The Blackwing 602 is more often thought of as being a “modern” pencil, rather than being associated with vintage pencils such as the Van Dyke or Microtomic. Perhaps this is because it was manufactured up until 1998 and the stories about its demise are centered in the 1990s. Even the briefest encounter with the sleek look and feel of a Blackwing leaves a powerful first impression. But depending which decades color your lenses, the Blackwing’s design has both forward-looking and vintage elements; the perfect recipe for a sense of timelessness.
However, reckoning from its trademark application, the Blackwing 602 first appeared in the Eberhard Faber catalog sometime between 1933-34. This means it had a lifespan of approximately 65 years. Its product number—602—followed a well-known and popular pencil, the Van Dyke 601. It would be followed by an equally well-known pencil, the Microtomic 603. While the Blackwing shares the same form—a shortened barrel, an elongated ferrule, and an adjustable eraser—that’s about all it had in common with the Van Dyke and Microtomic. The Blackwing was not marketed as a “drawing pencil”, which means it was never offered in varying degrees. It was a one-off. An anomaly.
In the decades that followed, the Blackwing would not be the (advertised) recipient of Eberhard Faber’s “microtomic” enhancements as was the Van Dyke line, which eventually lost its name to this new and improved graphite refining process. Nor was the Blackwing advertised as having the “complastic” lead featured in other Eberhard Faber products such as the Mongol. I should qualify these contentions by saying that I haven’t yet seen any such advertisements—in fact, print advertising featuring the Blackwing is much less common than, say, the Mongol. Is it possible that for 65 years the Blackwing wasn’t updated in any significant way? Though some small aesthetic changes would be made, e.g. the barrel imprint and color of the ferrule, it seems as if the Blackwing was fully-formed at the start. It’s almost as if it was designed as the solution to a counterintuitive problem: can a pencil write with the softness and smoothness of a 3B or 4B lead, but have a rate-of-wear more like that of an HB?
How Popular Was the Blackwing 602?
Until more can be explained through period advertisements, I have the impression that the Blackwing lived a comparatively low-key lifestyle compared to the Mongol, Van Dyke, Microtomic, etc. But with so many Eberhard Faber pencils promoted as being excellent writers, why not showcase the Blackwing 602? Perhaps it was meant to be a niche product from the start—something for those whose taste in pencils exceeded the more commonplace Mongol or Microtomic. But who would that be? Blackwings were more expensive, so it’s unlikely they were thinking of students. Artists and architects? No, there were other more complete lines for them. Secretaries and stenographers? No, there were other pencils tailored for office-related tasks, which often had round barrels rather than hexagonal ones. Animators gravitated toward the Blackwing by the 1950s, but I have yet to see advertising copy that promoted its merits for animation work. In other words, the Blackwing never seemed to be the such-and-such pencil, it was more like, the pencil.
It’s easy to think, because of the Blackwing’s current cult-like status and the high prices they can command, that they were always highly-prized, commonly-used, and widely available. But it may have been just the opposite. Perhaps they were just known within certain professional circles, sold in enough volume to keep them in the catalog and therefore were not heavily advertised. Perhaps they were one of the first “boutique” woodcase pencils for those in-the-know; simply a high-quality item for the discerning connoisseur. But at the same time, it was also one of the first pencils that fostered such intense devotion that its discontinuation actually caused a public outcry among its most ardent admirers, despite how (relatively) small those numbers may have been.
But, find out for yourself. Ask any Blackwing fan “what was the big deal about this pencil?” He or she just may pause, look wistfully over at their dwindling supply, then channel Gloria Swanson and say: “The Blackwing is big. It’s pencils that got small.”