Within the new Montblanc Haus in Hamburg is a fascinating permanent exhibition showcasing the manufacture’s craftsmanship of writing instruments and the enduring power of the written word.
While penmanship is an increasingly rare ability that has always been a source of fascination for many, especially in modern times, the writing instrument itself tends to get overlooked. There is, however, no denying the emotional connection between pen and owner. Such love did some historical figures have for their instruments that when Anne Frank accidentally threw her Montblanc Fountain Pen into the fireplace, she was so devastated she wrote an “ode” to it. Fortunately, the rest of her writings survived her.
According to Alexa Schilz, Montblanc’s director of brand heritage, culture and sustainability, writing not only fosters connection but mobilises us as a society on a larger scale as catalysts for change. Not all writing tools are made equal, though. The equivalent of approximately 1.6 billion plastic ballpoints would find themselves in the trash each year in continental United States.
Defending the relevance of writing instruments in this digital age, Montblanc’s executive vice present of marketing Vincent Montalescot, says, “No one collects screen captures of emails or Whatsapp messages, but you would keep a nicely handwritten anniversary card or letter. We save postcards because there’s an impermanence to them. You know that they will last for some time but if you don’t keep them properly, you’ll lose them. Fear of that loss makes you treasure these letters more.”
“This means,” he continues, “that there is no conflict with the digital world. Putting pen to paper brings a completely unique emotion that you don’t get from pixels on a screen, and that’s just the reality. I don’t see ‘challenge’; I see opportunity.”
Montblanc is one of, if not the most, eminent manufacturer of writing instruments in the world. The Meisterstück, its iconic pen first created in 1924, is close to celebrating its centennial. Just in time to mark this milestone is the newly opened Montblanc Haus, which is set across three levels totalling 3,600 sqm, and situated right next to the company headquarters and writing instruments manufacturing facility in its birth city of Hamburg.
The destination boasts a permanent exhibition that traces Montblanc’s heritage from its founding days to the present, and offers insight into its design and production process, as well as the world of calligraphy, hand lettering and creative writing. There are over 410 writing instruments, a Writing Atelier, behind-the-scenes showcases of its craftsmen and the making of its nibs, and the various inspirational figures who left their imprint in the world through the written word.
During an exclusive trip to the Haus, we discover that Montblanc’s illustrious customers include world leaders the likes of Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama and Pope Benedict. Certainly they appreciate a fine writing instrument, because nothing writes like a fountain pen. Even if the technology has improved, fancy new liquid-ink rollerballs have not come close to the majesty and flair of such a remarkable instrument.
Prices, which begin from $555 but can reach over a million dollars, are largely dictated by the materials used for a pen’s body. While many of Montblanc’s writing instruments are rendered in resin or plastic, some of the special or high artistry editions are decorated with precious metals, typically gold and even palladium. Some are finished with lacquered mother-of-pearl. Yet when it comes to performance, all users will pay serious attention to a singular point of greatest importance: the nib.
Most vintage fountain pens required 70 manual operations to produce. Today, even with newer techniques and machines, Montblanc still takes 105 steps to make a handcrafted writing instrument. “The nib alone takes 35 steps to make,” describes Montalescot. That distinctive metal tip of the pen where the ink flows out is made of solid gold with an iridium tip.
While there is a mix of genders among the artisans in Montblanc’s Nib Manufacture department today, it used to be that only women were stationed there because they were assumed to possess the quiet patience to execute the precise measures in nib-making. These days, everyone is trained in every step so as not to disrupt production, although only a handful remain experts at two of the most crucial steps.
Montalescot says that the process continues “right down to putting the pen to paper and listening, even feeling what’s happening on paper”. He elaborates, “If the experience doesn’t meet their standards, the process goes back to step one. Montblanc Haus truly expresses who we are.”
At the Haus, we also learn that “a wet noodle” or extremely flexible nib in the hands of a skilled calligrapher can create gorgeous line variations. This recalls the pen’s humble beginnings – in the form of feather quills whose soft tips were whittled and split to form a perfect if primitive “wet noodle”. As pen-makers like Montblanc perfected the art of rendering these quill tips in metal, it revolutionised a whole new class of calligraphy, most notably the Spencerian script developed by American bookkeeper Platt Rogers Spencer.
The Montblanc executives also highlight that the company offers classes for students and underprivileged children. Says Montalescot, “There are more than 100 million children in the world who don’t know how to write. There are some who have already been on the internet but have not yet had access to writing. Montblanc will not be able to solve this issue but we participate and support communities and NGOs in literacy. Montblanc Haus has a dedicated space and programmes where we host classes in which children can experience different aspects of writing.”
Montblanc CEO Nicolas Baretzki explains the goals of the Haus: “We envisioned to create a special home for the art of writing; a place where people could discover or rediscover the incredible power of handwriting and the creativity, imagination and emotion it unlocks. Montblanc Haus was conceived as a journey of discovery, told through the eyes of a company that has been at the heart of the culture of writing for over 115 years. It is our hope that it becomes a meaningful landmark for Hamburg – a city that is so important to the history and identity of Montblanc, and for local communities and faraway visitors to enjoy.”
What also warms our heart is that beyond experiencing the wonder of the written word in a personal way, visitors to the Haus are invited to test Montblanc writing instruments and send postcards around the globe.
(All images: Montblanc)