The Soulƒood

La Maison du Pastel is a place in Paris that sells handmade pastels made from a recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation since the house was created 300 years ago.

​(essay follows photos)

La Maison du Pastel

There is a place in Paris that sells handmade pastels made from a recipe that has been passed down from generation to generation since the house was created 300 years ago. To get to the shop, you have to enter a small courtyard in the Marais and walk to the back where you pass through an old wooden door. It’s only open once a week, every Thursday afternoon. Once inside, it feels like you have stepped back in time to 1912 when the store moved to its current location at 20, rue Rambuteau.

On the walls, are rows after rows of antique wooden boxes, each one labeled with a name and a number. The names are poetic… Wild Brown, Intense Violet, Naples Yellow, Rouge Geranium and Carmine Burnt by Yellow. Inside the boxes, there are 1200 different bars of pigments so intense and bright that you don’t know which one to choose….

They are not cheap. At 20 euro a pastel, the price can be a deterrent for many artists. You can buy an entire box of cheap art store pastels for that price. But you get what you paid for… An inexpensive pastel contains little pigment and is mostly made up of filler and binding agents. A Roché Pastel on the other hand, contains mostly high quality raw pigments that will not fade with time. The pigments are ground by hand into a paste with water and a small amount of binder then rolled and pressed into sticks. Each color has 9 gradations produced by mixing chalk or kaolin with the pigment. They blend perfectly on any drawing medium and the resulting colors are brilliant and luminous. They are the holy grail of pastels.

The history of these dry pastels is fascinating. It began in 1720 in Versailles as Maison Macle and was kept alive for generations by different artisans. In 1865, Louis Pasteur, father of vaccination and pasteurization, introduced Henri Roché, a chemical engineer and chemist to the pastels. He became so fascinated by them that he took over the operation and renamed it Maison du Pastel in 1878. He refined the recipe and took advice from artists like Degas, Redon and Whistler…. His son, Dr. Henri Roché, carried on his father’s work and the maison survived despite two world wars, occupation and looting by the Nazis and bombings during Liberation. After the war, the workshop continued to attract artists with the doctor’s three daughters devoting the next 40 years of their lives to the fabrication and sale of the pastels. In the 80s, the sisters struggled financially and their impending old age made them fear that they would not find a suitable heir until they were introduced to Isabelle Roché through a family reunion.

In 1999, Isabelle quit her job as an engineer in the petrol industry to take over the Maison du Pastel . For ten years, she couldn’t afford to hire anyone to help her; she had to continue the fabrication by herself and additionally sell and promote the pastels alone. She traveled back and forth between the store and the workshop situated in the outskirts of Paris. This seemed like an impossible task for one person. But, in 2010, she met Margaret Zayer, a young American student who came for a summer stage and ended up convinced that she had found her vocation. Margaret relocated to Paris and they have worked together since.

This story is obviously interesting if you draw with pastels or if you are interested in the fabrication of artist’s materials but the Roché Pastels’ tale is also about the importance of keeping traditions alive. We are surrounded by cheap and disposable objects made on assembly lines by people we will never meet. The pastels represent history, craftsmanship, quality. It’s becoming more important then ever to support and meet artisans that care about their craft as they often struggle to keep them alive. Luckily, if you don’t get a chance to visit the store, the digital age has made it possible to discover the pastels with a comprehensive website and online store featuring all 1200 colors.

Written and photographed by Kathleen Finlay

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