Putting pen to paper with distinction

By Karen Knapstein

The invention of the fountain pen in the late 19th century made the process of writing far easier than it had ever been. With the invention of a pen that held its own reservoir of ink, it was no longer necessary to repeatedly dip a pen nib to reload it with ink every few letters.

Pen Patent Dates to 1827

Waterman Red Ripple Fountain Pen

Far left: Restored 1920s Waterman’s 52 Red Ripple Hard Rubber Fountain Pen with 18K Gold Filled Trim, $325. (Photo courtesy Greg Schiek, www.antiquedigger.com)

The first patent for a pen holding its own ink supply was issued in 1827 to Romanian Petrache Poenaru. The French government issued the patent to Poenaru, a student at the French École Polytechnique. This for his “self-fueling endless portable quill, with ink,” which was made from a large swan quill. The name makes the pen sound better than it actually was. Poenaru’s invention was still messy, like its traditional dipping pen predecessors, and it still needed frequent refilling.

People kept waiting and hoping for a better alternative; they wanted a writing instrument that was reliable. One that didn’t flood the paper, making a mess of things. A device that didn’t need constant refilling.

The wait was long, but the answer came in the form of salesman Lewis E. Waterman’s improved fountain pen design. Waterman’s design limited airflow into the ink reservoir through the use of a small air channel. The air flows into the ink chamber. It allows a specific amount of ink to flow out smaller channels onto the back of the nib. Waterman was granted a patent on February 12, 1884 for his “Fountain Pen.” He founded the “Ideal Pen Company” in the same year. Renamed the L.E. Waterman Company in 1888. The firm lead the fountain pen industry for decades and remains a world leader in luxury writing instruments.

Competition In Pen Design Encourages Innovation

Global competition for the fountain pen market was fierce, however. Collectors can thank that spirit of competition, which ultimately leads to design innovation and improvements. It produces a plentiful variety and number of pens available today. The names Sheaffer, Montblanc, Cross, Parker, Wahl, Conklin, and many others also grab the attention of vintage and contemporary writing instrument collectors.

It’s somewhat ironic that the fountain pen was invented to make writing quicker and more convenient. Because today, fountain pens are used largely for calm, leisurely writing.
Collectors like David Nishimura appreciate fully the experience of writing with these old-fashioned instruments. Nishimura, of Providence, Rhode Island, first dipped into pen collecting in the mid-1980s. At the time he was an art history grad student. He says at that time he searched through flea markets and antiques stores and found a lot of material “in the wild.” He explains the allure: “Pens are beautiful and functional objects, interesting both in terms of design and technology. Plus they are eminently usable, and as an object of collecting, highly affordable.”

In the ensuing decades, Nishimura has attended countless pen shows and accumulated a wealth of knowledge and insights. This has occurred through his own collecting experience and as a full-time dealer. “Most real collectors do use fountain pens, but it varies how many of the ones in their collection they choose to use. Many advanced collectors are like me: I have my collection, and I have pens that I use – there’s a clear line in between,” Nishimura says.

Vintage Pens Draw Appeal

As far as which pens are most popular among collectors, Nishimura says, “Well-known marques are

Montblanc Qing Dynasty fountain pen

Montblanc Qing Dynasty fountain pen, #1 in and edition of 8, 20th century, honoring the artistic achievements of China’s Qing Dynasty, black lacquer and jade, cap accented with dragon in 18K gold, set with brilliant-cut yellow diamonds, 18K gold nib also engraved with a dragon, $22,500. Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions

always the most sought after.” Names of still-operating companies include Parker, Waterman, Montblanc, Pelikan, and Namiki, while “among defunct companies (noting that some entrepreneurs have started new and unconnected companies in recent years using the old names), Wahl-Eversharp, Conklin, Chilton, etc.”

General auctions provide occasional opportunities to catch a pen or lot of pens here and there. However, specialty writing instrument auctions by Bonham’s, Martini Auctions, and Dreweatts & Bloomsbury, and direct sales from pen specialists provide the most concentrated offerings for buyers who aren’t much for sifting through the bric-a-brac to find what they’re looking for.

Nishimura says there are a handful of people who make a living as vintage pen dealers (although there are a lot of amateurs). He made writing instruments his full-time profession in 1995. While he attends shows to feed his collector interest in vintage pens, he does much of his commerce online. This is done at his site VintagePens.com. He launched the site in January 1997 – more than 20 years ago. It is one of the first websites showcasing pens. Now, at any given time, VintagePens.com offers more than 600 vintage fountain pens and pencils, along with other antique and collectable writing instruments and old writing equipment.

Elegant Design Paired With Prime Performance

One outstanding example in the current catalog includes a circa 1908 Parker 47, excellent condition, in the original box, with gold filled trim and pearl slabs (item #9095, $6,500).

One needn’t drop four or five figures to pick up a visually striking fountain pen, however. The Parker Diamond Medal “Vac-Fil” Vacumatic in burgundy pearl with black marbled pump-filler and gold-filled trim is listed at $225 on VintagePens.com. The site reports this model dates to circa 1935 and was made by Parker for retail by Sears, Roebuck & Co.

As much as VintagePens.com is a feast for the eyes and options for prospective buyers, it offers much, much more. Nishimura explains, “From the beginning [in 1997, VintagePens.com] was intended as much as an information resource as a commercial site. At that time most pen trading wasn’t online – it was predominantly face-to-face at shows.” Therefore, Nishimura’s site is populated with an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge distilled for collectors.

Exploring Fountain Pen History

Aurora three-pen set

Fine Estate Sales in San Francisco, California, offered this Italian three-pen set in box by Aurora for $600 during a summer estate sale. (Photo courtesy Fine Estate Sales, www.finesf.com.)

To name a few of the topics that can be found on VintagePens.com: Pen and pencil history; individual pen profiles, including patent drawings; pens to avoid, and why; how to evaluate a vintage pen; discussions of pen show basics and pen show etiquette.

Nishimura also recounts the dynamic shifts of the vintage fountain pen market in a series of articles published on his blog, vintagepensblog.blogspot.com. “The pens that once could be found at flea markets, general antiques shows, shops, and auction houses, were now sent to eBay instead,” he says.

While pens “in the wild” are not as abundant as when pen collecting was a “young” category of interest, there are still gems – vintage and contemporary – to be found. When searching for collectible writing instruments, don’t overlook or dismiss estate sales. In April 2017, Fine Estates in San Francisco held a two-day consignment sale that offered approximately 2,200 writing instruments, including fine contemporary collectible pens, boxed writing sets, and many limited editions.

According to Martin Codina, CEO of Fine Estates, the writing instruments came from the collection of Morton Blatt, who sold much of his fountain pen collection through Bonham’s about five years ago for approximately $1 million. Blatt, apparently, and others view fountain pens as artifacts and not utilitarian items. Many of the instruments are still in their original boxes with literature, and none of them had been put to paper.

Understanding Current Market for Pens

Covina’s Fine Estates sought by the estate executive set to sell Blatt’s collection. When queried about how his firm established the prices, Covina says he employed a research team who, when possible, used manufacturers’ websites to identify the writing instruments, and then used Worthpoint, Terapeak, and LiveAuctioneers to establish past sale prices.

Covina reveals that about 200 people attended the initial two-day sale in April. Buyers from all over northern California participated . Sales were brisk with about a 50 percent sell-through (by volume) at all price points. Simple Pilot fountain pens moved for $5. A limited edition Montblanc Hemingway – the most expensive pen in the sale – sold for $1,400. Covina reports the sales in the initial offering added up to about $50,000.

Research Uncovers Opportunities

Collector Greg Schiek of Naples, Florida, is a relatively recent devotee of fountain pens. His interest

Before-and-after pen

Before-and-after photos of a Waterman Ideal pen prior to restoration.

was initially piqued in the winter of 2011, as he was working towards his Master’s Degree. While writing a research paper focused on the globalization of the Parker Pen Company, he attended a local antique fair with the intention of finding vintage Parker fountain pens. While strolling through the fair, he met an individual with a coffee cup full of 12 fountain pens, one of which was a Parker 51. There was no pricing on the pens, so he inquired, “How much for this Parker?” The seller responded, “I want $3 for all the pens, but you can’t have the stoneware coffee cup. That coffee cup is antique and very expensive and I would have to get $75 for it.”

Schiek says he couldn’t pull out his wallet fast enough to give them the $3 for all the fountain pens. He says, “Due to my recent research paper and information I was armed with, I knew about the one Parker fountain pen and the model that I could make out.” It was a Parker 51 in Dove Gray with a 1/10th 16K gold-filled cap.

After doing his research, he found the other 11 pens consisted of: four Montblanc Meisterstuck 149s, one Lamy 2000, two Lamy Personas, two Pelikan M800s, and three Parker 75s.

Pen Purchase Inspires Entrepreneurship

Of that inaugural experience, Schiek says, “That $3 investment turned into a few more zeros before that decimal point because all the fountain pens were very desirable and in excellent condition – worth way more then that ol’ stoneware coffee mug the vendor told me he wanted $75 for. This particular purchase hooked and fueled my passion for collecting vintage fountain pens.

According to Schiek’s research and experience, “The Parker Pen Co. has an enormous following of collectors, it’s arguably the most popular fountain pen due to the sheer amount of fountain pens produced and innovative nature of the company by using technology like the ‘lucky curve’ feed and the vacumatic filling systems that revolutionized the way people used fountain pens and the fountain pen industry.”

Parker Pens Prized By Many

Parker 51 fountain pen

Parts of a Parker 51 fountain pen, 1945, buckskin beige. (Photo courtesy Greg Schiek/AntiqueDigger. com)

As one of the most popular pens, the first Parker “51” came in 1941. More than 300 million Parker “51”s come to market and are readily available today. Most can be found for under $100, making them appealing to beginning and veteran collectors alike.

Alternatively, Montblanc is the epitome of luxury goods. One of the ultra-limited Qing Dynasty fountain pens, crafted from black lacquer and fine jade, produced by Montblanc in 2002 in an edition of just eight pens, sold at auction in February 2013 for $22,500.

There is more than a century’s worth of fountain pens available for collectors and users/consumers. Vintage American, European, and Asian fountain pens from a plethora of makers are available. And with modern manufacturers creating user-friendly fountain pens, collector and luxury editions, there are a lot of options from which to choose.

Seek to Learn Plenty About Pens

Unless potential loss or damage is of no concern, it’s unwise to get into using or collecting fountain pens without a little guidance from the veterans. Nishimura advises against buying “lots of common junk instead of a few good pieces. Many ‘collectors’ nowadays really aren’t, though – they are consumers. Owning a dozen nice pairs of shoes doesn’t make one a shoe collector. Ditto for pens.”

Schiek shares similar sentiment: “When I first started in this hobby, I would buy everything I could get my hands on; if it were a fountain pen I was buying it. I learned real fast that 99% of the fountain pens have some type of condition issue that needs to be addressed.”

He continues, “If a person were interested in the hobby, I would strongly encourage individuals to attend a fountain pen show in their region to experience the vastness of the hobby. Fountain pen shows provide a great wealth of education, the ability to see and compare enormous amounts of fountain pens at one time, get fountain pens serviced, make new connections and, in my case, located hard to find parts to fix fountain pens that broke or are missing parts during my restoration process.”

Celebrating Craft and Ritual of Pens

Fountain pens became obsolete with the invention of the more sensible and reliable inexpensive

Limited-edition Parker Gold Snake pen

Limited edition Parker Gold Snake 18K gold, resin and emerald fountain pen, circa 1997, number 207 of 250, black resin pen with twisted 18K gold snake overlay with inlaid emerald eyes, 18K gold medium nib, design based on the Parker Lucky Curve fi ligree Snake #37 design of 1906, in a black leather case, $3,750. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auctions)

ballpoint pens in the 1940s. However, today’s enthusiasts recognize them as being beneficial for more than just their writing capability.

“Any doodad can be a status symbol. And any old objet d’art can be eyeballed, but from a beautiful pen flows great self-expression. Or, anyway, that’s the message of the marketing and the beauty of the idea. Holding craft and ritual in your hand,” says writer Troy Patterson (Bloomberg, February 2, 2017). Consumers are buying in to what the marketers are selling, too: Global sales of fountain pens have increased year over year for the past decade (except 2009).

Whether vintage or new, if you ever get the chance, use a fountain pen to draw a line or two. But beware: You may find yourself joining the millions of user-collectors around the world who are already enjoying the experience of writing with these satisfying instruments. 

Upcoming Pen Shows

  • San Francisco International Pen Show, August 25-27, Sofitel San Francisco Bay Hotel, 223 Twin Dolphin Drive, Redwood City, CA 94065; sfpenshow.com
  • Dallas Pen Show, September 8-9, Double Tree Hotel Dallas Near the Galleria, 4099 Valley View Ln, Dallas, TX 75244; dallaspenshow.com
  • Colorado Pen Show, October 6-8, DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel Denver-Stapleton North 4040 Quebec St, Denver, CO 80216; coloradopenshow.com
  • The Ohio Pen Show, November 2-5,  Crowne Plaza Dublin Hotel, 600 Metro Pl N, Dublin, OH 43017; theohiopenshow.com

Fountain pens recognize a galaxy far, far away

In December 2015, Parisian luxury goods maker S.T. Dupont [www.st-dupont.com] introduced a line of pens as a nod to the release of “The Force Awakens.”

S.T. Dupont's elevated pen

S.T. Dupont’s levitating pen and base inspired by the Star Wars movie franchise. (Photo courtesy S.T. Dupont)

At the top of the line is a duo of levitating pens. The devices feature bronze with black lacquer, palladium and rhodium. They are in the form of light sabers. One variation is modeled after Darth Vader’s light saber with Empire details and a red topaz crystal. The other is fashioned after Jedi Master Yoda’s light saber, which has Rebel Alliance details and a green topaz crystal. The levitation is achieved through the use of electro-magnets in the plinth and the levitating platform; when the base is plugged in the platform holding the pen levitates. Only eight of each pen were made; each retails for about $24,614.

Significantly less exclusive – yet still pricey for a novelty fountain pen – S.T. Dupont also created pens in the form of X-Wing fighters and a TIE Fighter. Each of these pens date to 1977 and carry a retail price of approximately $1,969. This is also the year the first Star Wars movie became a hit. One can speculate and argue whether or not the value of these and other contemporary novelties will rise or fall, but only time will tell.

Visit www.st-dupont.com to see more luxury and unique pens by S.T. Dupont. 


 

Enjoy a more in-depth article about Greg Schiek and his path to collecting and restoring pens>>>

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