Mechanical watches. Vinyl records. Fountain pens. All things that were invented at some time in the past, developed into thriving industries, and were then swept away by new technology. The arrival of cheap quartz watches in the 1970s was like the cataclysm that led to the end of the dinosaurs, and it caused about two-thirds of Swiss watchmaking brands to go out of business. But mechanical watchmaking survived, and developed into something different: luxury products. Something similar happened for pens.
Fountain pens swept away by the biro
After centuries of history, the ballpoint pen changed handwriting for ever. Before the biro, every child learnt how to write with a pen. After, it became an unfamiliar object, used by presidents and by ordinary people only when signing documents in a notary’s office – using the notary’s pen. Digital technology also had a massive effect. Just as our smartphones show us the time far more accurately than any mechanical watch, computers have lessened our reliance on handwriting. Journalists can take notes on their laptop, artists can make their sketches on an iPad. Handwriting has been relegated to shopping lists. And so it come as a surprise to find that sales of quality fountain pens are rising.
Rediscovering the pleasure of writing
For new enthusiasts, writing with a fountain pen is like a rediscovery, a sensorial experience. It’s a bit like wine-tasting. Learning about how to recognize the hundreds of nuances of fragrance opens up a world of unexpected fascination and from then on, our enjoyment of everyday scents – a cup of tea, newly-mown grass, the earthy tang of a ploughed field – becomes an appreciation of beauty. The ink used for a fountain pen has an unmistakable smell, but it’s the way that the letters are formed on the paper that makes it special. The pen glides over the paper, the friction reduced by the perfectly-crafted tip of the nib, and by the liquid ink. No pressure is required, and you appreciate the instrument’s perfect weight and balance.
The action is concentrated on a tiny speck of metal
A pen is a very personal possession. You can choose from different materials, such as resin, wood, celluloid, ebonite, and metal, with all sorts of decorative effects. The weight and size of the pen are questions of taste. The fundamental component is the nib, which is generally gold in a quality pen, but it can also be made of steel or titanium. All nibs are tipped with a hard alloy made using metals from the platinum group, often described as iridium but usually made from an alloy containing osmium, ruthenium or tungsten. Nibs differ in width and flexibility. Most have round tips, varying from Extra Fine to Broad, that create uniform lines. Italic nibs, or stub nibs, have wider tips that create wide vertical strokes and narrow horizontal strokes, giving a calligraphic character to handwriting. Most nibs are firm, while semi-flex or flex ribs splay with pressure and so can be used to vary line thickness at will.
A wide range of choices
There are many filling systems, with some pens fitted with high-capacity vacuum arrangements that draw in a large quantity of ink with a single stroke of the plunger, making them ideal for journalists and novelists. The other major choices are between Japanese pens, typically smaller and with nibs of superb quality, and Western products; and between series-production and artisanal pens. For some of the smaller penmakers, just about all their products are customized for each customer.
Some pen-making brands – Aurora
The story of Italian brand Aurora is a good example of how fortunes have changed over the decades in this particular sector. The company was founded in 1919 in Turin, and it was part of an industrial cluster that developed in the 1910s, with many businesses changing production from buttons – no longer profitable – to pens, made using the same materials. Dozens of companies specialized in fountain pens, most of them converting to ball-point and felt-tip pens in the 1950s. The cluster’s total production reached 8 million pens a day, but from the 1980s, most companies suffered competition from Asia and today only a few still remain. Aurora is one of them, which continues to do what it has always done: making pens of medium, high and superlative quality. Looking forward to its anniversary, the company has opened its museum Officina della Scrittura, which illustrates the history of writing in a space of over 2,500 square metres. officinadellascrittura.it
In the photo, the superb Aurora 936, a solid silver pen with flame guilloché engraving, made to celebrate the 80th anniversary and still in production, with solid gold nib. aurorapen.it
Montegrappa was founded in the north Italian town of Bassano del Grappa in 1912, and over the years its pens have been used by writers including Paulo Coelho and Ernest Hemingway, and personalities such as Pope John Paul II, King Juan Carlos of Spain and many others. For a few years, from 2000 to 2009, Montegrappa became part of the Richemont group to which Montblanc also belongs, but it has now returned to independence, owned by the Aquila family. In addition to its regular and special edition pens, its Atelier provides a service that enables anyone to create a personalized pen, with an emblem or motif painted onto the disc on the cap, or engraved or painted onto the barrel and cap. montegrappa.com
Montblanc was founded in Hamburg in 1906 specifically to manufacture pens, and the company’s name comes from the name of one of its first models, introduced in 1910. Today Montblanc has watchmaking plants in Switzerland and a leather workshop in Florence, but all its pens are still hand-crafted in Hamburg. Its most famous pen, the Meisterstück, has a nib hand-sculpted from gold, and each piece is tested before leaving the works. The nib grinder even listens to the sound each nib makes on the paper to ensure optimum smoothness. A recent special edition of the Meisterstück is dedicated to Le Petit Prince, with cap and barrel in night-blue resin creating a contrast with the platinum-coated fittings, and a sentence from the novel engraved into the crown. montblanc.com
Graf von Faber-Castell
Faber-Castell has a history that runs back to 1761, founded at Stein near Nuremberg by Kaspar Faber and still today a family-controlled business. Its products comprise pencils, office supplies and art products, and its finest pens are made under the brand name Graf von Faber-Castell. One of their latest products is a pen made in partnership with Bentley, with the elegance and meticulous detailing that hallmark the brand’s cars. One of the distinctive characteristics of Graf von Faber-Castell pens is the spring-loaded clip, and in this piece it is accompanied by platinum-finished coatings and a case in hand-sewn Italian calfskin. faber-castell.com
Edison Pen Co.
The Edison Pen Company is on a different scale, founded by Brian Gray in 2007 in his garage in Huron, Ohio, and now a thriving business. All their pens are hand-crafted, no two are the same, and so there is ample opportunity for personalization. edisonpen.com
Some of the finest fountain pens in the world come from Japan, and these products are exceptional for their fine, very smooth-writing nibs, and for the artistry of construction, with hand-turned barrels finished with multiple layers of Urushi lacquer. Nakaya was founded in the 1990s by Toshiya Nakata, whose family owned the large company Platinum Pen Co. He signed up pensioners who had retired from Platinum, and began a small-scale production of hand-crafted fountain pens. Today a Nakaya pen is a coveted item for pen collectors, with prices from around $650 to in excess of $10,000. nakaya.org