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A Fine Line: The Joys of Fountain Pens

G. Bruce Boyer
From the Print Edition:
Wayne Gretzky, Mar/Apr 97

(continued from page 2)

"At Montblanc," says de Quercize, "a master craftsman not only tests the nib with his eye, but with his ear. Each nib of a fine pen is hand-ground, and each has its own sound when put to paper. A master craftsman can actually hear whether the nib is scratching or is smooth enough."

According to Glen B. Bown, author of PenSpeak: The Secret Language of Pen Lovers (World Publications, 1996, 233 pages, $29.95), standard nibs are graded from extra fine to broad. Additionally, there are special nibs for artists, musicians, calligraphers and left-handed writers. Pens can even be had with a double broad nib for impressive signatures, often used for documents of record and history.

What should one look for when buying a pen? A lot more than just how it feels in your hand, says Menashe Murad, pen expert, collector and owner of Menash Signatures, a renowned specialty pen store in Manhattan.

"A pen isn't like a typewriter or computer--it's an extension of the hand, in fact an extension of the mind. Thoughts flow as the ink flows, and there's a certain enjoyment in the correlation between thinking and the physical mechanism of writing with a fountain pen," says Murad. "When you write with a fountain pen you become aware that the pen is more susceptible to a person's mood, that writing reflects the personality. People who write with a pen will often use different pens depending not only on how much writing they'll do, but on their mood. So you want a pen that fits your hand, fits your style of writing and fits your personality and mood.

"First, go to a reputable dealer with a large selection of different pens," he says. "The salespeople are trained, they'll ask the right questions about your writing habits. They'll allow you to test the pens, so you can get the feel of them when writing. Never be in a hurry; a good pen should be a serious investment. If the shop won't allow you to test the pen, go to another shop."

What should one expect to pay? "Pens can cost anything from $20 or $30 to tens of thousands" of dollars, Murad notes. "There are simple, unadorned pens with plastic barrels and steel nibs, and there are pens that are true works of art, made over many months by artisans. The important point to remember, though, is that beyond a certain price--I would say about $400 today--there's no difference in writing performance. Above that figure we're talking about pure aesthetics, a matter of how ornately the barrel is decorated or the material from which it's made."

Pure aesthetics is no mere hollow phrase. The new Montegrappa "Luxor" pen, with its ornate sterling silver Egyptian motif overlay and platinum-masked 18 karat gold nib, goes for around $4,000; the hand-painted and lacquered Namiki sells for about $6,000. Both of which seem bargains compared with a bejeweled special Montblanc at a cool $125,000.

Parenthetically, pens are among the fastest growing collectibles around. To give you some idea, a special edition "Hemingway" Montblanc that sold for $600 when it was issued four years ago now commands more than $1,500 on the world market. "What I sense," notes Edward Fingerman, "is that vintage pens are now a proven rare item. People tend to collect them for the love of them, rather than for investment. Which means that you don't have the crazy fluctuations in the market that you can see with other collectibles. Collectors tend not to sell, so the pens on the market become scarcer and scarcer, and the price continues to steadily go up."

One real difference between pens is between a steel nib and a gold one. About 90 percent of good pens have gold nibs, worth roughly $100 of the cost. Gold nibs are generally preferred because they are smoother, while steel tends to have a slightly scratchy quality. "Steel nibs are used more on introductory models, often recommended for writers accustomed to using a ballpoint," says Glen Bowen, who, in addition to PenSpeak, publishes Pen World International, the magazine for pen fanciers. "[They are] what we call 'student' models: less expensive pens that can take the pressure. People who aren't accustomed to writing with a fountain pen usually bear down, as you must with a ballpoint. They haven't learned that a good fountain pen, because it transfers the ink to the paper by capillary action, is effortless writing.

"The fact is that today all reputable name brands are very good indeed, guaranteed for long service. There are very high standards in the industry, and the technology is of an advanced caliber. What one has to avoid are the knockoffs and the look-alikes. Which is another reason for going to a reputable dealer: in addition to answering questions, allowing you to try the pens, having the best selections and guaranteeing product and service, he'll only sell reliable pens." A word to the wise: As with Louis Vuitton handbags and Cartier watches, there are knockoff Montblancs and other counterfeit marques on the street.


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