Just the right touch: A celebration of the fountain pen

CorrespondentMay 25, 2013 

  • Details

    What: Triangle Pen Show

    Where: Embassy Suites Hotel, 201 Harrison Oaks Blvd., Cary.

    When: 1-7 p.m. Friday; 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m.-5 p.m. June 2.

    Cost: $10 per person; $15 per couple; free for children 12 and under.

    Info: 614-619-5025 or raleighpenshow.com

The digital age is relentless – the succession of laptops and electronic tablets, the torrent of emails and tweets.

How then to explain the 10th annual Triangle Pen Show, a celebration of the fountain pen?

“There is a yearning for a mode of communication that slows the pace, that gives time for quiet thought and reflection,” says Scott Franklin, owner of Franklin-Christoph, a luxury-goods company in Raleigh that has put fountain pens at the center of its product line.

The show at Cary’s Embassy Suites Hotel is Friday through June 2. If recent shows are any indication, this next one will attract several hundred pen users, collectors, retailers and manufacturers.

Franklin will be prominent among them, for he is helping to revive an American tradition: the fountain pen as industrial art form. It may be fair to say that, in gross outline, fountain pens are no more than sticks. Yet they so summon the imagination of their designers that a pen of one style or another may become for its user an object of obsessive delight. Franklin produces fountain pens sufficiently distinctive that the brand name has become adjectival, as in a product review that called one of his creations “100% Franklin-Christoph.”

Deb Kinney of Durham will be at the show too. “I tell people I came out of the womb collecting fountain pens,” she says. Her collection, exceeding 500, spawned her sideline business in pen repair. She finds clients as far away as Israel and Australia.

Then there is Bernard Glassman, an educator and software developer in Chapel Hill. Not only will he attend the show; he imagines it as the scene for the fiction he writes and records on compact discs. Fountain pens figure in all his tales. He writes with one when not using his other favored archaism, a typewriter.

From near oblivion, a revival

That the fountain pen survives will come as a surprise to many, that it ever existed as a revelation to some. So, a little history:

The popular fountain pen was largely an American invention of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Parker, Sheaffer and Waterman, whose names survived them in their companies, all were American entrepreneurs who found ways to avert ink-flow glitches and gave their pens the allure of jewelry. In time, of course, came ballpoints and rollerballs, sending the fountain-pen market into near oblivion. Global conglomerates consumed the namesake companies. Except for artisans, production moved offshore.

There things stood until the 1990s. Then pen shows began to proliferate and enthusiasts found one another. At least three manufacturers in addition to Franklin-Christoph now make fountain pens in the U.S.

The interest goes beyond hobby or nostalgia. Devotees say a fountain pen’s liquid lines of ink, drying into a unique script, yield a personal expression beyond anything a keyboard can produce. The glide and singing scratch of a nib provides a tactile connection to the page, to language, that a touchpad will never offer.

A blog named Fountain Pen Geeks makes the point flamboyantly: “ … using a fountain pen should feel like riding a unicorn through a field of cupcakes during a rainstorm of scotch while eating bacon.”

Is the pen-making business itself so exuberant?

Franklin, for his part, is coy about the numbers: “We are bigger than many people realize and smaller than some think.” But he says his fountain-pen sales grew throughout the past recession, and he expects them to feed diversification. A Franklin-Christoph brand of inks just came to market. A fountain-pen-friendly paper is in the works.

The designer-manufacturer

Franklin took a family business in his own direction in 2001 by offering all sorts of pens together with leather goods. It was the demand he found for the fountain pens that then made them the anchor of the product line.

The initial pen offering was called the 01 IPO. Like its name, the pen was spare: barrel and cap of black acrylic, clip of sliver, writing point of gold plated with silvery rhodium to complement the clip. It set the tone for what has followed – today, 10 models at prices ranging from $69.50 to $340. Adornment is minimal. The palette seldom strays further from black than dark-hued color or touches of creamy white, though a recent model features Carolina blue. Distinctiveness, then, must come from such subtleties as the contour of a barrel or the fit and beveling of a cap.

“One of the hardest things to achieve in design is simplicity with uniqueness,” Franklin says. “The shape is what gives each pen its uniqueness for me, more so than the decoration.”

He notes this paradox: “Digital media make it possible for guys like us to sell something that is antique.” Although he travels far – finding silk in India for pen cases, gift boxes in China – digital media help to coordinate the supply chain, promote the brand and speed direct sales worldwide.

Among new pen designs still taking shape in his imagination is “The William.” The pen that William Franklin carried until the moment he died became an heirloom that passed down the generations to a great-grandson, Scott Franklin. Much as William’s descendant now treasures the pen, he says it hasn’t really influenced his aesthetic. Even so, he acknowledges the resemblance – black barrel and cap with burnt-orange highlights on each end.

You might even say it’s so Franklin-Christoph.

The collector-nibmeister

Deb Kinney co-founded the Triangle Pen Club in 1999 with Ross McKinney, a pediatrician at Duke University School of Medicine who was writing notes in patients’ charts with a fountain pen up to the advent of electronic medical records.

“If you look at a fountain pen,” Kinney says, “it is a technological marvel.”

Indeed, you could teach a class in fluid dynamics by demonstrating how a fountain pen regulates ink flow to prevent splatters and skips, or a class in metallurgy by examining the point, or nib, of a pen in its composition of steel or gold and various alloys.

Nib production is no small thing. The needed specialization and capital investment are such that not only a smaller company like Franklin-Christoph but also some large European pen markers order nibs to their specification from long-established factories in Germany.

At the pen show, Kinney will be found with her nib grinder, taking orders that stipulate variations in the written line – fine, bold, or sundry italics. She is hardly stuck in the 19th century, though. Her personal inventory of digital gear: a MacBook Pro, an iPod, an iPad, an iPad Mini and two iPhones.

And her day job? Information technology at Duke Law School.

The avid user

A fountain pen can raise eyebrows. As Bernard Glassman tells the story, he was picking up a lunch tab, and to sign the credit-card receipt he took from his pocket the Franklin-Christoph in Carolina blue. His lunch partner pointedly noted that the waiter could make a ballpoint available. Did Glassman really wish to risk a splatter-and-skip performance by the outmoded instrument in his hand?

He did. His riposte was a smooth flow of ink – sepia ink, no less.

“Ah,” he later wrote to a chat board, “the joy of the unhesitatingly perfect line … Unfaltering!”

Yet Glassman, too, is quick to embrace the new with the old. He will write with a fountain pen, read the text into a microphone, the better to sense the verbal rhythm, and then see his spoken words sent skittering across a computer screen by the miracle of speech-recognition software.

As for his fountain-pen stories, he has another in mind. The working title is “The Raleigh (Triangle) Pen Show and Zombies.” Soulless corpses lay siege to the show. Who will defend the Triangle pen lovers?

The author isn’t telling, but he offers this hint: He knows a pen lover who collects samurai swords.

Richard Koenig is the president of Biosyntax LLC, a communications consultancy to life-sciences companies. He learned to write in longhand with a dip pen.

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