Montblanc pens

Montblanc is the brand that most people associate with fine pens, but it is also the brand that many pen enthusiasts love to hate. Why should this be so?

It may be simple snobbery, like the reaction that some people might have to your bringing a package of Laughing Cow to a fine cheese tasting. I think, though, that there is a more subtle mechanism at work.

Above all, owning a Montblanc appears to be about status for many folks. It's a bit like owning a Jaguar car. Even as you relish the luxury and exclusivity, you realize that the Jaguar won't drive much better than a Ford Taurus, and will stay in the shop far more often. Yet, you may look upon these drawbacks as a sort of perverse status symbol, saying in effect, "I'm so well off that I can afford a high-maintenance, unreliable car that has to be coddled."


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1950s model 342

1970s stainless steel Noblesse

Meisterstück 149

There are plenty of exclusive pens of high quality and reputation that you can only find at a specialist dealer. Montblanc (or "Mahblah" as some wags call the firm) has taken a different path: they have established the brand as an icon of luxury goods while at the same time making sure the products are very widely distributed in the mass market. The Hamburg firm has seen to it that every duty-free, jeweler's, and gift shop in the known world displays their products prominently; they're even selling them down at Sam's Club (amid the 55-gallon drums of industrial degreaser and 100-pound sacks of rice), and I'm betting on seeing them soon at the local feed-and-grain supplier.

Okay, so Montblancs are heavily hyped; does this make them bad? To be sure, vintage Montblancs are great pens, very collectable and highly-prized, but there are nagging questions about their more recent production. In discussions on the 'net and elsewhere, I've seen too many complaints about cracking caps, flaking gold, and nibs that refuse to write properly to be dismissed as random noise. Their warranty lags far behind even more pedestrian brands such as Sheaffer. There does seem to be a problem in quality, or at the very least the perception of such a problem (which I suppose amounts to the same thing) among serious pen enthusiasts. This is not exactly a desirable state of affairs for a company that positions itself as the ne plus ultra of writing instruments.

Tellingly, an apparently-official Montblanc FAQ list that I once saw spent a great deal of bandwidth on the topic of their instruments leaking, skipping, clogging, and jamming (and why these problems are probably your fault), as well as explaining why the uses you want to put them to (such as calligraphy) aren't suitable.

This is all the more puzzling since Montblanc has been making essentially the same pen (i.e., the Meisterstück in its various versions) for over five decades now, so you'd think they'd have it down cold by now.

Okay, enough bashing (for now). Montblanc is too busy carrying their deposits to the bank (probably in tasteful leather satchels) to worry about what you or I think about their products.

Meisterstück 149

Historywise, Montblanc is one of the few survivors (along with Pelikan and Lamy) of the large and diverse German fountain pen industry, which was laid waste by two world wars with fifteen or so years of profound economic depredation in between. Montblanc's products are thoroughly representative of German pens: conservative in style, heavily built, and expensive.

The company started business in Hamburg around 1909 as the Simplo Filler Company; a couple of years later, Simplo adopted "Montblanc" as a trade name. Their first products were safety and eyedropper pens using hard rubber barrels and caps and US-made gold points. By the 1920s, Montblanc had brought point production in-house and offered a variety of models , including Rouge et Noir, Simplo, and Diplomat; the top of the line was the Meisterstück, or "Masterpiece" series, which differed from their other pens mainly in having a lifetime guarantee, and the cryptic numerals "4810" engraved on the cap or the point -- actually, 4810 is the height in meters of the real Mont Blanc, and the famous "snowflake" motif on the cap derby was also meant to be identified with the peak of the mountain.

Although Montblanc carried on making safety pens for the conservative German market until well into the 1930s, they also offered button and lever fill, and superseding these a twist filler similar to that adopted by Pelikan some years before.

Montblanc was hit hard by World War II, but recommenced production soon after war's end and spent several years producing exclusively for export. The company briefly made a pen with liquid ink and a ruby sphere point, the forerunner of today's rolling ball designs.

The 1980s saw Montblanc rocket to the top of the charts, becoming the same kind of icon for the pen industry that Rolex is for watches and Rolls-Royce for automobiles. The firm has been commemorating this success with a continuing series of limited editions (some of which, to their credit, actually seem to reflect some awareness of the history and legacy of the firm).

This file last posted on:
2005-Jan-20 17:50:26 CST
MCMVIII, the red network