Friday, December 30, 2022

Vintage Caran d’Ache Supracolor Soft Colored Pencils (and History Update)


The first edition of Supracolor Soft?

More than three years ago, I wrote a post summarizing everything I knew about the history of Caran d’Ache water-soluble colored pencils (and the Swiss company’s ever-confusing product names), including variations of Prismalo (I and II), Supracolor (I and II) and a generic “water-soluble” line. I’ve been updating that post as new information came to light from readers.

I recently acquired a couple of vintage Supracolor sets that initially raised new questions. Before I get to those, though, I need to begin with reader Julia who had contacted me more than a year ago. She had sent me images of her set of Supracolor Soft, purchased in 1993, that came in a mostly solid red tin with a large “Artists’ Colours” swash in the center. The pencils themselves had branding and design similar to my contemporary Supracolors except that the end caps were white instead of the same color as the barrel.

Fast-forward to a couple of months ago when another reader, Femma, contacted me initially with dating information about my oldest set of Prismalo. Based on my research and assumptions, I had deduced that my set could have been from the 1930s. However, Femma showed me images of a tin with a similar design that was from 1951, leading her to deduce that my set is from the ‘50s also, and her dating logic makes sense. It also fits with information I had learned about sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s Prismalo set, which was seen in his studio anytime after the late 1920s (information and a delightful image brought to my attention by yet another reader, George). Based on some preparatory drawings Giacometti had made, he was definitively using colored pencils in 1952 – likely that set of Prismalo. I’m now convinced that my oldest set is a couple of decades younger than my earlier deduction.

That was just the beginning of many interesting e-conversations with Femma, who also collects vintage Caran d’Ache colored pencils! Eventually we got around to her set of Supracolor Soft. In the images she sent me, it was clear that the tin matched exactly with the one I had seen in Julia’s images – mostly red with the “Artists’ Colours” design. Intriguingly, however, Femma’s tin of 18, purchased used, came filled not with Supracolors but with nameless Caran d’Ache pencils with three sailboats on the barrel. These “sailboat” pencils are identical to the ones I have that came in a different tin (shown in my Cd’A history post and below) – a blue background with three pencils. In the many examples I’ve seen on eBay, the blue tin with three pencils contains the “sailboat” pencils. These sets have been dated by sellers as originating in the early ‘60s.

These "sailboat" pencils came in the blue tin shown above.

Femma believes that when Caran d’Ache initially launched Supracolor Soft in 1988, the company wanted to use up their water-soluble “sailboat” inventory by filling early Supracolor tins with them. At first, this seemed intriguing, and if it was true, her set was likely quite rare. But the more I thought about it, the less it made sense. Why would Caran d’Ache release a brand new product emblazoned with “Artists’ Colours” on the tin but filled with an older product? I argued that the more likely scenario was that the seller or previous owner had replaced the Supracolors with the “sailboat” pencils. (Stay tuned for an upcoming post in which this scenario occurred with a different set of Caran d’Ache pencils I purchased.)

In any case, Femma surprised me by generously offering to give me the set, which I happily accepted! 

The tin that Femma kindly gave me contained the pencils shown below.

Curious about her hypothesis, as dubious as it seemed to me, I started searching eBay specifically for Supracolors in the same tin, which I had seen only rarely, in case another such existed containing “sailboats.” A set of 40 in the red tin was for sale on eBay, but it contained actual Supracolor Soft pencils. As this red tin design and the white-capped pencils are the first known design for Supracolor II Soft (as opposed to “Supracolor I” or “Supracolor Fine”), I snapped it up. I have since seen a few more Supracolor sets on eBay in the same tin design and containing the same Supracolor II Soft pencils. (Has anyone else who hunts regularly on the secondary market noticed that the thing you are searching for won’t appear for months and months, and then suddenly two or three show up in rapid succession? It’s the Universe rewarding you for your patience.)

Purchased on eBay

The set I purchased contains Supracolor II Soft pencils that look identical to the ones in the images Julia had sent me. The barrel design elements are similar to the contemporary design except the end cap is white (Prismalos of the same era also have a white end cap).

The set of 40 purchased on eBay

The top group are from the vintage set of 40; the lower group are my contemporary pencils.

The vintage pencils have white end caps.

I made swatches of a few colors that were common or close in three sets – my contemporary Supracolors, the Supracolors that I bought on eBay, and the “sailboats” that Femma gave me. The vintage Supracolors are surprisingly close to my contemporary ones – maybe just slightly drier from age and with slightly less pigment. The “sailboats” are much harder and have less pigment – similar to Prismalo. I also made a sketch to see how they feel and perform.

12/19/22 Caran d'Ache "Sailboat" pencils in Stillman & Birn Zeta sketchbook
(Earthsworld photo reference)

If I would learn to use my analog calipers (which are as close to a slide rule as I have ever come and consequently cause me to break out in hives), I’d be able to tell you the exact diameter, but I think it’s clear in the image below that the “sailboat” cores are thinner than the Supracolor cores. In fact, they look the same thickness as Prismalos.

The "sailboat" cores are thinner than Supracolors.

In another Caran d’Ache mystery, why did the “sailboat” pencils exist when they were so close to Prismalo, Cd’A’s flagship at the time? The redundancy probably explains, however, why the “sailboats” eventually went out of production. In any case, they bear no resemblance to Supracolor Soft. I have no reason to believe that Cd’A would have filled Supracolor tins with the “sailboats,” even to use up inventory. In fact, if that were the case, Cd’A would have been better off filling Prismalo tins with “sailboats,” since they are a close match.

Although Julia’s set acquired in 1993 is strong enough dating evidence for me, determining when the product called Supracolor first appeared and what it looked like are a bit squishy. We must consider that for some muddled period, “Supracolor I” and “Supracolor Fine” were names used to identify what was actually the same product as Prismalo I. Does Caran d’Ache consider those uses of “Supracolor” to be the product’s birth, even if the product was different? And for some period, “Prismalo II” was the name used to identify the product that eventually became Supracolor Soft! (Ouch, my head aches.)

According to Atelier Caran d’Ache’s (unfortunately incomplete) product history, the product called Supracolor Soft was launched in 1988. I’m going to put a stake in the ground and say that the Supracolor Soft set in the red tin that I acquired on eBay is the first design of that product, and that’s the product that was officially born in 1988.

From a collecting standpoint, perhaps the most valuable item in the set I purchased is the brochure that came with it (see below). Along with Supracolor Soft, the cover shows all of Caran d’Ache’s color products of that time, including Pablo, Prismalo I, Neocolor I, Neocolor II, Neopastels, watercolors, gouache, and a lovely mixed-media set in a wooden box. The tin designs shown offer useful dating information. For example, the Prismalo I tin design with the Matterhorn and red flowers is the same as the one used for multiple versions of the product I now think of as Prismalo (the thinner, harder core) as seen in my history post. I had deduced at the time that my Prismalo sets were from the ‘90s, but their appearance in this 1988 brochure dates them as even older.

Edited 1/5/23: Correction: The Atelier Caran d'Ache historical timeline dates Pablo pencils as being introduced in 1990, so the brochure must have been produced since then. So my original dating hypothesis for my Prismalo sets still holds.

A valuable product brochure came with the set of 40.

Brochure image shows Caran d'Ache's color products of that time (1988).

I can’t end this post without a heart-felt thank you to my readers, especially Femma, Julia and George, for their valuable insights, information and even a very generous gift of pencils! Their feedback and conversations are what make the “vintage” part of my blog even more fun.

As far as I know, I am missing only one specimen from the Supracolor Soft line. The set shown below, too overpriced for a used, mixed set for me to buy, showed up on eBay (images below swiped from that listing) some months ago. The distinguishing design element are the three gold stripes near the end cap, which is white. They were sold in the tin shown, but since this dubious set includes random other pencils, who knows if they originally came in that tin. The triple-striped design must have come after the ones shown in this post and before the current design.

Since readers have been my best source of information, I will appeal to you now: Does anyone know anything about these triple-striped Supracolors and when they came out?

This image from an eBay listing shows the triple-striped Supracolor Soft pencil design. (A dubious specimen with random Prang and Crayola pencils thrown in to fill the tin.)

The tin shown with the pencils.

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