monte blanc pen Remember Fountain Pens
It’s Friday, just before noon, at the Montblanc customer service center here in Hunterdon County. Seven technicians in starched white lab coats repair gold nibs on fountain pens or casings on ballpoints that owners have sent in. Except for the sound of pens gliding across paper, all is still.
Montblanc, a 94 year old German company, set up its North American subsidiary in New Jersey in 1992. Along with the customer service center here, the executive offices in Chatham and a warehouse distribution center in Edison make up Montblanc North America, where 70 people promote a product that is the antithesis of the Internet.
And while anything that doesn’t have a mouse or modem attached to it may seem like a hard sell, the company which also offers writing accessories, leather goods and watches plans to add workers and stores in the next two to three years.
Though there are no statistics on the luxury pen market, the overall industry is on a roll. Annual sales of products ranging from fountain pens and markers to ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils rose from $1.7 billion in 1995 to $2.3 billion in 1998, according to the latest figures from the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association.
That backlash is fodder for Montblanc, which promotes pens as a way for people ”to add balance to their lives,
” said Karsten Martens, 36, president and chief executive of Montblanc North America.
Montblanc is not the biggest pen maker; that position belongs to Bic. But it does dominate the luxury market and ”is the most widely recognized name,” said James Ogilvy, publisher of Luxury Briefing, a business magazine published in Scotland.
It is also one of the few manufacturers that still crafts its solid gold nibs by hand. Each is engraved with the numbers 4,180, the height in meters of Mount Blanc.
Today, Montblanc makes 275 different pens, from $110 to $125,000. (The latter is solid 18 karat gold, studded with diamonds.) The pens,
each with the company’s six sided white star trademark, a symbolic snow covered peak, have become sought after collectibles and status symbols.
”Fifteen years ago it would have been unthinkable to see a pen sell for over $100,000,” Mr. Martens conceded. ”But today it is seen as a fine piece of jewelry.” And there seems to be no shortage of money being spent on luxury items.
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”People are saying that luxury items are worth paying for,” Mr. Ogilvy said.
But Kurt Barnard, a retail analyst in Upper Montclair and publisher of Barnard Retail Trends Report, countered, ”Most people prefer to use any old pen, regardless of price, given the objective is simply to write.” Still, in some cases, an expensive Montblanc pen ”possibly proclaims that the owner is a little different from the crowd,
” said Mr. Barnard, who owns a Montblanc handed down to him from his father.
”I’m a traditionalist,” said Alberto Rinaldis, a computer consultant from Morristown, acknowledging that using a $700 stainless steel Montblanc fountain pen for business is a bit of a dichotomy given his profession. ”I like the quality of the pen, and that because it’s atypical, other businesspeople take notice.” To a degree ”it’s a sign of success,” he added, almost reluctantly.
The company controls about half the market for fine pens and pencils. And in the last few years it has built its brand by expanding into leather goods and watches.
The privately held company, owned by the Vendome Luxury Group of London, will not release sales figures. But Mr. Martens said the North America operation grew 35 percent over the past year, consistent with double digit increases in the past five years.
The company plans to increase its employees to 100 and more than double its stores in North America, to 55 from 26. That includes a second store in New Jersey;
there is one in the Short Hills mall now.
While Montblanc’s diversification has helped it grow, its fountain pens remain the heart and soul. The most recognizable is the No. 149 Meisterstuck (”Masterpiece”). Though the nibs take 150 steps to make, production of the pens’ inner workings has been modernized.
Montblanc is one of the few survivors of the German pen industry, which was shattered by two world wars. Montblanc came first to Bloomsbury in 1978 through its American distributor, Koh I Nor, an art supply concern whose parent company was Montblanc’s neighbor in Hamburg. That relationship lasted until 1992 when Montblanc formed its North America subsidiary.
While the company set up its management and distribution operations in Chatham and Edison to be closer to Manhattan and Newark Airport, the customer service center stayed in Bloomsbury. Mr. Martens said that as part of the company’s expansion, he hoped to consolidate all the operations, probably in Chatham.
Until then, pens keep flowing into the Bloomsbury center for repair. Joyce M. Workman, vice president of customer service, tells some quirky war stories, like the pen that accidentally landed inside a monkey cage on the owner’s visit to the zoo,
or the one that fell into a deep fryer while the owner was making dinner. People develop an attachment to their pens, she said.