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By a Stroke of Luck, Fountain Pens Are Regaining Their Popularity

November 28, 2000|From Hartford Courant

In an age of Palm Pilots and voice-recognition word processing, how to explain the survival of the fountain pen?

Only slightly more high-tech than a feather and an inkwell, the fountain pen was given up for dead 50 years ago with the arrival of the ballpoint pen. The days of spilled ink were over. The days of losing cheap pens began.

But fountain pens are flourishing again.

While still a fraction of the overall pen market, fountain pens have rebounded strongly over the past two decades, with sales many years now running to 15 million pens, according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Assn. in Moorestown, N.J.

"Fountain pens disappeared, but now they are starting to resurge," said Chris Sullivan, president of Fahrney's Pens in Washington, D.C., which operates a retail store near the White House and distributes a catalog worldwide. "We're seeing sales increases every year."

Fahrney's has customers at the White House, Congress, various foreign embassies and at the National Press Club.

Besides the sales of new fountain pens, a huge market has emerged for old fountain pens, especially those from the 1920s and 1930s. One sold at auction in London recently for more than $150,000.

There are several reasons for the upswing, including one often cited--they are almost a reaction to computers. A fountain pen is a utilitarian object that is at the same time intensely personal and expressive.

"A fountain pen responds to your mood," said Diana Martens, manager of a Colorado Pen Co. store in Connecticut, one of 59 shops in a national chain that sells premium writing instruments. "When you write a note with a fountain pen, the person receiving it, if they know your handwriting, can tell if you are hurried or relaxed. It shows more emotion than any other writing instrument. And there is a romance to it. I don't think you can deny that."

Fountain pen sales at her store now account for upward of 50% of sales, Martens said, higher than many other stores in the chain.

"We're known as a fountain pen store," Martens said. "I think a lot of it has to do with being on the East Coast and in New England. And I think a lot of it also has to do with everybody's involvement with computers. The pendulum swings just as far the other way."

Fountain pens tend to be pricey, especially when compared with an office-issue ballpoint, which may cost less than 25 cents. But one fountain pen can be bought for as little as $2.98--the new disposable model sold by Pilot Pen Corp. of America, based in Trumbull, Conn.

At the other end of the spectrum, Pilot's Namiki fountain pens sell for as much as $6,500 each, and there are other fountain pens on the market costing considerably more. A high-quality fountain pen tends to run $75 and up.

Part of the charm is the choice of inks and writing tips, or nibs, each of which leaves a distinct line. Some fountain pen aficionados own dozens of pens and keep them in displaycases. Thousands of people collect the old fountain pens.

The older pens are more expressive because the nibs are often softer and more flexible, said Gary Lehrer of Woodbridge, Conn., who with his wife, Myrna, deals in vintage pens and published the Quarterly Vintage Pen Catalog.

"Most vintage fountain pens will not write the same for any two writers," he said. "Each person holds a pen differently and applies different pressure on different strokes. It supplies individualization to the writer, with depth and shadows and shadings that is uniquely theirs."

Fountain pens are also said to be less fatiguing, requiring only the gentlest touch to lay down a stylish and personal message. But people often worry that they will lose a fountain pen, just like the 25-cent ballpoints they lose every day.

Fountain pen enthusiasts are unanimous on that concern; fountain pens somehow don't disappear, or, at least, don't disappear as often.

"Once you become attached to it," said Sullivan, "you become aware of it at all times."

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