Friday, March 17, 2006

L&C Hardmuth - Koh-I-Noor: A Diamond in the Rough

The pencils shown here are all quite old pencils from L&C Hardmuth. Each represent different brand names and were produced in two different factories of this old group which had it’s beginnings in Vienna, Austria and later relocated to the Bohemia Works factory at Ceske Budejovice in the Czech Republic. Ceske Budejovice’s German name is Budweis, of beer fame, which has an interesting brand ownership rights history. This also is a situation not uncommon in the pencil industry over the years. In fact L&C Hardmuth’s own history resulted in divided ownership rights by region of their most famous brand. The Koh-I-Noor brand was first introduced in 1889, named for the famous diamond as a representation of the superior quality of this new product.

While Hardmuth's primary manufacturing operations remained in Ceske Budejovice, the company expanded in a multinational push between the two world wars opening Koh-I-Noor Pencil Company in New Jersey in 1919, had a joint venture factory with Johann Faber in Romania and in 1931 established a facility in Krakow, Poland as part of new trust combination with Johann Faber and A.W. Faber-Castell. (Petroski) At some point in time a new factory in Hirm, Austria was built as well.

Following World War II the company was broken up and the Czech, Romanian and Polish operations were nationalized while the Austrian company remained under private ownership. The US based Koh-I-Noor operations (of Rapidiograph fame) ended up as part of a separate group that was later owned by Rotring in Germany and was eventually acquired by Newell Rubbermaid in the 1990s. Eventually the Austrian company fell on hard times and went through bankruptcy and found new owners. This company was reorganized and operates today as Bleistfabrik Hirm-Cretacolor.

Meanwhile the nationalized group of companies consolidated over time into the large operations in Ceske Budejovice building a leading brand position in Eastern Europe and former Soviet block countries while having more limited trade with the west. This company was renamed Koh-I-Noor Hardmuth as it was privatized in 1992 and purchased two years later and has since operated as part of the Gamma Group. This company retains the Koh-I-Noor name today and has since further invested in pencil manufacturing operations in both Russia and China. The company has also recently opened separate marketing and distribution companies in both Poland and Slovenia, though there is no pencil manufacturing at these locations. It retains strong brand recognition in Eastern European market, has a reputation for fine quality and has strengthened its international distribution since it’s privatization.

As far as I’ve been able to determine these three pencil sets date from the period of time L&C Hardmuth was internationalizing the business through the 1930s. Of these three items only the Scalia pencils include any reference to the Koh-I-Noor name. None have the Koh-I-Noor name imprinted on the pencils themselves. All three seem to be different brands of copying pencils. Copying pencils have a hard lead that is designed to leave a dark and more permanent mark similar to an ink pen.

The beautiful set of Scala copying pencils are among the favorite in my entire collection. Note the wonderful lacquer job on these pencils that seems to simulate a length of bamboo. This box includes an information sheet on the care and use of these copying pencils in 12 languages demonstrating the multinational sales focus of the company. An excerpt of key technical information reads as follows:

All copying and couloured copying ink pencils should be protected against atmosoheric humidity as well as against excessive dryness and heat. ... for they are liable to absorb moisture from the atmosphere, which softens the lead and, if dried rapidly, it becomes brittle.
On account of their composition, the resistance of copying leads against breaking is entirely different than that of Blacklead Pencils, which are hardened by baking.
The structure necesitates care being taken when sharpening. The blade ... must be sharp and too great pressure should not be exerted.
Coloured Copying Ink Pencils particularly should not be sharpened to a very fine point. ... To prevent piercing oneself ..., it is recommended that the points be fitted with a protector.

The second two sets of pencils indicating they were produced in Poland include the yellow “Eureka” and black “Mephisto” pencils. They both reference a grade described as srednie or 73B srednie, which I've been unable to translate. What’s also interesting is that these two boxes seems to reference different company names. The first is L&C Hardmuth-Lechistan S.A. and the second L.i C. Hardmuth S.A. Krakow. A Wikepedia search for Lechistan indicates that it is the name for Poland used in some Central Asian and Middle Eastern countries that derives from the Polish word Lechia which is an alternate historical name for Poland. Thus it is probable the “Eureka” pencils were produced specifically for these other market regions and again are an interesting historical reference for the multinational period of expansion of the L&C Hardmuth in the 1930s.

A final note of interest is that I have only been able to find reference to one current Koh-I-Noor product retaining the Mephisto name and the Eureka and Scala names seem to have disappeared entirely from any current selections. This is a likely result of the declining demand for copying pencils and another example of how changes in product tastes and market conditions have lead to the decline in various pencil brands. The lone Koh-I-Noor Mephisto item is now a 5.6mm thick lead plastic mechanical clutch pencil.

9 comments:

Stephen said...

What a fascinating review of the history of this company and brand.

I very much enjoyed reading it, and hope you will consider writing more pieces like this.

Although I don't have any treasures like the ones in your photo, my hexagonal U.S. (New Jersey) Koh-I-Noor 1500s and some round 1561s with German language markings, as well as a few "Czechoslovakia Bohemia Works Deluxe 1380" pencils will all be appreciated a bit more.

Steve L. said...

Recently, I was able to buy three dozen of the yellow hexagonal 1500s, new old stock, made in New Jersey. They are great pencils. Nice to know the background behind them...

Anonymous said...

"Srednie" means medium. I'm pretty sure it's close to HB grade...

Thanks for the review :)

nnap said...

hey :)!

i've got 7 Hardtmuth-Mephisto 73B pencils. i bought them 2 days ago :)

Do you know somethinfg about DUS MG-11 Ceder

nnap said...

I'm sorry..

Do you know something about the DUX CEDER MG-11 pencils?

coffe_cup said...

Hello,

I am a fountain pen collector from Poland and found your site while looking for some info on L&C Hardtmuth fountain pen manufacturing (I get three fp from 20'-30' period - really impressive). Anyway, great article and I have two explanations:
- first - "srednie" means just "middle", "average" and refers to the pencil/graphite specific
- second - Lechistan ... indeed it's the old 'name' of Poland and it's from Lech, one of the three brothers (Czech and Rus) who gave a birth to polish, czech and russian nations in the legend.
Greetings from Poland,
Marta

isabel said...

My grandfather actually owned and operated the Krakow Koh-i-noor factory...Bernard Ratz and Sons.

isabel_reed@hotmail.com

Monali said...

Hi... Monali here

I am looking for L&C Hardmuth Kohinoor copying [1561 medium Great Britian] pencils. I really need them in urgent, so can u please help me to know where can I get them or if anyone of u have the pencils can u lend me a few.

Please reply, i need them in urgent.

Thank You.
Monali

Kristiyan Aleksiev said...

Hello my friends,

I was just recently clearing my grandfather basement and I found these awesome Mephisto, Scala, Toison D'or and a lot of Koh-I-Noor pencils. My wife almost threw them away but I managed to save them. So now I am searching for their new owner. I believe there are people who collect these beauties. My wife made a lot of pictures of them when she saw their great condition. My email is KikoAleksiev@gmail.com. My number is +359883374171.
Please call me anytime I don't sleep. : P

Have a great day all

Kris