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Off the Ball and Into the Fountain

Some expect luxury pens to replace watches as symbols of power

By LAUREN B. KRAFT
As email increasingly minimized the necessity for a handwritten note, the desire for pens appeared to have dwindled. A shift from essential utensil to luxury item, however, may have been just what the pen industry needed  to change the image of the humble writing tool to a high status possession.

“Consumers are increasingly treating high-end pen brands as status symbols and fashion accessories in the same way as jewelry,” says Colin McClymont, managing director of The Pen Shop, an online retailer of luxury pens. “Many of the brands have introduced jewel-encrusted writing instruments made from precious metals and vibrant fashion colors.”

The growth of the luxury writing instrument market and the shrinkage of the disposable pen market is something pen manufacturers would never have imagined more than 100 years ago, when some of the current favorite collectable brands were created.

Fountain pens were first introduced in the 1880s and took over for the quill, according to Chicago-area pen collector Roger Wooten.

“The word ‘pen’ early on meant just the writing tip,” Wooten says. “The rest of the barrel was the pen holder.”

Good pens offer what is simply a “controlled leak” of ink, Wooten says.

Early pen tips were made from gold, and the ink was corrosive. The ballpoint didn’t go into production until the 1940s, when Reynolds International Pen began the movement away from fountain pens.  Within 20 years, the public favored the ease of use and lower cost that ballpoint brands offered.

A good fountain pen can cost hundreds of dollars, while a luxury pen will set aficionados back a few thousand dollars. The Montblanc Massif Skeleton, which was created for the company’s 100th anniversary, retailed for $172,500, according to Jan-Patrick Schmitz, CEO of Montblanc North America.

Wooten, a collector since the early 1980s, says he owns approximately 600 Sheaffer pens. Like other members of the Chicago Pen Club, he has pens that cost a few dollars and some that reach into the thousands.

While disposable pens can be had for about a quarter apiece, they can’t compare to luxury brands. “You throw them across the room,” Wooten says.

Meanwhile, fountain pens are a commodity. Consumers are willing to pay more for writing instruments these days because they send a message power brokers are looking for. And the market isn’t just for men anymore.

“Women in particular are far more likely to use their clothes and accessories to express their personal style, and a jewel-encrusted pen can be a way to accessorize an outfit, just like earrings and rings can,” McClymont says. “Men also associate high quality pen brands such as Montblanc, Porsche and Cartier as status symbols in the same way that a designer watch can give kudos to its owner.”

In fact, those in the know say Parker, Montblanc and Cross could take over for Rolex as the name to own. “I do believe that these shifting trends are turning the humble writing instrument into the new watch,” McClymont says, adding that Montblanc and Cartier are the best sellers at The Pen Shop. He expects pens to join watches and handbags as the next power symbol. “It’s the new accessory on the block, and with such a diverse range of brands and styles available, there is certainly a product to suit every character.”

The latest trend in pens is encrusting them with jewels, but most important to the daily user is comfort. Pens these days are designed with ease of use foremost in mind.

“I think it adds to the interest of what you’re doing if you can do it with a more interesting pen or with something that writes better than a ballpoint or rollerball,” Wooten says.

Luxury pen users are usually people in fields where pens are part of their daily life. Members of pen collector groups are often lawyers, CPAs, journalists and doctors, Wooten says.

Schmitz notes that luxury pens add to those special documents that must be signed with ink, such as marriage licenses, contracts and personal notes.

Even though he uses the computer for home and office, Wooten keeps fountain pens all over the house. He still buys ink by the gallon and he wouldn’t dream of using a disposable writing instrument. However, there is one person he can’t convince to move away from Bic.

“Next to the keyboard [at home] is a ballpoint,” Wooten says wryly,
“because my wife can’t stand writing with a fountain pen.”

Published: January 28, 2007
Issue: Winter 2007