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We visit Montblanc's factory and museum in Hamburg, where the company has been crafting quality writing instruments for most of its 112 year history.
My first Montblanc was a grad school graduation gift from my wife – a Meisterstück 149, which is as iconic a pen in the world of writing instruments, as, say, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or Rolex Submariner are in the world of watches or a Porsche 911 in the automotive realm.
The only time it's been out of sight is when I was careless enough to drop it, uncapped, a meter and a half onto asphalt; it landed point down, and the nib got badly bent.
Montblanc's New York boutique sent it back to Hamburg for repair and I got it back in a week, working just fine, no charge (watch companies, take note). I suppose I ought to admit that at one point I had about sixty vintage and modern pens, which eventually struck me as excessive, and I de-acquisitioned most of them, but I still have the 149.
After carrying it for most of my working life, it, and I, returned to its birthplace, in Hamburg, Germany, to visit the Montblanc nib-making factory as well as the Montblanc Museum.
The pen that became a brand
Montblanc's history goes back to, roughly, the beginning of the history of the modern fountain pen itself.
Fountain pens as they exist today, first started to appear towards the end of the 19th century and really began to take off in the early 20th; all fountain pens share certain basic characteristics.
First, they all use water soluble, water based inks (you can ruin a fountain pen by filling it with the wrong ink).
Second, they all have a reservoir for the ink, which can be the barrel of the pen itself, or a flexible rubber sac; nowadays the majority of fountain pens use disposable ink cartridges (which purist pen enthusiasts tend to look down on a bit).
There have been, over the last century, a wide range of filling systems as well, including lever, piston, so-called "touch-down" and snorkel filling systems, and so on. Third, they all have a nib – this is the flexible metal tip, which has a tiny slit down its centerline.
A fountain pen relies on capillary action to work – this is the tendency of liquids to flow through narrow spaces thanks to adhesion between the fluid, and the wall of the narrow space through which it flows.
More expensive fountain pens have nibs made of 18k or 14k gold, and the point is generally tipped with a tiny ball made of an alloy of one of the platinum group metals (osmium, iridium, and ruthenium are all in the platinum group) otherwise the tip would wear away very quickly.
There were precursors to the modern fountain pen that had certain elements of what we know as the fountain pen today, but it wasn't until the late 1880s that recognizably modern fountain pens began to appear.
In the beginning, they were generally just simple tubes (usually made of vulcanized rubber) which could be filled with an eyedropper; by the turn of the century, however, the development of filling systems using pistons or inflatable rubber bladders had begun.
Montblanc got its start when three German partners created the Simplizissiumus-Füllhalter pen company in 1906, which changed its name to Simplo Filler Pen in 1907, at the same time it moved from Berlin to Hamburg.
The company's first pen was the Rouge et Noir safety pen (below).
Safety pens are so-called because they have a retractable nib; when the nib is telescoped into the barrel and the cap screwed down, the pen is sealed against leakage. The Rouge et Noir advertisements played up this angle with an image of a gent in white tie placing a Rouge et Noir pen into a white vest pocket – risky business in 1907.
The first pen to be called "Montblanc" came out in 1910, and had a plain white cap; the distinctive six-pointed Montblanc snowcap appeared in 1913. (It's often thought of as a six-pointed star, but it's actually a stylized representation of the mountain's snowy peak).
The name "Meisterstück" was first used in 1924 for flagship fountain pens with a piston filling system, which featured the Montblanc snowcap, and eventually the identification for the public between these high grade pens, and the company, became so strong that in 1934, Montblanc was adopted as the name of the company overall.
By that time distribution had exploded; Montblanc sold pens in over sixty countries, supported by extensive advertising campaigns.
Montblanc at the time was part of a major worldwide industry that included dozens of pen manufacturers. Like mechanical watches, fountain pens could be luxuries and good ones certainly were.
But they were also essential tools for business and communication and as with watches, you might have to settle for a lesser one but you still generally tried to get the best you could afford.
Vulcanized rubber (which is also called ebonite; materials euphemisms in luxury go back further than many of us think) was gradually replaced by other materials, most notably the first generation of industrial plastics – celluloid for many years, and then newer thermoplastics, as well as acetate and acrylics – whose hardness, luster, and workability made them ideal for pen barrels.
The same improvements in natural and synthetic rubber gaskets that made water resistant watches possible, also made a wider and wider range of filling systems available to the public.
Hamburg was devastated during the war years, and immediately after the armistice pen production moved briefly to Denmark, but Montblanc rebuilt its manufacturing capabilities and distribution networks quickly, and in 1952, the modern Meisterstück model no. 149 was launched.
A thick, black, imposing fountain pen with a piston filling system and gold trim, it's the most recognizable writing instrument anyone's ever made, and has been in production, with occasional modifications, ever since.
Postwar Montblanc pens evolved a sleeker silhouette and a new, modern-looking form for fountain pen nibs.
Montblanc today is a company that produces a range of products which in the Richemont Group is pretty much matched only by Cartier in terms of diversity, but of course a major, and indeed essential, part of the company's identity is in the making of fine writing instruments.
As with mechanical watches, fountain pens have become increasingly a luxury as they've become less essential to the conduct of daily life, but interestingly enough, Montblanc has seen a significant uptick in its pen sales in recent years. I wonder if the same nostalgia that's the engine behind so many watch sales might be behind this as well.
Montblanc's writing instruments offerings today include a very wide range of both standard and limited edition pens and the latter are extremely avidly collected.
The company will also do completely bespoke pens and over the years, its Creation Privée department has fielded and fulfilled some quite unusual requests, including, believe it or not, a pen for a cigar enthusiast client with a barrel made of actual tobacco leaves, which presented, as you might imagine, some non-trivial technical challenges. I would have bet real money that you couldn't do that in a million years, but where there's a will there is apparently a way.
A very interesting room at the Montblanc Museum is set aside for limited editions from, among others, its Writers Editions, in which each pen is dedicated to a particular writer (which is a natural enough connection with a pen, heaven knows).
For Montblanc collectors who have missing pieces in their pen collections, looking around this exhibition can be an exercise in frustration with a capital F, because that one pen you need to fill a critical gap is right there – so close, yet so far – but it's still quite cool to see them all together.
Each pen is in a vitrine with a sample of correspondence from each writer so you can see what their handwriting looked like. The letter from Ernest Hemingway, shown below, is a bit on the salty side (he is writing about an "unnamed bitch").
It's intriguing to see how various literary works have influenced the design of the pens. Sometimes it's very straightforward, but others are more subtle – the Franz Kafka, for instance (below), has a barrel that tapers from a round to a square cross-section, which is a nod to his Metamorphosis.
Nib making at Montblanc
The nib is the place where pen meets paper and where ink is delivered, and as you can imagine, your experience when using a fountain pen is heavily dependent on the characteristics of the fountain pen nib.
There are dozens of different possibilities in terms of the tip shape, flexibility, and writing angle for which a nib is designed, and in the days when pens were used in daily life, for everything from personal correspondence to journalism to stenography, to making carbon copies, pen makers around the world made a truly bewildering variety (which is one of the things that makes collecting vintage pens so much fun).
Nowadays, there are very few companies left that make their own nibs, and Montblanc is one of them.
This is how a nib starts out: a ribbon of gold, from which the basic form of the nib is stamped in a machine that can apply up to 20 tons of pressure. There are a huge variety of nib shapes made at Montblanc, but this is how they all begin.
Each coiled ribbon of gold weighs about 7.5 kilos – enough gold for several thousand nibs.
Once a ribbon is used up it's melted down and the gold recovered for further use.
After the nib has been stamped out, there are quite a few further production steps, including engraving, plating with rhodium – for instance, for the two-tone nib of a 149 – and welding the tipping material onto the nib.
The tipping material, as we've already mentioned, is usually a combination of various metals from the platinum family. The reason for using these metals is that they have excellent resistance to abrasion (a property which makes them extremely hard to machine, but very good for things like jewelry and watch cases).
The use of such materials for nib tips is essential for creating a pen that can be used for many years and in my own collection, there are pens from the 1920s and 1930s with iridium tips that write just as well now as they did ninety or a hundred years ago.
One of the beauties of well-made pens is that, like a good mechanical watch, they seem capable, with care, of lasting essentially indefinitely. Originally, pure iridium was used, which is meteoric in origin, but nowadays alloys allow for better materials control than meteoric iridium.
One of the most interesting operations to watch is the cutting of the nib slit.
The slit is essential as it feeds ink, via capillary flow, from the vented feed under the nib to the tip, and it also gives the nib flexibility.
The cutting operation is done with a graphite disk that's impregnated with diamond. The gold from which the body of the nib is made is easy to cut but platinum family metals are quite dense and tough, and when the disk meets the tip of the nib, you get a startling little jet of fire.
The single most critical operation, however, is polishing the tipping material, which is done to ensure you get a smooth writing experience at every angle. Doing this is a manual operation and it takes years to really become proficient at it.
The nib is swept over the polishing cylinders in an hypnotic figure 8 pattern, and the craftsperson doing the polishing inspects the results repeatedly. This hand polishing, like the other nib manufacturing processes, is the same for every fountain pen made at Montblanc, whether it's a six figure unique piece or a standard issue Meisterstück.
Putting pen to paper
Once a nib is completed, the final step is a writing test. As with the polishing of tipping material, a writing test is performed on every nib that Montblanc manufactures.
The figure 8 pattern used by the polisher is duplicated in the writing test. It's a challenging skill to master, as the evaluation of the feel of each nib is highly subjective and very influenced by the emotional state of the person performing the test.
Come in off a great weekend skiing, and every nib feels great; come in off a nasty spat with your spouse, and you're in an unforgiving mood.
Where you are in your workflow also influences how you evaluate a nib; if you've just been testing a batch of double-broads, fine nibs feel extra-scratchy at first. The paper used for the test is plain A4 paper, the idea being to test pens on something similar to what they'll encounter once they go out into the world.
An interesting side note is that it's something of an article of faith among pen enthusiasts that nibs "break in" to a person's individual writing style and this broken in pen shouldn't be lent to others, as this might lead to the nib losing its special characteristics.
We asked the head of Montblanc's nib department, and were told that while they don't break in, in the sense of the nib reshaping itself to a particular person's hand, that it is true that lending out a fountain pen poses some risks – the example given was lending a pen to someone who usually writes with an oblique nib.
This could result, over time, in a change in the width of the tines of the nib, which would make the feel of the pen more scratchy.