Obituary: Baron Marcel Bich

Marcel Bich, manufacturer: born Turin 29 July 1914; thrice married (11 children); died Paris 30 May 1994.

IT IS REMARKABLE how little known are the personalities who have altered the way we do things.

No one understood better than Marcel Bich that potent 20th-century alchemy of high volume / low cost. To this formula he added the magic catalyst of disposability. He invented nothing, but understood the mass market almost perfectly. His sole commercial mistake was to believe that it was possible to sell perfume - through the Guy Laroche firm he acquired in 1971 - in filling stations, but his popularisation of the ball-point pen, the disposable razor and the disposable lighter created some of the most powerful symbols of 20th- century ingenuity. If the mass- market had a patron saint it would be Bich: for mere pennies the ordinary man can write more clearly, shave more closely and have more reliable access to fire than a renaissance prince.

Marcel Bich was born in Turin in 1914, the son of a French engineer, Aime Mario Bich, who held the title Baron which had been conferred on his great-grandfather, Emmanuel Bich in 1841. Bich became a French citizen in his thirties before studying law at the University of Paris. Then he became the director of production at Stephens and Swann, the English pen and ink manufacturer.

The ball-point pen which established Bich's fortunes has another English connection, although it was in fact desigend by the Hungarian Laszlo Biro. It was in 1943 that an English accountant called Henry George Martin discovered Biro's design while working in Argentina (where Biro, a Communist, had fled to escape Nazi attention). Martin brought the Biro ball-point pen back to Britain. The RAF (who appreciated its ability to write at all angles and pressures) bought 30,000 of them the following year. This was the beginning of the mass-production of ball- point pens, although when the Biro was put on the British market by the Miles Martin Pen Company in 1946 it cost pounds 2 15s, the equivalent of a secretary's weekly wage.

It was this price weakness in an otherwise strong product that Marcel Bich attacked. By 1953 he had saved enough to acquire run- down industrial buildings in north Paris and Societe Bic was established to popularise Biro's ball- point pen. With 15 million of their hexagonal acetal resin barrelled Bic Crystal biros, produced every day, Bich may fairly claim to be responsible for the most successful manufactured product of all time. The great magic of the Bic Crystal - the clear barrels mean medium point, the yellow barrels, fine - was not just the quality, but also its price. If mass-production needs an expert witness it is the Bic Crystal: at one three-hundredth of the original cost, a fine-point Bic will draw a line for about 3.5km.

In 1973 Societe Bic acquired the DIM and Rosy hosiery companies and in 1975 launched its razor at a time when wet-shaving was in decline. Sales in the whole sector rose and today Bic has one-third of Britain's 500-million-unit razor market. In 1983 Bic bought the Conte pencil manufacturer and by 1993 the company made a profit of 396 million francs.

Despite his passionate involvement with sponsoring France in the America's Cup and despite his commitment to the mass-market, Bich was notoriously reclusive. His last interview was 30 years ago and, on handing over the Bic business to his son Bruno last year he claimed to have no comments on the philosophy of business. The individual who understood the needs of the 20th century as well as any other retained a romantic obscurity about himself: the official press release announcing the death of Baron Bich gave neither cause nor place. It simply said that the families and the personnel were 'prostrated', a fitting comment for a man who sensed the drama of modern life and gave expression to it in superb everyday products.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join one of...

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power