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The myth of the Moleskine

The Moleskine’s cachet is comparable only to that of the Apple computer in creative circles; many creative-types have been lured into appeasing their fantasies of writing down creative thoughts in the same pads that recorded the legendary writings of travel writer Bruce Chatwin and author Ernest Hemingway. Of course, such marketing isn’t new: the Moleskine is an example of a weak aspirational product, a product which is used by a few top authors, artists and musicians but has long since saturated the “exposure audience,” those who aspire to be the top authors, artists and musicians but are mere pawns in the larger creative game. Saturation, indeed: according to the blog Bibliostructures, ten million Moleskines of all shapes and sizes, colours and types are made by Moleskine each year. There’s something awry in this whole scheme, though: Hemingway and his contemporaries never used a single Moleskine-brand notebook.

Clever marketing or a creative con?

I’ve found plenty of conversations recently on Moleskine-based blogs as well as general writing sites such as The Fountain Pen Network who instantly reference Chatwin or Hemingway whenever Moleskine is mentioned. Whilst true that the authors did use a book that resembled the Moleskine, both died a decade before Modo & Modo registered their Moleskine trademark in 1996. The Moleskine Modo & Modo produces is as much Chatwin’s Moleskine as any of the other Moleskine clones by papermakers such as the Spanish Miquelrius or British Paperchase.

In a 2004 IHT article, Modo & Modo marketing director Francesco Franceschi even admitted to the marketing con, saying that “[The Moleskine link to Chatwin and Hemingway is] an exaggeration. It’s marketing, not science. It’s not the absolute truth.” According to Wikipedia’s entry on Moleskine, Chatwin’s last supplier of his Moleskinesque notebooks was a stationer in Tours, France, hardly an Italian company that binds their millions of moleskin oilcloth notebooks in China before finishing them in Italy.

Finding authenticity in notebook-land

Recently disillusioned, I set out to find a superior notebook. I love the Moleskine’s overall form factor and hardcover format; I’m a rather clumsy fellow and softer notepads don’t make it very long being thrown around in my bag or lost in some nook of the office. A few months ago, I bought a set of notepads from French company Bloc Rhodia after having their 80-gsm paper recommended to me by other heavy fountain pen users. For writing, I was hooked: most of Socialuxe’s (awfully few) articles have been written on one of my A4 Rhodia pads before being transcribed to digital form.

Unlike Moleskine, Rhodia actually has a legacy: the stationer was founded in Lyon, France in 1934, giving the French stationer 62 years on Moleskine. Furthermore, all of Rhodia’s paper and pads are still made in France, making the price premium justifiable. If aspirational marketing is your thing, the still-living British fashion designer Paul Smith is a vocal fan of Rhodia’s products, even going so far as to design his own limited edition for the French stationery firm.

While my Rhodia pads served me well at home, the cardstock covers still felt flimsy and more useful for note-taking than anything archival. Writing with a hardcover Moleskine feels more journal-like and less like something to write fast notes in, and I wanted notebooks I could use for this purpose. A few days ago, I stumbled across Rhodia’s new high-end Boutique collection, offering cute imitation leather journals with Rhodia’s paper in classic Rhodia yellow-orange or black vaguely reminiscent of Hèrmes’s Ulysse notebook, which at $325 is most certainly the ultra-luxury of notebooks. After a bit more digging in the Boutique collection, however, I found Rhodia’s A5 Webnotebook, a completely French-made notebook made to the same specification as the Moleskine with far better paper quality and a soft imitation leather cover. For that extra snob appeal, I’d say that the Rhodia Webnotebook is far closer to the Chatwin specification than that of the Moleskine: at least it’s made in France, where Chatwin’s last Moleskinesque notebooks were created. I spent a day tracking one down in San Francisco, finally finding the black A5 Webnotebooks at The Container Store next to Westfield San Francisco Centre for $17.99, a price premium of approximately two dollars over Moleskine’s competing notebook. I was instantly in love. (Note: If anybody finds a place in San Francisco where I can purchase the orange variant, please let me know; I’d love to make an inverse version of my work Webnotebook for personal writing.)

Taking it to the next level

Recently, I’ve found myself unhappy with anything that isn’t modified in some way: I’ve been craving æsthetically unique pieces for my everyday carry, eventually culminating in designing a custom messenger bag that is currently in production and a complete rework of all of the things I carry every day to slightly modified or otherwise custom pieces. Given my Rhodia fandom, I decided it was time to modify the Webnotebook to rival the endless modifications to Moleskines (which, somewhat hypocritically, I’ve contributed to in the past.) With Webnotebook in tow, I headed to Utrecht Art Supplies on New Montgomery to purchase acrylic paint in Cadmium Orange Hue, a couple of Sharpie paint markers and a can of Krylon Matte Finish. Some hours later, I had a fully customised Webnotebook, with a hand-painted Rhodia orange stripe meant to evoke the rougher feeling of the abstract expressionists of the early sixties, an art group that I somehow find perpetually inspires me. As an ode to Smith’s collections, I then doodled a pattern on the inside covers using the paint markers.

In the end, I’ve found peace with my writing supplies. It’s good to know that I’ve found a product superior to the Moleskine from a company that doesn’t lie about its history or origins. I’ve a final note for Moleskine spl: I won’t be coming back. Bloc Rhodia has forever replaced you in my heart.

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