Why are fountain pen sales rising?
Published: 22nd May 2012 12:07:45
You might expect that email and the ballpoint pen had killed the fountain pen. But sales are rising, so is the fountain pen a curious example of an old-fashioned object surviving the winds of change?
For many people, fountain pens bring back memories of school days full of inky fingers, smudged exercise books and piles of pink blotting paper.
But for others, a fat Montblanc or a silver-plated Parker is a treasured item. Prominently displayed, they are associated with long, sinuous lines of cursive script.
Sales figures are on the up. Parker, which has manufactured fountain pens since 1888, claims a worldwide "resurgence" in the past five years, and rival Lamy says turnover increased by more than 5% in 2011.
Online retailer Amazon says sales so far this year have doubled compared with the same period in 2011. They are four times higher than 2010.
Stationery giant Ryman has seen a 10% increase in fountain pen sales over the last six weeks compared with the same period last year.
But the rush to fountain pens is not part of a wider handwriting boom. Sales of ballpoint pens are stable.
Instead the fountain pen is a classic story of how an object's status is affected by waves of new technology.
Fountains pens once ruled, but by the 1960s the perfection of ballpoint pen technology established a remorseless rival. It would have taken an optimistic soul then to predict anything other than extinction for the fountain pen - a trip to the technological graveyard alongside the quill pen or the mangle.
But they didn't die. The way people think about them has changed and is still changing.
"The relationship we have with a fountain pen is changing from it being a working tool towards more of an accessory," says Gordon Scott, vice-president for office products at Parker pens in Europe, the Middle East and Asia.
It is difficult to be specific about its origins, says Andreas Lambrou, author of Fountain Pens of the World. "It came into vogue after the manufacture of the first steel nib took over from the quill.
"In the mid-19th Century, Birmingham was the strongest manufacturing city in the world for the steel nib. You had to keep ink next to you and once dipped, the pen would only write about one or two lines.
"This remained popular until the early 1900s and then the stylographic pen was developed, which carried its own ink. At this time there was a proliferation of fountain pen designs and filling mechanisms, but they were not very good writers and the ink flow wasn't smooth. In 1883, American LE Waterman invented what we know as the 'first practical pen', apparently after he got annoyed because a contract he was signing was ruined by a blot of ink.
"The US led the market for a while with companies such as Waterman, Parker and Sheaffer.
"Then in Europe, in particular UK, companies sprang up and they gradually developed their own designs and materials. Germany was very strong in the field, with Montblanc for example. Nowadays the manufacture is very strong in Europe and weaker in the US.
"We have seen a resurgence of popularity in the last 10 to 15 years. Who knows whether this is because people expect a greater range of pens, or whether it's from nostalgia - we have seen greater production of vintage-style pens, for example."
"People want the memory of a fountain pen in a contemporary pen."
Somehow, the fountain pen became a luxury item and found a niche.
If a president signs a treaty, they don't do it with a Bic Cristal. If you give a loved one a pen, your thoughts might be more fountain than ballpoint.
It is the stuff of graduation presents and good luck on your first day at work.
And those who buy them for themselves are making a very self-conscious choice. They are saying: "I want to write in the old way."
Daily Telegraph readers recently created their own appreciation society after one letter writer asked: "When did you last see someone using a fountain pen?"
The question prompted a wave of heartfelt testimonies from fanatical fountain penmen.
The fountain pen has had to deal with both the ballpoint menace and the general threat to handwriting from the rise of email and other electronic messaging types.
But for the aficionados, an iridium nib is a statement.
They are "simple and honest" in a world governed by ubiquitous modern computer technology, says Martin Roberts, of online pen specialist The Writing Desk.
"There is a McDonald's on every High Street but it does not prevent people from enjoying good, simple, home-cooked food."
In the early years of the ballpoint threat, fountain penmakers tried price wars and innovation but failed to stem the tide. What stemmed it was a hardcore of affection.
When the typewriter makers fought their last-ditch battle against the personal computer, they failed. Gimmicks such as electronic screens or automated liquid paper dispensing were no match for the attacker.
But the fountain pen found a way.
Sharon Hughes, a buyer for John Lewis, says people relish returning to solid, traditional objects to make sense of a difficult and complex world.
"They are an old-fashioned thing but people like the personal touch. It is nice for things to be handwritten and not having everything via email," she says.
According to Eva Pauli, from German manufacturer Lamy, the digitisation of everyday life has led to a change in writing by hand.
"Writing is becoming more and more exclusive and personal. This will probably be the reason that some people speak of a comeback of the fountain pen," she says.
"From our perspective, it has never really gone. In many European countries, the students continue to learn to write by hand with a pen."
Doctors, lawyers and teachers have long used them to bestow an extra layer of respectability to official documents.
In the world of business too, a good fountain pen can be seen as declaration of intent.
Dragons' Den regular Peter Jones is thought to favour a Yard-O-Led Viceroy, which sells for about £500.
And Nick Hewer, Lord Sugar's adviser in the BBC series The Apprentice, is often seen chewing on the end of his Lamy pen as he takes notes on the misadventures of candidates.
In an interview with the Daily Express he said: "I'm not one for ostentatious treaty-signing type pens but I do think in business making an effort with the little things sends out a signal that you are serious about what you are doing."
Others argue that writing "properly" is connected to standards of etiquette and politeness.
But not everyone is a fan of fountain pens.
If you're writing on a Post-It Note or a clipboard or filling in a form today, you'll probably use a ballpoint. To a vast majority, fountain pens are an affectation.
It used to be the case that schools forced pupils to use them. That has long fallen by the wayside.
One headmaster at a school in Stockport even made headlines because he banned GCSE pupils from using fountain pens over concerns it would affect their exam performance.
But there are still traditionalists who associate them with a disciplined learning environment.
Bryan Lewis, headmaster of The Mary Erskine and Stewart's Melville junior school in Edinburgh, requires that all written work in the final two years is completed using a fountain pen.
He admits it is difficult for 10-year-olds brought up on the latest computer technology to get to grips with fountain pen writing but says the practice is part of children "aspiring to be excellent".
"Life is about challenge and hard work and we are doing children a disservice if we let standards drop," he says.
And does Lewis use one himself?
"I have been using a fountain pen all morning to write school reports," he says.
Harvard CitationBBC News, 2012. Why are fountain pen sales rising?. [Online] (Updated 22 May 2012)
Available at: http://www.manchesterwired.co.uk/news.php/1430198-Why-are-fountain-pen-sales-rising [Accessed 10th May 2013]
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