Monday, December 19, 2022

Caran d’Ache Prismalo Swiss Wood: The Saga


Caran d'Ache Prismalo Swiss Wood: A checkered past?

Readers of this blog know that once I catch wind of an elusive colored pencil I want, I am unlikely to let it go. Such is the case with a Caran d’Ache product that seems to have had a checkered past (and may still).

In July 2021, a scintillating “coming soon” appeared on Caran d’Ache’s website: the Prismalo Swiss Wood colored pencil set. Swiss Wood is a standard Caran d’Ache line of graphite pencils with the distinction of being “entirely made with wood ‘certified of Swiss origin.’” Caran d’Ache also releases occasional limited-edition graphite Swiss Wood pencils, such as the collaborative sets made partly of reused Nespresso coffee pods. Use of sustainable and environmentally sensitive materials is part of the Swiss Wood heritage.

I have a Swiss Wood graphite pencil that I’m not fond of (either to write with or to smell, as it has a distinctive scent that users describe with many colorful terms; I think it evokes soy sauce, which I like as a condiment but not as a writing instrument). However, I had never before seen any colored pencils within the Swiss Wood line! And unlike the dark wood of the smelly Swiss Wood pencil I have, the Prismalo set was described as being encased in white Scots pine wood, which I knew was soy sauce scent-free. What a wonderful addition to Caran d’Ache’s Swiss Wood collection!

Prismalo colored pencils, of course, are not new to me. As Caran d’Ache’s very first watercolor pencil, Prismalo is an important part of Cd’A history, and I have vintage and contemporary sets (most notably the bicolors) in my collection. It made sense that Caran d’Ache would proudly put its original flagship watercolor pencil core under its “100% Swiss Made” label.

Cult Pens' July 2021 promotion

At least a couple of European retail sites were promoting the new product, and I waited eagerly for the set to become available. It wasn’t long, however, for things to take a dark turn. The Prismalo Swiss Wood pencils suddenly and mysteriously disappeared from the Caran d’Ache site. I inquired at a UK shop promoting the pencils to find out when they would be available, and the date was pushed out further and further.

I inquired regularly. Finally one day, the door slammed shut – not by the shop, but by Caran d’Ache: The UK retailer sadly informed me that Caran d’Ache had pulled the product altogether, citing production issues. No date was given as to the product’s return. All retail promotions I had seen previously were also removed.

Imagine the ensuing speculation: Caran d’Ache had already begun its own promotions before such “production issues” were discovered? And the company had even gone so far as to release product information to retailers before the product was abruptly pulled? How bad could production issues be that an entire product’s release would be halted indefinitely? And most important, I want the pencils, and I want them now! (OK, so the latter is not exactly speculation.)

I stopped pestering the poor UK shop, but I didn’t give up hope. I simply filed away product screenshots I had grabbed before they disappeared. (In our darkest hour, we all need something to cling to.) Every now and then I would search for them, just in case.

Fast-forward to November this year – nearly a year and a half later. During a search for something else, an image of the distinctive Prismalo Swiss Wood tube came up: What??! Could it be. . .?? Indeed, a European shop was promoting it! I did a specific search for Prismalo Swiss Wood and found a total of three shops in Europe selling it! Available not soon but now! You can bet I was not going to let this baby slip out of my hands!

Compact recyclable tube

As described by Vachement Suisse where I bought my set (and where I received exceptional customer service):

For the first time, Prismalo – the iconic color pencil from Caran d’Ache – is made entirely from Swiss wood, becoming Prismalo Swiss Wood, a limited edition set of 18 colors marking another step in the development of the company’s eco-responsible credentials. Made in Geneva entirely from Scots pine certified “Label Swiss Wood,” Prismalo Swiss Wood pencils pay homage to Swiss raw materials while supporting the local economy and production. An assortment of 18 bright colors – that can be used dry or as watercolors – is brought together in a packaging made from recycled and recyclable kraft paper. Its ultra-compact tubular shape makes it the ideal companion for artistic activities on the go.

The lightweight Scots pine semi-hexagonal barrel appears barely varnished. I love natural finish pencils that reveal variations in the wood grain, and the unstained white pine is lovely. A simple glossy end cap indicates the core color.

Unstained white Scots pine and a lovely pine scent

Caran d’Ache’s logo and product name, the watercolor brush icon and color number are printed in black. Instead of the cedar scent I often enjoy when I open a new set of pencils, the Prismalo Swiss Woods gave off a lovely whiff of pine trees! Instantly the scent evoked walking through a Christmas tree lot and the anticipation of the holidays. It’s timely that the set was released right before Christmas.

Colors in the set (names of which I had to look up myself as they don’t appear on the barrels) are Canary Yellow (250), Carmine (080), Golden Yellow (020), Moss Green (225), Prussian Blue (159), Purple Violet (100), Salmon Pink (071), Spring Green (470), Turquoise Blue (171), Ultramarine (140), Venetian Red (062), White (001), Raw Umber (049), Cobalt Blue (160), Flame Red (050), Black (009), Scarlet (070) and Golden Ochre (033). A good selection of colors overall for a set of 18.

All of that was well and good, and I was thrilled to finally have my hands on Prismalo Swiss Woods – until events took a darker turn.

I started examining the sharpened ends more closely. Many had slanted collars (where the wood meets the core), some quite pronounced – a strong indication that the cores were off-center. It’s quite common in inexpensive, low-quality pencils, and occasionally a good mid-range set might have one or two, like my set of Pablo pencils. However, other than those Pablos, I don’t recall ever seeing a Caran d’Ache colored pencil with an off-center core – not even student-grade Swisscolor and Fancolor sets. I quickly sharpened all the pencils, wondering if the factory sharpening may have been a problem . . . but the off-centeredness remained.

Crooked collars!

Dizzy with déjà vu from my recent review of the Colour Treasure Maxi graphite pencils, I could hardly believe my eyes! Prismalo is a Caran d’Ache flagship product! And Swiss Wood is its line of national pride! Crooked cores?? Quick – bring me my smelling salts!

After I recovered, I started wondering if uncentered cores were the “production issue” that had delayed release for a year and a half. Colored cores are softer and thicker than graphite cores, and this was the first time colored cores were put into the soft pine wood barrels. Perhaps the combination caused unexpected problems that Cd’A had initially found unacceptable – and then eventually accepted? Or perhaps the off-center cores I found were actually an improvement over the initial problem more than a year ago? More unanswered questions.

Darker still is the fact that despite at least three retailers offering Prismalo Swiss Wood for sale, Caran d’Ache itself was not promoting or selling it at all, even during the holiday season.

Even as I shook my head at what might be happening with the quality of my favorite colored pencil maker’s products, the Prismalo Swiss Woods were in my hands, crooked cores and all, so I started using them. As I’ve said before about Prismalo bicolors, the hard, thinner (3mm) cores are useful and very pleasant for certain kinds of sketching.

In the two single-color portraits I made below – the adorable Bassett hound again and the bearded man from a reference photo by Earthsworld – I used the Prismalos the way I might use an HB or B graphite pencil to crosshatch. They feel good on both the smoother Stillman & Birn Zeta paper and the toothier Alpha. In each case, I finished the sketch without needing to sharpen – and the point still had more to go.

12/11/22 Swiss Wood Prismalo in Stillman & Birn Alpha; point shown is
what remained after finishing the sketch (Earthsworld reference photo)

12/9/22 Swiss Wood Prismalo in Stillman & Birn Zeta

I realized I didn’t use water with either of those portraits, so I made one more, this time with the Zorn palette – in this case, Black (009), Scarlet (070) and Golden Ochre (033). The last time I water-activated a Zorn portrait, I gave the poor woman a bad case of acne. On the pouty man below, I tried an experiment. First I finished the sketch as if I were using dry pencils only. In other words, I made sure the values were already in place, so I wasn’t depending on water activation to intensify the values. Then I applied water more conservatively and selectively than I did with the acned woman. I like this approach much better with portraits, and I was pleased that the Prismalos stepped up to the plate in terms of color intensity.

12/11/22 Prismalo Swiss Wood in Stillman & Birn Alpha
(Earthsworld photo reference; before activation)

12/11/22 After activation

Although I have not yet forgiven Caran d’Ache for breaking my heart, I admit that the pencils perform just as well, off-center cores or not. And the more I use Prismalos, the more I like them. (See my full review of Prismalo from a few years ago for a caveat.)

Meanwhile, other than the three retailers I found last month – the Swiss shop I purchased from (now out of stock) and two German shops – searches have yielded no hits. Although one German shop still has a few in stock (three as of this writing), a particularly grim note says, “Our supplier reports that this item is no longer manufactured.” The Swiss shop has also confirmed that the Prismalo Swiss Woods will not be restocked.

Barely enough retail stock for one holiday release? A very limited supply, indeed, especially for a product that is not billed as a limited edition. And still not bothering to sell or promote them at Caran d’Ache? Questions and speculations continue.

At the end of the lengthy saga, it was wonderful to eventually buy a set from a shop that provided excellent customer service.


  1. Exceptional storytelling skills and excellent drawing skills! Thanks for sharing them both!

  2. I was rapt until the very end! Great write-up, though seems like I will never have the chance to buy these (the piney scent was what I wanted, lol).

    1. The piney scent is amazing -- and so unusual for a pencil!


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