Style: Fountain Pens for Writing the Right Way

As someone who looks deeply beneath the surface of things, I have been obsessed for some years by the great philosophical question: when did expensive pens become "prestige writing instruments?" I trace this development to the early 1990s, when two things happened. On a macrocosmic plane, the Internet and e-mail created a seismic shift in the way we communicate. Reason would suggest that the arrival of the Internet would have pealed the pen's death knell. But the world of luxury goods operates according to an almost perverse logic, whereby the moment technology threatens obsolescence, the law of elegant futility kicks in. So the proliferation of e-mail has been fabulous for ultraluxury pens, turning them into prestige writing instruments by liberating the correspondent from the need to communicate on paper and thereby making the use of a pen a choice.

On a microcosmic level, the other event occurred when Hamburg-based Montblanc, run by Norbert Platt, opened a stand-alone shop in Hong Kong in 1990. Platt's genius was to recognize that there was an appetite for yet more expensive pens and to expand on the company's elegant Meisterstück model with a panoply of precious metal and gem-set pens that took prices into four and five figures. He also understood that such objects could not be sold in traditional stationers and took the bold step of opening Montblanc shops worldwide. This allowed him to send the message that buying Montblanc "says I am a cultured person, and successful," says Platt, now the CEO of Montblanc's parent company, the Richemont Group.

At about the same time, the market for vintage pens was gaining in stature. As these relics caught on, their look and feel began to influence the current market and design of modern fountain pens. Indeed, some of the most coveted and collectable implements are Alfred Dunhill's Namiki pens: elaborately lacquered pieces first sold in the 1920s that are still made and sold in extremely limited quantities today, fetching in the region of £50,000 apiece.

But these last 10 to 15 years have seen growth in the vast market between Montblanc's popular Meisterstück and the rare Namiki. Cartier can point to a heritage of stunningly decorative instruments. And even luggage maker Louis Vuitton has managed to make a very good writing-instrument business for itself. Then there has been the growth of boutique brands like Montegrappa, Omas and Tibaldi—low-volume makers with an emphasis on collectors' pieces. It is in the detail that the appeal of these brands resides. At Montegrappa (which is now also owned by Richemont), for instance, much is made of the process of polishing the clips and caps in seed-filled barrels, while the engraver responsible for the one-off pieces lives in near seclusion and is said not to drink coffee before starting work.

Limited editions have increasingly come into vogue, sometimes linked to historical or fictitious figures. James Bond, of course, has been honored with a Dupont pen in gunmetal with a laser-pointed bullet stored in the barrel. And Tibaldi launched a pen in association with Sony Pictures for the film "The Da Vinci Code," with the gold version selling for more than €20,000. Other brands have created limited editions using evocative materials, such as mammoth tusk, metal from a Spitfire warplane or wood from famous wine barrels.

Clients are becoming more demanding not just of a pen's exterior design, but also of its mechanics, which have remained fairly uniform. Nibs, for instance, have become the subject of intense debate, with the use of gold considered of much more than cosmetic value; put simply, the higher the carat, the softer the nib, the more easily it fits the user's style.

As a watch enthusiast I'm not surprised to see what could be another trend: extreme luxury sports pens. Made by Dunhill, the Explorer boasts a high-pressure refill that can be used at minus 20 degrees Celsius. It also sports an artificial flint incorporated in the barrel that, when struck against the carbonized gnurled steel ring at the top of the cap, creates a spark. And the pen can be taken into the wild in a tube filled with protective techno-gel and equipped with a carabiner clip. This instrument, in other words, can withstand conditions that would kill its user. Upon returning home, the explorer can replace the ballpoint with a fountain-pen element, allowing him to write his memoirs in style … provided, of course he has not lost too many digits to frostbite.