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In Hand

Fountain Pens are Coming Back in Vogue
Ettagale Blauer
From the Print Edition:
Winston Churchill, Autumn 93

(continued from page 1)

But it was in high-level meetings in corporate offices that the generation of young men in their 20s saw its well-dressed, highly placed elders using fountain pens. And that is why they are turning up at Art Brown's and other pen specialists, plaintively asking about such mysterious objects as bottles of ink and rocker blotters.

Although it is rumored among pen collectors that Thomas Jefferson invented a pen that had a reservoir of ink and used it to draft the Declaration of Independence, the real genesis of the modern fountain pen began in 1884 when E. L. Waterman came up with the first practical version, one with its own internal supply of ink that would feed to a nib. The essential design of the fountain pen hasn't changed dramatically since. It was the invention of better inks, not better pens, that really made the difference in the reliability of the fountain pen. Although Montblanc claims that only its ink is suitable for its pens, everyone else in the pen world says that a good quality ink with no impurities can be used in every pen.

In recognition that lovingly filling a pen from a bottle of ink may be too much for all but diehard purists, most makers now offer convertible fountain pens. In less than five seconds, you can remove the internal bladder that holds the ink and replace it with an ink cartridge. Virtually all fountain pens now offer this option, bringing this lovely nineteenth-century object up to date. It's also a sure sign that a pen is of "modern" make, although cartridges have been around in one form or another for more than 40 years.

While most of the attention has been given to the look of the pen, it is the nib that actually does the writing. In all fine pens, a choice of nibs allows the individual to find exactly the right nib for his particular hand. While the nib is always made of gold, either 14k or 18k, the tip which makes contact with the writing surface is a tiny ball of precious metal from the platinum group. This gives the durability needed to endure the constant friction; the gold ensures that the nib has the flexibility needed to ease the strain on the writing hand. Ink flows from a small hole in the nib down a slit to the point. All other beautiful embellishments that make the point an esthetic delight are simply ornamentation. A trained salesperson will guide a pen purchaser to the right choice of nib.

As for the body of the pen, Montblanc, thanks to an aggressive and ubiquitous advertising campaign, has become the brand most people ask for when they first go pen shopping. The German-based company has the dubious honor of being popular enough to generate a veritable industry of knockoffs, available on any busy street in New York City for $12 to $15. While Montblanc is annoyed enough to pursue the makers of imitation Montblanc pens, company executives maintain that they don't lose any customers. "They [the street consumers] are not Montblanc customers," says Wolff Heinrichsdoor, vice-president of Montblanc International; while also taking a jab at President Bill Clinton, who used fake Montblancs as giveaways after signing a document.

Montblanc, like other well-known brands, works earnestly to tie its name to icons of history with models like the Octavian, named for Gaius Octavius, the Roman Empire's first emperor. Each special edition is limited to 4,810 pens, a Montblanc tradition: 4,810 is the elevation in meters of Mont Blanc, the company's namesake. Montblanc did create one special edition last year that exceeded its normal parameters--the Hemingway. About 20,000 were produced and sold for $600 apiece.

Famous names and limited editions are also part of the mystique of Omas, which despite its odd-sounding name is an Italian family business. The firm was founded by Armando Simoni in 1925, and its name derives from the acronym in Italian for a "mechanical factory." Gianluca Malaguti, director of Omas, stresses that the company's named editions are not dedicated to someone but rather have a link with a person chosen. The new Galileo Galilei line was created with the cooperation of the University of Pisa, where Galileo was a student and teacher and from where he discovered the Milky Way in 1564, which is the basis for the number of pieces in the edition: 4,692. (Multiplying 1,564 by three equals 4,692.) The 12-faceted Galileo and its case are elegant. The pen is presented in a large box made of Perspex (clear plastic) and is shaped like a telescope tens. Like the pen, the box is numbered.

These well-crafted pens are made of celluloid, a material first used in pens in the 1920s, but quickly abandoned because it was rather flammable. It was an ideal material, however, for other reasons and Simoni worked hard to make it both safe and stable. Over the course of a year, the celluloid is treated and aged until the chemical and physical characteristics of the material are changed. It is transformed into a lightweight unbreakable material that does not react to changes in either temperature or air pressure. Celluloid allows for the widest range of colors.

This same shatterproof material is the drawing card for Visconti, another Italian firm, which is only six years old. When Edward Fingerman, a realtor, discovered the line during a visit to Florence, it must have been fate. Along with another pen connoisseur, Jon Messer, Fingerman bought the line and developed it in the United States. At Visconti, the sales staff is just as likely to drop a pen on the ground as hand one to you. It's a highly dramatic demonstration that celluloid does not shatter like plastic, which is used for many fine pens.

Many American pen firms have been around for a long time, too. The A.T. Cross company dates its beginnings to 1846, when it was a maker of pencils. By the 1870s, A.T. Cross was registering patents for fountain pens and what are called stylographic pens, an ink pen with a needle rather than a nib, which made it possible to use carbon copies. Although its newest model, the Townsend, derives its design from the first Cross fountain pen made nearly 60 years ago, this pen is made exclusively for sale in Europe. A.T. Cross sells $200 million worth of pens and related goods in the United States, but at an average price of $14 to $18. In Europe, Cross products sell for considerably more than in the United States.

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