Gianluca Malaguti Simoni, the vice president and creative director of the Italian pen company Omas, sometimes sneaks into the atelier and tests the sleek gold pen nibs the traditional way—he scripts a few inkless letters on the slope of his neck. "When the nib does not hurt or scratch, you know it is perfect," he says. Such is the attention to detail at Omas, which has been producing elegant handmade writing instruments for nearly 80 years. In the fragmented luxury pen market, dominated by Montblanc, Omas stands apart for its refusal to go industrial—jealously safeguarding its pens' elaborate craftsmanship. It's also singular in its technical virtuosity, showcased in its use of natural materials such as cotton resin, celluloid, and titanium. While expanding its international distribution, Omas remains loyal to the vision of its founder, Armando Simoni.
"My grandfather was an intensely curious man," says Malaguti Simoni, who joined the family business at 18 and now oversees new designs. "He always wanted to understand how things worked." No coincidence then that both Simoni and Omas were born in Bologna, a sienna-tinted town deep in Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Long known as a center for trade and academia—the university, founded in 1088, is Europe's oldest—Bologna became a commercial power at the beginning of the 20th century, when various international companies set up shop. Simoni took advantage of the rapid expansion and tried his hand in industries as varied as pasta-machine and watch-part production. After he started crafting parts for the first fountain pens sold in Italy, he became fascinated with the process and founded Omas in 1925.
"My grandfather owned several companies in his lifetime," says Malaguti Simoni, "but Omas was like his only daughter—perfection." Blessed with a talent that combined technical understanding and artistic sensibility, Simoni crafted an assortment of writing instruments that were progressive even by today's standards—pens with double nibs, exchangeable ink-cartridge systems, the Doctor's pen model with a small thermometer worked into its black ebonite body. In fact, Omas' best-selling line is still Simoni's 1930 Arte Italiana collection, whose groundbreaking 12-faceted shape was inspired by Greek Doric columns. "He considered the pen a direct link between thought and paper," says Malaguti Simoni. "If the pen was not beautiful, your thoughts couldn't be beautiful."
Omas' current designs continue to push cutting-edge technologies while remaining faithful to quality craftsmanship, an increasingly rare combination in the luxury-pen market. (Montblanc, for example, has made a conscious move toward the mechanization of certain collections in order to reach a wider market.)
Recognizing in Omas a great know-how and underdeveloped potential, longtime client Bernard Arnault acquired the Italian company for his LVMH group in 2000. Current president Eric Aliamus—a stylish Frenchman who before joining Omas in 2001 worked for Veuve Clicquot and Hermès—promises that this has changed little in the company's detailed production. "We have expanded production a bit," he says, "but we limit how many we do in order to maintain the exclusivity that's at the heart of this company."
For its pen production, Omas uses natural materials like ultralight cotton resin and volatile celluloid. The former, often replaced by industrial resin at other companies, is made of cotton fibers that create a naturally resilient surface. The result is a luminous quality and a warm feeling to the touch. More demanding is celluloid, a highly flammable material made of layered cellulose sheets. Workable only after a nine-month drying process invented by Simoni seven decades ago, celluloid has to be hand faceted, a painstaking process that craftsmen use on the body and caps of models such as the multisided Arte Italiana. Omas has been fashioning celluloid into pens since the company's founding, and it's well worth the effort: The result is a polished material that glistens like liquid marble.
"The amount of production behind these small objects is truly astounding," says Aliamus. "Making a feeder [the piece behind the nib that feeds the ink], for example, takes six months to learn, if you're clever. You cannot be off one tenth of a millimeter." In Omas' sprawling factory, now on the outskirts of Bologna, 45 highly skilled craftsmen and craftswomen produce 40,000 pens annually, a conservative number compared with other luxury pen companies. From the initial gold-leaf cutting to the final hand polish, it takes more than 100 different processes to create an Omas pen.
Once the bodies, caps, and clips have been produced with injection molding, faceting, and stamping machines, the parts slowly move through the assembly and customizing rooms where every step is performed by hand. A craftsman cuts three slender gold-leaf bands that fit perfectly around a pen's body; another presses a Hellenic frieze, the Omas logo, onto a tiny cartridge system. There's a craftswoman who sculpts the black ebonite ink feeders; another who patiently fits them onto the 18-karat nibs under a microscope. Additional attention is paid to the internal systems, especially the handmade piston filler, considered one of the best on the market.
Besides classic lines like Arte Italiana and Ogiva, a rounded fountain pen designed in 1927, Omas demonstrates a real 21st-century sensibility. Take the 360 collection, the most revolutionary line produced here since Simoni decided a fountain pen could have 12 sides. Aerodynamic, ergonomic, and best of all, triangular-shaped, the 360 pens are light and fit comfortably in the hand. The collection comes in discreet blue, black, and a striking translucent iceberg-white cotton resin ($425) or a swirling royal-blue celluloid ($890).
After two years of research, Omas fashioned T2, a pure form of titanium, into the intricate shapes of its top collections, Arte Italiana and 360. "They are a nightmare to produce," says Aliamus, "but recognizably unique." The triangular T2 model ($10,000) required three months of consolidated craftsmanship. The velvety 12-faceted T2, with its diamond-encrusted pin and diamond band ($2,900), may just be the most exquisite pen on the market today.
Echoing his grandfather's affinity for the one-of-a-kind, Malaguti Simoni also designed the modern 502 collection, slender silver pens whose clips are studded with a semiprecious stone. Lady, the tiny ballpoint version with a blue lapis, fits perfectly into a Filofax. "Our pens are never overstated," says Aliamus, whose favorites include any pen in the recently released romantic Venice blue. "The pens are elegant with a bit of fantasy, which I like to think of as the Italian touch."
The Italian touch is quite apparent in Omas' annual limited editions, inspired by a cultural theme and "the most artistic and astounding pens we can dream up," according to Malaguti Simoni. Last year, Omas created the fascinating Igegno Scrittorio fountain pen ($1,500 in silver; $5,500 in 18-karat gold) based on detailed sketches done by Leonardo da Vinci in 1498. Hand engraved with individually sculpted nibs and topped by a small sphere set with a tiger's-eye, the pen shows that the Renaissance master was experimenting with internal ink systems some 300 years before Lewis Waterman, who invented the first internal ink system, was even born. Atlantide, inspired by Plato's Timaeus, is a pinnacle of artistry—the 30 handmade editions were minutely sculpted out of solid 18-karat gold, wrapped around a crimson background, and sold at $30,000 each.
Limited editions also provide Omas with the opportunity to test new techniques. For the Casanova pen ($1,600 to $4,700), for example, Malaguti Simoni experimented until he managed to incorporate porcelain, hand-painted from the Italian workshop of Richard Ginori, into the pens' caps and bodies.
This year's innovative fall line includes a new celluloid combination of understated pearl-gray-and-white ($890) for the 360 collection, a smaller 360 Mezzo in vibrant amethyst ($295), and the Vision Ogiva ($250), a transparent cotton-resin pen boldly displaying the intricacy of its interior. "Omas pens are not meant tobe put under glass or admired as a status symbol," Aliamus says. "They are beautifully crafted objects for people who love to write."
Omas pens are available at the following: Joon, 782 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY, 212-935-1007; Fahrney's Pens, 1317 F Street NW, Washington, D.C., 800-336-4775; Flax Pen to Paper, 1078 Gaylay Avenue, Los Angeles, CA, 310-208-3529; Aspen's Pen Perfecto, 307 South Galena Street, Aspen,CO, 800-845-6291; or visit www.omas.com.
"I believe that a nice pen is an essential," says Omas' president Eric Aliamus. "The choice is incredibly personal, like selecting a great watch or getting a made-to-measure suit." Today's market certainly has an expansive assortment of fine writing instruments, ranging from elegant classics to sleek designer models and jeweled one-of-a-kinds. Here are eight of our own personal favorites.
Waterman's stylish Edson limited edition honors the company's 120th anniversary and is crafted from sterling silver with chiseled guilloche patterns ($1,000); Jorg Hysek's chic silver-finish fountain pen has a single diamond set into its body ($695); Cartier's feminine Ballpoint Pen Watch, a 2,000-piece limited edition in iridescent white and pink lacquers, features a tiny watch with a mother-of-pearl dial perched on the pen's top ($1,470); S.T. Dupont's handsome Orpheo Placed Metal fountain pen with platinum rings is finished in natural black Chinese lacquer ($550); Visconti's Wall Street, a 4,000-piece limited edition, is crafted from translucent blue or silver celluloid ($675); Montegrappa's playful Micra Diamond, in opalescent pink resin, has a tiny diamond band ($1,030); Montblanc's Nicolaus Copernicus—part of a limited edition of only 888—has white-gold ornamentation ($5,150); Namiki's artistic Autumn Flower, from the Emperor collection, is painstakingly hand-painted in traditional Japanese lacquer and gold ($6,500).