The Art of Writing

Exclusive writing instruments elevate the tradition of putting pen to paper — a ritual technology cannot erase — into fine art.

Writing a check or signing a document is generally a routine task, one far too often facilitated by an 89-cent piece of plastic and aluminum. But a bejeweled, limited edition writing instrument can transform a simple signature into a truly artistic expression.

Nancy Olson, a leading authority on fine writing instruments, reports, “Unlike many other luxury collectibles, a pen is portable, user-friendly and has a cultural element because of its link to writing and the arts.” Olson, who is also a prominent commentator on timepieces, notes the parallels between the two instruments, stating, “Pens and watches are both small, mechanical objects that provide a healthy hit of extravagance and enjoyment when worn or used.”

Among Olson’s favorite designers are German manufacturers Pelikan and Montblanc, the latter the high-end brand with the greatest mainstream name recognition. Montblanc pens have long been considered luxury items, but many are surprised to learn that some of the company’s limited edition writing instruments cost not hundreds, but hundreds of thousands, of dollars.

Montblanc collaborated with elite jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels on a $730,000 pen bejeweled with diamonds, rubies, emeralds, and sapphires to commemorate both companies’ 100th anniversaries in 2006. The manufacturer’s Meisterstück Solitaire Royal LeGrand fountain pen is copiously embellished with more than 4,600 diamonds and valued in excess of $200,000.

Olson reports the qualities collectors admire most in pens are craftsmanship, scarcity and the ability to convey a story. 

Les Quatre Couleurs from David Oscarson commemorates the evolution of playing cards. Courtesy of David Oscarson.

The 1010 Timekeeper by Caran d’Ache celebrates the watchmakers that share the company’s hometown of Geneva.           Courtesy of Caran d’Ache.

Few brands have mastered storytelling better than St. Louis-based David Oscarson, whose eye-popping writing instruments encompass a remarkable diversity of themes. In addition to celebrating the natural world, art or architecture, Oscarson pens commemorate historic figures such as the Romanovs of Russia, Lewis & Clark and Sir Alexander Fleming, the bacteriologist who discovered penicillin. Most Oscarson issues are priced at about $5,900, but special editions command more than $250,000.

One David Oscarson pen — a blue and silver piece featuring the Star of David and the Three Crowns of Sweden — honors Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who harbored thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The limited production of each theme often involves a bit of trivia, such as the 63 pens honoring Alfred Nobel (the philanthropist’s age when he died). For most David Oscarson pens, enamel is applied over metal manipulated through the painstaking technique of guilloché, an ornamentation process pioneered by Fabergé.

“There aren’t a lot of choices for gentlemen who like accessories,” states Oscarson. “Beyond wristwatches, there are very few pieces of men’s jewelry that are sustainable in style,” adds the industry veteran.

A one-of-a-kind special edition fountain pen from the company, crafted from solid 18-karat gold and encrusted with nearly 35 carats of white, yellow and caramel diamonds, has been offered on the resale market for $755,000.

“I judge a manufacturer by the quality of its pens and its creativity in putting a fresh face on what, in essence, is a very small canvas,” says pen commentator Olson. She cites Caran d’Ache’s 1010 Timekeeper, a limited edition that cleverly pays homage to the art of watchmaking, the industry that dominates the company’s hometown of Geneva. 

That fountain pen ($11,500) features a reinterpretation of the elements of a watch dial. Its silver- and rhodium-plated cap was inspired by watch strap design and a piston pump with a ruby accent is reminiscent of a watch’s winding crown. This model follows a 2008 limited edition of ten 18-karat gold 1010 pens, currently priced on the resale market at about $150,000.

Caran d’Ache also produced an 18-karat gold fountain pen — another piece valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars — sheathed in more than 4,100 brilliant diamonds and accented by a band of 108 emeralds. This unique writing instrument, whose precious stones were set by Geneva jeweler Pierre-Yves Bonzon, took about six months to complete.

Gregory Hengesbaugh, national sales manager for Creative Art Materials, Ltd., the exclusive distributor of Caran d’Ache in the U.S. and Canada, reports the venerable firm enjoys a worldwide cult following. 

“The brand benefits from Swiss manufacturing traditions, whose exacting precision in watchmaking carries over to fine writing instruments,” says Hengesbaugh.

Top: Italian manufacturer Aurora is renowned for its meticulous craftsmanship. Courtesy of Aurora.

Above: David Oscarson’s elegant Russian Imperial series reflects techniques pioneered by Fabergé. Courtesy of David Oscarson.

The limited edition samurai fountain pen reflects Montegrappa’s elaborate themes. Courtesy of Montegrappa.

No company on the planet celebrates the pen as an objet d’art as well as Montegrappa, Italy’s oldest manufacturer of fine pens. Last year it released a limited edition Samurai fountain pen ($15,000) that is a wealthy grown-up’s version of a toy soldier. Each of the 177 sterling silver sets (packaged in a black lacquered box) includes an armored warrior, along with a katana sword case that contains a letter opener.

Aurora

www.aurorapen.it

Caran d’Ache

www.carandache.com

David Oscarson

www.davidoscarson.com

Montblanc

www.montblanc.com

Montegrappa

www.montegrappa.com

Pelikan

www.pelikan.com

Tibaldi

www.tibaldi.it

Prices of limited edition luxury pens can be stratospheric, but the $8 million reportedly paid at a Shanghai charity auction has remained a safe record since 2010. Commanding that astonishing figure was the Fulgor Nocturnus from Italian manufacturer Tibaldi (a subsidiary of Montegrappa), copiously embellished with 945 black diamonds and 123 rubies.

Aurora, another venerable Italian pen maker, claims its Diamante fountain pen — whose graceful platinum form is sheathed in 1,919 De Beers diamonds totaling 30 carats — is the most exclusive writing instrument in the world. Almost too exquisite to use, just a single Diamante, priced at more than $1.4 million, is available each year.

Nancy Olson reports many collectors place a premium on the provenance of pens, collecting almost everything produced by a specific brand. Acknowledging pen aficionados’ diverse motivations, she states, “Some use all the pens in their collections and really appreciate the art of writing while others keep their pens in their original boxes, never to see a drop of ink!”

Either way, luxury writing instruments are in no danger of going out of style. “There’s something about a fountain pen that’s majestic,” suggests pen maker David Oscarson.

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