A good old-fashioned fountain pen can add grace and eligibility to the aesthetics of your handwriting.
FOUNTAIN PENS AND THE ART OF WRITING
It seems my suspicions are not unusual. Sean Gumbleton, marketing manager of British pen-maker Conway Stewart, says, “Once you start using a fountain pen, it’s one of those things – if you have found the right one, you never give it up because it is such an intensely enjoyable experience.” Conway Stewart sprang to life in 1905 under the steerage of Thomas Garner and Frank Jarvis, who named the firm after two music hall artistes as it sounded better than conjoining their own names. “The appeal of a Conway Stewart fountain pen is that it is completely crafted in Devon using the finest materials and the more you use your pen the more enjoyable it becomes. The gold nib, which is fitted to all our pens, moulds to your style of writing. We have produced fountain pens for over a hundred years, so generations of customers have grown up using them. Often we’ll have people bringing in fountain pens that belonged to an elderly relative to have them restored for their own use.”
Repairs, a key part of the firm’s business, keep two specialists employed. One of the most common problems with vintage fountain pens is the rubber ink sac, which perishes over time. Most fountain pens can be restored to full working order with a small amount of care and attention and the cost of £50 is minimal compared to the value of some of these historic fountain pens. However, the company repairs only its own products.
A PRESENT FOR LIFE
Conway Stewart produces about six limited edition fountain pens a year. The current edition is the Art Deco-inspired Belgravia, whose engraving forms a series of interlocking geometric shapes along cap and barrel. It costs £1,225.
“Fountain pens are a gift for life,” declares Sean. “When the morning post arrives it’s always the hand-written envelopes we reach for first. The best way to find the pen for you is to visit somewhere such as Fortnum & Mason. At Fortnum’s you can sit down and try all our different models, try various nibs and experience the different weights. I would recommend any teenager or adult to start there and experience what a quality pen is all about.”
Onoto, originally part of the De La Rue Company, has also been producing fountain pens since 1905. “Communication is now so impersonal,” believes David Cooper, managing director at Onoto, explaining the continued appeal of the fountain pen. “We think our customers prefer to write with an ink fountain pen as it is far more emotional and provides a more personal message than text or email.”
Onoto was chosen by Cambridge University to provide a limited edition fountain pen to celebrate its 800th anniversary. “At the graduations in Cambridge this year we took a selection of our fountain pens for the students to try. They were surprised and delighted; they genuinely loved writing with them and appreciated the experience,” says Cooper. Though Onoto had not produced a fountain pen for 46 years it re-launched itself into the market in September 2004 with a centenary pen to mark the founding of the company.
Thanks to their impressive craftsmanship Onoto vintage fountain pens fetch high prices. Their longevity and robustness were proved when one of the pens was sent to the bottom of the ocean by a U-boat in 1917. There it remained off the South Devon coast until it was salvaged in 1987 and eventually purchased at auction by the directors of Onoto. “It’s an amazing story,” enthuses Cooper. “We gave it to a specialist fountain pen doctor who was astonished at its excellent condition after 70 years under water. All it needed was new seals and piston as they had corroded but the nib, being 14ct gold, was in great shape. When we tested it for the first time in over 90 years the ink flowed out smoothly and evenly.”
This fountain pen now sits on Cooper’s desk and he uses it daily for his correspondence. He’s in distinguished company: Florence Nightingale, Field Marshall Haig and Sir Winston Churchill also used his firm’s fountain pens. “Fountain pens are still the best product out of all the writing instruments available and make an ideal gift,especially for a ‘big’ birthday,” says Amaya Cerdeirina, joint owner of pen boutiques Penfriend. “Many customers arrive and say their writing has deteriorated from using a computer so much. They want a fountain pen that will help return it to what it used to be. It’s a counter reaction to computers.”
INSTRUMENT OF SEDUCTION
At Penfriend’s two London shops one can try all the pens stocked: Conway Stewart, Pelikan, Montblanc, Graf von Faber-Castell, Parker and Cross. “In terms of sales Montblanc is the fountain pen someone would buy as a present; it looks good and everyone has heard of them, but if you have a customer who really wants something to write with, who is a specialist, they might go for a Pelikan or a Duofold Parker,” says Cerdeirina. “Montblanc are very good but they are a status fountain pen. When choosing a fountain pen I ask customers: ‘What do you want it for? Do you want it to do heavy writing?” Important factors are the weight and the nib. Some fountain pens come with a choice of fine, medium or broad nib only whereas Parker and Pelikan offer an extensive range. “We say that the logo for the German Pelikan should be “the best-kept secret”. They are not well known here, but people who are seriously involved in writing say they are one of the best.”
Evidence of success is that 98% of Germans would recognise the Pelikan brand, not surprising when one considers the fountain pens have been in production since 1929. In Cerdeirina’s opinion, Pelikan has one of the best-quality nibs on the market. “They really think about what is required. They design fountain pens for children with either a left- or right-handed grip and these can only be held in the correct way. This makes the fountain pens suitable for arthritis suffers as they find the grip very comfortable,” she explains.