Friday, 29 January 2010

Looking for Gold, Finding Graphite: Faber, Alibert and the Siberian Mines

The substance from which blacklead pencils are manufactured has successively been known by the names of wad, black-cawke, blacklead, plumbago, and graphite. It occurs in various parts of the world, in France, Bohemia, Austria, North America, Scotland and Ireland. It is found, generally, intermixed with a micacious substance, which renders it unfit for pencils. The purest and most esteemed is found at Borrowdale, in Cumberland.
George Harley, A Guide to Landscape Drawing in Pencil and Chalk, London (George Rowney & Co.) 1848

A few years later this would no longer be true. The graphite deposits at Borrowdale were depleted. But just two years before Harley reported on the Cumberland pencils, a French merchant with the name of Jean-Pierre Alibert who went looking for gold in Eastern Siberia discovered something else instead:
In one of the mountain gorges near Irkutsk he discovered among the sand, samples of pure graphite, showing by their smooth, round form and brilliant polish that they had evidently been brought from a great distance by the stream.
 Alibert saw the potential of the find and set out to open a mine. The desert rocky mountain range of Eastern Siberia was harsh terrain and supplies had to be carried on the backs of reindeer and travel long distances. Alibert started a little farm at the foot of Mount Batougol to raise fresh produce and soon a colony of workmen was established.

 Jean-Pierre Alibert mine in Siberia
from A.W.Faber, The Pencil-Lead mines of Asiatic Siberia, 1865

After some seven years of hard labour, he at last struck on "an unbroken layer of the purest and most superb graphite, from which solid pieces, weighing 80 pounds and more, could be readily taken". The samples he sent to the Committee of the Imperial Academy of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg were hailed as "of excellent quality for drawing-pencils of every kind... superior even to that formely obtained from the now exhausted mine of Borrowdale".

Graphite used by Faber
Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG.

Many awards and medals later and after an agreement with A.W.Faber, Alibert shipped some 100,000 lbs of the precious graphite - "bright like polished steel" - to Faber's Nurenburg factory. The chronicle of the expedition gleefully revels at the stout wooded boxes wherein the precious graphite travelled, carefully packed, on the backs of reindeer crossing the vast Russian steppes, all the way to the little village of Stein in Nurenburg.

In 1862 the Siberian-lead pencils received two medals: one went to Alibert for "excellence of pencils made from natural Siberian graphite" and one to Faber "for black-lead pencils of excellent quality made from the newly discovered Siberian graphite". Alibert and Faber had indeed struck gold.

The Graphite Mine in Siberia. Courtesy of Faber-Castell AG

Quotes from A.W.Faber, The Pencil-Lead Mines of Asiatic Siberia. Jean-Pierre Alibert, A Historical Sketch 1761-1861, 1865. For Images of Siberian-graphite pencils, see the collection in Leadholder.

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