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(Bloomberg) -- A wide variety of communities have focused on Donald Trump’s recent Oval Office signing ceremonies, but only one among them has turned close attention to the tool with which the new U.S. president affixes his jagged signature to executive orders. I refer, of course, to members of the internet forum fpgeeks.com—a nonpartisan commission of Fountain Pen Geeks.
Studying video clips with the attention of forensic experts (“looks … as if the ink was flowing all around the tip from where the barrel ends all the way to the paper surface”) and trusting a comrade who claimed insider knowledge, the group surmised that the world’s most powerful Sharpie fan has recently been wielding a Cross Century II black lacquer rollerball converted into a felt-tip.
“I’m just glad they weren’t fountain pens,” wrote one geek, using the handle fountainpenkid.
Wait—you didn’t know fountain pen geeks existed? Oh. Well, they do, and there are many distinct subspecies. Members include aesthetes who admire the exceptional resin work of Hawaii’s Kanilea Pen Co., lawyers flashing Graf von Faber-Castells, speculators snapping up R2-D2 tributes from a reenergized A.T. Cross, and even maniacs willing to pay €1.4 million ($1.5 million) for Montblanc’s Johannes Kepler High Artistry Stella Nova Limited Edition 1, a pen named for an astronomer and decorated with 570 diamonds and 5,294 sapphires to capture the mood of the Milky Way. (It’s yet to be proven that the last group actually exists, but Montblanc is certainly hoping so.)
An Uncommon Pleasure
Like the mechanical watch, the fountain pen has survived by pulling a neat trick: transforming its obsolescence into an aura of indulgent luxury.
You might think this writing instrument, distributing ink through the slit in its nib, was outmoded around the 1950s, when ballpoint pen manufacturers finally fixed the glitches in their product. And you’d be right. But according to market-research firm Euromonitor, global fountain pen retail sales were up 2.1 percent in 2016 from a year earlier, reaching $1.046 billion. The overall market for personal luxury goods was flat over the same period, and the contrast suggests that good pens have sturdier value, culturally and otherwise, than the fancy handbags and cashmere overcoats in which they’re stowed. More impressive yet, fountain pen sales have grown every year for the past decade (except in 2009).
The fountain pen has not gone the way of the horse and buggy. Rather, the correct analogy is with the horse itself: It would be peculiar to use one as your only mode of transportation, but it’s a privilege to trot one out on special occasions.
“The relevance that fountain pens and handwriting had is diminished,” says Nicky Pessaroff, editor-in-chief of Pen World magazine. “It’s become more of a lifestyle choice and an identity choice. It’s a throwback and a cultural comment.”
Fountain Pens Never Really Went Away
Wait—you don’t know Pen World? It’s a bimonthly glossy that premiered in 1988 to serve baby boomers who were beginning to congregate at a scrum of new of pen trade shows. These aficionados are still on the scene, trading in all the venerable old brands, including Sheaffer, S.T. Dupont, and Faber-Castell.
The boomers are joined, on the convention floor and (especially) on the internet, by Gen Xers and millennials drawn to “analog tools,” Pessaroff says. “I don’t even know if I’d call them collectors. They’re more enthusiasts, and not just pen enthusiasts. There are art enthusiasts, people into old-school desk accessories.” Their passions range from hunting down the gorgeous nibs of the U.S.’s Franklin Christoph pens, to obsessing over the rich lacquers of Japan’s Namiki line of instruments, to chronicling the elegant technical advances of Germany’s Lamy.
Still, stateside, the subculture’s enthusiasm has its limits, and there are only so many high school graduation presents to give. According to Euromonitor, North America was the one zone in which fountain pen sales shrank in 2016, down 3.5 percent year-over-year.
Meanwhile, 2016 sales were up most sharply in South America, a key growth sector in recent history. This fact seems connected to the sort of paper-and-ink traditions that have yielded Buenos Aires’s rich culture of bookstores, not to mention Brazil’s street culture of vendors pushing knockoff Montblancs.
This time last year, Euromonitor forecast long-term growth in China, in an analysis further noting that the Communist Party’s crackdown on graft means a gift to a government official is now more likely to be a tasteful three-figure pen than a gaudy six-figure watch.
To be clear, far greater forces than Politburo corruption scandals are driving the fountain pen business in the Asia-Pacific market. In 2016 the region accounted for 48 percent of worldwide sales. As Pessaroff notes, cultures with logogrammatic languages have always had “a reverence for handwriting as an art form, not just as a form of communication.”
A Hospital for Pens
Steve Wiederlight, co-owner of Manhattan’s Fountain Pen Hospital, counts Singapore among the most important of the 65 countries to which he ships. The store, founded 71 years ago by his father, bills itself as the last remaining high-end pen shop in the U.S. In 1988—clearly a banner year for the penaissance—the senior Wiederlight told the New York Times that sales had more than tripled over the most recent two years: “You know why? Because everyone has their hands on the computer. People want to write.”
The son does brisk business at a shop with “2,500 to 3,000 pens on display,” he says, and—hidden from public view—the repair department that gives the store its name. Up front, relatively humble numbers such as the Pilot Vanishing Point share space with the illustrious models from Krone, Caran d’Ache, and Visconti. Each of the grand brands warrants a display case, many of which feature at least one photo-celebrated figure. I’m not just talking about Hugh Jackman’s Montblanc ad, either.
There are pens to honor John Hancock and Abraham Lincoln, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol, Ben Franklin and Buzz Aldrin and Harry Houdini. They add up to a curious crew of giants. In sum they speak, with a tug of nostalgia, to the precise emotional pull of a fountain pen. Any doodad can be a status symbol, and any old objet d’art can be eyeballed, but from a beautiful pen flows great self-expression. Or, anyway, that’s the message of the marketing and the beauty of the idea: holding craft and ritual in your hand.
To contact the author of this story: Troy Patterson in New York at email@example.com.
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