1565 is a big year for pencil people, for it was then that “De Rerum Fossilium Lapidum et Gemmarum Maxime, Figuris et Similitudinibus Liber” by Swiss naturalist Conrad Gessner was published. In this great tome on fossils he included a sketch and brief description of a very useful new piece of equipment he had acquired, namely his pencil, and this is the very first record of a “modern pencil”, one that used graphite.
Conrad Gessner’s sketch and description of his pencil are reasonably brief and vague, leaving some room for conjecture over the exact details. He describes the pencil thus “The stylus shown below is made for writing, from a sort of lead, which I have heard some call English antimony, shaved to a point and inserted in a wooden handle.” So, some four and half centuries later, Cleo Skribent have taken this, and used it to produce “Der Gessner”, their version of Conrad’s pencil. So what exactly is Der Gessner? Well it’s quite simple really – it’s a turned, round wooden body (or holder) with a hole drilled up its length, but not so far as to come out the top. A standard 5.6mm lead fits up inside the body and is secured in place by a tapering wooden split sleeve at the mouth of the body. That’s it. So really, to my way of thinking, it’s actually a leadholder, a sketch pencil in my personal terminology, an ancestor of todays leadholders or clutch pencils.
Personally I don’t think Cleo Skribent are particularly well known as a pencil manufacturer, so by way of brief introduction, they are a German writing instrument manufacturer and for Der Gessner they emphasise their efforts to ensure the pencil is handmade to the highest standards in the tradition of the master artisan, and the German tradition of quality manufacture. They offer several different options for Der Gessner – for example in a hessian pouch, in a leather pouch, or a complete pencil set including knife, leads, etc all in a very interesting looking wooden box.
I’m pleased to say that I think Cleo Skribent have lived up to their own hype regarding quality of manufacture. The leather pouch is very fine leather, double faced where visible and well stitched. A plain simple piece of good quality work. My only quibble about the pouch is that it is a very light coloured leather and so can show graphite marks from when you take the pencil in and out of the pouch. These graphite marks are not that easy to remove. The pencil itself is equally good quality woodwork. Regular readers of this blog will know of my family connection to the “wood trades”, and my disappointment with a previous piece of wood I purchased. This time round, I am happy to say that I think the Der Gessner pencil is an excellent example of the woodturners art. Very smoothly finished and polished. Personally I prefer a slightly heavier grained wood, but that’s just a personal thing. I am glad they decided to stay with the natural finish and feel of the wood and didn’t apply a heavy clear lacquer or varnish finish to the pencil.
How does Der Gessner feel in the hand? For a such a large pencil its surprisingly lightweight. It’s quite a thick bodied pencil, actually a little too thick for me personally. To be honest, I have a touch of OOS/RSI/Carpal Tunnel and it was playing up, so that could be clouding my judgement. Anyway, like I say, I think I would have preferred a slightly thinner body. There is no special grip section or enhancements, but you don’t really need any with this pencil. It’s interesting to have the feel of wood beneath your fingers. I did find the flared lip at the base quite useful for positioning my fingers.
The body is perfectly round and there is no pocket clip so it will roll around on your desk when you put it down, which can get a bit annoying. Now I’m normally not that impressed with the erasers on most mechanical pencils, and Der Gessner has no eraser at all. I did wonder though if they hadn’t missed an opportunity to put one somewhere. Perhaps make the top knob a pull off one with an eraser underneath. But then I suppose that would be not be staying true to the original design.
As mentioned earlier, the lead is held in place by a split sleeve which itself push fits into the body. The sleeve can come loose during transport or if you drop the pencil, etc thus allowing the lead to fall out. Obviously the harder you jam the sleeve into the body the less likely this is to happen, but I worry about starting to deform the sleeve by pushing it in too hard. Good and tight in the short term, but in the long term it might affect the performance. I wonder if you can buy replacement sleeves? It appears the wood of the sleeve is a different species to the body, so presumably its been selected for its mechanical properties, and my fears are probably overstated. Sometimes you get a little creaking sound from the sleeve/body joint when you are writing, particularly as you rotate the pencil in your hand. This can also make the lead wobble just a fraction when you start writing again. Very occasionally the sleeve can be pushed in too lightly and the lead slides through the sleeve when you start to write, but this isn’t common and more a matter of getting used to how to use the pencil. But overall this sleeve system works quite well.
Photo - Der Gessner 5.6mm lead + sleeve, and 0.5mm lead for comparison.
Whoa! 5.6mm lead! Remember, way down deep, I’m a guy who still sort of thinks of 0.7mm as thick lead. So 5.6mm?!? Well, I didn’t bother trying to do any really fine writing on small font computer print outs, etc. I confined myself to more general writing. If you keep rotating the pencil then you can keep a reasonably sharp point on the lead for a period of time. The plain round body of Der Gessner assists with this. I tried sharpening the lead with a knife, but then thought I’d try an ordinary pencil sharpener. This initially took a little bit of effort, but once you’ve got the hang of it, it’s quite successful. It also puts a reasonably long tapering point on the lead. The leads supplied by Cleo Skribent are actually repackaged Koh-I-Noor leads. The 2B leads that came with my pencil are inscribed “KOH-I-NOOR HARDTMUTH 4865/2B”. Cleo Skribent appear to offer grades 2B, 4B and 6B, in plastic cases or glass tubes. The glass tube is basically just an ordinary test tube with a cork stopper, but I like the idea. It seems the sort of thing Conrad Gessner himself might have used. There are no markings of any kind whatsoever on the pencil or leather pouch. I generally prefer to have at least some indication of the manufacturer and model so you know what’s what in the future. I guess somehow they could impress a Cleo Skribent / Gessner logo somewhere.
Well, that’s about it from me. I salute Cleo Skribent for creating this pencil. I’m glad to own it, and I think that if you are a pencil collector then you have to consider getting a Der Gessner, because basically this is where it all started.
- Best Points & Not So Good Points – As this is a piece of history, it doesn’t seem right to list “Best Points” and “Not So Good Points” from a modern perspective. I think a fellow Der Gessner owner summed it up best when he said his pencil was “…lovable, impractical and a good writer. And it draws attention at meetings.” [H.N.]
- Price Range – Mid to High depending on the option you choose.
Photo - Der Gessner and some modern off-spring
Photo - Der Gessner and one of my uncles creations from an NZ native timber.
Conrad Gessner (1516-1565) is an important figure in scientific history, particularly the natural sciences, and is sometimes referred to as “the founder” or “the father” of modern zoology. He was a great field naturalist and loved hiking in the mountains, both for study and for enjoyment. Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m trying to compare myself to Conrad Gessner, but if you have read this blog for a while you will probably be aware that I am a little bit of a part time-time field naturalist myself, and so as part of the review of this pencil I thought I should take “Der Gessner” out into the field, just as the great man himself would have done all those centuries ago. So, how does Der Gessner stack up against a modern pencil like the Lamy Scribble that I usually carry out in the field? Well, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised; time and technology has marched on since Conrad Gessner’s day, and there’s no real contest between Scribble and Der Gessner. To me, Scribble wins hands down. Der Gessner has no pocket clip although you could tie a string to the knob on top and attach it to a notebook. There is no eraser, it’s quite a large pencil so not really pocket-sized, its perfectly round and so rolls on a flat surface (the wind nearly rolled it off a bridge when I put it down for a second), the lead is not easily retractable, the lead can slip out of the pencil body during transport and so on. Now this all sounds negative, but lets be perfectly clear here, I have no doubt that it was an absolutely stunning improvement on what field naturalists would have had before these pencils became available! Imagine carrying quill and bottled ink around outdoors and trying to quickly write a few notes! Or wax tablets and scriber. Compared to these, a piece of graphite in a wooden holder would have been a fantastic improvement. Talk about convenience! The “best thing sliced-bread”, but then they didn’t have sliced bread back then. Perhaps people said “The best thing since the pencil” when sliced-bread first came onto the market? I’d like to finish this on a positive note – I thoroughly enjoyed using Der Gessner outdoors for a day, it was a great little emotional link to the past, giving me a real sense of history. Get yourself one soon.