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Inside the world of Montblanc and its famous fountain pens

Montblanc's history goes back to, roughly, the beginning of the history of the modern fountain pen itself

Jack Forster | Bloomberg 

Montblanc (Photo: Reuters)

The notion of as a watch manufacturer has now been around long enough that most of us have gotten used to the idea — I think, on that issue, that there are always going to be those who object on philosophical grounds, but there are some hearts and minds you're never going to win no matter how hard you try. The fact remains, however, that has indeed been primarily a maker of instruments for most of its history, and that aspect of the company is one that most of us who know as a watch manufacturer, may not know as well.

My first Montblanc was a grad school graduation gift from my wife — a Meisterstück 149, which is as iconic a pen in the world of instruments, as, say, the Royal Oak or Submariner are in the world of watches or a 911 in the automotive realm. The only time it's been out of sight is when I was careless enough to drop it, uncapped, a meter and a half onto asphalt; it landed point down, and the nib got badly bent. Montblanc's New York boutique sent it back to Hamburg for repair and I got it back in a week, working just fine, no charge (watch companies, take note). I suppose I ought to admit that at one point I had about sixty vintage and modern pens, which eventually struck me as excessive, and I de-acquisitioned most of them, but I still have the 149. After carrying it for most of my working life, it, and I, returned to its birthplace, in Hamburg, Germany, to visit the Montblanc nib-making factory as well as the Montblanc Museum.

Montblanc's history goes back to, roughly, the beginning of the history of the modern fountain pen itself. as they exist today, first started to appear towards the end of the 19th century and really began to take off in the early 20th; all share certain basic characteristics. First, they all use water soluble, water based inks (you can ruin a fountain pen by filling it with the wrong ink). Second, they all have a reservoir for the ink, which can be the barrel of the pen itself, or a flexible rubber sac; nowadays the majority of use disposable ink cartridges (which purist pen enthusiasts tend to look down on a bit). There have been, over the last century, a wide range of filling systems as well, including lever, piston, so-called "touch-down" and snorkel filling systems, and so on. Third, they all have a nib — this is the flexible metal tip, which has a tiny slit down its centreline.

A fountain pen relies on capillary action to work — this is the tendency of liquids to flow through narrow spaces thanks to adhesion between the fluid, and the wall of the narrow space through which it flows. More expensive fountain pens have nibs made of 18k or 14k gold, and the point is generally tipped with a tiny ball made of an alloy of one of the platinum group metals (osmium, iridium, and ruthenium are all in the platinum group) otherwise the tip would wear away very quickly.

There were precursors to the modern fountain pen that had certain elements of what we know as the fountain pen today, but it wasn't until the late 1880s that recognisably modern fountain pens began to appear. In the beginning, they were generally just simple tubes (usually made of vulcanised rubber) which could be filled with an eyedropper; by the turn of the century, however, the development of filling systems using pistons or inflatable rubber bladders had begun. Montblanc got its start when three German partners created the Simplizissiumus-Füllhalter pen company in 1906, which changed its name to Simplo Filler Pen Co. GMBH in 1907, at the same time it moved from Berlin to Hamburg. The company's first pen was the Rouge et Noir safety pen. Safety pens are so-called because they have a retractable nib; when the nib is telescoped into the barrel and the cap screwed down, the pen is sealed against leakage.

First Published: Sat, April 07 2018. 21:45 IST