The increasing intrusion of all things digital into our lives could well be killing off many old crafts and objects that once were considered vital. Yet, it is the increased connectivity and advancements in production brought on by the hi-tech age that is helping to give new life to many of these everyday products.
One such item is the fountain pen. It was lauded as a wondrous technological advancement centuries ago, but eventually was overshadowed by typewriters, ballpoint pens, computers and touchscreens. But these most recent hi-tech alternatives have also opened up an online world of potential users, collectors and buyers of fountain pens. The result is a serious uptick in consumers of all levels across the internet, from students buying used or inexpensive pens to seasoned collectors of the traditional brands and hobbyists driven by their passion to start their own pen-making businesses.
Among such entrepreneurial enthusiasts is Shawn Newton, an American schoolteacher whose wife introduced him to collecting fountain pens. He started out buying used and inexpensive pens before learning he could craft his own using a lathe. After getting funding through Kickstarter, he started Newton Pens to offer quality custom fountain pens. He gives pens that he tunes or makes to his students, and also funds a scholarship programme. He is moving to pen-making full-time this year.
One of Newton's inspirations is a fellow American, Brian Gray of Edison Pen Co. Gray is a fountain pen-enthusiast-turned-maker. He was supported by collectors and markets worldwide, and now has a production line available through select retailers around the globe, in addition to working on custom projects and special collaborations. One such collaboration paired Gray with American artist Ernest Shin, who applied traditional Japanese urushi lacquer to limited selections of Edison pens.
Another cross-cultural pen producer is Danitrio, which melds influences from Asia, Europe and America. Among the company's offerings are raw ebonite pens that have developed their own cult following among collectors, and ornate pieces made with the maki-e technique of sprinkling gold dust onto lacquer, which is helping Japanese craftsmen to keep their art alive.
In Japan, Nakaya handmade fountain pens were born from craftsmen who worked for the Platinum Pen Co. They loved the artistry and passion of handmade pens and would frequently visit pen clinics and go to enthusiast meetings held in Tokyo department stores, and eventually set up a website for crafting their own pens. They work with traditional materials such as wood and use time-honoured processes including urushi, maki-e and raden, a seashell inlay.
The Nakaya craftsmen garnered worldwide demand for their limited-run pieces with clean, subtle designs and water-like finishes that change over the years. They also allowed many pen enthusiasts to custom-order maki-e pieces that could be difficult and expensive to get. Their pens have a distinct aesthetic, different from the Namiki maki-e pieces from Pilot Pen, which initially were introduced through a collaboration with Dunhill and became prized collector pieces.
Pens made by Japan's Hakase are famous for being finely detailed and highly difficult to obtain - communication with the penmaker follows a strict protocol and schedule, and it can take a long time to get a piece made, if at all. They once could be reached only by word of mouth, but now they have a website to take customer requests. Some of Hakase's best-known creations were made of tortoise shell. Because the material is now highly controlled, those pieces are now considered "grail pens" by the most discerning collectors.
Montblanc is one of the biggest names in pens, but even they recognise the value of the custom fountain pen market. As such, they offer personalised services ranging from tuning the writing nib at the tip of a pen to producing full-on custom pieces that rival cars in their pricing.
Fountain pens comprise several parts - the body, nib, ink supply, and the clips, rings and other metal details. The body is primarily made of ebonite (a hard rubber), resin or celluloid (mixtures of natural or man-made materials). A resin or celluloid base allows for artistic lathe work, so many custom penmakers or aficionados look for old product rods to be specially redesigned. They might be paired with custom clips that can cost up to thousands of dollars.
The nibs are generally made of gold and are produced by a handful of companies that supply all the penmakers, though some are beginning to produce their own. Germany supplies most of the world, while Japanese companies tend to keep their supply within their borders, and China has an increasing supply. Nibs can be tuned to conform to individual writing styles by "nibmeisters", some of whom have reached rock-star status in the market.
The ink supply also calls for precision work, with craftsmen like Gray of Edison Pen resurrecting lost systems. Most fountain pens are able to use cartridges, plastic tubes filled with ink, or converters, piston-fed systems that suck the ink out of a bottle. These components can also get detailed - Nakaya, for example, has their maki-e artists draw figures on the converters that will remain hidden.
Even the inks are getting more sophisticated, with backyard producers creating formulas that perform better than many indelible document inks. One such inkmaker is Nathan Tardif of Noodler's Ink, whose bottle designs are reproduced in a large scale that makes them ideal for putting on display.
A creative and interconnected new generation of fountain pen enthusiasts has not only revived an old-fashioned writing tool, but also has helped to save a range of traditional crafts from extinction. And this niche luxury market is continuing to rise in value both financially and culturally.
HOW DO FOUNTAIN PENS FARE AS COLLECTIBLES?
Many do increase in value, but only if you get the right ones and know where they are best sold. The community of enthusiasts is interconnected globally, creating a vast market for buying and selling pieces.
Custom pens are generally a question mark, as their uniqueness can limit how much of the market they will appeal to as well as how high the price can go. For the greatest value and more potential buyers, look to limited or special runs from known brands, such as Montblanc’s Writers Editions. For most buyers of custom pieces, the appreciation is more in the eyes than in the wallet.