The Compagnie Francaise des Crayons (CFC) is, according to own statements, the last producer of wooden pencils in France. The company, whose roots date back to the 18th Century, has succeeded in asserting itself again competition from big companies and cut-price imports from the Far East through targeted specialisation. What remains is handicraft tradition and uncompromising quality.
The idyllic landscape fits in perfectly: The Compagnie Francaise des Crayons (CFC) is located in the midst of gentle hills in the medieval village of Lay. The present factory building may not have been built until 1986, but the roots of the “French pencil society“ – as the name of the company translates – reach back to the 18th Century: Due to an economic blockade declared in 1794 since France were at war with England, no British products were available in France – ultimately also no Borrowdale graphite. As up until then only the type of graphite mined in Cumberland, England was considered to be pure enough for use in writing utensils, there was soon a shortage of pencils in France. Commissioned by Napoleon, the chemist and inventor Nicolas-Jaques Conté succeeded in developing a process that enabled impure graphite to be used. He pulverised the extracted material and then elutriated the graphite, which was subsequently mixed with clay and then baked in an oven. Conté is thus considered to be the inventor of the modern pencil. He patented his method in the year 1795 and thus laid the foundation for the company that has been operating under the name CFC since 1986.
“Over the centuries there have been several factories at various locations,” explained Commercial Director Blandine Pivot. “In 1980 BIC acquired the brand “Conté” and “Conté à Paris”, however the producer CFC remained autonomous and manufactures the high-quality crayons, which are sold under the brand name up until this very day, here in Lay. Large shares of the market are today in the hands of cheap rivals from the Far East – we are indeed the only manufacturer left in France. The production for upscale artist’s supplies is one of the niche markets we have positioned ourselves in to survive. We make around 30% of our turnover in this sector, the building and DIY branch account for a further few percent. However, over 60% of our pencils are sold on the promotional products market today.“
Whereas the latter sector hardly played a role at all up until a few years ago: In 2011, Cottel purchased CFC (please see the portrait on pg. 46) and thanks to the sales network of the parent company CFC’s products have been successfully sold via the promotional products trade ever since. “Thanks to our realignment we have experienced a 20% growth rate over the last two years,” stated Pivot. This is no doubt predominantly due to the fact that the alignment and products of CFC perfectly suit the demands of the promotional products industry: “We can react to special demands flexibly and deliver within a few days. We deliver pencils for minimum orders of 100 pieces,” explained Pivot. “Moreover, we offer a range of customising options, fair prices and high quality.“
CFC employs 20 people, 16 of whom work in the production department. The production process has hardly changed at all since the 18th Century: First of all, the raw material for the lead consisting of clay powder, graphite, pigments and water is mixed together. Around 40 kg of this gross mass is filled into a cartridge, the contents of which are in turn pressed through a millimetre thin tube at high pressure. This is when the actual lead is produced. “So that the lead paste stays pliable, it has a moisture content of 50%,” explained Pivot. “After being formed, the lead has to be constantly rotated under a lamp for four hours to dry it out, before being baked in the oven at 1,000°C for twelve hours.”
After being baked, the leads are dipped in wax for six hours – this guarantees a thick coatof paint and a nice contour, which is what distinguishes high-quality leads from cheap products. The finished leads have to be stored at 37°C. For order volumes of 7,000 pieces – that is how much lead fits into the cartridge – we can also produce leads in pantone colours.”
The production of pencils involves a lot of manual handwork: Several individual pencils at a time are made out of two small wooden panels – CFC exclusively uses long-fibre, FSC-certified Indonesian Pulay or Californian cedar wood. After the grooves for the leads have been milled into the wood, they are completely pasted with glue, then the lead is inserted and two of the pieces of wood are fitted together like a “sandwich”. These are subsequently pressed together for 24 hours under high pressure, before the pencil is cut into a round, triangular square or hexagonal shape. Work phases that lend the pencils that “special touch”, as Pivot explained: “In the case of mass produced pencils, the glue is only applied to a few individual points, which is why the leads of cheap pencils constantly break. Our leads never break because the adhesion between the wooden slat and the lead is perfect. The seam of the two halves of the wooden sleeve of our products isn’t visible either – which is a further quality hallmark.“
If the models are lacquered, between four and ten layers of paint are applied, for minimum order volumes of 500 pieces pantone colours can also be selected. The heads of some of the models are finished with an extra varnish or they are equipped with an eraser.
The finished pencils are individualised per hot stamping – a fine brass stamp presses the advertising message into the wood with a foil stamp, whereby there is a choice of 39 foil colours – or a pad print in the pantone colour of the choice of the customer. CFC also recommends two unconventional customising methods: a digital printing with the “Puzzle technique”, where parts of an overall image are printed onto several pencils, and an embossing print where the advertising imprint is applied as an elegant relief print.
The current collection comprises of around 20 types of different pencils and crayons – which are presented in the corporate catalogue that has been published annually since 2011 with a circulation of 10,000 copies. Since CFC has been more active on the promotional products market, new products have been systematically added to the line-up, such as triangular pencils or individual, particularly favourably-priced models, new types of leads – including a range of neon leads – and new stampings. CFC additionally offers a wide range of sets and combinations as well as countless packaging alternatives.
However, the most important bonus for the customer is that he buys a top quality made in France product. CFC was awarded with the “Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant“ (Company with a living heritage) seal by the French Ministryof Economic Affairs for its century-long corporate tradition in 2011. The aim of the distinction is to promote domestic production and to honour French manufacturers for their know-how and commitment. A USP that is also held in high esteem among the promotional products industry: “The fact that we exclusively manufacture in France, goes down very well in the trade because the origin of products is a factor that is questioned more and more often,” remarked Pivot. “As far as this is concerned, we entered the market at a very favourable point in time.” Because not many companies on the promotional products market can look back on a century-long history as a manufacturer.
An interview with two French service providers can be found here: “Good opportunities for foreign suppliers”