How a brand of chalk achieved cult status among mathematicians

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Summary generated on August 23, 2020

    Some call it the Rolls Royce of chalk, the Steinway of writing utensils.

    "I didn't want to become a chalk dealer, but I did like the idea that I could be, 'The first stick is free,' chalk dealer on the block in my department," says Max Lieblich, a mathematics professor at the University of Washington.

    Among the academic crowd, Hagoromo Fulltouch Chalk is the math world's best kept secret.

    "The legend around this chalk is that it's impossible to write a false theorem using the chalk, but I think I've disproved that many times," says David Eisenbud, a mathematics professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

    Hagoromo Stationery first began manufacturing chalk in Japan back in 1932, but it wasn't until the last few decades that American mathematicians fell in love with it.

    "I discovered it when I went to visit the University of Tokyo years ago and one of the professors there ... said to me, 'You know, we actually have better chalk than you do in the States,'" Eisenbud said.

    "I said, 'Oh, go on, chalk is chalk ... I was surprised to find that he was right.'".

    Since the brand did not import into the United States, mathematicians took to ordering boxes online, or through designated "Chalk dealers" who began to make a business by supplying the chalk to professors.

    "Hagoromo definitely has a cult following, but that cult might be nearly all mathematicians at this point. So it's a pretty big cult," says Wei Ho, a mathematics professor at the University of Michigan.

    David Eisenbud holds up a stick of Hagoromo, the chalk brand favored among math professors.

    As Lieblich explains, "The board is like a window into the inner workings of the subject, so going to the board is like going to the magic window ... but the only way you really see what's happening is with somebody writing with chalk."

    "You know, one reads about Archimedes drawing in the sand ... but I wouldn't be surprised if there was something like chalk and a blackboard back then, too," Eisenbud said.

    When the company went out of business, chalk chaos ensued.

    With the loss of blackboards comes the loss of demand for chalk.

    "I referred to it as a chalk apocalypse," Conrad said.

    When Hagoromo announced it would end production, many mathematicians began stockpiling boxes of the chalk.

    "It was so much softer than the ordinary chalk we were using in Korea."

    He brought a few boxes back to Korea and even tried to find his own way to manufacture the chalk, with no luck.

    He resorted to importing the chalk from Japan himself.

    "Mr. Watanabe and his wife would visit Korea several times a year to eat Korean food and go sightseeing ... So, when I approached him saying I wanted to import the chalk from Japan, he welcomed the idea."

    "I told him that I believe Hagoromo is the best chalk in the world," Shin said.

    He invested his savings into learning, replicating and perfecting the Hagoromo processes - all in the name of chalk.

    Watanabe even visited the factory in Korea, in his wheelchair, to inspect the quality of the new batches of chalk.

    Shin's company, Sejong Mall, began production of Fulltouch Chalk in 2016.

    Dave Bayer stands in front of a blackboard covered in Hagoromo chalk.

    "Of course, it's better for the community, for the fraction of the community that loves this chalk, for this chalk to still be produced," he said.

    "There's a saying that there are teachers who have never used the chalk, but there are no teachers who have only used it once," says Shin.

    The mathematicians who love the chalk continue their love affair.

    "I do feel like I am being a craftsman when I use the chalk," says Bayer.

    "But it's nothing compared to my admiration for the craftsmanship that went into making the chalk."