If quiet is the new loud then Yard-O-Led are at the head of the queue. For over 80 years this British firm have been producing arguably the finest writing instruments in the world. And in that understated British way, it has all been done with little fuss and no bother, just an appreciation of quality and a continuous desire to achieve it.
Yet the Yard-O-Led tale is not a linear one. The kinks and knots of life have given their history a particular shape and richness. In many ways it is a story of Empire, resilience and innovation. Although established in 1934 by Ludwig Brenner, the company’s roots reach back to 1822 and the invention of the first propelling pencil by Sampson Mordan. Brenner was from Pforzheim in Germany – a city affectionately known as Goldstadt (Golden City) and renowned for its jewellery and watchmaking industries. This is where he learnt his trade, before setting his sights further afield and heading for Blighty.
Having landed in Britain prior to WW1, he quickly set up what became a highly respected jewellery business in London. And life might well have carried on this untroubled course, but WW1 had other plans. For the conflict saw Brenner interned for the duration of the war.
As a consequence of this he lost his business. But, undismayed, he began afresh, though on a slightly different trajectory; one which, in 1934, saw him found Yard-O-Led, in the wake of his patenting an innovative mechanical pencil design – one that allowed each instrument to hold twelve 3” pencil leads: the eponymous yard of lead. The year also marked the first meeting of Brenner with Frank Tufnell Jnr. – son of Frank Snr, who was a longtime associate and employee of Sampson Mordan’s.
As with many meetings in life, this may have been nothing but a pleasant cul-de-sac for both men. But war, once again, added another twist to their personal histories. In 1941, at the height of the Blitz, both Yard-O-Led’s premises and Mordan’s factory were completely destroyed in the bombing. But serendipity smiled, and Ludwig and Frank Jnr. once again came into each other’s orbit and decided to rebuild Yard-O-Led, a decision that saw them construct a factory in Birmingham’s Jewellery quarter in the aftermath of the war.
In this postwar period, the Sampson Mordan Co. patents and intellectual property were sold, and the name acquired by the Edward Baker Company of Birmingham. Yet this proved to be a temporary situation. For serendipity presented Frank Jnr. with a brace of opportunities – the chance to purchase a majority shareholding in Yard-O-Led, whilst also buying the Edward Baker Company outright.
He quickly decided and shook on the deals, securing both the Yard-O-Led, and Mordan’s patents, and the business flourished. It was to be a hands-on stewardship; and one which saw Ludwig continuously involved until 1955, when he was a sprightly 79 years old.
In 1972 Frank Jnr’s son, Tim Tuffnell, joined, and became the third generation of his family to be involved in the company. It is a presence that continues to this day, in Tim’s role as Honorary President. In more recent years they also had a brief flirtation with Letts Filofax Ltd, but Yard-O-Led are once again their own masters, after being purchased by Imperial Yard Ltd.
And although the rise of the biro has arrested their growth and eaten into their traditional market, just when it appeared that natural selection, and cheap and cheerless manufacturing, would consign quality writing instruments to history, there has been a resurgence in usage. Perhaps as a reaction to the impermanence of 21st century life.
So whilst time has seen Yard-O-Led’s pens and pencils move from workaday to luxury item, they are so much more than this. They demand to be used, and should be called into action more regularly than the wedding suit. For they perfectly bridge two worlds, being aesthetically beautiful and utterly functional – the pinnacle of writing implements and the perfect antidote to the quick and flippant plastic pen. Or the dead hand of digital communication.
The firm still works out of the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, the Victorian heartland of nib manufacturing, where six craftsmen quietly hand produce each individual pen, using 19th Century artisanal techniques. Were some of those long-deceased master craftsmen to watch the team in action today, they would surely recognize them as their own.