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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 3)

You can talk all you want about e-mail and faxes, photocopies and printouts; nothing makes quite the impact of a handwritten note, using a real fountain pen and good stationery.

It's more than knowing the writer has gone to the time and trouble, more than the added consideration. Quite more even than the little idiosyncrasies of individual style uncorrected by computer tools. It's the feeling that we are getting something special, that the person corresponding with us has actually touched the paper we're reading. That the note we hold in our hands is more than a series of electronic blips in cyberspace. It's a personality on paper.

"There is legitimately something of a backlash here," says Stanislas de Quercize, president and chief executive officer of Montblanc Inc. "In many respects the pace of life seems to be getting faster and faster, and we all value those small, personal luxuries more and more. In a world of high tech, fountain pens are 'high touch.' They're personal and intimate, and when you write with a fountain pen you reveal your personality, even your mood."

Would a letter from Samuel Johnson or Franklin Roosevelt, Ben Franklin or Charles Darwin or Elizabeth Barrett Browning hold any special fascination for us if it had been faxed? Noël Coward or Virginia Woolf on e-mail? The word "signature" means one's name as written by oneself, and comes from the Latin signare, to mark. The prices brought at auction for famed autographs would seem to confirm the observation that handwriting holds a special interest for us.

We sense the writer, not only from the words themselves, but from the very slant and stroke of the letters. There is little technology to intrude between the mind and the hand to mask and neutralize the personality. "We might even go so far as to say," notes de Quercize, "that handwriting is too revealing for some people, that they prefer the anonymity of hiding behind the electronic printout." Receiving a handwritten note is the writing equivalent of getting a real person on the phone, instead of an automated voice menu.

Today the sale of fine pens, hand-engraved stationery, expensively bound diaries and embossed note cards appears stronger than ever. It is, we may safely imagine, a reaction to the more technological necessities of our correspondence (not to mention the other automated aspects of our lives) that we take pride in those smaller intimacies and luxuries life still affords us. In the 1980s these indulgences were merely status symbols for some; now it's more a matter of one's own solace that counts. It's no wonder Jane Austen has enjoyed a renaissance these past several years.

"I see more fountain pens at board meetings all the time," notes Atlanta real estate investment adviser and avid pen collector David Golden. "I remember when I graduated from law school back in the early '70s, I got a Montblanc for a present. In those days it was rare for a pen company to have a great many models, and you couldn't even get a Montblanc in Atlanta. Today the major companies have dozens of models. In an increasingly casual and impersonal world, carrying something elegant and personal--like a good fountain pen or a beautiful cigar case or a nice wallet--is a kind of affirmation of our individuality, if you will."

Montblanc, for example, has opened eight boutiques in the United States in just the past year and expects to open another 20 in the next year or two.

The fountain pen is, of course, an extremely efficient and practical instrument. But then, so is a yellow Eberhard Faber No. 3 pencil. Pens are obviously much more than just writing tools. These little cylindrical implements can be highly ornamented and designed, and are often overlaid with gems, gold or silver filigree, and opulent lacquer. Some look much more like pieces of jewelry than tools. They are given as gifts of esteem. A few years ago--in the wake of the laptops and quartz-driven memo jotters and supercyber mini-organizers--one fully expected the pen to become an extinct species; but pens seem amazingly resilient, more popular with each new microchip on the block.

"There is indeed something of a rubber-band effect," notes Edward Fingerman, a collector of vintage pens and distributor of modern writing instruments, as well as vice president of Pen Collectors of America--the largest organization of its kind in the United States, with more than a thousand members. "I think it's telling that about three-quarters of the new pens on the market today have a decidedly retro look to them. The new Parker Duofold is an elegant example. It looks like a 1930s classic fountain pen, and that's obviously a considerable part of its appeal."

Perhaps we should also consider the argument, put forth by French pen collectors Pierre Haury and Jean-Pierre Lacroux in their elegant book, A Passion for Pens (Greentree Publications, 1993, 195 pages, $90), that a pen represents a heritage, a link with writers of the past, so "we feel that without it a bridge would collapse behind us in the terrifying silence of our distorted memories."

"I think people who are interested in pens are more erudite," says Fingerman. "It stands to reason that they're more interested in writing, in words and language--particularly on a personal level."

As a technological invention itself, the fountain pen's superiority over its ancestor, the quill, has been a triumph of American ingenuity. The obstacles of having a pen that would carry its own ink supply, and discharge that supply appropriately, were solved by L.E. Waterman, George Parker and Walter Sheaffer--all American inventors in the tradition of the true amateur.

There were fountain pens before L.E. Waterman--indeed since at least the eighteenth century--but Waterman identified and solved the main problem of "feed," i.e., the regulation of the ink flow.

The apochryphal story is that Waterman, an insurance broker in New York City during the nineteenth century, lost an important bit of business because the fountain pen he carried dripped ink all over a crucial contract at the moment of the client's signing. Waterman vowed it would never happen again. He studied contemporary styles of fountain pens and concluded that the essential problem was controlling the ink flow. By experimenting he eventually developed a system in which the flow of ink was equalized with an intake of air: ink flows in one direction, air in the other, as capillary action (the surface tension on the ink) draws the ink to the paper. Waterman patented his system on Feb. 12, 1884. "A historic date," in the words of Haury and Lacroux, "because it is without question this event that marks the birth of the fountain pen as we know it today." All feed systems with which pens were subsequently equipped were based on Waterman's ink-air exchange principle.

So the true fountain pen is relatively modern. People have been leaving their marks on uncluttered surfaces for at least 5,000 years. First with chalk and graphite sticks, then reeds and feather quills, and, with the Industrial Revolution, metal pen tips, called nibs. About the same time, people began seriously to dream about the pen as an independent tool not tied to an ink well. It wasn't a problem of holding the ink in the pen, but rather getting it to come out in a steady flow on paper, i.e., how to "feed" the nib. When Waterman solved this problem of hydromechanics, the modern age of pens began.

What differentiates one pen from another mechanically is not so much the feed system, but the ways in which the ink reservoirs are filled in the first place. The most primitive was to use an eyedropper to fill the hollow barrel of the pen. Next, a lever or button filling device was used with rubber bladders; after that, a variety of pistons and plungers were invented, then vacuum tubes. Finally, systems were developed using reservoirs independent of the pen's body: today's ink cartridges are at once the simplest and most recently developed filling systems for fountain pens (cartridges were first patented by the French firm of JiF in 1936).

After the feed system, the most important part of the pen is the nib, the writing point itself. Interchangeable steel nibs first appeared in Birmingham, England, around 1820. They were a vast improvement over reeds and quills, but subject to corrosion and rust. Glass nibs were also tried, and used up to the 1920s. Their main drawback was their inflexibility and fragility, and ink tended to dry on the point too quickly, hindering flow.

Precious metals--gold, silver and platinum--have all been used to make nibs. Gold is considered the ideal material for nibs since it is impervious to corrosion and flexible. Its drawback--apart from the expense--is that its softness causes wear resulting from friction with the paper. The solution was to reinforce the tip with a small cap of a harder metal. Today, most fine pens have a gold nib--either 14 karat or 18 karat--with an iridium cap (which is more expensive than the gold it protects). Stainless steel nibs, introduced during the Second World War, are used mainly for less expensive pens.

"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.

Some parting advice from Bowen: "Do not lend your fountain pen to anyone. While generosity is always commendable, an inexperienced person can ruin the nib or permanently damage it. Lend a ballpoint instead."

A frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado, G. Bruce Boyer is the author of Eminently Suitable (W.W. Norton, 1990). To the Point

Manhattan-based Menash Signatures can be contacted at (1-800) PEN-SHOP or (212) 595-6161. For the name of your nearest quality pen dealer, contact these manufacturers:

Aurora

(800) 741-0005

Bexley


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