Why are fountain pen sales rising?

Fountain pen writing

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.

Quill pen Quill penmakers failed to innovate in the face of competition

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.

Neil Gaiman on his nibs

English author Neil Gaiman explains why he writes his novels with fountain pens

"It started in 1994 when I wrote the novel Stardust - in my head I wanted it to be written in the same way as it would have been in the 1920s, so I bought a big notepad and Waterman pen.

"It was the first time I'd used a fountain pen since I was about 13. I found myself enjoying writing more slowly and liked the way I had to think through sentences differently. I discovered I loved the fact that handwriting forces you to do a second draft, rather than just tidying up and deleting bits on a computer. I also discovered I enjoy the tactile buzz of the ritual involved in filling the pens with ink.

"Now when I write novels I have two fountain pens on the go, with two different colour inks. One is always my favourite, but I alternate between the two, so I can see what I have written each day. I also love the way people react when I sign books with fountain pens. I try to sign them in different colours such as brown, green or grey as it is really nice to show that it's obviously been done by a human being.

"I don't have any time for incredibly fancy pens and use a different 'lead' pen for each novel. Right now I am using a Twsbi, which is an incredibly robust but smooth writing pen from Taiwan. My current favourite is a Visconti because it has a magnet in the lid which goes clunk when I put the top on - I am easily satisfied. I probably have between 40 and 60 fountain pens, which is a bit silly, but once people are aware that you like them, they like to give them as gifts."

"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."

Waterman (1) Sheaffer (2) Parker (3) Faber-Castell (4) Sheaffer (5) Pelikan (6) Your nibs? From left: Waterman, Sheaffer, Parker, Graf von Faber-Castell, Sheaffer, Pelikan

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.

History of the fountain pen

Fountain pen on ink

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."

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.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    If the recipient of a letter were to be more impressed by the tools I used to write it than they were by the content, I would never write to them again.

    If our economy worsens much further, I expect the unemployment figures to be buoyed up by a resurgence of messengers, parchment makers and trumpeters. Won't his nibs' friends be impressed to receive "Happy Event, LOL" then!

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    They are sheer class.

    I used to have a Shaeffer but it became damaged so I've been a ballpen user ever since.

    Coming up to retirement I was asked what I would like as a parting gift from my colleagues. I've asked for a fountain pen.

    Just class!

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    The whole experience of a fountain pen is different to that of a biro or pencil. It takes no pressure, so you get beautiful, flowing, even lines. They're great to sketch with, and the fact that these lines cannot be reproduced properly lends a very human sense to anything in fountain pen. A digitally produced letter, I will assume, has been sent to everyone. A handwritten one is for me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    I love to write with my Rotring fountain pen given to me as an anniversary present, it's a far nicer experience than a cheap nasty throwaway biro
    Perhaps the satisfaction comes from using something with a nice solid feel to it that you know you'll still be using 10 years from now

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    I've used a fountain pen - not a cartridge pen - for nearly thirty years. It's much easier to write with, the grip is softer and the nib moves more easily over the paper than a ballpoint.
    I think the point of the revival is this; for lots of communication these days one doesn't write at all - one presses keys, Handwriting is reserved for those special communications that needs a fountain pen

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    Loading ink from a bottle rather than using cartridges allows you to mix inks and come up with your preferred colour. I have four pens on the go, magenta, cyan, blue-black and royal blue - but they vary and it's that variance from the norm that I find up-lifting. Maybe a bit sad?

  • rate this

    Comment number 435.

    it's sad that children these days won't get to experience the thrill of discovering a burst ink cartridge in their blazer pocket

    a leaked biro just isn't the same

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    Learning to write with a fountain pen was one of the adventures of starting secondary school. We all had to use them in year 7. As we got older, teachers didn't really care what pen we used, but most of us persisted with fountain pens for the GCSE and A-level years through force of habit. Despite the occasional mess, burst cartridge, leaky pen or smudge, they had a unique charm and classiness.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    Never really liked fountain pens. Ink all over the place and you have to be careful of smudging. They never seem to work very well and often leak. Always preferred rollerball pens or biros for note-taking at uni. If only we'd had computers then, I wouldn't have spent hours on a typewriter for essays. Hardly ever use a pen these days - can type much faster.

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    As a child in late fifties, and subsequently, taught my daughter, who is also a "leftie" there was nothing 2 teach us, ie. no left handed scissors, we had 2 learn the "righties" way

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    @ 428. Walijczyk

    "The fountain pen marketing people know exactly what buttons to press."

    Sir, you are a true cynic! If the fountain pen industry relied upon the type of mass marketing techniques that you are implying, it would have gone bust long ago! I suspect that fountain pens are very much a niche market populated by people who just enjoy using them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    If you're left handed just write backwards

    This always amazes the righties

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    As a left-handed person, I'm a little disappointed that so many of my compatriots are having difficulty with fountain pens. I use a Montblanc Meisterstück and have done for some 25 years; nothing better in my experience. Whilst I can use decent paper for correspondence, etc. the quality of paper in general use for forms and the like is so poor that we are sometimes forced to use ball-points

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    What a bunch of saps!

    The fountain pen marketing people know exactly what buttons to press.

    Dance puppets, dance!

    I've got a quill here. Yours for a tenner. It's traditional, it's authentic, it's exclusive, it's classy.

    Buy this and you will feel fulfilled (until next time I've got something to flog you).

  • rate this

    Comment number 427.

    where do you find right-handed nibs for us lefties?

  • rate this

    Comment number 426.

    I remember the blue fingers more than anything

    They used to have a rubber bulb wrapped a stiff bit of spring metal for sucking up ink

    I used it for about a week, too messy
    Fine for ceremonial sign-offs
    Useless for practical work

  • rate this

    Comment number 425.

    I absolutely love fountain pens. They have been my favourite for so many years. My grandfather, although classed as blind, due to being very short-sighted, did calligraphy and was always asked to write out the certificates for special events. I used to love seeing his work in Old English text, as that was my favourite. Maybe I get it from there? I bought a cheap one recently with an italic nib!

  • rate this

    Comment number 424.

    My problem is that I'm so heavy-handed with a pen that I even make biros blot! Much as I love them, a fountain pen nib doesn't have a chance. A roller ball with a steel tip is the only thing that works for me.

  • Comment number 423.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 422.

    They glide along so much easier, the ink reduces friction unlike the tacky gloop they put in a ballpoint.

    Being a left hander creates a challenge and it's why many of us write with our hands hooked back.


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