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Collecting Finely Crafted Fountain Pens

Decked Out in Diamonds or Steeped in History, a New Line of Fountain Pens Are Leaving a Distinct Mark

The seduction begins with a reminder of Adam and Eve: a tantalizing snake. A pen with eyes of lustrous emeralds, and two gold reptiles entwined on its sleek, jet-black body. Highly coveted since the early 1900s, this repoussé treasure has had the same mystique as Humphrey Bogart's fabled Maltese Falcon. In fact, one of these Parker "Snake" fountain pens from the first decade of the century recently ignited a testosterone war among collectors at a London auction and snared a record $22,500.

That princely sum not only triggered a bullish market in such rare collectibles as a Montblanc "Lorenzo de Medici" and a 1904 Parker "Giraffe," which are appreciating 15 percent a year, but it also boosted interest in contemporary limited editions--handmade designs that actor-comedian and avid pen collector Bill Cosby calls "the best way to revolt against the

anonymity of cyberspace. Writing by hand is an art form. It's an excitement, a personalized expression which lets you see your mind's blood unfold on paper."

Such enthusiasts view fountain pens as luxurious, yet functional, accessories to complement their Rolexes, Savile Row suits and Bally wing tips. Not wanting to feel "weighted down like a plumber," Cosby prefers simplicity, a smooth-writing pen without "a Tiffany array of diamonds and rubies." Yet other aficionados want to make a statement, and that hankering for a limited edition that looks like a Fabergé egg or one of Elizabeth Taylor's wedding rings is fueling the dreams of many artisans. Now looking to write their own history, these craftsmen are feverishly striving to design a gold-, diamond- or jeweled-studded masterpiece that will rekindle the magic of the 1906 "Snake," one of the world's most-perfect writing instruments.

"His Majesty's Collection, pens honoring rulers like Cheops, Napoleon and Julius Caesar, will be my greatest statement yet, a singular $8 million project with gold, sapphire and diamond pieces valued at $500,000 each," promises one of these zealots, Gianluca Malaguti, the managing director of the family-run OMAS company.

"Unlike a lot of companies which randomly issue limited editions," adds Malaguti, "an OMAS fountain pen is always linked to a big concept like my 'Triratna' [a 120-gram gold homage to Buddhism] and the 'Almirante' [a $35,000 tribute to Christopher Columbus]. While we've been approached to do all sorts of commercial ventures, such as pens honoring [Princess] Diana and [Gianni] Versace, we won't get involved. An OMAS limited edition has to have lasting meaning, a real historical reference point. Otherwise it's not a challenge."

The Marco Polo of the pen world, relentlessly hopscotching around the globe to discover a grand theme or event to inspire his commemorative creations, the 33-year-old Malaguti has made his Bologna, Italy-based firm synonymous with Rolls-Royce workman-ship by producing only handcrafted, museum-quality pens.

Such brands as Namiki, Michel Perchin and Montblanc are also styling highly prized gems, so it's becoming increasingly difficult to choose between collectibles without expert guidance.

Yet whether it's a dragon-emblazoned "Return to the Motherland," symbolizing Hong Kong's reunification with China, or the "Jerusalem 3000" with repoussé scenes from the Holy City, Malaguti has distinguished OMAS by creating elegant classics that epitomize the clarity of communication.

"Durable, wonderfully rich in color and handmade the old-fashioned way, an OMAS fountain pen is in a league by itself," raves New York City pen dealer Geoffrey Berliner. "Committed to making smooth-writing instruments from only the best materials, this company has such integrity, it's a throwback to the Golden Age of pen manufacturing," which lasted from the turn of the century until the mid-1930s.

While such sentiments have made OMAS the subject of magazine articles and several books and led to the enshrinement of its hand-wrought treasures in a Paris pen museum named after Malaguti's grandfather, Armando Simoni (who founded OMAS in 1925), these plaudits weigh heavily on this engaging young world-beater.

"Winning the Israeli government's authorization to do the "Jubilee 50" [a deep-blue pen sheathed in gold or sterling depicting the seven flames of the menorah], while gratifying, was also a taxing two-year effort," says Malaguti, who along with his mother, Raffaella, regularly met with Israeli leaders to allay their concerns about the collection's design (the cap is crowned with a blue enamel Star of David, and of the 1,948 pieces, 400 are 18-karat gold fountain pens). "Besides the difficulties of identifying the feelings of a nation and sensitively transmitting them on a pen, we had to make sure none of the pen's details could've been misinterpreted. For that would only cause diplomatic trouble.

"Yet now an even greater artistic challenge confronts OMAS," says Malaguti, "as we've been selected by a Rome committee to style writing instruments in celebration of the millennium. While I'm honored, this is going to force us to do extensive research about what happened in the two other millenniums, for this very special pen, demanding three months of production, will have to capture both the past and our future."

Maniacally obsessed with every stylistic detail, from the grinding of specially cut nibs to preparing OMAS's proprietary brand of celluloid (a resin material that offers an array of color possibilities), Malaguti was under tremendous pressure last summer readying his millennium piece for this November's debut. Trying to relax with one of his beloved Montecristos in a New York restaurant, he confesses that "the whole world will be watching. OMAS has to design a pen that leaves a message for generations, a writing instrument that surpasses all our other work."

That will be difficult. Limiting yearly production to about a half million pens, Malaguti consistently tackles daring projects that are meant to evoke "a more civilized era when the culture of the hand was paramount." He recently spent two years designing a specially curved pen clip that doesn't damage shirt or jacket pockets (featured on the "360," an ergonomically correct triangular pen), and is now touting the "A.M. 87," the first-ever briarwood pen to utilize a piston filling system.

While the "Precious Facets" pen, a silver or gold 12-sided design that forced Malaguti to devise a unique tooling machine, is another technological marvel, his Midas touch is best dramatized by the "Merveille du Monde." Taking months to produce, this 18-karat gold-and-jade resin treasure is embellished with representations of the Great Wall, a ship and Venetian buildings to honor Marco Polo's world travels. Only 30 such pens were made. Originally priced at $40,000, they are now eagerly sought by collectors willing to spend $70,000 to $80,000.

But even though it seems as if OMAS is dedicated to making celebratory trophies that aren't intended for everyday use, the same high level of craftsmanship goes into their less-pricey "Paragon" fountain pen. Pioneered by Malaguti's grandfather in 1932, this 12-sided celluloid pen with an 18-karat gold nib and band is the company's signature piece. Equipped with either a piston-fill or cartridge system, it writes as smoothly as the limited editions, and according to OMAS's North American marketer and distributor, David Marks of Marcovici Designs, it "is perfect for the beginner who wants to start using a fountain pen."

Pens from the OMAS celluloid collection, featuring a Greek key pattern band, a flexible calligraphic nib and a dazzling array of marbleized colors, is also an ideal entry-level acquisition. But whatever pen is selected--and new items like the blue and sterling silver "Herman Hesse" and "Frank Lloyd Wright" collection are always vying for our attention--every OMAS pen has one thing in common.

"The Malagutis have this passionate, even obsessive belief that their pens must write and function beautifully, so that's why they offer an unlimited-time, no-questions-asked guarantee on all their products," says Marks, who along with marketing OMAS, has helped Malaguti refine various designs. "That lifetime guarantee is our way of telling consumers, who should try to get the same assurances whenever buying a pen, that the Malagutis take the slightest ques-tions about their work very personally."

Mainly responsible for developing OMAS in the American market, including placement of the pens in such fine specialty shops as Neiman Marcus and Bergdorf Goodman, Marks also cautions enthusiasts "to buy a pen only after testing how it works, if it feels comfortable in the hand, and if the ink flows smoothly. Even if limited editions are now the investment thing, buyers must above all remember they're writing instruments. They shouldn't be weighted down with diamonds and other frivolous decorations as if they were only pieces of art to be hung on a wall."

But putting an OMAS out of harm's reach (preferably in sealed cases or other stable environments) is certainly a good idea if one of this company's greatest admirers is up to his usual tricks. "Youwouldn't believe how many pens I acquire when people ask me to sign autographs," Bill Cosby says with a laugh. "They're thrusting all kinds of pens at me. And when I forget to return them they'll run after me for blocks. They'll kill to get back their pens, even their 20-cent Bics."

But man doesn't write by OMAS alone. Some two dozen companies offer equally stylish classics, which makes choosing a pen today as difficult as selecting a mutual fund. All these marbleized, 18-karat-gold jeweled gems look terrific in their fancy leather-and-velvet packaging. But how do they feel and perform when putting pen to paper? If writing a $5,000 to $50,000 check for one of these beauties is chiefly an investment, what pens have the best potential to produce only black ink?

"Now that so many companies are coming into this market with all sorts of status symbol pens, it's very tough to pick and choose," says Terry Wiederlight, co-owner of New York's Fountain Pen Hospital. "Yet after getting past all the hype of what's a 'hot' fashion statement, the key to selecting a truly great piece is the name of the manufacturer. Going with the established brands, those that have a proven track record for quality and service, is a must."

Among this vaunted elite, there's Montblanc, Pelikan, Namiki and the relatively new Renaissance Pen Co., which produces a line of Fabergé and Michel Perchin writing instruments. Each company is producing highly crafted limited editions, which are steadily rising in value. A Montblanc "Imperial Dragon 888," for example, which debuted in 1994 at $1,650, is selling for $4,800.

Amid this giddy enthusiasm, which has spawned magazines and numerous books on collectible fountain pens and hundreds of buying sites on the Internet, a certain skepticism among longtime aficionados has also arisen. Calling the recent boom "outright craziness," one collector fears that many new, unsophisticated or speculative buyers will drown in red ink.

"There are a lot of unschooled newcomers coming into the market who only want a possession and don't know real values," says Fred Gorstein, a Philadelphia pathologist and author of books on pen collecting. "While this new buying frenzy is raising the worth of collections, there's also a lot of junk out there. So new collectors have to be very wary, for along with those Parker 'Snakes,' collecting has its other snakes, guys who misrepresent the values of pens."

How do prospective buyers avoid the flimflam, have fun and potentially make a profit? They take Geoffrey Berliner's advice: Focus on the offerings of the following companies, the "blue-chippers."

Among these stalwarts, buyers should keep their eyes on Montblanc and its newly acclaimed limited-edition "Edgar Allan Poe" creation, which is engraved with a raven on the nib. The pen is part of the company's new "writer's series" edition, and if such past successes as its "Hemingway," "Agatha Christie" or "Alexandre Dumas" are any barometer of its future appeal, the company's gold-, blue- and black-marbleized resin tribute to Poe will be another high-flying hit.

Consistently striking gold with its "Meisterstück" creations, this German powerhouse (owned by the Vendôme Group, which includes Cartier and Dunhill) is the industry's trendsetter, the company generally credited with giving fountain pens their new cachet as a luxury possession. Competitors might enviously attribute this renown to the corporation's Godzilla-sized advertising budget. But there's no disputing Montblanc's uncanny knack for fashioning artistically inspired pieces that have been the pen world's equivalent of investing in Viagra.

Initially showcasing the richly ornamented sterling silver "Lorenzo dé Medici" in 1992 (introduced at $1,600, its value has soared to $5,000), Montblanc has scored other triumphs with the coral-colored "Hemingway"; the "Octavian," overlaid with a filigree of .925 sterling silver; the lustrous black-resin "Voltaire"; and the vermeil, flower-patterned "Louis XIV." All of these limited editions disappeared long ago from Montblanc's 100 boutiques around the world, and are only found in vintage pen shops at prices worthy of the company's upper stratospheric name.

"We have a specific ongoing concept: limited editions dedicated to writers or to patrons of the arts, and that adds to the value of the pen," says Montblanc chief executive officer and president Fred Reffsin. "While most companies create a lot of one-time commemoratives, we have a predictability and discipline. Besides allowing us to build brand equity, that commitment has added to our seductive mystique and magic."

The "Solitaire Royal" is a captivating addition to Montblanc's juggernaut of writing instruments. Solid gold with a blanket of 4,810 diamonds (corresponding to namesake Mont Blanc's 4,810 meters in elevation), this $125,000 phenomenon--cited by Guiness as "the world's most expensive pen"-- is made only on request.

For those whose writing tastes aren't quite as extravagant, Montblanc offers its lapis lazuli or malachite homage to Mozart, the surprisingly light and sensuous Solitaire Collection with mountings in 18-karat vermeil and other pinnacles of good taste. These gleaming pens are a fitting complement to the company's expanding Royal High Jewellery array of watches. Women can wear clipless "Mozarts" around their necks on ornamental chains.

Insisting "we've created a whole new way of thinking about writing instruments," Reffsin is particularly excited by those recently introduced platinum pieces. "Buying one of these pens is a very strong statement about status and self-confidence. Platinum is unique, for it has a tactile feel that's extraordinary." In terms of sheer beauty, a platinum pen may well be Montblanc's crowning achievement.

While Montblanc is paying tribute to writers and art patrons, Namiki is offering lacquered and powdered gold interpretations of such traditional Japanese themes as autumn flowers, religious shrines and goldfish--pieces worthy of any museum.

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