'Rum old place, Switzerland. By a twist of fate yours truly was there for its 700th birthday, and the fireworks were both colourful and, ermm, on time. But our tale begins in, weirdly enough, Moscow.
Napoleon's invasion of Moscow inspired the likes of Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy - if you haven't enjoyed the 1812 Overture yet please do so immediately (although you'll need a few weeks on your hands to digest War and Peace) - and left behind a certain genetic legacy too. Emmanuel Poiré was born in 1858 and before too long relocated to Paris, where he required a nom de plume as a cartoonist, so naturally enough borrowed from his other first language. карандаш, a Russian word with Turkic roots, literally means 'pencil', and when recast into French as Caran d'Ache seems to have served him rather well. There's every sign he did OK from it - I mean, just look at that moustache!
Early in the next century, businessman Arnold Schweitzer decided to re-market Swiss pencils and, seeking a novel brand, thought to borrow from a favourite cartoonist - and so a name most of us have had in a school pencil case at some point was born.
Swiss products have a couple of big stereotypes to work with; engineered precision and stylish design. The ubiquitous Army Knife and the more expensive sort of wrist-watches (the ones you don't own so much as look after for future generations) fall into the former category, while Swatch timepieces and the Helvetica font are famous examples of the latter. Caran d'Ache tries to cover both bases - and sometimes succeeds, too.
Collaborations with the likes of Paul Smith make for eye-catching shop displays of ballpoints, if you like that sort of thing, and for the more discriminating stationery buyer their colouring pencils are well-known as reliable performers. One or two of their products perhaps put form over function, but that's not always a bad thing. The Natura pencil, for instance, looks very classy indeed, and if you want something cool in your pencil pot to impress colleagues during those interminable Zoom calls, it'll do the job nicely. The graphite is serviceable too - although the really canny shopper might want to pick up a cheap but excellent Koh-i-Noor 1900 for every-day use, whether or not it's in shot. You just didn't hear it here, OK?