Birth Of A Montblanc: Making The World's Finest Pen & Why You Should Write With One
Visiting Montblanc's headquarters in Hamburg, Germany, I experienced how the world's finest pen is brought to life, and learned a little something about culture. Let me make you an instant expert on fine writing instruments.
I never thought much about fine writing instruments. The life I tend to live is practical and versatile. Much like my fellow Americans I shed tradition for convenience and economy. The practice of writing words has been done with half dollar ballpoint pens and pencils purchased from a drugstore. My finest "writing instruments" were dutifully sourced from hotels and other easy giveaways. Perhaps this is why I tend to prefer the keyboard. A bit of that changed when I discovered that for just a bit more (and at the right store), I could get pens made in Japan that worked better. With them I wrote more, and seemed to enjoy drawing and taking notes in a new way. Good tools are always appreciated and help you be more productive, but are writing instruments are more than just that?
Is writing like language? Does the process we use to write change what we say and the culture around us? Some academics posit that "language is culture." Then, by that accord is the way we write language a function of that culture? People worry heavily that the popularity of instant messaging via computers and text messaging via phones leads to a distinct degradation in our writing and language. It is hard to argue with this if you have any experience with these communication mediums. So what about the opposite? If casual ways of writing harm formality, do more formal ways of writing increase one's level of sophistication, even temporarily?
Gallery: Montblanc Pen Manufacture images
It seems as though the more highbrow act of writing in longhand via pen produces better output. Until recently I was more or less unfamiliar with the ritualized approach of filling a fountain pen with ink straight from a well, and carefully pulling a gold tipped "nib" across paper with fresh ink to produce calligraphy-like lines. Rich experiences like these tend to remind you that more often than not "you are what you work with."
Look at hand written notes from lay people fifty years ago done in pen. In addition to noticing a predominant use of more elegant cursive text, you'll often find even casual memos written in a more formal tongue. My father's generation used fountain pens in school. And I must admit that his handwriting is far better looking than mine. He also doesn't write notes with the abrupt, conversational style that I often use - as though the pen forces a degree of pride in one's own prose.
You can also look at texts written by hand from many of history's greatest authors. Written in long hand (and admittedly often hard to read with today's eye), the manner in which they wrote was with a fountain pen, and the output was more careful and thoughtful. It is hard to deny that ritualized acts often produced better output. Home cooked food tastes better than prepackaged food, and shaving with a badger hairbrush with lather one must whip himself, tends to give you a closer shave. It might also be that because you are actively engaged in the ritual yourself, you take what you are doing more seriously - the luxury of giving routine acts more time seems to be rewarded with better results.
I would be amiss to suggest we abandon our modern conveniences for the "old" ritualized way of doing things, but there is a place for such rituals in our lives, and those familiar with the ritualized way of doing things more often than not prefer them when possible.
Back to writing and pens. I suggest that when taking the time to write with a fountain pen, your writing is better and you make more thoughtful decisions. The act of forming letters can be seen as an art, and when it comes to art we prefer pretty paintings. Cognizant of making mistakes, you consider words in advance, as well the course of your pen tip over the paper.
These days there are places when such thoughtfulness is not just merited, but desired. The signature of an important letter, agreement in to a compelling legal document, or writing a simple note to a loved one... are all acts when we look for a good pen. We usually don't find one, but we certainly consider it, even if just briefly.
The above contemplated thoughts on writing moved to my forward thoughts as I was invited to tour the "Montblanc Haus" in Hamburg. The premiere maker of fine "writing instruments" (when you speak of good pens, you don't call them pens), Montblanc is often considered the gold standard when it comes to fountain pens, and for good reason. While considered a luxury brand nowadays with products ranging from leather goods to fashion items, and watches to jewelry, Montblanc began as a pen maker in the early 20th century. Today, in most of the world Montblanc is still known primarily as a writing instrument maker – and they continue this age-old tradition in concert with their other activities.
"Mont blanc" ("meaning white mountain") is an actual mountain in France, and was named for its attractive white peak and tall stature. Each Montblanc pen has the number "4810" printed on it, which is the height of the mountain summit. The message being that Montblanc, and its customers, should always reach for the top. The famous six-pointed white star logo of the brand can also be thought of a stylized top-down aerial view of the white mountain peak.
Little "secrets" like this abound on Montblanc writing instruments – which each pay great homage to the brand's traditions. Montblanc pens come in a number of forms. Today's collection includes fountain pens, ballpoint pens, and pencils. The range of products is actually quite large. Though at the top of the collection are always fountain pens – which come in many styles. The basic model is the famous Montblanc Meisterstuck. The fat bodied pen is made to fit comfortably in ones grip, and evoke an impressive presence. Although functional, the pen certainly has its share of dazzle.
The main body of most Montblanc black and gold pens is made of a resin material that is very strictly controlled on site at the manufacture. The body of the pen must be utterly even, ensuring that even light reflection lines are uniform. The rings around the pen are plated in gold. More expensive versions of the pens are offered totally in metal and other precious materials.
The heart of all fountain pens is the writing tip called the nib. This is where the magic of a Montblanc pen starts and ends. Each nib is made from solid gold. There are approximately 30 steps from gold sheet to final nib. The nibs are manufactured by experienced writing instrument makers, and the process reminds me distinctly of watch making.
A hardcore enthusiast will locate more detailed information, so I will lay out the most impressive parts of the process and provide some visuals for you to see (refer to the media gallery in addition to the images located in this article). What impressed me was just how much hand-effort was involved in the making of each nib. The basic shapes are made via machines, but all the detail work, fine shaping, and polishing are done by hand with dedicated equipment.
The actual tip of a Montblanc fountain pen nib is not in gold like the rest of it is. Gold is a relatively soft metal that would quickly wear after being dragged on paper. So Montblanc melts a special (and more expensive than gold) metal alloy to the tip of each nib. It is then shaped and polished to give it that iconic fountain pen tip look.
There is no "one size fits all" pen nib. In addition to offering a special custom nib making service, Montblanc has a series of watch nibs available depending on how you like to write. Such offerings add a serious depth to the brand, showing just how invested in making functional tools they are as opposed to just jewelry for your inner jacket pocket.
Each Montblanc nib is stamped with a decorative design on its surface. The basic design is quite lovely with the 4810 "reminder" and some art deco inspired décor. There are a number of limited edition Montblanc pens which are released from time to time, and a hallmark of each is a special design stamped on the gold nib.
Pen nibs aren't ready until they have been shaped by hand, and then polished to a nice sheen. There is no machine to guide the shaping of each nib. Skilled craftspeople at Montblanc who have been shaping them for years simply know what the shape should look like. It is a fantastic feeling to use items that experience this level of hand treatment when being made.
Limited edition Montblanc pens take many forms. Many are extremely high-end collector's items that will never be filled with ink. In case you didn't know, pen collecting is a major hobby to many, just like it is with watches. In fact, Montblanc has modeled its high-end writing instruments after high-end watches. Limited edition pieces can range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and Montblanc often works with wealthy individuals on the creations of fantastic one-of-kind pen creations. These pieces are impressively intricate and ride on an interesting line between luxury art and functional tool.
After reading this article you may know a lot more about how high-end fountain pens are made, but do you know how to use one? If not, don't be ashamed. To be honest, neither did I. For example, unlike pens that use ink cartridges or canisters, good fountain pens actually suck in ink from a well. Ink comes in special tubs, and when your pen is empty (if it isn't empty, you can empty the remaining ink into the tub as it needs to be empty to be filled) you unscrew the end (not off, just unscrew), and then dip the tip of the pen in the ink. Screwing the end of the pen back in creates a vacuum which sucks in ink. How neat is that? The best part is that the pen body nearest to the nib is transparent so that you can see if the pen is full or needs to be refilled. This is not exactly how it is done with disposable pens, but certainly manageable if done occasionally. Down sides? Well aside from the added need of having to buy ink, fountain pens are known to react oddly to changes in pressure such as on airplanes.
So, was this non fountain pen user suddenly converted to being a fountain pen man after seeing the fine work done at Montblanc and experiencing the smooth, traditional style of writing with a fountain pen? In a global sense, yes. The act of writing with a fountain pen, and the ritual of taking care of it properly is undeniably a superior experience to using a cheap ballpoint pen. Those not willing to go from 'free pens' to those starting at several thousands dollars cannot be blamed. People interested in advancing their own image in a business or social setting should certainly think about getting a fine writing instrument just like they should good shoes, a mechanical watch, and sharp looking clothes.
I do recommend those with the means to take a close look at fine writing instruments in particular. It will make unique points in your life a bit more special and memorable, and offer you a tangible token to recall them with. Why do you think the pens politicians use to sign important documents are often treasured as much as the documents themselves? A fine pen is also something you can pass down, or be offered as a meaningful gift. It is all part of being a well-rounded, positively cultured individual.
Those who cannot afford a Montblanc pen, or other high-end fine writing instrument would be personally rewarded to get what they can. Stationery stores often have pens much better than what you find in a hotel room – and an experience writing with them will be a step in the right direction to helping a "better culture of writing" return to your life.
Ariel Adams publishes the luxury watch reviews site aBlogtoRead.com.