Facts, Fiction, and the Palomino “Blackwing Experience”

It grieves me for my site to have a page like this one. But things have gotten so out of hand I felt it was important for there to be an account which enumerates how the PR campaign for the so called  “revived” or “re-introduced” Blackwing has distorted and possibly tarnished the Blackwing’s story and legacy.

Pencils are one of life’s simple pleasures, and the Blackwing 602 is a special one at that. Those of us who have an interest in pencils know that one of the hardest things to do is to document a particular pencil’s history, because little of that information is shared outside the manufacturer. This history is even more prone to disappearing and being forgotten if the pencil is no longer being made, like the Blackwing. It’s taken years for me to research, document, collect, photograph, and present what I’ve been able to discover about the history of the Blackwing 602—which has in part served as an involuntary source of reference for California Cedar—and to see what California Cedar has further done with it has motivated me to document the distortions.

I think that the Blackwing deserves an advocate, regardless of whether it’s me or not; decide for yourself whether they have been forthright and honest in their dealings. But don’t be drawn into parsing whether something they claim is ‘completely’ true or ‘partly’ true—arguing the finer points is to lose sight of the larger, much more important issue—that simply having to argue at all about how “true” it is tells us a great deal about the advertisement to begin with. In other words, should a pencil advertisement even require clarification?

I have nothing against California Cedar or their right to make pencils and profit from them, but I think the way they have gone about doing it vis-à-vis the Blackwing has been questionable and at times, even contemptible. Over a half-century’s worth of writing culture in the U.S. is now in danger of being re-written—including the intriguing true story of one of America’s last great pencils, the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602.


The Palomino “Blackwing Experience” as Cultural Vandalism:

1. Question: Is the Blackwing 602 being made again?

No, but California Cedar Products would like for you to believe so. The Blackwing 602 pencil was discontinued in 1998 after being manufactured for more than 60 years. It was a product of the Eberhard Faber Company (U.S.A.), though for a brief time it was also made by Faber-Castell (see my portrait for more about the Blackwing’s history). California Cedar Products has used the word “revival” to suggest that production of the Blackwing 602 has begun again. But it hasn’t. Instead, two lookalikes of the pencil bearing the name “Blackwing” have been launched by California Cedar, and are manufactured in Japan. From the beginning, aspects of the advertising campaigns have blurred the distinction (e.g. “The Blackwing is Back”), capitalizing on the genuine Blackwing’s established reputation among pencil fans.

2. Question: Are Palomino Blackwing pencils the same thing as the Blackwing 602 pencil?

No. There is no material connection between the Palomino Blackwing and the genuine Blackwing 602 pencil whatsoever. A Japanese pencil manufacturer was commissioned to try and duplicate the look and feel of the genuine Blackwing 602, and rights to use the “Blackwing” name were acquired by California Cedar Products. They are not at all related.

3. Question: What is the “controversy” surrounding the first attempt by California Cedar Products to copy the Blackwing?

The top image is of a genuine Blackwing 602 pencil. The bottom image is of California Cedar’s pencil. The genuine Blackwing went for about $6.00 a dozen before it was discontinued, and California Cedar charges $20.00 a dozen, for what they have called their “updated” Blackwing. They consider it one of their premium pencils.

But there’s much more to it than that, and you can read about it for yourself here.

4. Question: Why does California Cedar Products mention famous writers, musicians, and artists in their advertisements, and why so many dead ones?

One ad in particular states “These are the pencils of legends” while showing a photograph of Palomino Blackwing pencils, when in fact almost all of the legends that are mentioned are dead and never could have even tried Palomino Blackwing pencils, much less have used them regularly. Therefore, what the ad states is simply untrue. Also, there is no suggestion here that CalCedar’s pencils are a “tribute” to the Blackwing. This exemplifies to a great degree what I mean by “cultural vandalism”—the wanton inclusion of such great names in their ads to try and sell their pencils, but without regard to the facts or to the legacies of those great people, or the actual cultural history of the Blackwing 602. The list of “users” is not limited to those just in this one ad.

Here is an example of how this advertising strategy has begun to filter-down through other outlets. The following is a screen cap from a June, 2012 eBay auction by Levenger, a well-known and respected retailer. Notice the statement: “Pencil aficionados from John Steinbeck to Thomas Wolfe have sung the praises of the Palomino Blackwing pencil…

From eBay (click to enlarge).

This is absurdly and patently untrue. Steinbeck and Wolfe died in 1968 and 1938 respectively, and they could never have known the Palomino Blackwing since it was introduced in the 21st century. In this instance I think it’s plain that Levenger is not at all trying to deceive anyone. Clearly, the source of this information comes from California Cedar’s own advertising materials, but perhaps not using that exact phrase.

Of course, CalCedar is not responsible for how retailers choose to word their advertising. But is it not easy to see how this happened, based on the kind of wording and pictures you see in the “…pencils of legends…”  in the ad above? Who benefits from this confusion, or at the very least, conflation? Of the myriad ways one could have advertised and marketed these pencils, why suggest that Palomino Blackwing pencils are the ones that “legends” used? To sell more pencils, but I think this is an unfair and a bit of an underhanded way to go about it.

5. Question: California Cedar’s global advertisement campaign stated that the Blackwing was Frank Lloyd Wright’s favored pencil. Was it?

No. There is no evidence to suggest that Frank Lloyd Wright ever touched one, much less used them, much less that he favored them above all others.  You can read more about this topic here.

From pencils.com

6. Question: Did California Cedar ever publicly disclose that their Frank Lloyd Wright advertisements were untrue?

No. They were just quietly removed.

7. Question: California Cedar claims that Duke Ellington was a Blackwing user. Was he?

California Cedar replaced Frank Lloyd Wright’s name in advertisements with Duke Ellington’s. However, their sole basis for Ellington’s association with the Blackwing was a single photo (found here). That’s it; they did not research anything past the blog on which that photo was posted, which was linked to from this blog. But the larger question remains: even if Ellington (or the others) did use the genuine Blackwing pencils, how appropriate is it to use his name to advertise lookalikes of the genuine pencil, and to blur the line of distinction between the genuine Blackwing and the lookalikes?

8. Question: California Cedar claims in an advertisement that the Blackwing pencil “…helped create more timeless works of art than any single paint brush, fountain pen, or laser printer in modern history.” Is this true?

No. It cannot possibly be demonstrated as being true; it defies common sense. It is an example of attempting to revise or at least invent history, and to bend (or even break) the truth, which has the unbidden side effect of sullying the original Blackwing’s history and reputation among the uninitiated.

9. Question: Was the Palomino Blackwing pencil actually referred to as being “better than an iPad” by the Boston Globe?

No. Despite California Cedar repeating this statement over and over again, primarily on Twitter, the video by Alex Beam of the Boston Globe about the genuine Blackwing 602 mentions California Cedar, and that they are planning on producing a pencil called the Blackwing, but he never states that the Palomino Blackwing is better than an iPad. The title of the video is: “Better than an iPad?” but they would have you make the leap between that question, and their just being mentioned in the video as being an affirmative answer to the question. A writer paid by California Cedar repeated this claim in the Wikipedia entry for the Blackwing 602:

10. Question: Irrespective of the genuine Blackwing 602, are Palomino Blackwing pencils good pencils?

You should try them and decide for yourself.

My interest and motivation lies in the history of the genuine Blackwing 602 pencil, not in the future of California Cedar’s products.

11. Question: Is Stephen Sondheim a Palomino Blackwing “fan” as California Cedar says in this tweet?

As of March 31st, 2012, there haven’t been any statements to suggest that he is a fan of the Palomino Blackwing pencil. The source for this tweet seems to be an excerpt from Sondheim’s own book:

To extrapolate from this excerpt that Mr. Sondheim is a “fan” of the Palomino Blackwing isn’t honest (or, it’s the world’s most pitiable case of wishful thinking). Mr. Sondheim is a well-known Eberhard Faber Blackwing user and has stated he has a “lifetime supply” of them, having gathered them up when he heard in 1998 they were about to be discontinued. As to whether Mr. Sondheim is a fan of the Palomino Blackwing pencil apart from this I wouldn’t venture to guess, but there has been no explicit, public acknowledgment of it—only this mention in his book. I don’t see anything here that suggests he’s even tried a Palomino Blackwing, much less that he is a “fan” of them, as they claim.

12. Question: In this same ad California Cedar states that many have claimed the Blackwing to be “the best writing utensil in the world.” Is this true? 

The expression “best pencil ever made” has been floating around in reference to the genuine Blackwing for some time, but California Cedar are the first (and only) ones to call it “the best writing utensil in the world.” Their claim is simply untrue.

13. Question: You claim that California Cedar has taken from your site. What has been taken?

There are many examples of this blog being an involuntary and unattributed source for CalCedar, and that CalCedar regularly monitors this site for information. For example, pictures from the show Mad Men and the movie Jaws showing a Blackwing cameo were first referenced on this blog. They not only took this information and put it on their own site, but on their first attempt it wasn’t even copied it correctly:

From Palominobrands, first attempt to copy (click).

The names for the characters “Matt Cooper” and “Harry Crane” were both erroneous on their site. After another post on my blog which pointed out their errors, they were silently fixed:

From Palominobrands, “fixed” content (click).

These aren’t earth-shattering scoops about the Blackwing, but you would be surprised at the amount of effort involved in finding, cataloging, and presenting this information in an entertaining and informative manner. In the micro-world of the Blackwing pencil, I feel that it’s very poor form for CalCedar to snipe from my work (which includes contributions from readers), ignore attribution (and by extension, intimating authorship by omission), and to do so little of their own work—especially since they consider themselves as carrying on the “legacy” of the Blackwing.

One of the most recent appropriations occurred just days before the April, 2012 “Palomino Blackwing Event” in New York. This is an original photograph of my specimens of the Blackwing pencil, which is complete to a greater degree than has yet been published and is the only one of its kind, anywhere. A video that was to be part of that exhibit, commissioned by California Cedar, appropriated this photograph. The video was released globally via YouTube without permission to use my work and without any attribution. Even if one could argue in favor of Fair Use (which isn’t the case here) why still leave off where the photo came from?

You can read about more items that were taken from this site here.