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The Ciak: Handmade in Italy

June 9th, 2008 · 27 Comments · black book

Hello there.

If you’ve ever been to Venice, you are probably familiar with the tourist phenomenon of handmade leather journals.  I have yet to find a guide book that doesn’t recommend the best “authentic” store in Venice to pick up a handmade leather-bound notebook in which to record your travel adventures. Of course, how a place can truly be authentic when nearly all of its business is due to tourism is beyond me…but I digress.

Regardless, I’ve been to a number of these places while visiting Venice, and never managed to find a journal that suited me. They were all generally on the bulky side, and it’s very difficult to find one smaller than a composition notebook. And while they’re “hand-made,” there’s generally not enough originality to merit the high price. Why am I bringing this up, since we’re definitely not reviewing a handmade Venetian notebook?

Since I started this blog nearly a year ago, I’ve been getting emails about the Ciak line of notebooks. At prices ranging from $15 to $25, the Ciak isn’t exactly a cheap purchase, and a lot of people have wanted to know – is it worth the price? Is the notebook used by V, of V for Vendetta fame, a worthy Moleskine alternative?

The main reason I haven’t featured a Ciak review on Black Cover as of yet is because I’ve come across the notebook in a number of New York City art stores, and I’ve always been underwhelmed.  There is something a bit bulky, a bit more “diary” feel to it than “all-purpose notebook.” It’s not that the notebook lacks quality; it’s just that it didn’t fit my paradigm for a good notebook. But now, actually using the notebook for the first time, I realize that I was looking at the Ciak through Moleskine goggles.  The Ciak is not a Moleskine; the Ciak is the notebook I wish I could’ve bought in one of those small stores in Venice.

Ciak is actually a company based in Florence that opened shop in 2001. Their products are made entirely in Italy, suggesting a significantly higher level of quality than those that hail from the conveyor belts of Chinese factories (ahemMoleskineahem). What’s more, emblazoned on the back of this particular notebook are the words “Handmade in Italy.” That’s right: handmade. I have NO idea about the accuracy of this statement. The company’s website doesn’t go into any aspects of being handmade, but if it’s at all true, it’s a great selling point.

The notebook we’re reviewing today is the 9cm x 13cm “Piccolo” black pocket notebook – but these dimensions aren’t entirely accurate. A standard Moleskine is 3.5″ x 5.5″; the Ciak measures about 3.9″ x 5.1″ – shorter and wider.  Here’s a comparison:

One of the reasons for this is the way the spine of the cover is attached:

As you can see, the spine is unnecessarily rounded away from the pages, one of the few flaws in an otherwise fantastic notebook.  While it’s got its stylistic merits, not having the pages attached is a major problem in most of the black notebooks I’ve reviewed.  The spine is much more likely to break without the extra support. The cover actually bends far back from the spine when opened, which can be a bit annoying:

But enough of the bad – let’s get back to the good (and there’s a lot of it).

The cover is made of an excellent leather material – a much smoother, richer feel than the Moleskine.  It feels durable and firm, yet smooth and flexible. This is a soft cover, but the amount of bend is limited, which is good – you won’t notice this in your back pocket, but you’ll also feel like it’s got some weight when you hold it to write something.

The Ciak also has a rubber band running horizontally around the book. Why? Well, for starters, for those of you looking for a notebook with a way of holding a pen, this is it.  Otherwise, it’s purely stylistic – Ciak was definitely going for a distrinctive design with this one.  At first, I was critical of this, but it’s definitely grown on me since. Note that the elastic band is thick – more noticable than the flat Moleskine version but perhaps more durable as well.

Opening up the first page, one finds a single blank starter page with a few lines for name, address, or reward info. Perfect, great – doesn’t assume for a second what I want to write on these pages.  Ah, simplicity. The pages are firmly attached to the cover, and it doesn’t seem likely that the corners will start to pull up, something that happens on cheaper softcover notebooks.

The Ciak has 96 sheets of very high quality, creamy white paper (they say “ivory”, but it’s a lot less harsh on the eyes than I imagine true ivory paper would be).  The lines are very nicely spaced, and begin at the top of the page and go right to the bottom.

Because of the binding system, it’s difficult to get the Ciak to lay flat.  This is about as far as it’ll go without applying unnecessary pressure:

You can see how far the cover spine has to bend to accomodate this.  It’s sort of disappointing, but more so in terms of an all-purpose notebook that you’d like to drop open easily for quickly jotting down notes.  In terms of a diary, or notebook you’d treat with a little more respect, this feels like a measure of quality.

And I guess that’s what this comes down to.  The Ciak is, without a doubt, an excellent, top of the line notebook. The quality is lightyears beyond the Moleskine, and it immediately stands out as having its own design and character.  And I don’t want to give the impression that this can’t take a beating – as I said, the cover feels far more durable than a Moleskine, even though it’s a soft cover.  Ultimately, it’s a higher quality – and more expensive – notebook, and it’s got the feel of being exactly that.

So you might feel you like shouldn’t kicking this thing around, a negative in some people’s view.  But every notebook has it’s place, and I can tell you that I’ll definitely be using this one on my upcoming trip to Spain and Italy to keep a journal of my travels.  It may not have come from a small Venetian notebook shop, but it feels like it could have.

Company website: CIAK Firenze
Where to buy: $18.50 (via Sam Flax South – thanks to reader Steve!) or $12.99 + $6.00 shipping (Amazon via Moleskine Books – says 3 to 5 weeks shipping, so I’d definitely email before buying)

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