In a world of constant emailing and rapid-fire texting do folks still get amped-up about fountain pens anymore?
You bet. This weekend more than a thousand fountain pen enthusiasts are expected to stream into the Downtown Sheraton ballroom at the annual Philadelphia Pen Show that is dominated by the sleek writing instruments. In today’s throwaway world a fine fountain pen is cherished by scores of antique seekers and pen collectors.
Gary Lehrer is a pen collector and dealer from Woodbridge, Conn. He has attended all 22 of the Philadelphia Pen Shows, considered the fourth largest pen show in the U. S. Lehrer was hooked at age ten when his parents presented him with his first fountain pen in a slim rectangular box. Forget the ink-stained fingers and messy pots of ink, Lehrer relished that Shaeffer pen sticking out of his shirt pocket.
In the decades since, he has penned short dispatches to pals, an array of cards, condolences and thank you notes, as well as signed checks and significant documents. All flowed freely from the nib of his trusty pens. A fountain pen is never far from his hand, especially the vintage ones.
“While modern fountain pens might be more visually appealing, they don’t write with the same flourish of a vintage pen with a softer nib,” related Lehrer, 64, who will be manning his GoPens.com exhibitor’s booth at the show.
“A great deal of the excitement of vintage pens is in the history of the company, the industry, the materials and how the manufacture of that pen fits into the Industrial Revolution in America. Just as important is the thrill of the hunt.”
Philly’s 2011 edition is sponsored by Visconti Pens of Florence, Italy. Visconti founder and chairman, Dante Del Vecchio will be on hand to unveil a pair of special fountian pens. One commemorates the history of Philadelphia-- the Declaration of Independence Pen, while the other is the Visconti Homo Sapiens Basaltic Lava made from lava from the Etna Volcano.
The three-day show allows pen collectors to socialize, share expertise, sell the smooth, elegant writing instruments as well as expand their collections with exhibitors from across the country and around the world. A hive of activity, visitors also can browse a dizzying array of ballpoint and rollerball pens, and even some types of pencils.
Mostly though, fountain pens are the stars. Bold and expressive, their fluidity makes writing nearly effortless. The fountain pen is a go-to instrument for people suffering from arthritis or carpal tunnel, as well as writers, artists, notaries and calligraphers. The sophisticated writing devices are often viewed as exquisite works of art.
Robert Mand has been living in an inkwell for part of the past decade. Owner of 138 fountain pens, the resident of Radnor, Pa. founded the Philadelphia Pen Collectors Group in 2005 after attending the Philadelphia Pen Show. The group boasts around 90 members with Mand hosting meetings three times a year.
“Today’s communication is so impersonal, using a fountain pen is much more thought provoking,” observed Mand, founding partner of a Philadelphia law firm. “You think much more, there is a better connection from the brain to what you put down on paper. They can be reminiscent of earlier times. They are fun to write with and I find them aesthetically very pleasing.”
The fountain pen is a type of nib pen, an evolution from the quill pen centuries ago that was dipped into ink for writing. With fountain pens, a reservoir of water-based ink is contained inside. The ink is drawn to the nib of the pen and then onto the paper through the simple act of gravity. The end result: the user doesn’t have to apply much pressure for the pen to flow along the page. Gravity does the majority of the work.
Dedicated “nibbers” are bewitched with button fillers and piston reservoirs. Gold nibs (content being 14 karat and 18 karat) are considered the optimum metal for their flexibility and resistance to corrosion. Gold nibs are tipped with a hard, wear-resistant alloy that typically uses metals from the plantinum group.
You can purchase a well-made functional modern fountain pen for as little as $25 to $30, and the prices climb into the many thousands of dollars. Quality name brands such as Parker, Mont Blanc, Waterman, Waterford, Cartier, Shaeffer and others offer superior control and comfort while you write. Still, beware -- a price is not necessarily a good indication of quality. You could be paying for decoration that may be terrific art, but also might be quite fragile, and not applied to a pen of the highest quality.
The earliest pre-1900 fountain pens produced by a quality manufacturer generally costs $100 or more. They are almost always made from black hard rubber (ebonite), have a 14K nib, don't have a pocket clip, and are not self-filling (you transfer the ink into the barrel using an eyedropper -- still a lot easier than the earlier practice of dipping the nib every few words!).
Since just about all pens at this time were hard rubber, to get value added and differentiate one model from another, manufacturers varied their pens by adorning them with gold-fill, solid gold, silver, pearl, abalone, and even precious stones. If fully covered (or almost) the pen is designated as "overlaid," and the value can go up dramatically. Those in most demand, such as Parker's Sterling Silver Snake overlay, can easily bring $15,000 or more.
“The value depends on the brand, model, rarity and especially the condition,” explained Lehrer. “If you’re buying a vintage pen, purchase one that is restored, guaranteed and in the best condition you can find. It’s likely to go up in value.”
The Philadelphia Pen Show allows potential buyers the opportunity to view many thousands of possibilities, from the earliest historical examples to the most modern pens coming out of today's factories around the world. For the seller, it provides a resource where they can survey a group of dealers to determine how much their pens are worth.
Sit in a couple of workshops at the weekend show. One will be teaching attendees how fountain pens work and how to find the best pen for individual’s handwriting style. Deborah Basel offers a two-hour calligraphy workshop, which will be held Saturday and Sunday mornings. She teaches participants how to write in the style of the Founding Fathers, at a location not far from where the Declaration of Independence and U. S. Constitution were penned.
Visitors to the show will find most of the exhibitors are a close-knit group, open to questions. Their primary goal: to help others find a love of pens and writing by hand. “Look at it as a historical exhibition,” said Lehrer. “It’s like going to a model train, doll or baseball museum. You’ll find the same level of passion. Come for the education and the enjoyment.”