When a client of Smythson of Bond Street, England's most exclusive stationer, ordered letterhead to match her Bentley, Peter Lippiatt, Smythson's director of stationery, didn't bat an eyelash. "The automobile had a special compartment just to hold the paper," Lippiatt says. "We were given a sample of the interior leather and a swatch of the exterior paint color. The client asked us to match the double border colors on one of our writing papers to the leather and paintwork. And we did, of course."
In today's age of electronic mail and faxes, writing accessories—that is, the ones you can't plug in—may seem like antiquated leftovers of a slower-paced era. Yet according to top luxury retailers and manufacturers, sales alone prove that not only fine pens but fine paper, ink, and inkwells are still considered essential components of the well-appointed household and office. "We have seen a huge increase in sales compared to ten or even five years ago," states Samantha Cameron, creative director of Smythson of Bond Street. (As of last year the company's stationery can also be found at Bergdorf Goodman.) Leslie Reed, manager of personalized products at Crane & Co., also reports "a definite increase in sales."
"Computers haven't hurt our business at all," says Lisa Harris, the owner of Harris Ltd., a high-end stationery shop in Bal Harbour, Florida. "Both men and women are writing letters by hand. Our clients have stationery wardrobes, only they're pickier with the stationery than they are with their clothing because they know they will use their personalized note cards for years. They leave their engraving plates with us, then call to say they'll be at the North Carolina home in three weeks and to send along more stationery with that house's engraving on it. They make personalized gift cards and leave them with Cartier and Tiffany. The stationery is both for their own satisfaction and to make a statement."
Such a routine is nothing new, but part of the reason why people are more enamored of fine writing accessories now is that they represent a return to life pre-PC. "Ten years ago, people were wowed by technology," says Violet Brandwein, director of purchasing and imports for Kate's Paperie, a stationery store in New York. "Now they're using technology all the time, and they miss the hands-on approach. A handwritten note is a personal attachment. As technology moves more and more into the forefront, our connection to paper seems to be growing."
But part of the interest is simply a desire for the best that life can offer. "Using fine stationery is like sleeping on fine linen sheets or going to fine restaurants," says Cameron. "People want it to be a luxurious experience." The same is true for inks. "I'm seeing that here in Silicon Valley people are really rediscovering inks," says Anni Weden, manager of Signatoré in San Francisco, a high-end boutique specializing in fine writing accessories. (Signatoré also has stores in Century City and in the Palo Alto mall.) "Everyone has a BMW and a huge home already. They want something else to be distinctive." Says Tony Caponi, former vice president of Marcovici Designs, the United States distributor of Omas: "People either have signature ink colors or personalized stationery with trim, to which they try to match the ink."
One such person is the client of Harris Ltd. who spent $600 customizing 100 sheets and envelopes. "He wanted a monogram in silver and black on the top of the letterhead and the back of the envelopes," Harris explains, "and black lining in the envelopes, almost like patent leather. His name was written in silver."
This level of customization at the high end, she adds, is not unusual. "It's very common for someone to give us a sample of their wallpaper or drapery and then have us make desk sets with notepaper to match," Harris says. "They put their initials and motif at the top of the sheets, and then use them when they write notes to the housekeeper or gardener."
As in the fields of fashion and interior design, the choices of fine writing accessories—and the quantity of high-end knockoffs—are abundant. Here is how to distinguish the best of the best.
"If you put papers side by side you can actually see the differences," says Brandwein of the distinctions between average and superb stationery. The highest-end social stationery is made of the best materials and is often adorned with exquisite detailing—24-karat gilded edges, hand-painted borders, custom-engraved motifs, and monograms. "This is one field in which designers are highly underrated," says Brandwein. "Even the simplest thing, you can't imagine why it costs so much. But it takes so much effort to produce it."
Because paper is also functional, performance is paramount; as Brandwein puts it, "A gilded edge doesn't mean the paper itself is of better quality." Says Linda Laska, vice president of Atlantic Papers: "To evaluate the quality of a given paper, you must look at the material comprising it, as well as its texture, color, weight, and feel in relation to the pen you'll be using. A pen is nothing without good paper."
While that may be a slight exaggeration, there are some key factors to consider when choosing paper, as described below (for examples of specific papers, see Social Stationery To Lust After).
The cotton-wood debate
Opinions on the ideal amount of cotton in paper vary widely, especially between the United States and Europe. But no matter where paper comes from, experts we spoke to agree that the finest social stationery is made of one hundred percent cotton (Crane's being the crème de la crème in this category) or a combination of cotton and wood pulp. "Both are acid-free, which means they will last for centuries," says Laska. "Cotton fibers are long, making cotton paper softer and very pliable. You can easily fold it and it won't crack." Says Reed: "Cotton is naturally low in acid so it will last a long time without discoloring. It's also better because it's readily renewable. And it has a very soft feel, which renders a nice-quality paper." According to Brandwein, "Higher-quality papers are not always made of cotton, but they usually have more of it."
Europeans, however, frequently take a different approach, favoring a mixture of cotton, hardwood pulp (such as hickory or birch), and softwood pulp (such as pine or spruce), each of which has fibers of varying lengths. Smythson of Bond Street's papers, for instance, are made of 30 percent cotton and 70 percent wood pulp. "Our papers are different from those made in the United States," says Lippiatt. "Our pulp is made of both hardwood, which gives the paper strength, and softwood, which has a longer grain, making the paper more pliable. Paper made of one hundred percent cotton won't have as much tensile strength. It bends far more easily than paper with thirty percent cotton."
A company that follows a similar path is G. Lalo, the top French manufacturer of social stationery, whose paper is made of 25 percent cotton and 75 percent wood pulp. "In France the percentage of cotton used is not a prerequisite for quality paper," says Christine Nusse, general manager of Exaclair, the United States distributor of G. Lalo. "And then there's the issue of availability of materials. When Crane's started in New England it was near textile plants, so they used cotton rags. In Europe the paper plants were located near woods instead. The plant that G. Lalo uses, for instance, takes pine from the Vosges region."
Handmade versus machine-made
If you're planning to use a fountain pen, avoid purchasing handmade paper that is very porous—that is, unless it has been specially coated.
The allure of handmade papers is the same as that of any handcrafted item—each sheet is unique. Handmade paper is usually heavier, has deckle edges (meaning they're irregular and fuzzy), and includes such things as flowers, leaves, ribbons, or metallic flecks that have been mixed into the paper before it dries. Handmade paper is usually more durable than machine-made paper because it has no grain, which makes it harder to tear. "You can tear a sheet of machine-made paper in a straight line if you tear along the grain," says Brandwein. "When paper is handmade it's very hard to tear a straight line at all."
But handmade paper comes with some major caveats. First, the surface is bumpy, which usually presents serious problems when it comes to using fountain pens. (Machine-made paper is buffed during the manufacturing process to smooth its surface.) "A lot of people aren't prepared for the texture of handmade paper," comments Brandwein. "And pen manufacturers cringe at the idea of mixing handmade paper and fountain pens. The pulp sometimes can clog the nib of a fountain pen. But then, if you stop writing you risk clogging the ink." Says Harris: "Handmade paper isn't good with a fountain pen because of the loose pulp. But you could use a rollerball pen on it."
Second, handmade papers aren't usually coated to easily absorb liquid ink, and they often have too little sizing, or starch, added, which can be a problem with rollerballs as well. "If you're trying to control ink and avoid bleeding, machine-made paper is best," explains Brandwein. But this is a subjective matter. Some people, Brandwein included, like the way handmade paper feathers the ink. One of her favorite social stationeries, which her store carries, comes from the Italian company Amalfi. "It's so beautiful. I think it's the top for letter writing," she says. "Because it is handmade it's soft. It has a beautiful deckle edge and comes in a soft ecru color, like eggshell. It's subtly beautiful. But while it does absorb the ink, it feathers it. I happen to like that because it takes on a form of its own."
Crane & Co. makes a finished handmade paper in their Santa Fe Sand, Cambridge Blue, and Williamsburg Willow Natural styles. "I haven't found ink bleeding to be a problem with Crane's handmade paper," states Howard Pollack, owner of Lincoln Stationers in New York. Says Leslie Reed of Crane's: "Our handmade paper is made to Montblanc's specifications, specifically for use with fountain pens. It's not as smooth as regular papers, but bleeding is not an issue."
And then, even machine-made paper can have deckle edges, which are cut using a high-intensity waterspout aimed at an angle to the sheet. These edges are identical from one sheet to the next but, according to Lippiatt, aesthetically the difference is insignificant. "I don't think the average person can tell the difference," he says. (Smythson of Bond Street carries three papers with machine-made deckle edges.)
"I think that heavier paper, being more substantial, gives a much better impression to the recipient," Lippiatt says. "I also think that you can measure quality more by it." Linda Laska concurs. "The heavier the sheet, the more body it has—it will feel more substantial to the touch," she says. "And texture's more pronounced on thicker sheets, which also absorb ink better."
Paper weight in the United States is measured in pounds, with writing papers ranging from 17-pound for inexpensive bond paper to 32-pound, which includes Crane's social stationery papers. In Europe and the United Kingdom writing paper is measured in grams per square meter, with the most common weights being 75 grams (which corresponds to 20-pound), 90 grams (24-pound), and 105 grams (28-pound).
"Our paper is a bit heavier than what you find in the U.S.," says Lippiatt. "That's always been the case. Generally, they're 120 grams, but go up to 160 grams, which is very heavy when you add the weight of the envelope. As of late, the trend has been to go as heavy as possible. It's really a matter of style. Papermakers have always had the ability to make heavier stock. The only limitation is whether the paper can be folded or scored."
In some cases more weight can be a problem. "Thirty-two-pound paper is very strong," says Pollack, "but it can't always make it through a computer printer or laser copier."
Examine the sheets for watermarks
It's one way to judge authenticity. Smythson of Bond Street, for example, watermarks all of its stationery, each kind with a different mark. "They either say Smythson or the name of the paper, such as Smythson's Bond Street Blue," Cameron notes. "We've had a problem with companies trying to imitate our paper, so this ensures authenticity." In some cases the watermark is a work of art. "Amalfi paper has exquisite watermarks," comments Laska. "Some people purchase paper just to see the marks. They're a status symbol."
Another option: If you want to place emphasis on the watermark, you may be able to have your own watermark made. "A couple years ago a famous singer came into my shop and requested that her own signature be used as the watermark on her stationery," remarks Harris. "So Crane's made it, and took out their watermark. It cost thousands of dollars because such a lot of paper had to be made."
When personalizing stationery, choose engraving
If you want the best quality, engraving is still considered the most luxurious way to personalize paper. It's done by etching a word or image into a steel or copper plate, inking the plate to fill the negative space, then pressing the plate onto the paper. Although engraving used to be very expensive, Harris says, "today it's much less so. It depends a lot on the number of colors you want and the complexity." Much of what you pay for is the creation of the engraving plate. For example, to create a plate with your name in a single color at Harris Ltd. costs $24. A two- to three-line address is $56, and a monogram ranges from $68 to $200 per color. "But remember that if you create a two-color monogram to start with, every time you reorder it you have to reorder it with two colors," Harris cautions. (At Crane's, the suggested minimum number of sheets for an engraving order is 50.)
Occasionally, families even have their coats of arms engraved. "This costs approximately $2,000 just to produce the plate," says Harris. "I recently received a request for one with eight colors in it—to be printed on both cards and envelopes. This style is more popular for prominent families' wedding invitations."
Smythson of Bond Street specializes in hand engraving. The company's letters and motifs are engraved by a team of British craftsmen who, says Cameron, "come from long family lines of engravers. Some of them are specialized in crests and coronets, others in script typeface or motifs. You can easily tell the difference between hand- and computer-generated engraving, particularly with script." (Smythson's noncustom typefaces are designed on a computer and etched in acid.)
If you opt for thermography, don't use a laser printer
Thermography, or raised printing, offers a similar end result to engraving but costs much less. "Thermography is done on a press," states Pollack. "At the end of a print run, a resinous powder is applied to the impression, which is then placed under a heating element that raises the ink on the paper. It's about fifteen to twenty percent less costly than engraving because you don't have to make the plates." (An even less expensive alternative is flat printing, which Reed says is "the same as thermography but without the powder and the subsequent heating.")
The problem, though, is that thermography ink is not heat resistant. "You can readily use engraved stationery in a laser printer," says Pollack. "But when it's been thermographed, unless it has been specially treated and made laser compatible, you can't. The heat will melt the ink."
Thermography has another problem too: The inks are somewhat translucent. "They are fine on cream, gray, pink, or white paper," remarks Reed, "as long as you're using deep blue or black. But with light ink you will see the paper color through the ink, which will in turn alter the appearance of the ink. Engraving inks, however, are denser, more opaque."Look for lining in envelopes
Envelopes from the best companies have it. Envelopes by Crane's, for instance, "can have Florentine paper lining, solid colors, stripes, or colored tissue," Harris describes, "which can be white, ecru, gold, or silver, among others." Says Cameron of Smythson of Bond Street: "Some companies do partial lining only with colored paper. We line our envelopes entirely with tissue by hand."
To increase stationery's longevity and performance, store it well
As with textiles, the key to stationery longevity is controlling temperature, humidity, and light. "Paper should be stored in a cool, dry place," says Brandwein. "Any moisture will discolor it. Even if it's acid-free, which means it's had stabilizers added to increase its longevity, it can still mildew. Some new desk accessory boxes that are made of metal or glass can actually damage the paper because they retain moisture." Says Laska: "You should store paper out of the light and covered. It should be dust-free and should remain flat, in order to prevent its edges from getting crushed or dented. With nothing on top of it, it will curl upward. But heavy weights on top are unnecessary."
Extreme humidity is especially a problem when it comes to envelopes. "We have had two customers in the Far East and Africa who asked us to interleave all of their envelopes with tissue paper so that they wouldn't stick together," says Lippiatt.
As for light, the less the stationery sees of it the better. "All paper will fade in sunlight," says Lippiatt. Brandwein concurs: "Even fluorescent light will affect paper, especially softer, handmade paper."
The ink you use can be as personal a choice as that of stationery, but in this case the focus is on viscosity and color palette. "The challenge for fountain pen ink manufacturers is to create brilliant inks that aren't too washy," says Weden. "When ink is wet it looks one way, but it can often look faded when dry. The best artists' inks—that is, those used with brushes and artists' pens—are highly pigmented and of excellent quality. But they are also waterproof and colorfast. Ink for fountain pens has to be non-waterproof or it won't flow through the ink feed of the pen. The best inks are those that look brilliant even when they are dry."
As a result, Weden says, fountain pen inks tend to be watery compared to artists' inks, and they have much less brilliance and less interesting color. Says Pollack: "A nice ink is characterized by its rich color pigment and density. But its quality also depends a lot on the way it works with the pen. If you have an 18-karat-gold soft nib on a fountain pen with great ink, it will most likely perform very well." (See Great Penmanship.)
Most pen manufacturers produce their own ink to match their pens, and some papermakers manufacture ink to complement their paper. The type of ink you work with—liquid or paste—depends on the type of pen you have. "About fifty percent of our clients use a fountain pen," says Caponi, "but some people can't be bothered and use a rollerball instead. It still has liquid ink, but with a ballpoint mechanism. Rollerballs cause less hand fatigue because they use liquid ink. Ballpoints use an oil-based paste ink, so you have to apply more pressure to the paper."
Weden, whose store Signatoré carries a wide selection of inks, believes that the ink you use makes a big difference. "Just as there are different levels of paint, there are different levels of ink," she points out. "If a fine painter uses low-quality paints, his art will be limited." The ink you use also makes a difference when it comes to life span—of both the ink itself and possibly the pen. "What's left of an ink should be discarded after one year because the pigment tends to pull away from the base," Weden explains. "The best inks last longer, but you still will want to use only fresh ink. Bad inks can clog a pen and result in irregular ink flow."
The top ink manufacturing company in Weden's opinion is Rubinato, based in Italy. (Signatoré imports it.) "Rubinato inks are highly pigmented, and feature beautiful, unique colors," states Weden. "They are made from plant pigments and are very high grade. Rubinato is more experimental with its colors, more artsy." Those colors include turquoise, brown, purple, and Bordeaux. Rubinato also makes scented inks, such as lavender, violet, honey, and mint. The highest of the high-grade inks, Weden believes, is Rubinato's Gnocchi, a deep black ink.
Of the fountain pen manufacturers that also produce ink, Weden cites the Italian manufacturer Omas as the best. "They are fabulous," she says. "They produce an incredible gray ink that no one else makes. It's very translucent, and it makes interesting shading, creating both dark and light within the letters. It has a very old-fashioned look, and it's wonderful on parchment paper. When you write with it, the ink takes on a character all its own." Another great Omas color, according to Weden, is sepia. "It really looks like the coloring in old photographs," she says.
"Omas ink is organic, and among the purest on the market," Caponi remarks."It is made from a vegetal color base. Many other inks are made with chemical detergents, which can be quite harsh and can even erode the inside of a pen over time. And the organic compounds make the ink more fluid. It has a much smoother flow due to the fact that there are fewer particles in it, especially carbon, to block the fountain pen feeder, which is a very thin channel." According to Caponi, four of the most popular Omas ink colors are Vespucci red ("it's a very deep red, not fire-engine red or burgundy"), Roma blue ("it's extremely vibrant"), violet, and sepia brown.
"Omas ink is wonderful," agrees Pollack, who also admires ink by Montblanc. "You can find Montblanc colors such as reds, turquoise, greens, browns, burgundy, and South Sea blue." Pollack also favors inks by the French manufacturer J. Herbin. "They have some beautiful, fun colors, such as aubergine."
Another top choice is ink blended by S.T. Dupont. "S.T. Dupont's ink, which comes in bottles and cartridges, is exquisite," Weden says. "It's the finest ink from France, better than Cartier's. Its viscosity is thick and rich, and yet it flows beautifully through a fountain pen. And the cartridges are "international-size," so they can fit in a Waterman, Montblanc, Jorg Hysek, and Cartier pen as well. But the colors are traditional." S.T. Dupont's best ink colors, in her opinion, are Bleu Nuit, a midnight blue, and sienna brown.
While the superior inks are considerably more expensive than the lesser ones, they are still quite reasonably priced. For example, Rubinato's Gnocchi costs $32.50 for a 100 cc bottle, Bordeaux is $12, and its flower-scented inks are $14.95. "But it is relative," Weden notes. "Normally a bottle of ink costs about $10." (In fact, S.T. Dupont ink sells for just that; Omas ink is priced at $10.95 for a 2.6-ounce bottle.)
It may sound surprising, but inkwells are coming back in style. "People are moving back to them," Weden says. "Sales have been picking up a lot. People want to fit their desks with accessories and this is one of them. I would say that fifty percent or more of our customers are starting to use inkwells and bottled ink."
Top contemporary inkwells (see Well-Made), in Weden's opinion, include those by Waterford, Montblanc, Jorg Hysek, and the Virginia-based craftsman Paul Terban. "I'm quite fond of Paul Terban's inkwells because they look antique, yet have modern closures," says Weden. "They're made from original nineteenth-century Victorian molds, using lead crystal and pewter or gold-plated brass."
Some of the more popular inkwells are antiques. "Inkwells had their heyday from 1830, when people started using fountain pens, until 1930," says David Good, the president of Good & Hutchinson Associates, an antiques dealership in Sheffield, Massachusetts. Today the most sought-after antique inkwells, he says, include those by Tiffany & Co. (one from the 1880s would be worth about $10,000 today, he notes), Gorham ("the poor man's Tiffany"), and Kirk. "These companies could afford to hire designers," he explains.
The materials used ranged from porcelain ("there are a lot of very desirable porcelain inkwells that were made in the Staffordshire Valley in England," says Good) to gold-washed silver, which "was probably the best made," Good says. "Anything with jewels or precious gems is more valuable, of course. Many inkstands had jeweled tops. But they were polished agates, not diamonds. Crystal inkwells had a well for ink and a fancy flip top. Silver would corrode with ink in it, as ink was highly corrosive; but if it was lined with gold, it would not corrode." (If you do buy an antique silver inkwell, Good adds, you can avoid corrosion by washing it regularly.)
But while Weden says that antique inkwells are beautiful to look at and extremely popular ("like vintage pens, they just fly out of our shop," she says), she also notes that they can be problematic to use. "A lot of them haven't worn well over the years," she explains. "The tops don't close securely anymore, which means the ink can leak out or begin to evaporate." Even with new inkwells, however, materials matter greatly. "Lead crystal tends to keep the ink pigment more intact," she says, "especially when the ink is a dark color."
Perhaps the acme of fine writing accessories is the antique desk standish, or inkstand. Depending on the era, it can come in many styles and materials, and today it usually costs from $3,500 to $4,500. Says Good, "It can have wafers of sealing wax, a candleholder, and what is called 'sanders,' a very fine powder used to dry the ink. The powder was put on the wet ink, then the paper was rocked back and forth until the sand dried it." Sometimes, he adds, a desk standish also included "a bell to ring for the butler, so that he could take the correspondence to the post."
For those who like to adhere to tradition, there are some guidelines as to what size stationery you should use. Traditionally, monarch-sized sheets (7.25 x 10.5 inches) "are for gentlemen," says Lisa Harris, owner of Harris Ltd., a fine-writing store in Bal Harbour, Florida. "It folds twice. It's appropriate to put your name and address at the top, but not a monogram."
Women traditionally use "half-sheets" (4.25 x 5.5 inches), which fold just once. "These can have the name, address, monogram, and coat of arms," Harris explains. Many people also order half-sheets as their house stationery. "It's put out for anyone to use, including visitors," Harris notes. "It often has a two-line address, and perhaps the name of the house or estate. It's done for guesthouses as well."
If you don't care to follow tradition, there's a popular alternative for both men and women: the correspondence card. "It's more contemporary than a folded note," Harris explains. "It's a heavy card, plain or bordered, that you use for writing short notes and thank-yous." Christine Nusse, general manager of Exaclair, the U.S. distributor of G. Lalo, says, "We used to sell more sheets, but in the past few years correspondence-card sales have gone much higher. People use them when e-mail isn't enough." Leslie Reed, manager of personalized products at Crane & Co., agrees. "They're heavier, they make an impression for a brief communication," she says. But even correspondence cards have a tradition: You should only write on the front side.
Social Stationery To Lust After
According to Lisa Harris, owner of Harris Ltd., Americans are "still very traditional with stationery," the most popular colors being white and ecru. "People like to stay in the comfort zone," she says. "They're not using solid colors a lot." That's also true in Europe, although it seems to be changing. "Stationery can be compared to your manner of dress," says Samantha Cameron, creative director of Smythson of Bond Street. "It says something about who you are, your status. Some want a more traditional look, some want a look that is more alternative. Nowadays many people want stationery to be a bit more flamboyant—the way people did at the turn of the twentieth century." Shown here: the machine-made stationery brands that many experts consider to be the best in the world.
Crane & Co.
Crane's, the venerable New England stationer, has been in business since 1801. According to Howard Pollack, owner of Lincoln Stationers in Manhattan, "Writing on Crane's paper is like writing on a fine cotton shirt. It works beautifully with a fountain pen." Lisa Harris agrees. "Crane's social stationery is the best around," she says. "It's made of one hundred percent cotton and has a very smooth finish. And Crane's will do anything you want to the paper, such as engrave a two-color monogram at the top, then hand-paint the beveled edges to match one of the colors."
Smythson of Bond Street
Founded in London in 1887, this company has recently opened a department in Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. Its stationery (examples at right) is considered by many to be England's best, and it specializes in fine handmade detailing—hand-engraving, envelopes fully lined by hand with more than 20 colors of tissue paper, and hand-bordering. "We also hand-deckle the edges," Cameron explains. People are going for these more extravagant, pretty details." As for style, Cameron is succinct: "We are traditional, understated, very British."
"G. Lalo paper has a more delicate look and feel than Crane's paper," says Howard Pollack, referring to this top French brand, which first opened shop in Paris in 1920. (The company supplies stationery to the royal courts of Sweden, Holland, and Belgium.) "The paper is lighter and the envelope lining is thinner. And G. Lalo comes in colors that you won't find at Crane's, such as pastels." G. Lalo, whose all-laid paper (above) is composed of 25 percent cotton and 75 percent wood pulp, is additionally known for its exquisite packaging.
"When people want a more contemporary look," says Harris, "they go to Jamie Ostrow on Madison Avenue in New York. The stationery they offer is very avant-garde, from the colors and type styles to the spacing of the type." And while the company doesn't actually produce its own paper, it does design the colors and hundreds of typeface patterns (examples above). "We do have lots of bright, hot colors," remarks Ostrow, "but mainly we sell very muted tones such as moss, white, gray, and crème."
The finest pens can be as expensive as paintings, which is why it's important to protect them from damage by keeping them in a pen carrying case. But like art collectors, pen collectors often don't stop at just two or three pens. Here are five of the most sumptuous cases: An eight-pen collector's case ($295) by Underwood, made of vegetable-tanned butterscotch calf leather with solid brass fittings; Montblanc's one-pen hard tube ($185) made of Bordeaux lambskin leather; a 48-pen storage cabinet ($1,350) from Omas, made of yellow Italian calf leather with gold-plated brass fittings; Agresti's 20-pen storage box ($225), made of briarwood and ebony with a beige-felt-lined interior, a glass top, and a solid-brass lock; and S.T. Dupont's three-pen soft case ($125), which comes in black calf leather.
"The craze for fountain pens has been strong for several years now," says Tony Caponi, former vice president of Marcovici Designs, the U.S. distributor of Omas. "There are two types of people who collect them: those who buy them as art pieces and don't use them, and those who use them as an everyday tool, even if the pens cost $10,000 each. When you get to this most expensive league of writing instruments, our clients are mostly men. Maybe it's because there are few things men can collect that are small. Women have earrings, brooches. For men there are watches, cuff links, and pens. After that you start getting into cars. And then, pens are status symbols too." Anni Weden, manager of Signatoré in San Francisco, agrees. "Pens are great for men, who have a harder time accessorizing," she says. "And pens are used as statements in boardrooms. People often buy a Montblanc or a Fabergé pen to sign contracts, but then later get into the art of writing and become interested in all the accessories."
If you do purchase a fountain pen, consider getting an 18-karat-gold nib. Accord-ing to experts they perform better than 14-karat-gold nibs (nibs are called "writing blocks" by manufacturers) and are well worth the higher price. (An 18-karat nib from S.T. Dupont costs $145.) "The performance of paper depends a lot on the quality of the pen as well as the ink," Harris explains, "and that's especially true with fountain pens. Eighteen-karat-gold nibs are softer and therefore smoother—they scratch the paper less."
Five of the finest fountain pens on the market, in no particular ranking: The Celluloid Mezzo ($1,100), from Omas; Cartier's Diabolo platinum fountain pen ($530); the Boucheron pen in blue and gold ($2,500), by Waterman; S.T. Dupont's Orpheo Chairman pen ($660), finished in Chinese lacquer; and a Jorg Hysek pen ($1,875) with a single inset diamond and a diamond band. At center is Montblanc's $125,000 masterpiece: the Solitaire Royal, bedecked with 4,810 diamonds and accents in 18-karat gold.
When it comes to top-of-the-line contemporary inkwells, pen manufacturer Montblanc takes the cake. Its inkwells are made of pure lead crystal with gold-plated detailing, as well as black precious resin or 925 sterling silver, as in the Meisterstück Solitaire inkwell ($1,150). According to Anni Weden, manager of Signatoré, Virginia craftsman Paul Terban also makes exquisitely fashioned, but much less expensive, inkwells. Terban's in lead crystal with a closure and a foot of gold-plated brass, was made using an original 19th-century Victorian mold.
SourcesAtlantic Papers $ Atlantic Papers $ 800-367-8547; Fax 800-367-1016
Chronotime, Inc. (Jorg Hysek)
800-364-5441; Fax 973-994-2844
Crane & Co., Inc.
413-684-2600; Fax 413-684-4278
Exaclair, Inc. (G. Lalo)
(New York) 800-933-8595; Fax 212-969-9938
Good &Amp; Hutchinson
413-258-4555; Fax 413-258-4112
305-868-1111; Fax 305-864-6958
212-734-8890; Fax 212-472-2430
212-941-9816; Fax 212-941-9560
Marcovici Designs (Omas)
617-426-3607; Fax 617-357-8263
800-559-7367; Fax 415-834-9330
Smythson Of Bond Street
44-207-629-8558; Fax 44-207-465-6111,
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than American Express. $ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than American Express.