Men's jewellery may be rising in popularity, but there are still few opportunities for a man to show off some bling - especially in a professional setting. A watch, cufflinks or a tie clip pretty much round up the candidates - that is, until we have to sign on the dotted line. Then the pen, unfairly relegated to the status of a functional rather than aesthetic accessory, comes into play.
Whether resting on the desk as a subtle art piece, tucked in a suit pocket or used to sign documents and paperwork, a fine writing instrument not only adds flair, but, like luxury watches, it serves as a reflection of an individual's personal taste. And in the professional, alpha male world, a bespoke fountain pen is the way forward.
It may come as no surprise that the first ever pen was a bespoke piece. Many historians credit the creation of the first fine writing instrument to a custom design requested by an Egyptian caliph, Ma'âd al-Mu'izz, who simply wanted a writing tool which would contain ink in a reservoir to be delivered to the nib, thereby not staining his hands or clothes even when held upside down.
Nowadays, customer demands tend to be far more elaborate, with designs tailored to fit an individual's tastes and personal interests. There are different levels of bespoke pens. Designs can either be based on existing pens or completely constructed anew, so a customised pen can take between three and 12 months to create, depending on the complexity and details of the design.
For S.T. Dupont, which creates 10 or so bespoke pens a year, it's an exciting development each time it receives an order, as the creation process is truly an artistic one in which the pen is crafted from scratch.
"It's a joy and a thrill for artisans," says Alain Crevet, CEO of the French company. "They love it. They take a picture [of the requested inspiration and theme], then they create, sculpt and carve the pen [accordingly]."
It comes as no surprise that there is a long waiting list for this service, Crevet says, although he does not disclose the exact timeframe required. In the past, S.T. Dupont has created pieces based on historic figures, such as Louis VIII, and landmarks, such as the Taj Mahal.
A bespoke pen offers the chance for the commissioner to transfer their passions onto their writing instrument, says Giuseppe Aquila, CEO of Italian company Montegrappa, whose customised services range from etching a design onto a pen barrel to creating "one-of-a-kind pens for discerning individuals".
In the case of the latter, the client is heavily involved in the design process, as the final product is "the result of close communication with the commissioner, who has the option to choose materials, themes, manufacturing techniques and so on," Aquila says.
Even with the level of luxury that comes with a personally customised piece, there are nevertheless some pen aficionados who prefer to let the artisans take control. Eric Tan, a private pen collector who submitted his prized and extremely rare full set of Namiki Yukari Zodiac fountain pens to the Bonhams' November 2013 auction, is one of them.
"You want a pen which has been designed by the artisan by his own free will. This will lend to better quality expression of his work," Tan explains. Of his set of precious pens, he adds: "With Namiki, master artisans carefully use precious enamel and gold dust pigments to bring to life scenes of natural beauty and human traditions. [It's] so beautiful that there's no need to have one custom made."
For those who agree with Tan, but still want a more specialised writing instrument than your run-of-the-mill pen, Montblanc offers another form of personalisation for fountain pens. Using a specialised computer system to analyse an individual's handwriting, the pen-making giants can then offer a customised nib which "captures your art of writing". "The first thing you discover is that the pleasure of writing is multiplied by the [level of customisation] of your nib," says Montblanc CEO Jérôme Lambert. "We all have a [distinct] way of writing and the personalisation [of the nib] directly creates a different experience."
While Montblanc can tailor-make a nib designed specifically to highlight your particular style of writing, it is worth noting that all fountain pens over time will customise themselves to the individual user. It's these little niceties which keep the mighty pen in vogue. This is particularly important given that in the age of digitalisation, some assume that writing instruments - and fountain pens no less - are all but passé. Nevertheless, industry powerhouses aren't worried.
"I'm often asked: Who needs a pen in today's world?" says Aquila, who claims to own "hundreds, if not thousands" of pens. His answer is simple. "I believe we need a pen more than ever. It is perhaps the only tool that allows us to express our thoughts freely and without external influences."
Lambert agrees, likening it to luxury timepieces which are still incredibly popular, despite the fact that "in a digital world, you can find the time everywhere". To him, there is a sense of occasion associated with a pen that digital replacements don't possess. Certain contracts and certificates deserve the merit of being signed by a luxury pen. "There is a symbolic value in writing, which is very important," he says. Furthermore, he adds, it can also be inspiring: "When you begin to write with a collective writing instrument, you [can] feel how much and how far a fine writing instrument can change your ideas."
Alongside bespoke pieces, Montblanc, Montegrappa and other fine pen makers offer a wide selection of intricately designed pieces to the public, ranging from bejewelled pens to ones that are perfectly sized for a woman's smaller hands. Companies also create special pen of the years. For example, the newly launched Pen of the Year 2014 by Graf von Faber-Castell is dedicated to Catherine Palace in St Petersburg. S.T. Dupont also created a special Year of the Horse pen to celebrate the new year. Whatever the choice, it's a decision that speaks volumes about a person's style. After all, as Aquila says, "elegance is in the detail, and a pen is the ultimate accessory".
Although a niche market right now, fountain pens are fast emerging as a budding investment option. It's worthwhile, therefore, to know where a pen's true value lies.
When choosing a pen, consider materials and rarity. Pens made with intrinsically valuable materials, such as gold, diamonds and other precious stones, tend to hold their value well, says Ivan Briggs, director of fine writing instruments at Bonhams auction house. "Limited editions are also highly sought after."
But extra care may be needed to ensure healthy returns.
"Condition is everything," Briggs emphasises. From the pen itself to its packaging and paperwork, everything should be kept in pristine condition.
In Asia, humidity is the collector's worse enemy. Damp weather conditions damage the wooden boxes and paperwork, which have the effect of lowering the overall value of the pen.
To counter this, Briggs recommends a controlled climate room or holder.
"You really don't want to use the pen," he adds, as investors prefer untouched pens. A used pen will usually depreciate by 10 to 20 per cent because "once inked, it is almost impossible to flush out all the ink".
The solution? "Buy both the fountain pen and the roller ball." That way, the fountain pen can be kept in mint condition, while the design can still be appreciated when used as the roller ball.