Life's Fine Points
The World's finest pen makers are crafting works of art that fit in the palm of your hand
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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.
But rather than feast on these accolades, Malaguti is hoping his "Mandela 80" collection trumpets such "a clarity in communication" that the pens "inspire people" and compel them to "rethink everything they once felt about Africa."
Unlike some other pen manufacturers, Malaguti can afford to be the romantic, as Omas doesn't have to produce profits for a conglomerate parent, or play a numbers game that has its pieces appearing in every airport and department store on the planet. He's able to remain loyal to his strictly maintained "culture of the hand" (hand-crafting) mentality, a commitment to limited production that impels Geoffrey Berliner to say that "Omas is the Rolls-Royce of fountain pens. It's unequaled for integrity, durability and performance."
Malaguti, though, isn't the only passionate penmaker. At internationally renowned Montblanc, a company esteemed for introducing collectible limited editions that soar in value like Internet stocks, Fred Reffsin, CEO of Montblanc North America, is also fervent about his newest "good life" trophies.
Insisting the Germany-based Montblanc is the market's "trendsetter," the penmaker synonymous with "prestige, unique technical innovation and quality," Reffsin is confident that the just-issued "Marcel Proust" will write a new chapter in the firm's obsessive devotion to "de-acceleration," or to a slowing down in life that "preserves the beauty of the moment." Montblanc opened its first flagship boutique, at 834 Madison Avenue in Manhattan, with a gala event in June. The store features the company's first "De-Acceleration Studio," a 1,800-square-foot "spa for the mind" where pen devotees can read, write and relax surrounded by rare books and writing instruments.
Such a philosophical bent is the beauty of writing with a fountain pen, and newcomers to this stylish world are advised that putting nib to paper demands a bow to Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, a mindset totally removed from the freneticism of day-trading on the Web. But despite Reffsin's best intentions, this thick, sterling silver $750 pen is the latest in Montblanc's "writer series" homages, following pens that have honored Hemingway, Voltaire and Edgar Allan Poe, and that limited-edition cachet invariably sparks a buying frenzy.
"Months ahead of its issuance, we already had a waiting list for the 'Proust,' for the investment values of Montblancs are like IBM and Microsoft: the market leader," says Fountain Pen Hospital's Wiederlight. "Montblanc is just magic when it comes to vintage, secondary market sales, especially with its 'Oscar Wilde' and 'Hemingway.' The 'Wilde' came out at $650 [in 1994] and is now $900, while I can't get enough 'Hemingways.' A spectacular piece, it was first $600 [in 1992], and has jumped to an amazing $2,200."
To celebrate the 75th anniversary of its signature black resin "Meisterstück" pen, Montblanc is offering four editions crowned with a small diamond, from the "Special Anniversary Edition" for $425, the "Limited Edition" with a rose-gold finish for $650, the sterling silver "Solitaire" for $1,500 and, exclusively in Montblanc boutiques, the "Limited Edition 75," a $13,800 stunner in solid white gold. Reffsin feels these editions epitomize the "revolution" in writing instruments, their becoming "a statusy hallmark on the order of fine jewelry." To further crown the "Meisterstück" line, Montblanc is unveiling a 75th anniversary collection of 75 transparent "Skeleton" watches and pens, crafted with 18-karat gold and mother-of-pearl.
"These watches are another sign of our devotion to living in the moment, and yet we're not sitting still," says Reffsin, 42. "As the limited-edition category leader, we felt an obligation to take stock of all that was wonderful this past century. That's why we made a 'retro' move with the 'Marcel Proust,' a safety-filler pen with a cartridge which is based on early 1900s technology."
Making its own statement of singular craftsmanship, Namiki also turns to the past for artful inspiration. Founded in 1918, Namiki employs painstaking hand-lacquering techniques dating back to the seventh century (called maki-e). This Japanese firm (which has been enlisted by the Vatican to style a millennium pen) will soon spotlight the solid gold $9,000 "Double Dragon Emperor."
The "Emperor" will probably follow the same august path as Namiki's $25,500 "Miyabi" series. Powdered in gold, and burnished with charcoal for extra sheen after receiving 10 coats of urushi lacquer, the three-pen "Miyabi" collection sold out almost immediately, says Namiki USA general manager Sal Esposito.
But don't despair. If the yen for "Double Dragons" proves all-consuming, geishas, shoguns and other traditional Japanese themes are artfully interpreted in Namiki's "Sterling Silver Collection," a series of $475, torpedo-shaped .925 sterling pieces (only 600 worldwide annually and covered by a lifetime guarantee) that feature a hand-etched butterfly design. "Namikis are beautiful, wonderfully conceived, sturdy fountain pens," raves Geoffrey Berliner. "Their artistry is brilliantly executed."
Italian craftstmen are equally devoted to shaping hand-wrought classics. Delta, a firm renowned for its red celluloid "Pompeii" pens and carbon fiber and titanium technology, will issue a new four-inch version of the $600 "Colosseum" pen next year, plus the "David," a $1,000 celluloid homage (about $4,000 in platinum) to Michelangelo's famous statue in Florence.
Established in 1982, Delta produces only about 150,000 pens each year (compared to Omas's half-million), which allows for Old World attention to detail: the turning, threading and drilling of every piece by hand.
Grace and colorful elegance also typify Montegrappa's "Science & Nature," a sterling silver, engraved representation of a microchip circuit diagram and passion flower (only 1,912 of these $1,950 hand-enameled pens will be made), and for a lucky few, Montegrappa presents "The Cigar," an engraved silver limited edition (a mere 200 worldwide) featuring the intricate details of a tobacco leaf.
The la dolce vita style of Delta and Montegrappa is increasingly leaving its mark among connoisseurs. But these brilliant stars in the pen constellation are not the only Italians redefining the boundaries of creativity. Florence-based Stipula also sparkles, particularly its "Virtus Memoriae." The fourth installment of its "human civilization" collection, this $6,500 solid gold work ($2,500 in sterling silver) is dedicated to Homer's Odyssey. Much like that timeless saga, the pen's low-relief sculpturing honors an age-old Florentine design process known as "lost wax," whereby molten gold and silver is poured into a wax cast, then shaped to create memorable images.
Hand-carved treasures are also a staple of Aurora, an 80-year-old Turin firm that delighted collectors last year with its virtuoso-inspired "Giuseppe Verdi." While then a bravura treat in vermeil, guilloche engraving and delicate fine lines, the "Verdi" is now poised to write even prettier music, as it's being offered in an all-platinum version with 14 fully cut white diamonds on the cap, for $18,500. Sapphires adorn the equally lustrous "Verdi" done in 18-karat solid gold, for $7,000. Aurora is following up the "Verdi" with the gold-plated "Jubileaum." This cream-colored, lacquered resin pen will sing praises to the millennium, and promises to be a New Year sensation at $1,100.
While the Italians are steeped in tradition and elegant refinements, the pen world also has its maverick, a cutting-edge force that is not afraid to flirt with what some critics call gimmicks.
In the past few years Krone has offered its "William Shakespeare," a deep purple celluloid pen enhanced with an embedded piece of the playwright's Stratford-upon-Avon mulberry tree; the "Abraham Lincoln," complete with a crystallized form of Abe's own DNA in the cap; and the rugged-looking "Sir Edmund Hillary Mount Everest," containing an authentic piece of rock from that legendary peak's summit.
"We want to make the collecting of pens fun, give this whole legacy business a shot of unique attributes," says Krone president Robert Kronenberger, who's taken to collecting vintage pens himself. "Everyone loves our pens--they're cool, different and, due to our added touches like the DNA and the Bard's own tree, they're the ultimate in personal connection." Increasingly popular (Terry Wiederlight says Krone is a "definite comer which is doing all sorts of wondrous things"), these pieces are meant to capture the spirit of men facing challenges, and to be "living history."
Kronenberger is hoping to tap into the charms of an even greater "miracle worker," the spine-chilling monarch of mystery, mayhem and magic, the great Houdini.
While the limited-edition "Houdini" ($1,275 in smoky gray resin, $2,800 in white gold, $9,500 in platinum) won't open any padlocked chests, handcuffs or bolted coffins, the special reserve "Houdini" is adorned with his image and fragments from a key that the conjurer actually used, and is packaged in a sumptuous black lacquered magician's drawer box that performs its own mind-boggling trick. "If you don't possess the magic, the pen can disappear before your very eyes," Kronenberger says with a laugh. "For we've created a special box with a drawer that works wonders."
Insisting that he has a limitless array of possible "personality" projects, Kronenberger, 43, won't disclose his next creation. But in the meantime, he intends to dazzle us with an affordable surprise that also recalls Houdini's era. Krone's "Vintage Select," like many pens of the 1920s, is equipped with a compression filler system. Press a button on this $250 gem and the ink flows into the pen, again dramatizing Krone's gift for designing mind-over-matter marvels.
Drawing from the Incas for its own historical inspiration, France's S.T. Dupont has crafted a tribute to the artistic brillianceof that New World civilization in its "Nuevo Mondo" collection. Styled in eye-catching blue Chinese lacquer with semi-precious stones and gold plating, this two pen and two lighter set is a hand-carved paean to the Incas' "spirit of discovery." Priced at $6,000, only 500 sets will be available worldwide.
Usually the firm would make just one limited edition a year but, in preparation for gala millennium celebrations, it is also offering the "Perspective 2000," another multiple pen-and-lighter combination that will contrast black Chinese lacquer with the radiance of white palladium, a metal of the platinum family.
Cartier's "Diablo" line is another French joy. Handsome complements to the company's striking watch collection, the mini "Diablo" with an 18-karat-gold nib is made of a composite material with gold-plated accents, while a larger version of this classic-looking piece is finished in alluring platinum or gold. Both pens are sleek, elegant and regal successors to the solid gold "Pasha," a one-of-a-kind $65,000 fountain pen adorned with sapphires and diamonds that evokes all the splendor of palatial Arabian nights.
Though uniquely colored celluloid treasures have shaped Pelikan's proud history since it launched a piston-filling fountain pen in 1929, this industry stalwart is also issuing a golden delight. Its $2,000 "White Gold" pen with an Art Deco look is an exact replica of a work introduced in the 1930s, and while slightly smaller than the much-acclaimed marble jade "1935" or deep blue "Concerto," this gold-over-brass divertissement still carries the weight of Pelikan's corporate credo, "the best functioning pens in the world."
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