The digital age is replete with paradox. It has made many of us impatient, insouciant and all about the instant gratification, yet we also place great value on the traditional (think vinyl and watches) and the tailor-made (suits, shirts and shoes). From handmade and limited-edition products to bespoke experiences, true luxury has become synonymous with one-off, personalised and unusual pieces. And a rare pen – that mighty bastion of an analogue era – sits firmly in the premium-product category, with collectors regularly seeking out investment-worthy instruments.
This might explain why stationery is an important market for both age-old auction houses and modern-day shopping portals. "Many of our clients say they appreciate fine pens precisely because they represent a respite from the digitisation of everything. The very act of using a fountain pen is, in a sense, a small rebellion against the trivialisation of the art of writing," says Ivan Briggs, director of writing instruments at Bonhams auction house. "In contrast to the blitheness of dashing off a quick text or tweet, using a fine pen makes one keenly aware of the value of self-expression. One tends to slow down, to become mindful of one's penmanship, to select one's words more carefully, and to gather and develop one's thoughts more thoroughly. The act of writing becomes intensely personal, providing an oasis in the midst of hectic modern life."
Likewise, from a receiver's point of view, getting a handwritten note, card or letter holds far more meaning. The printed type of a digital message simply cannot match the sentiment that can be conveyed through ink on paper.
From an investment viewpoint, the preciousness of a pen is directly proportional to its rarity. Accordingly, an upcoming Bonhams auction will include such specimens as a Pilot-Namiki maki-e pen from the 1930s decorated with a Japanese fan motif, by artist Shogo; and a Parker Ultra-Giant hard-rubber fountain pen, circa 1905, which holds a red Baby pen within its barrel. Although the latter is fully functional, it's too large to comfortably write with, and will work best as a display piece.
The December auction will also offer at least two Montblanc instruments, including the Montblanc 75th Anniversary 18K gold Skeleton, modelled on the company's classic Meisterstück; and a Montblanc for BMW Centennial Skeleton. The pens are estimated to sell for between US$15,000 and $35,000 (up to Dh128,500) a pop. The most expensive pair of pens ever sold by Bonhams were the Dunhill-Namiki Emperor-Sized Golden Tiger and Black Cat A-Grade Maki-e Fountain Pens from the early 1930s, which went for just over $300,000 (Dh1.1 million) in 2015.
"Its appeal as a collectible aside, a pen can also be a wise investment option. Writing instruments are a globally collected product, and tend to hold their value over time. The fact that each has its own story, told through carefully crafted design details, colours and materials, very much adds to their collectability," says Franck Juhel, president of Montblanc Middle East, India & Africa.
In fact, no mention of luxury pens would be complete without referencing Montblanc. Every instrument that the German luxury house has released over the past century has been handcrafted in its Hamburg outfit. Each year, Montblanc also produces special and limited-edition pens across three categories, dedicated to a Patron of Arts, Writer and Great Character.
This year's Patron of Arts, for example, is Italian cardinal Scipione Borghese, the 17th-century collector of Baroque art. The granite barrel of the tribute pen has been crafted to mirror the multicoloured pattern of the marble floors of the grandiose rooms in Rome's Galleria Borghese. The Montblanc Writer's Edition 2017, meanwhile, pays homage to author and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and references his Caudron Simoun monoplane through engravings on the night blue, precious resin barrel and cap, which are reminiscent of the aircraft's rivets.
"Writing will always be part of our lives. And collectors are as individual as the writing instruments they collect. So we have those who focus on one particular collection, such as Patron of Arts, while others seek fountain pens across the collections," says Juhel. "We have an amazing young collector in the UAE, who only wants Montblanc rollerball writing instruments, and another who wants pens crafted in a specific material. The ultimate collectible would be a unique piece – a writing instrument of which only one has been crafted," he adds.
For first-time buyers, a pen from a special-edition collection, which is based on a theme that appeals to your personality and lifestyle, is a good starting point. The options are almost limitless, and range from the Chinese opera and Charlie Chaplin to golf and Gandhi. Italian company Montegrappa, for example, has limited-edition lines dedicated to the 60th anniversary of the UEFA Champions League, Game of Thrones characters, Ernest Hemingway and the Egyptian deity Thoth, who was said to have invented the alphabet. Luxury e-tailer Mr Porter offers the Kingsman pen, based on the movie franchise, created in collaboration with British manufacturer Conway Stewart – the gold cap of the instrument is engraved with the secret spy establishment's moniker: "Oxfords not Brogues".
Personalisation is another great way to ensure the one-offness of your pen. This can take the form of monogrammed text, etched-on images and bespoke nibs, or pre-decided materials, designs and even precious stones, to construct an entire pen based on individual specifications, the value of which will be priceless to its owner. While every Montblanc nib has the number 4810 engraved on it, a reference to the Alpine Mont Blanc mountain's height, the company also has a service that enables the individualisation of a fountain pen's nib, based on a buyer's loops, angles and writing pressure.
As with most collectibles, research is a must. "There are many excellent books, magazines and websites devoted to fine pens. My advice is to do your research and then buy the pen that speaks to your interests. The key thing is to identify your tastes and then buy the best within your category and price range. If you're buying with an eye to future resale, make certain to keep the pen in excellent condition, preferably uninked, and retain the sometimes elaborate packaging material and paperwork, as collectors are sticklers for completeness," says Bonhams' Briggs.
Montblanc regularly brings its collectors from all over the world together, for dinners and launch events. “There really is a dynamic world of collectors, which most people are quite unaware of until they become a part of it,” says Juhel. “But it is very much alive, and often multigenerational. Many young collectors follow in the footsteps of their fathers or mothers, who have instilled in them an appreciation for the handmade craftsmanship of writing instruments, which our collectors share an intricate interest in, knowledge of and, often, friendly rivalry for.”