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In Hand

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

It's 7:30 A.M. and you're on the way to your Wall Street office, stopping off at the bank to write out a deposit slip, when your fountain pen takes a turn for the worse. Quick, rush it to the Fountain Pen Hospital. Yes, the shop near New York's City Hall will take your ailing pen, repair it and have it ready for your daily battle with the world.

The pen doctors at Fountain Pen Hospital have heard it all. The guy who was walking with his pen in its mount, cap off, point facing out, who walked right into a wall and bent the nib. Or the guy who drove over his pen ... that was a tough one to fix. Terry and Steve Wiederlight, the brothers who run the 57-year-old business, repair about 100 pens per week, even those that would be cheaper to throw away and replace.

For just such emergencies, with the repair often motivated by sentimental attachment, the shop opens its doors early every workday. After all, there are few flourishes left to the contemporary man who has everything. Hats are rarely worn, and riding crops gave way to car keys long ago. Yet nearly every man carries a pen--of some kind.

Apparently as a result of a renewed longing for quality as well as style, this small item of utility and personal adornment is becoming a hot new collectible. But it has also become an accessory that can express personal style, a fashion option that seems especially attractive to a generation brought up on Nintendo, a group of men who could more readily identify Super Mario Brothers than Parker, Waterman, or Shaeffer.

These pen-seeking gentlemen often end up at Art Brown's, one of the foremost pen purveyors in New York City at West 46th Street and Fifth Avenue. Marilyn Brown answers some of the most fundamental questions such as, "What's a bottle of ink?" But who can blame someone for asking a question like that when one has been brought up on faxes, software and input data?

The goal behind the queries is the same: to obtain a beautiful pen or, better yet, a writing instrument (the preferred term, as a pen is disposable). "You don't go out on an interview with a throwaway pen," says Marilyn Brown. Or for that matter, sign a multimillion-dollar deal with a Bic.

For anyone who came of age during the ballpoint-pen era, a bottle of ink is an object of antiquity--like a suit of armor. Thanks to a Hungarian-born Argentine named Lazlo Biro, the inexpensive, reliable and disposable ballpoint made the fountain pen seem as quaint as a buggy whip. In England, "biro" is the term for any pen, turning the inventor's name into generic terminology.

If all that is needed is a method of recording information, the throwaway Bic would do the job every time. Yet when it is time for world leaders to sign a treaty, end a war or agree to reduce nuclear arms, they turn to the fountain pen.

Defying all the rules of modernity, the fountain pen is making a comeback, appealing not only to those who want a writing instrument that complements an elegant suit, silk tie and custom-made shirt, but also the increasing number of men who appreciate the impression a beautifully handwritten note or letter makes. Writing on a multisheet carbon form is about the only writing test a fountain pen fails; a ballpoint is the right tool for this job.

Given the light feel and elegance of a fountain pen, adherents argue that writing with one changes the nature of what is written. It slows the writer down and imbues his words with extra thought. He will select a fine piece of writing paper and spend time coming up with the right phrase before he touches ink to paper. It all comes together when the writer pens his words, then faxes them electronically. The fax may actually be responsible in part for the resurgent interest in writing instruments since it is now possible to have the personal touch of a handwritten document transmitted with the speed of a telephone call, an appealing merger of old and new.


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