Imperial Graphite

by Scribble Monboddo

Here is a tale of empire. Many empires, actually. Are you sitting comfortably?

We begin with the Moghuls (other spellings are available), who started as Mongols, and somewhere along the line after Genghis Khan and his wife Chaka a few generations later had carved out an empire which took in most of what is now India, Pakistan, Burma and Afghanistan. As emperors they had first dibs on any big shiny things, and the most whopping of the diamonds mined in their patch ended up as top king bling. The Koh-i-Noor ('mountain of light') was a whopper and a half, and was installed into the Peacock Throne itself before passing on to the Afghan Empire, then the Sikh Empire, and eventually after some dubious skulduggery - you can surely see where this is heading, can't you? - the British Empire. Victoria, Dei Gratia Regina Brittanicos, Fide Defensor et Indiae Imperator (it's all there on the back of a 1d coin, I promise) rather fancied the look of it and it's been in the crown jewels, guarded by ravens, ever since. 'Must be a step down from peacocks, but that's entropy for you.

While the Koh-i-Noor diamond was going through various re-cuts to fit the bonce of the royal dumpling herself, it attracted comment in the other great European powerhouse of the age, the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Little heard of nowadays since that incident with Franz Ferdinand (be fair now, some of their b-sides are terrific), it was a huge, continent-spanning and rather wealthy assemblage of nations at the time, and Joseph Hardtmuth, holder of the first patent for pencil lead, had no shame in setting up shop in Vienna while borrowing a bit of Persian for his branding. Before long his pencil manufacturing operations had spread eastwards into the Czech town of Budějovice, known to bona-fide Bohemians as Budweis. 

Budweis, as it happens, was also famous as the home of a crisp, flavoursome style of lager, and real Budweiser Budvar is brewed there to this day. Unconcerned by troublesome considerations of intellectual property, another sort of empire has allowed the purloining of this brand to adorn a somewhat less engaging product for a century and a half now, but let's pass over that unfortunate business and get back to the pencils.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire was well and truly broken up by two World Wars and the Czech factory found itself part of the Soviet empire, whose masters nevertheless recognised a good brand to capitalise upon when they saw it and kept the Koh-i-Nor name on their side of the Iron Curtain, where it remains to this day even though the curtain itself dropped three decades ago. The Austrian operations, incidentally, live on as Cretacolor, not inconsiderable manufacturers in their own right of course.

Koh-i-Noor, though, has survived all that turbulence and come out at the other end producing some of the best lead there is, at almost embarrassingly reasonable prices. I use their graphite in several clutch pencils already, so it was decidedly good news when one of their Toison d'Or 1900 wood-cased pencils turned up from Nero's Notes. Toison d'Or is the French name for the Golden Fleece, yet another symbol of kingship as it happens, but I've already promised to cease historical diversions, so moving swiftly on: for a mere £1 a stick, was this really going to compete with the exotic splendours of Derwent and Faber-Castell?

You bet it did. The 8B version I've been playing with is probably a bit soft for writing with as the point wears down rather quickly, but for sketching - or, let's be honest, desultory doodling - it's perfect. They come in all grades up to 8H (well hard, dat), so most bases are covered, and at this price you can afford to try a few different varieties to locate your definition of carbon heaven. Draw a protest banner and bring down an empire or two, if you like; you can afford the materials, at least.