that showcased the Caran d’Ache production process marked one of the corridors. All of it sprinkled with humor, day-drinking and sleeping workers moving along the way. I absolutely loved those windows. The upper floor felt like a museum. And as we walked down the stairs, there were Ads decorating the walls, all of them with the most beautiful illustrations and some pretty dope lettering work too.


When we finally got to the Fine Writing Production site I was already feeling like I had entered some kind of pen wonderland. We stepped through the door and were met by smiling faces and the classic Caran d’Ache red shirts of the workers. Everyone was answering questions and happy to show us more about the step they were involved in.

It all starts with metal tubes. Usually the 849 is made of brass and then there are a few different methods of how they are colored. Either through a chemical process, polishes, dyes, or a powdered finish. Depending on what finish is used, the clip has to be attached by hand to not scratch the surface. The Nespresso pen is produced out of aluminum instead of brass. I think I read a comment on Instagram if only the one Nespresso capsule in the corresponding color is used for the pen. And the answer to that is no. All capsules are melted down to create metal tubes, which are then cut in a machine and then the pieces are going through a machine that will give it the signature hexagonal shape and sharpened tip. It was crazy to see that only a single machine can make that step. I am a sucker for “how it’s made” videos so being able to see industrial production processes happening right in front of me was so cool.


After the pens are shaped, they will be colored, unfortunately we didn’t see any of that, but the next step is engraving. Caran d’Ache has different engraving techniques they use. The Nespresso pen is laser engraved, but they also have other methods where diamonds are used. We got to see how this beautiful arrow pattern was put on a shiny gold plated pen and saw different stages of their Chinese lacquer pens. Every year Caran d’Ache launches a pen to honor the symbols of the Chinese zodiac, it features some super intricate engraving and is absolutely stunning to see.

After engraving we saw some of the clip testing devices and they were such a mesmerizing sight. Melanie (@mel_lettering) who also was at the visit immediately knew I am one of those clicky-people that always have to click clack with their roller balls. Maybe it is because I am just the type, maybe my look gave away how incredibly satisfying I found the sound of those testing devices. Clickety-clack all day long.
The next room was the most silent one. Polishing. Polishing is done exclusively by hand at Caran d’Ache and now I know why the fine writing instrument prices are so high, there is quite a bit of manual labor involved. The polishing, the clip assembly, for some the entire pen assembly.

After polishing we saw the machine assembly of the Nespresso pen and also walked by the roller ball cartridge production. I love the Caran d’Ache shade of blue, it is just a little different than your regular ballpoint blue, but yeah, I still often end up refilling my 849 with black. Is anyone really surprised?



Caran d’Ache also has a lifetime warranty on all of their products, so if you ever have a problem you can send it in and they have a section of workers just for pen repair. So if you find an old pen from your grandfather lying in an old cupboard, they can fix it, even if the model is no longer being sold.

Lastly, we saw the woman that test drives every single gold nib fountain pen that leaves the factory. She manually fine-tunes every nib, which was super fascinating to observe. Oh, and in case you are a fountain pen nerd like me, the nibs are actually not in-house products, they are specially made for Caran d’Ache by Bock. In case you aren’t really into fountain pens, basically there are two big german nib manufacturers that produce nibs for a lot of companies, Bock and JoWo, Bock having the bigger share of brands here. There are a few companies that still produce in-house (Montblanc, Pelikan (used to be Montblanc, then Bock, then in-house), Lamy (they still use Bock for some specialty nibs)), in the Asian Markets there are mostly Pilot and Sailor nibs being used. This is why usually we distinguish between German and Japanese Nib Sizes, because it’s just those two countries that produce the biggest part of nibs being used. German sizing is generally a lot thicker in terms of line width, so if you order a fine nib, expect a pretty bold line.

Once we were done with the fine writing, we were allowed to take a short glimpse into the color section and got to visit the pigments storage. I really don’t think I’ve ever been in a better smelling storage room. No idea what it is but all the colored powders just exuded the most wonderful smell. If I ever had to pick a smell of what Inspiration should smell like before I visited the Caran d’Ache factory I would most definitely have said petrichor. Now, one of my favorite smells that always makes me wanna write stories is fighting a battle. The smell of a pigment room is pretty spectacular and everything I wanted to do after leaving Caran d’Ache was A) run back in and go see how the paint is made and B) run home to my desk and write and C) run to my bank account and empty it to buy a Gold-Plated Varius Fountain pen. Unfortunately I was stuck for 2h in a train so none of the three things happened. But it was an incredible day full of new acquired knowledge and walking down memory lane and finding inspiration in the tools we use.


Oh and did I mention I got to see all the incredible limited edition stuff they did? It was insane! A rocket pen, time pieces that were used to sign important documents, shell inlays, pearls it was just too gorgeous to all take in and to really put into words.



A quick video of the impressions that can never do it justice but I tried.

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So, today was amazing. Had the chance to go see how the new #carandachexnespresso collaboration is made. We started by learning all about how @nespresso.ch capsules are recycled, aluminum basically can be recycled endlessly, so what happens is with the #nespressosecondlife collaborations iconic products are made out of the recycled capsules, like a classic swiss peeler, an army knife or the iconic #carandache849 ballpoint. So the recycled aluminium cubes are melted and made into tubes and then turned into the ballpoint pen everyone around here knows. We had the chance to see the manufacturing process at the @carandache factory in geneva and there was so many things that just made my heart so happy. Like that one room with all the insane limited edition fountain pens or the woman that finetunes every single gold nib pen that leaves the factory. Such a fascinating day full of wonderful images I won't forget in a while. So many things I wanna talk about, so I'm probably also gonna write on my blog about it – the entire Caran d'Ache factory is just so insanely pretty and full of nostalgia and awakening so many memories I have of and with their pens.

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Caran d’Ache and Nespresso invited me to this visit, there was no financial compensation for this post and all expressed opinions are my own.

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