Thursday, April 18, 2013
Recently, our Palomino business unit announced the newest addition to our Blackwing pencil range, the Blackwing “Pearl”. Here is the first photo of the "Pearl" set to make it's official debut on May 2nd at Pencils.com and other dealers around the world. You can register for the Studio602 newsletter updates at Pencils.com for more information on just when the product will go live.
May also marks two years since we introduced our “602” model as a follow up to our first Palomino Blackwing pencil launched in October 2010. Since then, we’ve focused on building awareness and distribution for our two Blackwing pencil models, as well as our flagship Palomino and ForestChoice brands. This included introduction of a complementary range of high quality notebooks and sketchbooks. We’ve been pleased with the progress, as many of these three product ranges are now available in an increased variety of online and independent retail stores throughout the U.S. and Canada, as well as growing international distribution in Europe, Australia and Asia.
Over the past two years, we’ve received numerous requests for new Blackwing items from fans as well as our dealers and distributors. Many want new color combinations for the casing and/or erasers and others have made suggestions for alternative graphite formulations. We’ve also considered numerous requests for custom imprint services on Blackwing pencils similar to the custom imprint options now available on our traditional Palomino HB eraser tipped pencils.
One of our key concerns in introducing any additional Blackwing pencils has been positioning the new pencil for use when it comes to differentiation of the graphite performance. In the tradition of the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencils, we’ve never published a specific hardness grade for our Blackwing models. When we launched our 602 model in 2011 we introduced the “firm and smooth” and “soft and smooth” descriptors to differentiate the new pencil from our original Palomino Blackwing in the black matte finish, which has a much softer, buttery feel loved by those doing a lot of sketching, music notation and other activities that require a dark mark. The “firm & smooth” 602 has been well received by those doing extended writing and note taking who want longer lasting performance between sharpening in a pencil that more closely replicates the original Blackwing 602 in performance, look and feel. Adding new grades and colors and keeping such graphite performance descriptors certainly foretells future taxonomy challenges and increases potential for confusion among consumers, so we’ve thought much about this before proceeding. In fact we've already had a few interesting suggestions from fans on coming up with our own Blackwing graphite grade scale to simplify things down the road.
Given that we already have a well-received graded graphite range in the Palomino brand, we’re not looking to replicate that by continuing to add a large variety of graphite grades in the Blackwing brand. In selecting a course of action for adding one additional grade we could have gone firmer than the “602” or even softer than the Blackwing, but we experimented with several options and looked at things within the context of our wider artist graphite range and decided to go for something in the middle to fit the broadest user base which offers about the same darkness of the 602, with a bit softer feel that still gives improved wear rates vs. the “soft & smooth” model. We’ve decided to call it our “balanced & smooth” formulation.
For the casing décor, we chose a completely new effect by adding a pearly luster finish to contrast with the flat matte black of the Blackwing and the gunmetal metallic look of the 602 model. White is our most requested color for lacquer finishes and we think it looks just great with this new finish style. Thus the combination of white lacquer and pearly finish lead us naturally to name this pencil the Blackwing Pearl. We chose a black imprint for a stronger contrast, which looks great with the black eraser combination. In fact, we think the Pearl will look great with all six of our available eraser colors, which allows for further personalization or “hacking” for those so inclined.
We can see the Pearl being popular for use in home office décor or used as great guest gifts in weddings and other special events, but also well received for a broad range of existing uses by our fans and new initiates. In reality, regardless of the many different uses of our Palomino or Blackwing pencils, the selection of any specific pencil is always a matter of personal preference. In that sense, we think there is plenty of opportunity for you to find the pencil that is “just right” for your individual taste or a specific need in different situations throughout our full Palomino family as it’s grown and adapted over the past two years. We hope you’ll try out the Pearl and continue to discover the great function, design and performance of our developing Palomino family of products that help you to express your creative spirit in new and exciting ways.
Thursday, February 28, 2013
This post initiates an extended project I’ve given long consideration to pursue on Timberlines. That is, writing more extensively on my long running interest in the study of natural history and in particular the history of early naturalists as well as the development of various scientific disciplines within the broad field of natural history.
One of the major influences in this hobby was my grandfather and namesake, Charles P. Berolzheimer, whose broad intellectual curiosity in the sciences, including botany, forestry, wood-machining among many other fields of study as well as my exposure to his extensive library which he developed over a lifetime of scholarship. Both during his lifetime and after his death in 1995 I was quite fortunate to receive from his collection a number of books which focused on the natural history topics I find most interesting. He was a unique individual, equally comfortable giving a technical speech on wood sciences in several languages, discussing art and enlightenment thinking or walking through the woods collecting and assembling his personal herbaria. He was particularly fond of trees and fungi. My access to this collection of books has spurred my own further research into these topics, sometimes in specific technical fields, but more generally focusing on the human side of the story of those individuals who advanced knowledge in particular areas of interest, the early field naturalists, discoverers, catalogers or researchers.
My first post in this series covers Hough’s American Woods. I’ve selected this work as a first post not so much due to Hough being an early pioneer of natural history study, though the scope of his work and focus on documenting physical wood samples of American tree species was indeed pioneering in many respects, but rather as this work strikes a bit closer to home for me with respect to the influences of my Grandfather and his interest in area relative to wood processing and treatment.
Hough’s work is a multivolume collection of wood cuts including the Transverse, Radial and Tangential section to show physical specimens exhibiting the natural character of woods, both native and introduced to North America, that he considered import to the study of forestry. The series in total includes 14 volumes and 350 individual species. Each volume includes both the section samples of 25 species as well as a bound pamphlet describing the individual species general and technical information as well as general information covering a range of topics from taxonomy, botanical identification of parts of trees and on the geographic area specific to each volume. The author, Romeyn B. Hough, personally supervised the selection of living tree samples of each species to assure accurate identification and production of the physical sections. The final 14th and final volume was published posthumously in 1928 with his daughter writing the pamphlet.
Given the broad geographic distribution of species extensive work required to identify, harvest and prepare these samples it’s not surprising the publication of this multi-volume work spanned from 1888 to his death in 1924. The specific care to assure proper drying, cutting and preservation of actual wood samples that would stand up without degrade now over 100 years later relates specifically to the technical study of wood chemistry and machining that my grandfather dedicated his own professional career to given our company's role in supply of wood to the Pencil Industry. American Woods is certainly a labor of love, which in his first Volume Hough dedicated to his own father, who in addition to his influence in Hough’s study of nature he also credits the original suggestion of the pursuit of the body of work covered in this entire series, officially titled, The American Woods, Exhibited by Actual Specimens and with Copious Explanatory Text.
Naturally of all the possible woods in these volumes I’ve chosen to feature sample number 141, Libocedrus Decurrens, or California Incense Cedar. This species is included in Part VI (published in 1895) which covers specifically woods of trees found growing in the Pacific Slope of the U.S. (a scan from my personal collection is shown) (today the Genus Calocedrus has commonly replaced the original taxonomy Libocedrus). Incense cedar first began to be investigated for pencil production around 1906 by our family members at the Eagle Pencil Company and produced commercially into slats at their Hudson Lumber Company mill. For more information on Incense cedar in pencil slat production, read here.
Originally, this collection sold for $5 per volume. Today a complete set including the 14th Edition sells for tens of thousands. You can see all the wood cuts from Hough's American Woods on line here.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012
The CEI has put together a nice website ipencilmovie.org that includes the movie and a supporting curriculum and many other resource links. So it's a great new resource for teachers wishing to give thier students a good introduction to some of the key economic concepts behind Read's essay.
We've agreed to do some cross links from our Story of Pencils pages over at at Studio602 on Pencils.com, to help build awareness of this new learning resource.
Friday, August 10, 2012
The Summer Jazz Colony occurring this week is one of core programs of the Institute which brings in 18 of the country’s top high school jazz musicians for further training in music theory and performance with dedicated artists in residence and special guest performers and instructors. Including Blackwing featured artist, Christian Tamburr. Here’s a quick clip of Christian at his performance last Sunday at the new Take 5 Jazz Club, nearby the University and the Brubeck Institute. The Wednesday Jam session I attended featured some very talented young musicians playing Brubeck songs and sit ins with instructors as well as special guest, another vibraphonist Stefon Harris
One of the special gems of the Institute is the Brubeck Collection, an archival collection of Dave and his wife Iola’s life’s work in music, international diplomacy and active leadership in the civil rights movement. Iola, herself a playwright, collaborated with Dave on a number of projects. About 20 Brubeck Insitute embassadors had the opportunity for a personal tour of the University’s Holt-Atherton Archives which house not only the Brubeck Collection, but also the John Muir Papers collection which holds about 75% of the extant papers of Muir. Michael Wurtz, University Archivist, informed us of some fascinating facts on Dave and Iola’s lives and careers, and we got to see first-hand a number of these important letters, contracts, albums, marketing materials, music scores and more.
One interesting fact is that Dave really couldn’t read and write music on paper himself much. His creative, improvisational style just wouldn’t conform well to putting something fixed on paper. When he did compose some of his more extensive orchestral arrangements his brother or another collaborator usually did most of the music notation. We were shown one of the first pieces of music he wrote for a school assignment which he subsequently was told what he played was very good, but wasn’t what he had written. Dave tore up the score and threw it away. A fellow student saved the pieces from the trash taped them together and later sent them to Dave as a memento. Here's a link to one of Dave's scores a lullaby from 1941, though I could not find a digitized image for the torn score we were shown during the presentation.
Finally, I was very pleased to see the “Use Pencils Only” sign in front of desk of Special Collections Assistant, Trish Richards, shown in the photo above. Certainly, they want to protect these one of a kind archival materials from any accidental ink spills; another important benefit of pencils over pens. I don’t know if Dave and Iola have ever been Blackwing pencil users, but perhaps some time in the Archives exploring may turn up a photo or other evidence as to their preferred pencil brands. I was able to leave a special gift of several dozen Blackwing pencils for the Summer Jazz Colonists and members of the Brubeck Institute.
Tuesday, July 24, 2012
My last post addressed recent news regarding allegations of illegally imported Chinese pencils. In order to avoid anti-dumping duties these pencils were apparently transshipped via third party countries such as Taiwan, Vietnam and Indonesia and mislabeled as to country of origin. Today I am addressing the overall U.S. market for pencils and future of U.S. production of pencils relative to how I see this topic coupled with other developing industry trends.
The rise of computers, tablets, or smart phones over this period have yet to prove to me that these technologies are going to displace writing instruments and pencils as a whole. Technology certainly can impact how and where we use pencils at the margins. However, there is a strong emotional and tactile connection people have with their preferred writing tools and the physical act of depositing graphite, ink, paint or color pigments onto paper. What could impact per capita pencil consumption even more than technology is allowing another generation of kids to be raised without access to and experiencing the use of good quality pencils. This could drive consumption patterns to alternate writing instruments in the long term. Despite the benefit of ever cheaper wood-cased pencils on household budgets over the past 20 years , one negative byproduct has been exposing children, teachers and other consumers to a general reduction in the quality of the average pencil sold here in the U.S. At Pencils.com one of our most common consumer questions is: “Where can I find a decent pencil at a reasonable price in which the lead won’t break, the eraser works without smearing and that actually writes well?” Teachers often report that the simple act of more frequent breakage and sharpening has become a disruption in the classroom.
Wednesday, July 11, 2012
Today I estimate that less than 10% of U.S. pencil consumption consists of pencils actually manufactured in the United States. Certainly the actual market share of the traditional U.S. producers is much higher when factoring in production imported from their own facilities in Mexico or China plus what they import from other foreign producers. Perhaps 50% of the U.S. market today are pencils imported directly from China, despite the anti-dumping duties of 114% levied on Chinese pencils since 1994. Most of these direct Chinese imports do not pay the full anti-dumping duty given that provisions under the statutes allow for a review process with the U.S. Commerce department that results in reductions in these duties applicable to some Chinese producers/exporters. However, the review process is expensive and only the largest Chinese producers that export to the US participate. As a result it has been long suspected that there also have been a substantial number of Chinese produced pencils being illegally transshipped via third countries to avoid these duties. Suspecting and proving such transshipments however are separate matters.
Now for the first time since implementation of the duties it was made public in May that there is an active civil case proceeding against several large U.S. retailers and importers for participating in the importation of illegal transshipped Chinese pencils via countries such as Taiwan, Indonesia and Vietnam. This case was filed in 2008 by the Cullen Law Firm in Washington, D.C. per the this press release published May 17, 2012. The public docket was made available May 1st. Note that at this time these remain only allegations, but if the case prevails there are substantive fines and penalties that would be accruing going back to at least 2006 as it’s not just the transshipment to avoid duties that is a potential violation, but also incorrect marking relative to country of origin laws as well.
Friday, June 08, 2012
Today marks the 1 year anniversary of the introduction of our Palomino Blackwing 602 pencil for sales on Pencils.com. It's been a fun first year with alot of positive developments, including most recently our original Palomino Blackwing pencil being featured in an upcomming movie. But today is really about poetry.
As we are celebrating Literature and Poetry as our theme on the Studio602 blog this month and yesterday we launched our Pencils.com Poetry Slam contest I thought I'd share this video for a bit of inspiration. Hope you'll enter by June 19th for a chance to win a great giftset.
Friday, April 13, 2012
I find myself in the distasteful postion to publish the following letter, which in my view should be a private communication between Sean Malone, the Publisher & Editor of Blackwing Pages and myself. Unfortunately, the increasing intensity and method of his campaign against me and our company and now the additional posts of a couple others which appear to have jumped on certain of his themes, have now crossed a line where I feel some public clarification is required. Given Mr. Malone's approach to date, I felt it best to publish the entire letter and let you decide for yourself. I realize by publishing this letter I am opening myself up to further criticism and to further parsing of my intentions to fit the purposes of my detractors. I have always prided myself on my overall transparency. I could have approached Sean sooner to address his claims, but it has been unclear by his actions to date that any earlier response or even this letter will do any good. I hope it will, but who knows. Then again neither Mr. Malone, nor anyone else who has been critical, has ever bothered to directly contact me or my team these past few months to address their greivences. I have also just responded over at Pencil Talk to a new post on related topics to furher clarify certain questions asked today.
April 13, 2012
Sean Malone, Publisher/Editor
In the last three months you have devoted a great deal of energy to not only criticizing the marketing efforts around our Palomino Blackwing pencils, but more recently to calling into question my personal integrity and the reputation of our company. Now you’ve apparently enlisted others in your campaign. I am honestly startled as to how we got to this point. In my acknowledging an inadequately vetted claim about Frank Lloyd Wright’s use of a Blackwing, it seemed that we were both interested in documenting as available the history of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 and the following it engendered. Prior to that event, I felt we have had a long, positive and mutually supportive relationship where you had willingly provided various images, sent us music scoring sheets for promotional photography purposes, etc. and had never expressed any sentiment that you were dissatisfied with the manner in which we may have utilized any material from your blog. In fact in our e-mail ommunication of Jaunary 6th after the whole FLW affair, I apologized again personally to you for our faux paux and invited you to be an active participant in our planned Blackwing Experience event to help us get the facts right. You indicated you had nothing against me personally nor were you trying to assert some moral high ground on the issue.
You also politely declined my invitation to participate in the Blackwing Experience event, which I have fully respected. As such, I directed our team to work on our own historical research elative to prior users of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing and to provide appropriate attribution for source materials. We have done just that. In fact, our “Blackwing in Pop Culture” page on our recently published Palomino Brands website lists sources for each Blackwing user mentioned, lus includes a link to a bibliography page. None of these reference your work as they have done independent verifications, respecting your wishes not to be associated with our endeavors.
We have also reached out to a number of users, and families of users, of the original EF Blackwings with very positive and supportive results and continue to focus on that effort. In fact, the grandson of Chuck Jones, head of one of the many estates of former users who support our efforts, extended his appreciation personally for us bringing back the Blackwing because it was such “a huge part of what Chuck was able to accomplish”. He will be a participant in our panel discussion on Creativity and what it means to pick up a pencil in the digital age. An invitation I ould have gladly extended also to you, but again, you declined any involvement. We have the upport of not only Mr. Jones’ estate, but as I understand it from the estates of Nelson Riddle and ohn Steinbeck, among others. Stephen Sondheim himself is a fond user of our Palomino lackwing pencils and has voiced his support of our Blackwing revival publicly in his book and privately, as well as of the upcoming Blackwing Experience exhibit in New York. We are expecting a very informative Blackwing Experience event in New York that both honors the reative legacy associated with the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 pencil as well as brings to the forefront the talents of the fans of our new Palomino Blackwing generation of pencils.
In recent weeks, however, since our last private communication in early January, the frequency and intensity of your posting activity has increased, as has the series of ever-critical posts and attacks on both me and CalCedar. You have parsed the language used in our communications to fit your arguments and challenged nearly every new piece of information we have put out about Blackwing pencils or the upcoming event. Your invective has now bridged the gap to calling me both a thief and a liar and to attacking the integrity of third parties, Justin Oberman and The Art Directors Club. On that latter subject, we are advised by counsel that the fleeting use of your picture of pencils in the documentary and enlightening video on pencil sharpening was well within fair use rights by video’s creator. I never saw that piece before it was published as it was a project between other parties; though I now see we were given a credit as “Palomino Presents”. Had I seen it, I would have immediately recognized your photo and suggested it be changed to one we could happily provide, and in fact the offending photo has since been replaced. However, I am probably the only one who would have recognized that photo as coming from your blog as with most other historical material on Blackwing Pages. Our day to day team has simply not been referencing Blackwing Pages since early January, until your recent aggressive posting activity against our company has necessitated such visitation to assess your claims.
There seems no substantive reason for your harsh treatment of Justin, except for his association and collaboration with our company on the upcoming event, and perhaps that you feel he has not apologized to you for accidental use of your photo. Likewise, your statements about me and CalCedar have now become defamatory. If you feel we have “stolen” anything from you or take issue with anything else, please feel free to contact me directly and privately, and I give you my personal assurance that I will investigate specific and clear claims you may have. I am open to considering that there may have been one or two places we could have erred since the FLW issue, I understand a couple factual errors were corrected when brought to our attention, but your claim that this is somehow evidence of some underhanded strategy or theft on our part is ludicrous. You have not once shown the courtesy of communicating such specific concerns directly to me in all this time, preferring instead to use your blog as bully pulpit. However, public and potentially libelous charges through your blog seem inappropriate and counter-productive to the support that the original Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602, our new Palomino Blackwing models and all pencils in general deserve. I stopped commenting on your blog because you told me you didn’t want any association with our efforts and because your attacks indeed became personal and morally based contrary to your communication to me on January 6th.
Sean, I don’t expect you to agree with me on the marketing approach to CalCedar’s business, and indeed there are other protectors of the original Blackwing product. You are entitled to your opinions on these subjects. We have never claimed we are producing an exact replica of the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602. It’s impossible to do so in my opinion. We are trying to do the best we can to produce a modern successor and build a new following for our Blackwing pencils, as a premier writing instrument, one that honors the creative tradition of the original pencil and its users. Those values are inherent in the Blackwing brand whether printed on an Eberhard Faber version or a Palomino version. It is your prerogative to rail on these efforts, but the increasing move towards outright defamation is simply inappropriate. Hopefully, we can discuss and resolve these issues reasonably and move on. I hope you’ll agree there are more important things we can both be attending to in our lives.
California Cedar Products Company
Monday, January 02, 2012
So picture my mood last night, alone on the road thinking, "Here we go again, what a lousy start to the New Year!", kicking myself for failing to button up all the details before leaving the beach earlier in the day, half-resenting my wife who's comfortable at home despite offering to accompany me. In an effort to change this dark disposition I turned on Sirius radio looking for some Jazz and was surprised to find a rebroadcast of NPR's Piano Jazz with Marian McPartland from 1994 featuring an hour long session interviewing and playing with Stephen Sondheim. I had only missed the first 10 minutes or so. As I am also a fan of musical theater (performing some show tunes now and then as part of a chorus) and of Sondheim's work, (not just because he's a great fan of the Blackwing pencil), I couldn't help thinking about Angel's tire and that perhaps good providence was returning again to salvage my first day of the year once again.
This is a great listen. There is some great discussion between Stephen and Marian in this segment and with her playing some of his tunes on piano with her own interpretations and Stephen commenting back about those as well as his own thoughts and stories about composing those songs. One of my favorite parts is when she plays "Send in the Clowns" and he talks about both the Sinatra version, re-scored by Nelson Riddle (another Blackwing pencil user) and trying to get Nelson to change something he didn't like and then alternatively willingly making a change for Barbara Streisand request on another change in the same tune as he agreed with the reason for the change. This segment starts about 22 minutes into the session, though the whole show is a highly recommended listen and very enjoyable.
I forgot fully about my false start to the year and even had a lovely drive back this morning witnessing a gorgeous sunrise coming up over the fog rolling out of the central valley and covering the lower reaches of the San Luis Reservoir as I drove down the pass. I just had to stop and take the photo here along the way. Then I return to the office this morning and find an e-mail from Justin over at Obercreative that had come in over the holiday with a scan of a page from Sondheim's new book "Look, I Made a Hat". In it Sondheim mentions "In Finishing the Hat I sang a paean of praise to the Blackwing pencil" and then goes on to mention. The timing really couldn't be any better. What a great start to the New Year. Going to have to order this ASAP.
So thanks Stephen and thanks to Angel for brightening up my false starts these past two New Years. And to any of you who'd had a somewhat slow beginning to the new year I hope this story has been at least a little "enlightening". Happy New Year and here's to having a great and very creative 2012.
Friday, December 09, 2011
I am very pleased to announce “Blackwing Sessions”, a new adventure in expanding the range of fresh content we are producing to support creativity and the use of pencils. Blackwing Sessions is a new production from Studio 602, our entertainment and educational blog at Pencils.com. The inaugural Blackwing Sessions video features my good friend Christian Tamburr as our first Blackwing Featured musical artist, and will be released on Studio602 in its full length version on Monday December 12th. Until then here is a short teaser cut from the full length version. More about Christian and the Blackwing Sessions below.
Christian’s musical talents in the jazz world as a top vibraphonist (he plays a mean piano too) are well respected, and include an "Outstanding Jazz Solo Performer" award from Downbeat Magazine. He and a growing number of talented musicians have become big fans of our Blackwing pencils for scoring and other notation purposes. The video was filmed during the recording session for Christian’s new album “Places”. It includes interviews with Christian and his quartet members about their creative process and tools used in composing, performing and recording their music. It also features the process of working out the intro of and then recording of the final cut to “Sailing Serenity”, one of 4 original compositions by Christian included in this album. The remaining 5 songs are some great arrangements of other artists tunes including the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” with a fun modern groove and Julio Iglesias’ “La Carratera” featuring a nice Latin feel. Coincidentally, Christian served as musical director and piano player for Julio on the road for three years.
Friday, October 28, 2011
The recent news of the US Fish & Wildlife Service raid and seizure of Rosewood and Ebony wood raw materials as well as guitars from Gibson Guitars and subsequent claims by Gibson's CEO that the US government is over reaching in its actions has an interesting relevance to challenges also faced by our company and our customers in the U.S. pencil industry. Here are links to three articles about the Gibson issue over the past month:
- Trade Law Hits Note for Guitar Maker Gibson - September 19, 2011
- Gibson Guitars Wood Imports Case Raises Concerns - September 30, 2011
- Gibson Guitars CEO slams US raids as "Overreach" - October 12, 2011
At issue is the application of the 2008 Amendment to the Lacey Act, a law originally established in 1900 governing the illegal trafficking of hunted wildlife and game across state lines and since inception has continually expanded in scope and breadth to cover fish and plants. The law is administered by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) within the U.S. Department of Agriculture and jointly enforced with U.S. Department of Fish & Game which is the lead agency in the case against Gibson Guitars.
Under the 2008 amendment the law was extended to plants, wood and products made from wood and plant materials. The amendment requires importers of applicable products to certify that the wood materials used in their products were not obtained from illegally harvested materials or include any protected or threatened tree species. The amendment implemented a number of documentation and declaration requirements that must now accompany each import shipment with respect to specific species used, country of origin of the trees from which the wood product was produced and statements relative to the legal harvesting of the trees used in the. Knowingly importing wood or wooden products covered by the law is a violation of the law subject to both civil and criminal penalties. Heralded as an improvement in environmental policy the amendment was also supported by the Bush Administration as a protectionist measure for the US timber and wood products industry against lower cost imported woods.
While I have no specific knowledge of and cannot speak to the specific issues involved with Gibson's case I can certainly state that illogical and inconsistent application of the rules process by government agencies responsible for enforcing the Lacey Act is a ripe example of the "law of unintended consequences" as with much government regulation. CalCedar has been deeply involved in addressing the 2008 Lacey Act amendment relative to compliance of our own pencil wood supply as well as understanding the impacts of the law on our company, our customers and the pencil industry supply chain as a whole.
We have long taken an industry leadership position in assuring the wood resources we utilize are harvested from well managed forests according to applicable rules and regulations in any countries we source our wood from. We have and continue to support industry efforts to increase the overall sustainability and have been a pioneer in implementing FSC and SFI third party certification to an increasing proportion of our wood supply. Thus in concept implementation of the Lacey Act amendments in 2008 was a step in a positive direction with a goal of eliminating illegally sourced raw material or utilization of any threatened plant species. Though the standards applied as to what’s illegal or legal or threatened or not can vary from country to country as the Lacey Act simply requires compliance to the applicable laws in the country of harvest. Thus the level of added environmental protection here is inconsistent from country to country.
The Lacey Act requirements added a whole new level of documentation and due diligence required for us to supply slats to our US based pencil manufacturing customers. This included updated investigations and documentation of our wood supply chain and added costs of consulting in the investigation with an accredited third party certification agency as to appropriate precautions including the added burden to segregate and/or eliminate any wood of potential concern and to maintain clear chain of custody of all our through the supply chain. All of this was already occurring with respect to our FSC and SFI material in both Cedar and Basswood, but we felt it important to apply these processes to the balance of our Basswood supply chain. Where we could not clearly document exact origin we sorted out the material to create yet another classification of inventory. Thus with respect to our Basswood pencil slats we now must keep separate inventory and track three different groups of products; FSC certified, Lacey Compliant and standard inventory which we do not believe is a compliance concern but will not take the risk of selling into the US market without clear chain of custody back to the forest.
However, this burden of declaration documentation was not extended to the importers of pencils themselves. Thus wood sold to our customers who produce pencils in the US is subject to the documentation requirements while finished imported pencils are not, placing an added burden on U.S. pencil producers. Given that the majority of pencils consumed in the U.S. today and before the amendment took effect were imported this inconsistent application of the statute to intermediate vs. finished products hardly serves to protect US manufacturing jobs or to ensure that the majority of pencils sold in the US are indeed Lacey Act compliant. This does not mean many or even most pencils are not compliant, just that the chances are higher that they could be. As far as musical instruments are concerned importation of pianos and stringed musical instruments, including guitars, seem to have become subject to the documentation and declaration requirements in April 2010, so in this case it appears the compliance playing field may be a bit more level between US and Foreign producers in that industry.
Next, the rules are not very specific on the level of sufficient due diligence to protect an importer from prosecution and civil and criminal penalties under the act. The "due care" principal is used which is generally contextually applied depending upon the level of organizational expertise and level of involvement in the supply chain of the importer of record. Thus as an experienced wood products manufacturer standards for "due care" applied to our company may be interpreted by the relevant agency differently than that of an importer of finished pencils who tends to rely solely upon the level of documentation they choose to request from their supplier. In many cases such suppliers are simply foreign trading companies, not manufacturers themselves, relying on the say so of their own supplier. With much pressure put on the price of imported pencils and other wood products this provides some level of incentive to less ethical suppliers to fudge in the information provided to their U.S. import customer. If a U.S. importer does not perform an on the ground investigation or use a knowledgeable third party certification agency, which is not specifically required under the statute, and simply relies on the paperwork provided by their supplier, they may be at some elevated risk of exposure to prosecution as to whether they employed “due care” in the event there is ultimately some problem found with the legality of the raw materials. This essentially becomes a risk management exercise for each importer with differing levels of risk tolerance and exposure.
Finally, as a knowledgeable U.S. company operating our own facility in China and selling globally we are more at risk of punishment under this U.S. act than are our foreign competitors. It’s going to be difficult for a U.S. importer penalized under the act to recoup any fines even if they have some form of guarantee. As such we've taken a more conservative approach to managing this issue in our company. This is also more costly than most of our foreign competitors especially those who are exporting finished pencils to the US where no specific requirements for their U.S. import customers to file the import declarations. This does not mean those pencils are not subject to requirement to be legally harvested, but they have less risk of being challenged as to compliance.
As a company we are continually working to insure that an increasing portion of our wood supply to the pencil industry actually is part of one or more accepted third party certification programs, most specifically FSC or SFI, under the PEFC umbrella. Given both inflationary cost and supply developments with respect to Basswood in China resulting from the Chinese government now enforcing greater harvest restrictions we are currently testing and introducing a new 100% FSC certified product line named Pacific Albus. This new product is U.S. plantation grown and fully Lacey Act compliant. We see Pacific Albus becoming increasingly important versus Chinese or Russian grown Basswood in our company’s supply program and is a product that will be proprietary to our company. I expect to post more about this new product range as we move forward with greater adoption and acceptance into the industry by our customers.
Tuesday, October 25, 2011
This expansion of brands at Pencils.com is a part of our continuing effort to introduce more of the products of our pencil slat customers’ from around the world. This allows us to increase the breadth of great high quality pencil offerings on Pencils.com, some of which are not readily available or well known in the U.S. Market. It also helps increase awareness and appreciation of some great pencils and of the wood-cased pencil in general. Given our close relations as a wood slat supplier to many producers around the world, we hope to continue growing our offering mix quite a bit over the next year.
This week also marks my annual visit to Tokyo to visit a number of our pencil slat customers and to work with our Palomino and Blackwing producer about production planning and product development for new pencil items we expect to introduce in 2012. Most notably a Palomino quality, private label pencil program, though we’ll share more about this in the coming months as that program moves closer to launch.
The Japanese Pencil industry is probably one of the most interesting domestic pencil industries in the world. Relatively young by comparison to its European and US counterparts with several brands dating back 100+ years, most Japanese production and development of wood-cased pencils began in the post World War II era. Over the past 20 years the industry has been subject to many of the globalization pressures faced by other developed western markets it also faces an extra challenge of demographic trends; a declining and aging population which means the consumption of pencils in Japan is actually declining year to year and has been for some time. Japan is the highest cost pencil production market in the world which is reflected in their prices. As a result very little exportation of Japanese wood-cased pencils is occurring, so the local market dictates overall production trends domestically. (In fact Pencils.com with our Palomino and Blackwing products and more Japanese pencils coming may be one of the largest volume export distributors to North America already.)
Despite these trends the Japanese production supply chain remains relatively intact and traditional without the degree of radical makeovers of mergers, acquisitions, or the extent of off-shoring production that the industry has witnessed in North America and Europe. Yes, there are certainly fewer producers over time, with several dropping out over the pat few years, but the basic structure has been relatively static. Also taken in context of relative market size vs. Europe and North America there are actually proportionately more Japanese companies actively involved in the production of pencils and pencil components in Japan today than in these other regions.
Why is this? Several factors contribute.
First, Japan is a high quality and brand loyal market with consumers who understand the difference between good and bad pencils and are willing to pay the difference. The 100 yen pencil is quite common and Beyond the major brands, Mitsubishi with its Hi-Uni and Tombow with it’s Mono, there has long been a unique demand for specialty pencils that also give a collectibles status such as “Character Pencils”, popular Disney, Pokemon and Anime characters licensed to either a pencil producer or a marketing company that contracts a local producer to produce their pencils. “Game Pencils” which treat the 6 sides of the pencil as a sort of die which children can roll against one another and win each other’s pencils. And a whole range of designer theme pencils. Such innovations were first made popular in the Japan before being adopted by some US companies focusing on the school pencil market as they attempted. Even if a marketing company has the rights to a character they most generally still use a Japanese sub-contractor for quality reasons and there have been a few lessons learned about the expectations of the Japanese consumer when the quality of an imported character pencil was not up to par. In the US, more and more of such license or designer theme pencils are imported by marketers from lower cost manufacturing, with just a couple companies actively producing such pencils in the US today. In Japan all the companies are involved in this segment of the market.
Second, the unique structure of the Japanese industry involves a variety of specialist subcontractors, some who only specialize in one or two parts of the manufacturing process, such as wood-working, lacquering and finishing, graphite & color core production or packaging. Larger companies such as Mitsubishi and Tombow and mid tier producers such as Sakamoto and Kitaboshi use these often more nimble or uniquely skilled sub-contractors to meet special processing needs, smaller production run sizes and do quicker turnaround on orders. The character pencil marketing companies as well as some branded pens producers such as Pentel rely entirely on sub-contractors for their wood cased pencil needs. Such a structure helps to shorten the supply chain vs. imported pencils in the changing specialty, novelty pencil market.
All of these sub-contractors are small family owned companies operating essentially in a building that co-locates production with their own homes. They are more like traditional artisan workshops than what the average person would picture as a factory. The owners of these businesses are highly skilled and knowledgeable about their business. The extreme care and detail they speak with in discussing the technical aspects of doing this or that operation in the manufacturing process can be a truly amazing experience. Generally their home and factory debt has long been paid off and though their equipment is old and slow they are the best at what they do.
Still this industry structure faces several threats which are a factor of both the demographic and competitive globalization trends over time. As the overall market shrinks and largest producers feel pressure from lower cost pencils they tend to keep more production in house to retain their economies of scale, thus slowly squeezing some of the subcontractors out. Mainly, focused on non-pencil products such as pens, markers, correction tape, etc. these companies still feel their pencil business is important and need remain the most efficient volume producers. Some have set up off-shore production of certain pencil components or assembly operations for some products in Vietnam or China, similar to western producers who have gone multi-national in their operations. Over time the mid-tier companies have adapted by focusing on introducing new products to diversify their business away from pencils into complementary novelty items, by broadening their sales distribution channels or dropping certain manufacturing functions to use subcontractors, etc. Finally, as the business owners’ age in the sub-contractor segment, often the 2nd or 3rd generation family members are not interested in continuing with the same passion as their parents, so these businesses also tend to shake out due to lack of management succession or natural selection of a sort.
As a wood supplier to the Japanese Pencil Industry for three generations, our company is always conscious of these challenges. We value the close relationships we’ve built with many of these companies and families and salute their commitment to producing the highest quality wood-cased pencils. Adding and promoting more pencils produced in Japan to our Pencils.com offerings is just one small way of supporting these friends in the industry. They produce some of the most unique and interesting novelty pencils in the world and in time we hope to make this collectable segment a larger part of our offering in addition to some of the branded items we’ll be introducing in the coming weeks and months. We hope you’ll help you’ll join us in our Japanese Pencil Celebration event in November at Pencils.com.