A small cardboard box rests on the shelves next to my easel at home. The austere container belies the treasures that lie within its drab confines. Only the mysterious black-winged dragon and the singular message "depuis [since] 1720," that emblazon the top hint at the potent contents: spectacularly colored pastels produced by the Paris-based company, H. Roché.
These perfect little sticks wield as much enchantment in my world of art and design as any magic wand. In tandem with water colors, acrylics, and inks, they turn white sheets of paper into riots of pattern, color, and narrative. Not only do they allow me to dress up my home with my own artworks, they connect me to generations of acclaimed artists who depended on the unique pastel hues to create their masterpieces—icons such as Edgar Degas, Edouard Vuillard, Alphonse Legros, Jules Cheret, and Alfred Sisley, to name but a few of the long-departed artists; and Sam Szafran, Pierre Skira, and Irving Petlin to cite some of those among the living. The pastels, which are sold in kits of varying sizes, are still handmade in accordance with the original formulas. In 1999, the trade secrets were passed down to Isabelle Roché, the great-grandniece of Dr. Henri Roché, a chemistry student of the famous scientist Louis Pasteur and a pharmacist, who in 1878 left the profession to purchase a then-158-year-old art-supply shop.
Like Roché, Pasteur was passionate about pastels and worked with him to perfect his production methods. The company, renamed H. Roché, then devoted itself exclusively to making pastels that satisfied the exacting standards of its clientele.
Isabelle's story is colored by a similar sense of destiny. "I had been working for five years for [the French company] ExxonMobil and I was looking for a way out," she says. "At the same time, my great-aunts were looking for someone to take over the business. To me, the pastels were so exquisite. I would look at the boxes and think to myself, 'I don't want this beautiful thing to end.' I felt I had to save it." While, preserving the old-world manufacturing techniques (even the color charts and boxes are handmade) and reemphasizing the tradition of customization in accordance with users' requests, Isabelle has developed a stunning range of highly nuanced hues—527 altogether over the six years she has been in charge of the operation. Artists speak of the pastels in terms of their incomparable brightness, texture, and finish. When I use them, I can see why they were instrumental to the Impressionists' ability to capture light in new ways.
Though the pastels are costly—ranging from 44 euros (about $58) for a "discovery box" of three pastels to 12.60 euros (about $16.50) for a single unit (pieces with more concentrated pigments can run higher)—they're worth the investment for anyone who appreciates extremely subtle gradations of tone and feels the urge to conjure their own vibrant solutions for blank walls. You can order H. Roché pastels from Rochester Art Supply, but I recommend a trip to Isabelle's vintage shop (it hasn't changed since the '40s), which is located in the center of a cobbled courtyard in the Marais district of Paris. Dark wooden drawers dating back to the early 20th century line the walls and stand in stark contrast to the stunning pastels they house; opening them will make you feel as if you've collided with a rainbow. Look for the red and white La Maison du Pastels sign at 20 Rue Rombiteau (between the Pompidou Center and the Picasso Museum). —Room Whisperer