Yard-O-Led is more than just the oldest writing instrument company in Great Britain. It has a remarkable story to tell; a tale of gold and silversmiths who were also competent inventors. Their inventions revolutionised the way people wrote. The brand still holds the 1822 patent for the world’s first “Eversharp” propelling pencil. Today, the company specialises in producing exquisitely hand-worked sterling-silver writing instruments – fountain and ball pens, along with its patented propelling pencils.
The Yard-O-Led story begins in 1816 when Sampson Mordan, an associate of Michael Faraday, established a successful gold and silversmith company in London. Mordan was the favourite apprentice and assistant of John Bramah, a celebrated London silversmith and inventor (among others) of the Bramah lock, which is still in use today. In 1822, Mordan patented his “Eversharp” propelling pencil. Given that the ballpoint pens had not been invented, the propelling pencil became the most popular writing instrument, and remained so until the Second World War.
The second thread of the Yard-O-Led story begins with Ludwig Brenner, a native of Pforzheim, Germany – a hub of the jewellery and watch-making industry near the Swiss-German border. Brenner emigrated to London before the first world war and established a successful jewellery business in Charterhouse Street, the centre of London’s jewellery trade.
In 1934, he filed a patent that improved on Mordan’s 112 years old design. It allowed a single propelling pencil to carry twelve three-inch leads, hence a yard of lead in total. Demand for the new invention was such that Brenner established a separate company which he called Yard-O-Led Pencil. He then subcontracted much of the production to Edward Baker & Co, a silversmith in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter.
The choice of Birmingham as a production centre would prove fateful because in 1941 both Mordan’s premises and those of Ludwig Brenner were destroyed in the London bombings. Edward Baker & Co not only continued manufacturing Yard-O-Led products but also acquired Mordan’s patents and other assets from his great-great-grandson; thus, unifying the two threads of the brand’s history for the first time.
In 1946, Frank Tufnell, whose father had worked most of his life for the Sampson Mordan company, took over management from Mr Brenner at Yard-O-Led. In 1952, he became the majority shareholder in the Yard-O-Led Pencil Company and also acquired Edward Baker & Company. In 1986, Frank’s son Tim Tufnell sold the company to the Filofax Group. The Imperial Yard Limited acquired the atelier, trade and intellectual property of Yard-O-Led, Sampson Mordan, Edward Baker and LF Brenner in 2015. Tim became the Honorary President.
Today, the Yard-O-Led brand is renowned for its handmade sterling silver pens and pencils, with its atelier still located in Birmingham’s jewellery quarter. Yard-O-Led has built its reputation on its commitment to time-honoured methods of craftsmanship and design. Every pen and pencil is individually handcrafted using the traditional 19th-century chasing techniques – in which a malleable metal is shaped by hammering from the reverse side to create a design in low relief. Each of these writing instruments is individually numbered and sold with a lifetime guarantee.
The Mayflower limited edition is exemplary of the brand’s approach to crafting writing instruments. Unveiled in 2018, it comprises a hand chased sterling silver ballpoint pen and a silver mechanical pencil.
The Mayflower rose, found in an English country garden, also grew in the garden of James Watt’s country house. The Jewellery Quarter of Birmingham was established, from 1780 onwards, around Watt’s house. This is where the Yard-O-Led workshop is currently located.
The sterling silver pencil of this edition is unique to the Yard-O-Led collection because it has no clip, giving it a lighter feel. It has a solitary rosebud cantered along a bed of leaves and is numbered on the cap. The ballpen features a floral design where the buds and leaves of the English roses curl around the silver barrels in a style reminiscent of an English country dance. The ballpen’s traditional numbered clip adds gravitas to its wreath.
To celebrate its 85th anniversary, the brand launched the ‘County Series’ of mechanical pens and pencils. Inspired by classic designs from the company’s archives, each model is named after a county that has played an essential role in the brand’s history – Shropshire and Northumberland being the first two models in the series.
The ‘Shropshire’ commemorates the many Shropshire born silversmiths who have worked for the company since its move from London to Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter following the Second World War. Northumberland is home to The Pen Shop, the largest British retail chain to carry Yard-O-Led writing instruments.
In addition to the limited editions and the two collections mentioned above, the brand offers its writing instruments under the Diplomat, Perfecta and Viceroy (Pocket, Standard and Grand) collections. The brand also entertains bespoke commissions.