I recently read Hagoromo, the 'Rolls Royce of chalk,' continues writing its legacy in South Korea article recently, and was fascinated by the huge amount of attention this specific chalk is getting. However, it was my first time hearing about it, even though I am quite an avid follower of such news. When did this brand of chalk start to gain popularity in the West?
The hype is recent, although the company, Hagoromo Bungu, operated in Japan since 1965, and the brand was popular in Japanese classrooms. Apparently, it started with David Eisenbud, then a math professor at UC Berkeley and the director of MSRI, a prestigious research institute, and Kyung Lee, a Japanese filmmaker of Korean descent. He came (to the University of Tokyo in the early 2000s), he saw, he was swept off his feet. She became his supplier. Although the story has an air of an anecdote, Eisenbud himself tells an abbreviated version of it in the video Why the World’s Best Mathematicians Are Hoarding Chalk, where he and other well-known mathematicians sing praises to the Hageromo Fulltouch. Here is the full story in McDonald's retell, published in Berkeley's alumni magazine:
"It all started a year prior when UC Berkeley math professor David Eisenbud visited the University of Tokyo. His host said to him, “You know, we have better chalk than you.” Eisenbud replied, “No you don’t. Chalk is chalk.” When he returned to his office, there was a box of Hagoromo brand chalk waiting for him. The moment he placed a piece of that chalk against a blackboard, felt the smooth action, and saw the crisp, thick line it produced, Eisenbud realized he’d been wrong: There’s chalk, and then there’s Hagoromo. Back in his role as director of the Mathematics Sciences Research Institute (MSRI)—the prestigious “Top Gun” of math perched high in Berkeley hills—he spoke effusively about the chalk to anyone who would listen, lamenting that it couldn’t be obtained in the U.S. One of those who overheard his ravings was Lee, who at the time was editing a film sponsored by MSRI about prime numbers.
On her next trip to Japan, she paid a visit to Hagoromo Bungu, the small factory that had produced the chalk since 1965 (an earlier incarnation of the business was destroyed in WWII). There she met with the company president, Takayasu Watanabe, who showed her how the chalk was made. “It’s complete craftsmanship,” she says. “They change the portion of ingredients constantly, like they were experimenting with it. It is a good product.” Watanabe told her that Hagoromo Bungu had never extended its market beyond Japan and Korea, in part because he was uncomfortable doing business in English. Lee left with more than sixty cases of Hagoromo chalk, poised to become the only source for the precious stuff in the United States.
Her first customer was Eisenbud. The rest were mathematicians he sent her way. In America, chalk is cheap. Lee’s went for around $18 a box. Nonetheless, when she kicked off her small operation in 2012, grad students, post docs, and professors from all over the country flocked to her because they had nowhere else to turn to get their fix. Hagoromo chalk is a bit thicker than standard American chalk. And it’s coated, giving it a slick feel and protecting the fingers from dust. It glides smoothly across the blackboard, producing a consistent line with sharply defined edges. And it’s durable, difficult to snap between the fingers".