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A Fine Line: The Joys of Fountain Pens

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

Here's a secret: if you want to make an impression, send a handwritten note.

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.

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