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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 2)

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.

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.

The Parker Pen Company began in 1888 in Wisconsin, where it is still headquartered. Last May, the company was purchased by the Gillette Company, which already owned Waterman as well as Papermate, making it one of the largest pen makers in the world. This very American Parker makes only one-quarter of its sales in the United States; the remainder of the company's sales are in Europe and the Far East. Parker has introduced one of the most evocative replicas of its early pens; the big orange model with black accents. It is called the Centennial, marking Parker's 100th anniversary.

Parkers, with their distinctive arrow clips, are often the pen of choice when it comes to signing important documents. Although every company can cite an historic occasion when its pens are used, a Parker has been in the hands of American presidents when some of the most important documents of the nation have been signed. Often, the pens lasted longer than the office-holders. In 1991 Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev joined President George Bush in signing the START treaty with a Parker 75. But it was Russian President Boris Yeltsin who sat down with President Bush to sign the arms reduction accord last year with the same pen. On the other hand, the resignation of Gorbachev was inked with a Montblanc.

General Douglas MacArthur didn't have to borrow a pen when he signed the document ending the Second World War in the Pacific. He used his own 20-year-old Parker Duofold.

Looking toward a new era, Parker presented President Bill Clinton with several marbled green Duofold roller-ball pens. The green was chosen to symbolize his concern for the environment. The roller-ball is a highly successful hybrid, a pen with a ball point that uses a supply of liquid ink in a cartridge, and writes more like a fountain pen. A roller-ball version is now made in most new styles and comes from most of the major firms including Montblanc, Waterman, Omas and Recife.

Recife, a French line, reaches back into the past and uses hard rubber for the body of its pens. The material is a mix of latex and sulfur, hardened and nonporous, last used around 1930. According to Recife president, Stephan Arnal, who brings a missionary-like zeal to selling his product, "We are the only one in the world to make hard rubber. You have to make it by hand." In addition, Recife has just introduced a transparent pen whose entire body becomes the ink container. This Plexiglas pen is handmade and must be filled with a dropper. It comes packaged in an aluminum cigar tube.

Waterman is researching its own history for new pens. Recently it reintroduced the Patrician, a fountain pen first made in 1929. The oversized pen reflects a current preference for large pens, this one with an oversized 18k gold nib. Like all Watermans, it features the distinctive Waterman clip. The flat top of Waterman pens gives them a modern look even when the design is more than 60 years old.

Shaeffer, which began making pens in 1912, has reintroduced a silver overlay pen called Nostalgia, based on its own design of the 1920s. The elegant wraparound gold nib is a distinctive feature of Shaeffer fountain pens, along with the rather less elegant white dot at the top of the clip.

Many of today's fountain pen buyers turn almost immediately into fountain pen collectors. Apart from the pleasure of owning and using one fine fountain pen, the impetus for pen collecting, as with other areas of men's accessories, probably came from Italy, where style is an innate part of contemporary life. But ultimately, the nostalgic search for a writing instrument can be satisfied quite easily with the real thing--old-fashioned fountain pens.

Fingerman, of the Visconti pen company, is an avid collector. He says the prize of his collection is a Parker Aztec pen embellished with Indian chief heads and other Indian symbols. He estimates that the pen, made circa 1905 to 1910, is worth more than $40,000. "You could find one in a dresser drawer today," he says. "A half Aztec with filigree was found at a Connecticut church sale for $55. It was turned around immediately for about $15,000 to $20,000."

He also made an offer to buy what may be the most desirable collectible pen in the world, a Waterman snake pen. Two snakes are coiled around the barrel while another graces the cap. The pen is owned by St. Petersburg, Florida, dealer Jeff Hess, known in many areas of vintage collectibles. Hess says, "I've had some wonderful pieces of silver, worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But how often do you get the best in a collecting field? I am in no hurry to sell it" he says. "I don't even know if I want to sell it."

But for anyone with an itch to collect pens, Fingerman suggests Brimfield, Massachusetts, where in May, July and September, 4,000 to 5,000 dealers show their wares in fields full of tables. And those who want to get an idea of what they might have in the dresser drawer or what they might find at a yard sale should consult Fountain Pens and Pencils: The Golden Age of Writing Instruments by George Fischler and Stuart Schneider. There is also Pen World magazine.

Fountain pen auctions have been held at Bonham's in London since 1988, but the relatively low value per unit keeps them out of the limelight in this country. Still, auctioneer Alex Crum Ewing, who runs the collector's department at Bonham's, sold a pen for $5,500 in 1990, then worth about $10,000.

The range of prices is quite astonishing. A recent auction booklet in the United States listed many fine older examples of fountain pens for less than $500, and many were in the $200 to $300 range.

Not a bad price to pay for a bit of elegance and style.

Ettagale Blauer is a freelance writer.

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