In the age of email, it is hard enough to predict a future for the disposable Biro, let alone the likes of a fountain pen. And yet perhaps one design over all others has become an icon, such that its symbolism is greater than any utility it may offer in simply letting someone set words to paper. It holds a place in New York’s Museum of Modern Art, for example. Ernest Hemingway and John F. Kennedy always carried one, as did James Bond in the cinematic ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ and ‘Octopussy’. It might even be said to have historic weight: the German Department of Foreign Affairs in Berlin keeps two on stand-by, for the signing of international agreements of import. Former USSR President Gorbachev used one to sign in the era of glasnost.
The pen is a Montblanc, whose white-tipped cap – with its six points representing the six glaciers around Europe’s highest peak, after which the company takes its name – has become something of a status symbol in its own right, poking out of a breast pocket to signal its user’s select choice. But, more than that, it is specifically the Meisterstuck 149, its most hefty, fat-barrelled model, bearing the number ‘4810’ on its nib – the height of Mont Blanc in metres, but also suggesting the supremacy of the product.
That has, to some extent, been the result of pioneering brand marketing for the fountain pen business. When Hamburg-based stationer Claus Johannes Voss, salesman Alfred Nehemias and engineer August Eberstein joined forces to form the Simplo Filler Pen Company in 1906, their first model, the Rouge Et Noir of 1909, had a distinctive red cap. The following year they launched a model called the Mont Blanc, one so successful they renamed the company after it, as Montblanc. This set them on the path to the Meisterstuck, a pen about to turn 95. And still going strong.
But this was also the height of fountain pen design in more than just packaging. The trio behind the pen may have followed a long tradition of German invention when it came to writing instruments – Daniel Schwenter prototyped the idea of a pen that carried its own ink supply back in 1636, with the notion of a quill set inside another quill and sealed with cork. But it took the Montblanc team to combine the latest advances – iridium-tipped nibs, rubber than did not go brittle and ink that did not clog – into one product, finally making the Meisterstuck the reliable, portable writing instrument a more mobile society was seeking. Look closely, and such a pen is not the archaic device some might dismiss it as being. Like a mechanical watch, it’s a marvel of small-scale engineering.