These pencils are so famous they have their own Wikipedia page and a worldwide fanbase – but why exactly is that? A quick peek into their history reveals a fascinating story and an enduring legend.
Blackwing Pencils - A Cult Obsession
Back in 1934 the Eberhard Faber Pencil Company began making a new pencil aimed primarily at stenographers with it’s unique formulation combining the softness of a 3B-4B lead but the endurance of an HB lead. This was marketed as the Blackwing 602 and stamped on the barrel was their slogan – Half the Pressure, Twice the Speed. Quickly picked up by artists it became an essential tool for several icons of the age. Chuck Jones drew Bugs Bunny with his Blackwings, Leonard Bernstein worked on West Side Story with his, Stephen Sondheim, Truman Capote, Quincy Jones, Vladimir Nabokov, and John Williams were fans and John Steinbeck was famous for insisting on a freshly sharpened pot of 100 pencils every morning with which to work on his novels.
Eventually Eberhard Faber became Faber Castell which in turn was purchased by Newell Rubbermaid who continued to produce the pencils until as late as 1998. However, when a crucial machine used to make the trademark ferrules (the metal eraser holder) broke, the cost of repairing it was considered too high to be worthwhile and the pencils were discontinued.
As stocks dwindled they were being auctioned on eBay for as much as $40 a pencil such was the affection these pencils inspired and so in 2008 Palomino, a Californian company, acquired the rights and relaunched the Blackwing 602 and a slightly softer version, the Blackwing Classic. Great care was taken to ensure the pencils were as close to the originals as possible: the new version is made from genuine incense cedar wood in Japan and then shipped to California to have the metal ferrule and eraser added, all being hand-packed into smart boxes.
And so the brand survives and inspires a new generation of fans. Nowadays you can find a midway regular – the Pearl – halfway between the 602 and the Classic. Plus the popularity has inspired a series of limited edition Blackwing pencils which appear four times per year with the model number and design being inspired by a cultural icon, event or place. Highlights have included pencils inspired by John Steinbeck, Joe Dimaggio, Dorothea Lange, the Gold Rush, Surrealism, Ada Lovelace, vinyl records, the Mars Rover and, most recently, libraries and the Dewey Decimal System – a fabulous fluorescent glow-in-the-dark pencil.
Back when we had our stationery website Bureau, we wondered at first if people would pay upwards of $40 for a box of 12 pencils but were assured that these were the rock stars of the pencil world. That the pencil world could have rock stars seemed so absurd we decided to try them out and were amazed to sell out all our early orders, we simply couldn’t keep them in stock. These days you can buy additional Blackwing products – notebooks, sharpeners, pencil cases – but it seems that the legend endures and the pencils are here to stay.
For more on the cult status of the Blackwing Pencil this short video sums up the demand very persuasively.