Blame the return of the vinyl LP if you wish, half-baked books about analogue-vs-digital or even the spread of hipsterism, but actual writing with pens is undergoing a revival. The same has been said of physical books of late, writing cheques or using cash instead of risking the hacking of online banking – but the pen thing? Why not?
Whole generations have known life without handwriting beyond a fingertip or plastic stylus scribbling on a tablet. Keyboard entry is all that’s needed to email, text or use any form of social media, so the pen looked like it was going the way of the typewriter. And yet following in the wake of the single most successful rebirth of obsolete technology – the mechanical wristwatch in the face of every phone on the planet – the pen is enjoying a new and unintended change of persona. All of the big pen houses, including S.T. Dupont, Montblanc, Montegrappa and others, are experiencing renewed interest because pens have (like watches) become indicators of one’s taste and style. The dearer ones (again, like watches) also qualify as ‘portable wealth’ – £500 worth of fine writing instrument extracted with a flourish to sign the bill at a hotel counter says a lot more than whipping out a 99p throwaway.
Where the appeal moves from mere status to something more philosophical is in the time it takes to unscrew the cap, sign the signature or write the note and wait for the ink to dry. It is, to use the most obvious example, the same stop-and-smell-the-roses gesture embodied in taking an LP from its sleeve, placing it on the turntable and lowering the stylus – instead of merely tapping the screen on an MP3 player or phone. The reward of the LP, for all of the effort, is its vastly superior sound – while the pen’s benediction? Its message exhibits a more personal form of delivery than pixels. It exists not on a screen nor in cyberspace, but in the actual real world, on the paper extracted from an envelope by the recipient of your thank-you note or – even better – billet-doux.
Pen manufacturers have to work harder than watchmakers because writing instruments are nothing more than “tubes filled with ink, and a nib on the end.” Which is kind of like saying that a perfectly marbled Wagyu steak is just a piece of meat. What the brands understand, however, is that pens now say as much about the owner as a watch, handbag or a very decent pair of shoes.
There is, of course, a default. Just as I would say to anyone who wants only one watch to do everything, and who simply cares not about poring over catalogues and worrying about the purchase, to “go buy a Rolex and be done with it” – I would say to the pen seeker “please purchase a Montblanc Meisterstück.” Connoisseurs, pen geeks and devotees of other brands will try to distract you and drive you crazy, but I’m talking pain-free/doubt-free ownership. Your only decisions to make are personal: size, colour and fountain-vs-ballpoint.
If, on the other hand, you crave something more individualistic, then the choice is as wide as that of watches. Montblanc helped to turn the ‘limited editions’ market into a monster by addressing the sub-culture of pen collectors with models honouring statesmen, literary figures, musicians and other notables on an annual basis. Every major brand now offers pens with themes and guaranteed collectability.
Even the seemingly sedate Caran d’Ache, Switzerland’s premier pen maker, has announced a collection of models which have been inspired by the heroes and heroines of the DC Comics multiverse. With Wonder Woman the surprise smash hit of 2017 and a half-dozen DC TV shows ensuring that rival Marvel has no monopoly, the company has launched the Justice League Collection, with models for Batman, Wonder Woman and Superman. Alongside it is a more affordable line – Justice League 888 Infinite – which adds The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to the primary triumvirate.
Doesn’t float your boat and you instead much prefer to ‘buy British’? We recommend you opt for the recently-revived Yard-O-Led, which makes its pens in Birmingham. Obsessed with Italy?
Montegrappa’s Miya Carbon oozes Italian style. S.T. Dupont offers a staggering piece of geometric writing sculpture called the Helix, designed by Kostas Metaxas, and it’s so gloriously tactile that you can’t stop playing with it. Too rich for you? Metaxas sells a less luxurious but no less touchy-feely pen with a similar overall form called the Stylos, in a range of colours and now available in polished titanium.
As for Montblanc, its latest trophy pen is The High Artistry Homage To Hannibal Barca, a true showpiece with an elephant’s head topping the cap, its articulated trunk serving as the pocket clip. Offered in a number of editions, including one-off models with unique gem-encrustation and prices north of £1m, the pen begs to land on the desk of your favourite family historian. Or elephant keeper. Just don’t forget the ink…