Every Thursday afternoon, in a secluded courtyard in Le Marais, professional and amateur artists flock to La Maison du Pastel, a bijou boutique brimming with over 1,250 pastels in hues from iridescent cobalt to rich, mica-infused metallics. The shop is only open one day a week as the proprietresses – Isabelle Roché, whose family has owned the company since 1878, and her American partner Margaret Zayer – are typically found researching new pigments, formulating rare hues and hand-rolling these brilliant batons in their workshop just outside Paris.
The pair craft the pastels – weighing powder pigments, adding the binder, rolling and cutting each stick with a mezzaluna knife – before wrapping them in labels featuring a dragon and a sheaf of wheat. “We have always had the broadest range of intense colours,” explains Roché of the handmade pastels that were favoured by Edgar Degas, Edouard Vuillard and James Abbott McNeill Whistler among many others, and continue to be sought after by illustrators and artists who appreciate the specific grainy texture. “We have modified how we make the pastels today,” explains Zayer, “but the principles remain the same. We reference our well-preserved archives from the 1870s and hope to create our 1970s high of 1,800 colours once again.”
While the company’s roots can be traced to 1720, the shop has been in its current garage-turned-atelier since 1912. The virtually unchanged space features original 19th-century furnishings, a wall of wooden shelves displaying the pastels arranged by a numbering system devised in the 1920s, and a central table that invites visitors to experiment with the collection. “There are over 140 colour families,” explains Roché of the expansive range. “People come for our pure, dense colours – deep reds, ultramarine blues and the luminous scarab tints that are ours alone,” adds Zayer.
The pastels are sold singly (from €16) and in exquisite oak, spruce or poplar boxes (from €30) finished with natural wax. More wooden boxes contain themed sets, varying in size from just five crayons in the Palais Garnier-inspired Paris Monuments edition (€115) to 12 in the Portrait, Landscape and Floral collections (from €190). For lovers of the impressionist palette, the 72-piece Giverny selection (€1,460) features an array of the vermilion, cadmium yellow and emerald-green hues inspired by the gardens of Claude Monet, while an oak chest of 648 colours (€10,800) – separated into eight trays – is almost too beautiful to be used. But it is the full collection – 1,266 pastels at last count – available in two custom-made chests (€19,650) that is the pièce de résistance. “We recently sold one of these to the maquillage group at Chanel for use as inspiration for new make-up colours,” says Roché.