The idea for this post came from three separate, but connected places. First, I recently finished a book written by Kameshar Wali called Cremona Violins: A Physicist’s Quest for the Secrets of Stradivari (you can read the first chapter for free, here). Second, a friend of mine once said that a Blackwing 602 pencil was like a Stradivarius in the hands of Chuck Jones. And third, every once in a while I come across an eBay auction where Blackwing pencils are referred to by a version number. Having not seen any other collections with version numbers, I’m presuming that information came from this site (one of the unintended consequences of writing something down). Jokingly, I’ve wondered if I shouldn’t have come up with a more colorful sobriquet for each of them, like those associated with Stradivarius violins and ‘cellos, etc.
So instead of just using “version 2” it could be called the “Brooklyn”, or “version 8” could be called the “Ex-Patriot” (the “U.S.A.” is missing from the imprint), etc. Actually, over a year ago I once referred to an early 602 with the yellow-painted band as the “Loch Ness” Blackwing (i.e. like the Loch Ness Monster, it’s something that you hear about but never get to see in person), so maybe that will stick. Of course I’m not trying to elevate or equate Blackwing pencils with Strad violins. They are however in some interesting ways, analogs of one another.
Unlocking A Secret
High-quality violins aren’t uncommon, but those built by Antonio Stradivari are often regarded as being “the best ever made.” Everyone from luthiers to scientists have tried to discover the secret to their sound. Many have focused on the proprietary varnish Stradivari used, and attempts have been made to reverse-engineer its formula. Other more recent theories suggest that, while unknown to Stradivari, the wood he chose came from trees that grew very slowly (during a period referred to as the Little Ice Age), which resulted in their having an uncommonly dense cellular structure. This density then uniquely contributes to the instruments’ resonance. This explanation is particularly satisfying to me, if only because its requirements involve titanic forces of nature and large expanses of time—two things for which there are no shortcuts.
The Blackwing, in its own way, has a secret too: its lead. No, it wasn’t hewn from glaciers or forged in the hearts of volcanos (though, carbon is one of the heavier elements produced by supernovae…), but still it stands out amidst oceans of other pencils. The formula for its graphite core might be considered as proprietary to its maker as Stradivari’s varnish was to him, and both were the result of many years spent in apprenticeship.
The Sincerest Form of Flattery
A Stradivarius is made of finite components but whose configurations are infinite, depending on how closely you are inclined to measure. Seemingly minute and subtle differences in design and process amplify over the course of building an instrument—musical or otherwise. In that sense, instrument makers won’t ever be able to account for all variables when attempting to copy Stradivari’s work, whether they are aided by his original forms or even by the 3D renderings of modern CT scans. But even if a copy were made, perfect in both sight and sound, a copy ever remains a copy.
Copying the Blackwing presents far fewer challenges: the color of the lacquer can be computer-matched, logos emulated, ferrules reforged, and even the lead can be chemically analyzed. But doing so can only be awarded a distant second-place: the Blackwing experience can’t be duplicated or replicated, because it’s something much more meaningful than matched colors, copied ferrules, and emulated logos.
The Name Game
Antonio Stradivari could scarcely have imagined that after Latinizing his surname, it would one day become a metonym for “quality”, or even “the best.” Flattering, to be sure, but not so much when it is applied to items outside its own milieu. How unseemly it is then, for a cigar and a chain of clothing stores to bear the name “Stradivarius”, in the hope that it might imbue a sense of tradition or quality. Regardless of intent, in the end it’s just one thing standing on the name and reputation of another.
Wir müssen wissen. Wir werden wissen.
The relentless pursuit to discover the ‘secret’ behind Antonio Stradivari’s work can be a double-edged sword. In one sense, our need to know—about anything—helps render the world around us more understandable. Doing so can provide a sense of comfort and stability, making the universe seem a little less random in return. All discoveries, however, require a loss—once we peek behind the veil, it disappears. But with the exception of those who have tried to discover and reproduce it, the ‘secret’ of the Stradivarius violins has meant far less to people than the music made with them.
The secret, it seems, may lie in not trying to copy it to begin with.
Being able to identify a Strad by its sound alone seems to require a level of aural acuity tantamount to an enophile’s palate. But there are people who will tell you that there is no sound on this Earth comparable to that of the Stradivarius. Yet there is no shortage of blind listening tests where highly-trained musicians were unable to discern between a Stradivarius and other high-quality modern violins. Is the tone of a Stradivarius then some elitist’s concoction, akin to the patrons of a fine-arts museum fawning over a work that, unknown to them, was a child’s finger-painting? Is this a case of the Emperor’s New Violin? Hardly.
But if there are people dismissive of experts who claim that a gulf exists between the quality and tone of such highly-crafted musical instruments, imagine what they might have to say about pencils. However, anyone who has ever had a favorite anything knows it’s not about what others think or what others are able to notice. What matters is the particular joy they find in experiencing that one thing—whether its a priceless musical instrument or measly pencil—it’s that one thing which for them, makes all the difference.
Music must lie first in the heart, not in the hands.