Re-writing history

DECEMBER 2014 – Meticulous craftsmanship, quality materials and fine design come together to create these premier products, all of which capture the essence of classic style.

What is it about fountain pens that attracts us? In this age of technology when we’re more likely to communicate through our laptops, smart phones and tablets than on paper, the traditional fountain pen retains its allure and is a more enduring status symbol and object of desire than any gadget. Give a son or daughter the latest iPhone as a graduation gift and it will be supplanted by a new model within a year; give a Montblanc fountain pen and it will be cherished for the rest of their life.

It’s the fine craftsmanship, the skill that goes into shaping the perfect nib, the satisfaction of the ergonomic design that fits so comfortably into the hand, the sensuously smooth flow of ink onto paper that makes the fountain pen more than just an object of nostalgia, and takes it into our modern age with new meaning. It is no longer a purely utilitarian tool. Writing with a fountain pen on paper is now a choice, one that conveys thoughtfulness and underlines the significance of what is being written, whether it’s a personal note or the signature to a global treaty.

The names of the makers of great fountain pens resonate with a sense of history – MontblancSheafferConway StewartParkerMontegrappaWaterman and others have been making quality pens since the 1920s or earlier. Devotees of vintage pens seek out mint condition examples of landmark pens from the early days of their manufacture, such as the iconic ‘Big Red’, Parker’s bright-red Lucky Curve duofold – which was, in 1921, one of the first pens to use the newly available bright coloured celluloid, and a forerunner of funky modern pens.

Vintage pens range from the very affordable under R2 000, to the record £183 000 bid at a Bonhams auction in 2000 for a 1928 Dunhill-Namiki ‘No 50 Giant’. The value of vintage pens is established according to rarity, condition, attractiveness and place in history and like any investment or collector’s item can rise and fall with the economic situation.

Modern day luxury pens are equally collectable and often even more valuable, with Montblanc in particular designing exclusive series of limited-edition pens to commemorate historical figures or important occasions, often decorated with precious jewels and metals.

Whatever the glitz and glamour added by diamond designs and 18-karat gold barrels, at the heart of a quality pen is its craftsmanship and a long history of excellence. Montblanc started as the Simplo Filler Pen Co in 1908, building on a revolutionary new filling technology that allowed pens to be blot and inkwell free. Offering top quality ‘safety’ fountain pens from their base in Hamburg, the Montblanc name was adopted soon after, initially as the name of a pen model and in 1924 extended to the company itself. The curvy six-pointed white star, representing the snow cap of the mountain peak, then became its memorable emblem.

In the world of luxury pens there are different types of collectors. Some aim to possess a few desirable models for their own everyday writing use, choosing pens such as the Montblanc Writers’ Limited Edition 1992 Hemingway, of which 20 000 were made with the famous writer’s signature engraved on the nib. These collectors will enjoy the technical perfection and beauty of each pen and write with it every day.

Others seek out the rarest and finest, looking for the most exclusive limited editions that run to less than 100 individual pens and collecting them as objects of beauty and rarity to treasure in a display case. Mel Wilmore is one such collector, whose notable Montblanc collection sold at Bonhams in New York for over US$1‑million in 2012. One of his prize pieces, revealing the true passion of a dedicated collector, was a set of 11 pens designed to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday. The edition was limited to 80 sets, the first a gift to Mandela himself. According to Bonhams, the 80th set was intended for the South African government but Wilmore’s determination and persuasive skills won him the coveted prize of the last available set. It sold at auction for US$41 250.

Many of Montblanc’s most collectable models are based on its iconic Meisterstück, first made in 1924. It translates as ‘masterpiece’ and ever since has been renowned for its fine craftsmanship and skilful design – and its fat cigar shape has been much imitated. Vintage models of this pen in all its incarnations and sizes are much in demand. The contemporary limited editions have been brought out every year since 1992, each edition telling the story of a special person with exquisite design and decoration to tempt the most selective collector.

There’s the Writers Limited Edition with engraved signatures paying homage to those whose written works have made a lasting impact, the Great Characters, honouring those who’ve had the courage to break tradition and change the course of history, and the Muses, a tribute to women who have dazzled with their character and charisma. Then there’s the Patron of the Arts series, which each year commemorates significant sponsors of art and culture, from Queen Elizabeth I and Lorenzo de Medici to Andrew Carnegie. This limited edition runs to 4 810 pens (the magic number is the height of Mont Blanc, hence this number being engraved on the nibs of the Meisterstück range), and there’s a special precious edition of 888 pieces.

The making of pen nibs is a specialised art in itself and top-of-the-range nibs, of gold with iridium tips, are still handmade by master craftsmen using precision hand-grinding techniques to create the perfect writing instrument. Italian luxury pen company Omas takes the artisan approach throughout its production and its creative director Gianluca Malaguti Simoni uses a traditional test to determine a gold nib’s perfection, by writing a few letters with it against the delicate skin of the neck: it should feel smooth without scratching or hurting. Montblanc artisans work in silence as they perfect each nib and test it meticulously, listening attentively to pick up the slightest dissonance that would indicate an imperfection; they liken the making process to the composition of music, the pen to an instrument with a soul of its own.

Decades ago, when everyone wrote with a fountain pen, even at the lower end of the pen market there was a wide choice of nib sizes and styles. Today they have become more standardised and often the only choice is between a fine or medium nib. Already offering a choice of eight different nib widths as standard, Montblanc recognises the individuality of handwriting and in 2012 introduced a bespoke nib service for its most discerning customers, which marries a high-tech approach with artisan skill. A unique software program, available at selected boutiques, analyses a customer’s handwriting, measuring speed, pressure, inclination angle, pen rotation and swing range and will recommend the perfect style of nib to suit. This is then handmade by the master craftsmen of the Hamburg atelier and ground to the exact form to fit your writing style. It can also be engraved with your name to make it even more personal and one of a kind.

Collectors who want an even more unique pen can collaborate directly with the Artisan Atelier in the design and production of a bespoke pen created entirely to their own specifications.

One such Création Privée masterpiece is the pen designed in 2011 for Prince Albert II and Princess Charlene of Monaco for the signing of their wedding documents. Solid white gold embellished with diamonds and rubies, the design is inspired by the architectural elements of their official residence, the Palais Princier. Romance and state union are symbolised by the dove, rings and crown engraved on the hand-crafted gold nib.
Elegant people who leave a legacy of glamour and great work are those who Montblanc honour with their special-edition pens and Princess Grace of Monaco was a natural choice for an especially refined and exclusive collection in 2012. The champagne-coloured solid-gold fountain pen, in a limited edition of three, is already destined to become a priceless heirloom and the rarest of collectors’ items.

Their names may not be so well know to the general public as Montblanc, but there is a roll-call of notable pen companies that resonate with a frisson to the serious pen devotee. Omas are renowned for fine craftsmanship and elegant Italian style; Montegrappa is another top-tier Italian pen maker using traditional materials such as celluloid and silver and high-art designs. British firm Conway Stewart has been resurrected after failing in the mid-1960s under the influx of ballpoint pens and is known for high-quality pens faithfully recreating the colours and patterns of its mid-century glory days. Japanese brand Namiki is sought after for its precision pens with beautiful Maki-e lacquer work designs. Italian maker Visconti does a fine line in exquisite pens made with gold and precious stones, while for over-the-top sparkle there are the one-off pens thickly encrusted with diamonds made by Aurora and Caran d’Ache costing over US$1-million each. While these particular examples stray into the extravagant realms of the Fabergé egg and are more likely to be kept in a safe than to be used as practical writing instruments, the technical precision of their design is accessible in more workaday (and more beautiful to the true pen connoisseur’s eye) ranges by the same makers.

There are as many motivations to collect as there are collectors, ranging from those who appreciate the fine craftsmanship and practical use of a few carefully chosen pens, and who select a pen to write with each day according to mood and inclination, to those who build a secret room to display a valuable collection that will rarely be written with, and others who never even remove a valuable new pen from its packaging to maintain its investment value.  Whatever your reason for collecting, the timeless appeal of the fountain pen never fades, and brands like Montblanc maintain and even increase in value over time, making them both practical and enduring  pieces of functional art.

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