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In Praise of the (Not Quite So) Expensive Pen

The question that will forever accompany a $1,000 pen is easy to spell out: Why?

Henry Phillips

The question that will forever accompany a $1,000 pen is easy to spell out: Why? Montblanc International, who’s named after the highest mountain in the Alps and has been making writing instruments since 1909 in Germany, responds (in around six different languages in their owner’s manual): because it has a soul. Because it’s a masterpiece. Because it “reflects the timeless aesthetic of the sophisticated, cultivated personality of [its owner].” If “to hold a pen is to be at war”, as Voltaire said, Montblanc suggests you show up in full dress uniform, ready to go down like an officer and a gentleman among the Bic-wielding hordes.

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The Starwalker Screenwriter Extreme Steel ($1,085) I’d been lent to test didn’t look like the fountain pens I first fawned over when I was twelve, fingering their gold inlays and worshiping their buttery ink flows at the Montblanc shop in the King of Prussia Mall. Those were sensuous. They appeared ready to write both influential novels and checks to dear friends starting up a business in need of a six-figure loan, which I’d hand them with an easy wave of the hand and say, “don’t worry, pay me back whenever, darling”. This looked like a miniature model spaceship. With its tight tolerances and deceptive reverse taper, I guessed the wrong end when looking for the tip. Then I fiddled with it as if it were a twist-top before a coworker finally solved it for me, unscrewing the cap and judging me at the same time. Suddenly I felt less cultivated than salted earth.

Still, the Screenwriter’s looks make an impression, if they aren’t traditionally handsome. The PVD cross-stitched along its entire length seems to identify it as a ballistic-resistant prototype (I didn’t see that listed among its features, but you never know). There are sparse inlays of a crinkled-looking metal (platinum). It’s mostly steel, and very heavy. Montblanc’s claim of master craftsmanship rings true, with some cocksureness. It wants to be noticed, which is a surefire answer to the $1,000 pen, absolutely.

If “to hold a pen is to be at war”, as Voltaire said, Montblanc suggests you show up in full dress uniform, ready to go down like an officer and a gentleman among the Bic-wielding hordes.

But the more important argument for “why” was how it made me feel when I wrote or pulled it out from my pocket in front of the plebeian masses. For $1,000, I wanted a pen that was itself an excuse to write. Inspiration — now that might be worth the cost. Admiration — worth a small fortune. So I tried it out in a few spots, orthodox and otherwise.

Montblanc says that when you first hold their writing instruments “emotion flows”; I just felt like an idiot. The damn thing had a learning curve. There’s no lower grip, just empty steel above the tip where your fingers are supposed to rest, which takes some getting used to. The heaviness of it at first feels like it’ll give you carpel tunnel. And, until I got used to the necessary pressure and angle, the tip (the fine one) often felt as if it were low on ink. After a bit of practice, though, my handwriting, usually largish chickenscratch, tightened and shrunk into concise chickenscratch, and the ink flow became consistent and even pleasant, if a little scratchy on the page. The weighting was the best part, and led to much less hand fatigue despite its anchor-esque heft.

As for admiration and inspiration, they weren’t so straightforward. Using the pen at meetings, I felt a stud, excited to be poised over my notebook and ever the great scribe of the office. Because they knew its price, my coworkers were impressed. But the sheen quickly wore off, and soon no one was as excited as I was to scrawl out signatures and figure out how much money each word I wrote was worth.

Around town things didn’t work out so hot, either: at my favorite gin joint diner in Park Slope, I sat alone at the bar and felt the flashy weapon I’d drawn from its protective sheath (how else are you going to toss a $1,000 item in your backpack?) eating at my inner humble, embarrassed side. In the greasefire light, with Roy Orbison crooning in the background, the Screenwriter stuck out like a Carrot Top pen prop. Not that a classic gold fountain pen would fit in, either. I figured I might as well ham it up; but when I waved the pen wildly to illustrate my points in discussion with my barside neighbors, they didn’t bat an eye. At home I didn’t feel any more inspired to pen my defining short story or novella. The Screenwriter sat on my desk while I typed away on my laptop, or more often, made a dent in my couch with my butt watching Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO Go.

But there was another wrinkle to straighten out: the Screenwriter’s stylus function, allowed by an “e-refill” with a small silicon disk on its tip that replaces the pen’s ink cartridge. It works with the company’s free “screenwriter app”, which has an elegant interface and e-stationary looks much more luxurious than your own real stuff. For scribbling, doodling or even drawing out unwritten plans it’s really excellent and feels calligraphic on the screen, but for actually writing, it’s not responsive enough, and your script looks large and awkward, like a clumsy doctor’s. The pressure sensor is frustrating and doesn’t register much. One coworker commented that it wasn’t “fast enough”, and he was right: it felt like writing drunk. And it wasn’t any better at editing, sober, either (sorry, Hem).

Which all suggested that I look elsewhere for my ideal writing utensil for my money. You can get pretty much anything you want out of a pen these days. Waterman makes a similar arsenal of writing utensils that range from around $100 on up to $1,000; Parker offerings range from roughly $200 to $600. Aurora makes highly rated pens at more reasonable prices, with rollerballs, ballpoints and fountain pens in their basic collection ranging from $75 to $175; Pilot makes a vanishing fountain pen with a retractible nib for $140 that gives up some pretentiousness in favor of utility; Menlo sells a “pump filler” — an easy trip to the 19th century — with a steel nib for $350; and, if you want a fountain pen that looks like a middle school scribbler, the Platinum Preppy goes for lunch-money prices. And that’s just based on the research I did into fountain pens; I have a Zebra clicker ballpoint that writes with mediocrity but feels damn nice in the hand — it’s steel, like the Screenwriter (albeit much, much lighter and less shapely), and costs just a touch over $3. Kickstarter pens are a dime a dozen, and a few of them are nicely done and affordable.

If you want to burn your hard-earned cash on a ridiculously priced pen made by a German Meister, sign the check with gusto — ditto if all you dream of spending is change.

If you want to go with the industry standard, Montblanc has various and sundry other offerings, ranging from $225 up to $9,600 (Meisterstück 90 Years Skeleton 149 Fountain Pen). Their resin pens fall on the lower end of things, from $225 to around $500, with the tradeoff being that black “precious resin” rather than steel and PVD coating — but the weighting and build, to me the best parts of the utensil, are nearly as divine. The best of that lot is their new cruise collection, which looks more traditional than the Screenwriter, doesn’t have the stylus, comes in white, blue, and tangerine, and is priced at a near-mortal $225. That’s birthday gift territory, if someone really likes you.

The true splurge buy for $1,000 would really be for a pen aficionado — in which case, they’ll be after a fountain pen, you’d think. The Meisterstuck collection ranges from $580 to $935 and seems the more “reasonable” top-end fountain option; I like the Starwalker Midnight Black Resin, the cheapest of the style the company offers at $465. For those who still want a ballpoint that doubles as a stylus, the Starwalker Extreme Screenwriter is much the same as the Extreme Screenwriter Steel, minus the steel and the platinum accents, for about half the cost ($605).

The moral then could well be that your pen can and should be a unique butterfly, just like you, and that if you want to burn your hard-earned cash on a ridiculously priced pen made by a German Meister, sign the check with gusto — ditto if all you dream of spending is change. For me, the Screenwriter marked a significant shift in belief. Knocked on its ass by the end of my writing sabbatical was my personal worship of the most expensive writing instruments, which took a thorough slugging from the undercutting quality of my $20 aluminum Muji collapsible fountain pen (runs through refills like a bastard, weighted like an empty beer bottle, writes like a damn calligraphy brush), the lack of beautiful women and well-dressed businessmen who found me “terribly exciting” because of my luxurious accoutrement, and the horribly disappointing truth: an expensive ink holder won’t change who you are and, therefore, what you write.

Not that I ever truly believed that — it would be ridiculous as a pen that costs New York rent money. Which is why, should I happen to become a millionaire, I’ll buy a few Montblancs for myself and give them out to people who seem nice. But even then, my loved ones and passersby wearing Reel Big Fish t-shirts should expect only resin and maybe a touch of red gold. That much really ought to be more than it takes to make any scribbler happy, in my opinion.

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