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Life's Fine Points

The World's finest pen makers are crafting works of art that fit in the palm of your hand
Edward Kiersh
From the Print Edition:
Susan Lucci, Sep/Oct 99

Houdini lives. So do Hemingway, Shakespeare and Michelangelo, their legends celebrated in hand-held works of art in silver and gold, diamonds and platinum. Great explorers, too, are hailed, with sculpted salutes to the voyages of Christopher Columbus and the space-age odyssey of the Apollo 11 crew. These and other great men and moments of history are the frequent subjects of the penmaker's art, exquisitely crafted homages to humanity's efforts to achieve greatness.  

All this artistic activity signals a second golden age for pens, a throwback to the early 1900s when fountain pens, not cyberspace instruments, were luxurious masterpieces of engineering and stylistic ingenuity. Then, Parker and Waterman were king; today, every limited-edition pen manufacturer is trying to claim that throne by stretching the design envelope, striving to fashion gold- or jeweled-studded pieces that are worthy of museums. Many succeed, as a pen renaissance strongly indebted to the Italian spirit of highly detailed sculpturing is flourishing, with limited editions appreciating 15 to 25 percent a year in value.  

But that cachet market has also become increasingly crowded with pretenders, firms that lack the blue-chip investment solidity of the companies with true brand equity. There are so many new entrants into this arena with marbleized and precious stone millennium commemoratives, space-age fiber offerings in fancy velvet packaging, and outright gimmicks, that the tag "limited" is often just flash and dance, disguising an ill-conceived, nonperforming piece destined to only spill red ink.   As Terry Wiederlight, the co-owner of New York's Fountain Pen Hospital, the world's largest writing instrument emporium, says, "While the market is still hot, buyers must now be selective. Unlike a few years ago, not every limited is going to rise 25 percent. The savvy consumer can still enjoy a terrific hobby and profit. But the investment trick is to only buy the prettiest pens, those with unquestioned craftsmanship from companies with proven track records. Do your homework. Then go for the best, the manufacturers with real history."  

The most spirited of these pedigreed companies is the Bologna-based Omas, a family-run concern that has been creating legendary celluloid masterpieces since 1925, when Armando Simoni, the patron saint of penmakers (a Paris museum is dedicated to his artwork), founded the company. Now grandson Gianluca Malaguti is obsessed with leaving his own distinctive legacy.  

Enthusiastically discussing his latest collaboration with New York's Museum of Modern Art, which will showcase a triangular, "ergonomically correct" "360" pen (at a comparatively affordable $400), Malaguti says, "This innovative shape has made us famous, and it's also technologically perfect. Yet I still can't say we've reached a design pinnacle, a pen that evokes all of the passion my family has for this art form. I don't want to sell two million pens, be the commercial kingpin. I just want to create pieces that set the standard for performance and beauty."  

Malaguti has already triumphed. The $35,000 "Merveille du Monde" (an homage to Marco Polo released in the mid-1990s and now worth $80,000 to $100,000), the "Almirante" (a tribute to Columbus), the intricately sculptured "Hong Kong," and the $14,000 solid gold "Bernini," with inlaid mother-of-pearl and lapis stones, are such fabled collectibles that New York pen dealer Geoffrey Berliner calls Malaguti "the Michelangelo of pendom."  

Despite international acclaim, the cigar-smoking, 34-year-old workaholic, who relentlessly hopscotches around the globe in search of a limited-edition concept that has "true historical significance," is still heavily burdened by family traditions. It scarcely matters to him that the president of a rival company raves about Omas's impeccably crafted Paragon collection (12-faceted pens from $150 to $5,000) and the hand-etched "Apollo 11." The recently released "Apollo 11," a solid white-gold pen embedded with gold-and-sterling silver particles, takes three months to craft and is limited to 69 pieces.  

Malaguti's "symphony," however, which was three years in the making, is the "Nelson Mandela 80" collection. This four-pen extravaganza was styled in collaboration with the Mandela Foundation, and is meant to attract attention to the 80-year-old Mandela's charitable work on behalf of Africa. Though the sculptured themes on each pen vary, from Mandela's tribal roots to his life in prison and role in shaping the birth of a nation, as always Malaguti has tackled "one unifying, abstract big idea, freedom--man's unremitting quest to flee darkness, and to emerge in a brave new promised land. "The Struggle," made in red enamel with a sterling silver or 18-karat gold shield motif, depicts Mandela's life in prison. The gold-and-silver "New Nation" traces the evolution and promise of African society through a series of detailed raised-relief sculpturings. The yellow-and-orange enamel "Africa" features a raised-relief design in the shape of the continent in either sterling silver or gold.

"When we make a pen, we want to transmit a message, something of higher value and meaning, for a pen is the essence of communication, not just a piece of celluloid or metal," insists Malaguti, who has also collaborated with Israeli leaders, the Dalai Lama and European Economic Community members to style museum-worthy fountain pens.  

In paying tribute to his origins (Mandela was the son of a tribal king), the "Royal Family" depicts mother and son, as well as the African landscape, with red and orange enamels. The pen is crafted in silver or gold, or with diamonds with a platinum finish. The most expensive version (only 61 of these $15,000 treasures will be offered) features yellow and white diamonds from South Africa. More than 10 percent of the profits from each "Royal Family" pen will go to the Mandela Foundation.  

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