PARIS (Reuters Life!) - Tucked away beside a dry cleaners in a dark Paris courtyard, the firm that supplied Impressionist master Edgar Degas with the brilliant pastel colors used in some of his most famous pictures is still in business.
"La Maison du Pastel", a bare, unadorned boutique in the Marais district which appears virtually unchanged since the 1920s, is only open on Thursday afternoons and there is little from the outside to suggest its long tradition.
Until quite recently it was an almost clandestine operation run by three elderly sisters carrying on the work of their grandfather, Henri Roche, who took over the business in 1878. A worn tin plate marked "H.Roche" is still fixed to the door.
"Seven years ago, when I started, there wasn't even a telephone in the shop," said their young relative Isabelle Roche, who learned the secret family techniques and formulas from them before she took over in 2000.
"They worked with a very small group of clients they'd been supplying for 30 years and no one else really knew it was there."
Henri Roche, a chemist who mixed in artistic circles, began developing new methods of making pastels after working with a craftsman whose workshop dated back to the early 18th century.
Pastels, dry crayon-like sticks that create a distinctive cloudy texture on paper, were first used in the 17th century but Roche produced especially intense colors that soon found favor with some of the leading artists of the time.
Degas, one of the founders of the Impressionist movement, was a faithful customer, using Roche pastels in a famous series of ballet dancers. Others included Alfred Sisley, the Symbolist Odilon Redon or the colorful "Fauviste" Raoul Dufy.
Henri Roche's son -- also called Henri -- built on his father's work and today, Roche is one of the last firms still producing handmade pastels, which are considered to provide a much richer color than their cheaper, machine-made equivalents.
"It's a mixture of the brightness of the colors and the texture and feel," said Isabelle Roche.
In the old family workshop outside Paris, she prepares the range of pastels by hand, using tools like an antiquated grinder to blend dry pigment with a binding material and forming the paste into sticks before they are dried into crayons.
"Pastel is pigment plus binder," she said. "With our method, you reduce the amount of binder and so you get more pigment."
The end products are expensive. One small stick sells for about 12-18 euros ($17-$26), according to color and her biggest item, a box set containing all 567 colors costs 8,500 euros.
Marketing is still limited although she has signed deals with art suppliers in Paris, the United States and Britain and now even has a web site (www.lamaisondupastel.com/).
But she keeps the formulas, some contained in handwritten notes from the 1920s, a secret and is even reluctant to reveal the exact location of the workshop.
"The first time I took friends to see it, I felt it was almost a sacrilege. My aunts wouldn't even let some family members in," she said.
An engineer by training, Isabelle Roche took up the family tradition after becoming disillusioned with life at the large oil company where she had been working.
"When I started, my aunts warned me I couldn't live from it. There have been times when I wondered," she said but adds that she was determined to keep the family tradition alive.
"My oldest aunt worked until she was 85," she said. "She didn't want to let the artists down."
Editing by Paul Casciato