Signatures have the power to begin and end wars. The Treaty of Versailles, which brought an end to the First World War, was signed by Lloyd George, British Prime Minister. It also has the power to shape national destinies as King Edward VIII signed his abdication in 1936, paving the way for Queen Elizabeth II. In fact, such is the power of the humble pen that when Anne Frank accidentally threw her Montblanc Fountain Pen into the fireplace she was so devastated she wrote an ‘ode’ to her pen, and the rest of her writings not only survived her but endured to inform national conscience.
According to Alexa Schilz, Director Brand Heritage, Culture & Sustainability, writing not only fosters connection; expressing emotions like disagreement and love but also mobilizes us as a society by fostering democracy and empowerment on a larger scale as catalysts for change through the power of writing. Indeed, often, for almost half a month’s rent or a month of groceries, a Montblanc writing instrument with a 14-karat gold nib has the power to influence discourse on a scale amortized across the decades where an equivalent of approximately 1.6 billion plastic ballpoints would find themselves in the trash each year in the continental United States alone.
Today, humans appear seemingly inextricably bound to their mobile phones, tablets and other electronic communication devices and while it is easy to dismiss the relevance of writing instruments in the digital age, Vincent Montalescot, EVP Marketing is quick to dismiss the notion that text messages are impersonal pixels, “no one collects screen captures of emails or what’s app messages but you would keep a nicely handwritten anniversary card or letter.”
Montalescot then turns the table on us with a question of “why we collect these mementos” which further turns the answer into a beacon of stark clarity, “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.” Montalescot further explains, “this means 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.”
It’s all in the nib
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 marking its centennial. and of those who have used them to share their imprint on humanity. Set across 3 levels and 3600sqm, Montblanc Haus, is a destination that tells the story of Montblanc from its founding days to the present, and of the women and men that craft Montblanc’s writing instruments bringing to life the value and potential of writing and the ways in which it helps people express their full potential and ultimately leave their mark on the world. In fact, world leaders from popes to CEOs have been photographed signing crucial documents using a Montblanc pen. (Think Barack Obama, Warren Buffett, the Dalai Lama, Pope Benedict.)
In fact, men of great import and the equally notable documents they sign 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 pen. For those who use fountain pens daily, their beauty transcends their utility, it does more than just taking ink from a reservoir and transferring to paper, it does so in a way that makes the mundane, say, note taking and makes it extraordinary. With little to no pressure, a good fountain nib simply glides across the page.
With prices beginning as “low” as $555 and as high as over a million, prices 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, even with lacquered mother of pearl treatments. Yet when it comes to performance, all gentlemen will pay serious attention to a singular point of greatest importance – the nib.
Most vintage fountain pens required 70 manual operations, today, even with newer techniques and the rise of more efficient hand tooling, Montblanc still takes 105 steps to make a handcrafted writing instrument. “The nib alone takes 35 steps to make,” describes Montalescot. That distinctive metal part of the pen where the ink flows out is made of solid gold material with an iridium tip.
At the Nib Manufacture department, artisans work in clinical fashion. While today, there are a mix of genders, it used to be that only women were stationed there because it was they who had the quiet patience to execute the precise measures in the making of a nib. These days, everyone is trained in every step so as not to disrupt production, though only a handful remain experts at two of the most crucial steps.
Proud of the attention to detail, Montalescot elucidates that the process continues “right down to putting the pen to paper and listening, even feeling what’s happening on paper. If the experience doesn’t meet their standards, the process goes back to step one. Montblanc Haus truly expresses who we are.”
The Art of Writing
For many fountain pen lovers, the sine qua non of the genre is a model, typically vintage, with a flexible gold nib. Such a nib provides a flexibility that takes advantage of the wielder’s dexterity where pressure and angle of press allows the gold tines to spread out: the greater the pressure and the wider tines which in turn allows more ink to flow thus widening the line; reduce the pressure and the tines contract, leaving a finer line. At the Haus, we learn that “a wet noodle” or extremely flexible nib in the hands of a skilled calligrapher, can create extremely —and gorgeous line variations. it is this callback to the pen’s humble beginnings, first 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, which was descended from American bookkeeper Platt Rogers Spencer, who in turn adapted the English Copperplate.
Sadly, schools in many developed countries have de-emphasized cursive and calligraphy of late and both Montalescot and Schill are eager to highlight that Montblanc offers classes for students and underprivileged children. “there are more than 100 million children in the world who don’t know how to write. There are even 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 when it comes to literary. Montblanc Haus has a dedicated space and programs where we host classes from school where they can experience different aspects of writing,” says Montblanc’s EVP Marketing.
Ms. Schill echoes his sentiment, “The fact is handwriting is something that is proven to manifest thinking and fosters creativity. The minute children do not learn or understand the importance of that, they’re in danger of losing something vital to existence. What’s especially surprising was that the children we hosted enjoyed the calligraphy class very much; many of them complained that they didn’t like their handwriting and the teacher worked with them to improve and you know that feeling you have when you like your signature? That’s a milestone moment and I feel that if anything, the classes will at least give people an opportunity to have a signature they love.”
Yes, it’s true, if you fear that your handwriting isn’t good enough to enjoy a fountain pen’s attributes, take heart: over time, the right pen can actually improve your handwriting, as it requires a certain discipline to hold such a writing instrument correctly, this in turn gradually teaches your fingers to form smoother, more elegant curves.
“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 in everyone. 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 Montblanc Haus 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 discover and enjoy“, says Nicolas Baretzki, Montblanc CEO.
Throughout the Haus, visitors are invited to experience the wonder of writing by hand in a very personal way. Furthermore, they can test Montblanc writing instruments and send postcards with their thoughts around the globe.
Montblanc Haus now open.