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Montblanc

Montblanc is the one 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?

Probably this is due to a sort of reverse snobbery, engendered by the company's flight to the top of the luxury-goods pantheon. Some of us can remember when Montblanc was a full-line penmaker, and it rankles a bit that they would so blithely write off decades of offering less-expensive (but still high-quality) goods. Now, the Montblanc name seems a sort of shibboleth, to be quietly whispered in marble-lined boutique hallways, a password to the good life. Montblanc's promotion seems more focused on touting the brand rather than the products.

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 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 to which you might want to put them (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.

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 one of their numerous trade names. 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 piston filler similar to that adopted by Pelikan some years before. All in all, the range was quite wide.

Did Montblanc make "Nazi pens?"

I'm asked this question often enough to feature my answer here. I've never seen, or even heard about, Montblanc pens that featured Nazi regalia, although such things were common enough during the period, even on humble products like table radios (the famous Volkswagen Beetle could also be said to have been a Nazi product). Montblanc was a German company, selling primarily to Germans, among whom were lots of Nazi Party members; furthermore, it is certainly possible that they made pens to order with Nazi iconography as gifts or for formal presentations. Still, on the other hand, we must consider the case of one of the most famous known owners of a Montblanc pen during the 1940s: young Anne Frank, who wrote with and about her pen in her famous diary (hey, Richemont, can we get an Anne Frank commemorative maybe?)

The end of World War II found Montblanc's facilities heavily damaged by allied bombing. In general, the years on either side of V-E day were pretty grim ones for most Germans (and most German companies), and even the mighty Montblanc pens were forced to go around with steel points rather than gold ones. Nevertheless, the company struggled through the dark years, and in 1948 launched its most famous line of Meisterstück pens: the 140 series. These were joined by other modern models as the company produced mainly for export during the 1950s.

The company briefly made a pen with both liquid ink and a ruby sphere point, the forerunner of today's rolling ball designs.

During the 1960s, many of Montblanc's top-line pens showed the influence of contemporary Parker models, with bulging barrels, snap caps, and flattened ends; Montblanc continued to use its open wing point and piston fillers (augmented by cartridge filling on some less expensive models).

Montblanc made less expensive pens under "junior" brands like Monterosa, but by the 1970s, the Montblanc name found its way onto pens at most price points (I once owned a fanciful student pen called the "Carrera," orange and black with a drilled steel clip, it looked like the hot rods that young European males were driving around in those days).

The year 1977 was a turning point for Montblanc, as they were taken over by frequent partner and minority shareholder Dunhill of London. Thenceforth, the lower-priced pens were dropped from the line as the company focused on its luxury offerings. Wide distribution and astute promotion helped the brand grow in esteem. During these years, Montblanc began to offer "spinoff" items, such as cufflnks, leather goods, and even watches. Eventually, both Dunhill and Montblanc were absorbed by the Swiss luxury-goods combine Richemont (which now also includes penmakers Cartier and Montegrappa).

New pens to appear under Richemont management included the entry-level Generations, a sort of warmed-over 1960s Meisterstück design, as well as the Noblesse Oblige (a luxurized update of the Noblesse), along with a carload of precious-metal overlay versions of the familiar 140 series. These were augmented by a flurry of limited-edition pens honoring various writers, artists, and the like. Near the turn of the millennium, Montblanc offered an all-new model called the Bohème, a cartridge-only pen styled like an old safety pen. Later came the Starwalker (another cartridge-only pen with a more masculine appeal) as well as the Scenium ballpoints and pencils.

Montblanc finds itself in a difficult position vis-a-vis the technology of the internet (and no, I'm not talking about their white-starred PDA stylus). Whereas during the 1980s and 1990s it sold its products through a huge variety of dealers (even including my local warehouse store), it has more recently tightened up its dealer network. It strictly vets its dealer force, and requires them to refrain from advertising prices over the internet (although you can usually get quotes via phone or e-mail). It provides an "authorized dealer seal" that all dealers must display, perhaps to combat the widespread (and increasingly accurate) counterfeiting that plagues the brand.

(c) 1996-2004 Richard C. Conner. All rights reserved.