Build a Better Chalk and a South Korean Will Beat a Path to Your Door

A cliché usually credited to Emerson says that ‘if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door.’ Many, including Peter Thiel in his co-authored Zero to One, argue that the inventor of the better mousetrap needs some marketing to let the world know that her mousetrap is better. I think Thiel is mainly right, but the story quoted below suggests that sometimes the cliché may be true.

(p. A12) The bright-white sticks drop one by one into the whir and clatter of a weatherworn piece of machinery, where they are stamped with the most celebrated name in chalk: Hagoromo.

. . .

Of the thick grayish mass that emerges, four ingredients are known: calcium carbonate, clay, glue and oyster shells. The other three are a secret. In a video posted to YouTube about the chalk, an American fan offers a guess as to one of them: angel tears.

Hagoromo chalk is a cult favorite of elite academics, artists and others around the world who praise it for its silky feel, vibrant colors, scant dust and nearly unbreakable quality. Mathematicians in particular are prone to waxing poetic about it, and buying it in bulk. The YouTube video, produced by Great Big Story, has been viewed more than 18 million times.

Despite its renown, Hagoromo is still produced on a relatively small scale, using custom-made equipment, much of it run by two laborers who are identical twins — a throwback in a high-tech era where interactive displays are replacing chalkboards.

. . .

In 2014, Takayasu Watanabe, the grandson of the company’s founder, announced that Hagoromo would halt production, partly because of the industry’s declining fortunes and partly because of his own ill health.  . . .

As Mr. Watanabe was preparing to shut it down, he received a visit from Shin Hyeong-seok, who had been importing the chalk to South Korea for nearly 10 years. Mr. Shin sold the chalk through the company he started, Sejong Mall, named after King Sejong the Great, who in the 15th century created Hangeul, the Korean writing system.

Mr. Shin had discovered the chalk years before in Japan while investigating the workings of cram schools.   . . .

“I went into the teachers’ lounge and remember being mesmerized by the fluorescent-colored chalks,” he said. “And when I started writing with one, I could not put it down.”

On his trip to see Mr. Watanabe, Mr. Shin presented what he called a “crazy idea.” He, a teacher and importer with no manufacturing experience, would take over production of the chalk in South Korea. Mr. Watanabe laughed.

But Mr. Shin kept pressing. “My pitch to him was that there are many things in the world that will disappear one day, but the best-quality item should be the last to do so,” Mr. Shin said.

. . .

Takako Iwata, the second of Mr. Watanabe’s three daughters, who served as interpreter for Mr. Shin and her father, . . . said she wasn’t exactly sure how Hagoromo had become so beloved outside Japan. “I guess people who came to Japan just kept on bringing the chalk back to their home countries,” she said. “When my father was still running the company, he did not know about this huge following.”

That changed a bit, though, in his company’s final months, when he received a flood of orders, including from American professors who hoped to buy supplies large enough to last 10 years or more.

David Eisenbud, the director of the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, said he had bought enough to last the rest of his life.

Dr. Eisenbud is a key figure in the chalk’s popularization in the United States. He was first introduced to it years ago during a visit to the University of Tokyo. “Everything about the chalk was exquisite,” he said. “I thought, ‘Chalk is chalk,’ but I was wrong.”

He later persuaded an acquaintance to import the chalk into the United States. (Mr. Shin now sells it to American buyers through Amazon.)

Yujiro Kawamata, a Japanese mathematician who introduced Hagoromo to Dr. Eisenbud, marveled at the turn of events.

“I happened to tell Eisenbud about the chalk, which was just a tool that was a part of my everyday life, and now the whole world knows about it,” Dr. Kawamata said.

For the full story, see:

Hikari Hida and Jean Chung. “How a Beloved Chalk Bridged a Bitter Divide to Survive.” The New York Times (Wednesday, November 18, 2020): A12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date Nov. 17, 2020, and has the title “A Ride on the Assembly Line With the World’s Most Famous Chalk.”)

PayPal entrepreneur Peter Thiel’s co-authored book mentioned above is:

Thiel, Peter, and Blake Masters. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. New York: Crown Business, 2014.

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