There's nothing quite like engraved stationery, with its tactile raised letters on the front and trademark "bruise," or slight indentation, on the back. Of course, what distinguishes fine engraving is the die—that singular piece of metal into which the design is carved. Most dies today are designed on a computer and then photo-engraved, rather than hand-engraved. "If you look closely at a handmade die, there's so much going on, so much warmth and depth and life," says social stationer Nancy Sharon Collins. "You can really see the mark of an honest-to-god human craftsman. It's the difference between ready-to-wear and couture."
Luke Pontifell, 35, still remembers the day he fell in love. "A friend sent me a letter on this beautiful cream-colored stock," he says. "It was soft and thick with a deckled edge—obviously handmade." Pontifell, whose company, Thornwillow Press, makes limited-edition leather-bound books, was so impressed with the paper that he traveled to the factory near Prague to stock up. "It was the end of Communism and the beginning of privatization," he continues. "They told me I could not buy the paper—but I later learned that I could buy the company. So I ended up with this paper mill in the Czech Republic." He was 24, and only three years out of Harvard.
By then, Pontifell was already an established businessman, having started Thornwillow as a teenager. In high school he typeset a children's book, printed it himself, and bound 100 copies by hand on his kitchen table. Each year, he produced another title, and soon he was attracting authors like Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Walter Cronkite, Louis Auchincloss, and John Updike. By 1992 the rare-book division of Asprey had begun to carry his books.
To help finance his new mill, Pontifell made a deal with Montblanc to design writing paper for their fountain pens. "We spent a whole year working to get the formula right," he says. He developed and produced the paper, including details like the watermark, size, surface, and texture. A few years later when he bought printing presses for the mill, he discovered that the presses came with a priceless archive of several hundred historic dies from Jan Petr Obr, a prominent social engraver during the late 1800s.
Thornwillow now produces a full range of custom work on their own papers. You can choose among one of the historic dies or ask that a special one be designed for you. They also have an archive of hundreds of old monograms.
Handmade dies take from two to eight weeks; prices range from $350 for a monogram to $1,500 for an individually created and detailed drawing of your own house. Two hundred fifty sheets of hand-engraved, handmade paper with envelopes cost anywhere from $785 to $2,680. At 57 West 58th Street, PHE, New York, NY; 212-980-0738; www.thornwillow.com.
Nancy Sharon Collins
"Run your fingertips across this page," says Nancy Collins, who does just that across several sheets of the water-blue onionskin paper in front of us. "I love the pebbly texture of the cockle finish and that sound it makes: You can hear it crackle. It's sheer and soft, but with a bit of a snap."
The paper is lovely, but it's the sweep of the corner monogram, flowing gracefully from lower to upper case, that catches my eye. More an inspired work of art than a mere grouping of letters, the calligraphy is so thin and delicate you would swear it was written with a quill pen.
"This is why I insist on hand engraving," Collins says. "It takes a highly skilled craftsman to make a line this light. You get a finer line with engraving than with any other print-reproduction process in the world, which is why they use it for currency. But you also need someone who can draw something unique. If you just plug initials together, every monogram looks the same."
This paper is indeed distinctive, even surprising, but then so is everything about Collins. Far from the image of a stuffy bespoke stationer, she and her Brooklyn studio are thoroughly modern. Meticulous and proper to be sure, Collins is also delightfully nutty and creative. Trained as a graphic designer, she has worked as a stationer for nine years and approaches each design thoughtfully and thoroughly, whether it's a simple monogram or a custom engraving of your country house or Jack Russell terrier.
"We start from scratch," she says. "There are no standard colors or typefaces. We customize everything."
Collins meets with you to figure out not only typefaces and border trims, but what kind of person you are: Modern or traditional? Efficient or romantic? Vivacious or reserved? She asked me if there was a historical period I felt a kinship with. She'll often suggest that you bring in paint chips or fabric swatches or that you tear out pages from a favorite magazine. Then, like an architect or decorator, she'll start pulling ideas and inspirations from her own archives—papers in various weights, vintage monograms, lettering styles, and examples of rare typography.
"There are about three-hundred lettering styles that are proprietary to the hand-engraving industry," she says. "Most have never been converted to the computer." Over the next few weeks she'll play around with sketches, then proofs, consulting with you a few times until it's perfect. Collins then works directly with the die-cutters and printers, overseeing every step, including the hand-mixing of the ink. The whole process, from initial meeting to boxed set, takes from six weeks to six months.
Browse through Collins' portfolio of stationery and you'll immediately get a sense of the client behind each design. You can just imagine the tidy, spare, modern home of the man who likes his name written in such tiny, precise block letters. Or the lavish fetes thrown by the Miami woman whose stationery boasts an exuberant scrolled monogram on hand-bordered canary-yellow paper. Each design becomes a one-of-a-kind way to make a singular statement.
Hand-cut dies range in price from $140 for a one-line address to $1,600 for a complex, multicolored monogram. Two hundred fifty hand-engraved sheets of stationery with envelopes range from $750 for a simple bond to $2,650 for hand-bordered onionskin with lined envelopes. $ At 55 Washington Street, Suite 659, Brooklyn, NY; 718-243-9067; www.nancysharoncollinsstationer.com. Hand-cut dies range in price from $140 for a one-line address to $1,600 for a complex, multicolored monogram. Two hundred fifty hand-engraved sheets of stationery with envelopes range from $750 for a simple bond to $2,650 for hand-bordered onionskin with lined envelopes. $ At 55 Washington Street, Suite 659, Brooklyn, NY; 718-243-9067; www.nancysharoncollinsstationer.com.
"Most people order their holiday cards to arrive just before Thanksgiving," says Ted Harrington, owner of Terrapin Stationers. "Not my clients! They all call me the first of December and say they need them by the end of the week."
Harrington's trump card is his family-owned Stationers Engraving Company, a century-old firm with seven printing presses in downtown Manhattan. In a 5,000-foot loft, cluttered with towering stacks of paper and three-ton wrought-iron machines, Terrapin produces exquisite old-fashioned hand engraving for, among other high-end concerns, Cartier. "Owning the company means we have total control of the process," Harrington adds. "Our turn-around time is days, not weeks. When Lillian von Stauffenberg wants a party invitation, she calls me three days before they need to go out. I feel like the fireman of the New York social scene."
Harrington also has a monopoly on fashion's hit list thanks to his creative party invitations. Clients include designers Marc Jacobs, Jil Sander, Michael Kors, and Helmut Lang. For an Indian wedding he hired a calligrapher to fashion a particularly opulent script, which was then engraved in crimson on square saffron-colored cards. For a wedding on Long Island, each invitation was wrapped in raffia and then placed in a small wooden box with sand and perfect shells. "I ask people if there's something that's really special to them," he says. "Then I find a way to incorporate the theme."
Harrington's expertise in the finer points of hand engraving shows in both his ideas and in their execution. He recently designed a die with the image of a Bartlett pear for a family that loved pears. It required three separate color impressions on the press—a tart, lemony green, a hint of brown, and an accent of red—to give it a richness and depth.
A die and 250 sheets of paper with envelopes range from $350 for engraved cards to $6,000 for highly detailed work to $25,000 for boxed custom wedding invitations. At 1001 Sixth Avenue, Suite 2301, New York, NY; 212-260-6787; www.terrapinstationers.com.
$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than the American Express Card.