Here is a close-up of a gorgeous Montblanc 149 Meisterstruck fountain pen, with its iconic solid 18 karat gold nib engraved with "4810" - the height in meters of the famous Mont Blanc mountain in the Alps. The luxury German fountain pen maker Montblanc first introduced the 149 Meisterstruck in 1952. Widely considered one of the finest vintage fountain pens ever made, the Montblanc 149 Meisterstruck has remained in production almost unchanged to the current day.
Contemporary life can be a very cold, impersonal place. All too often the modern world reduces us to a few key data points: a social security number, a credit card number, an email address. And our addiction to technology exacerbates the situation, creating gulfs between us rather than bringing us together. It is all too commonplace for co-workers to communicate via faceless email rather than in person. Instead of calling that friend and hearing another human voice we are likely to send a terse, indifferent text.
But communication was not always so colorless. Before texts and emails became a standard in interpersonal relationships, people used to hand write letters, cards and even documents. And universally, to a man, they used the classic, timeless fountain pen to do this writing.
In the mid 20th century, a high quality fountain pen was the tangible, visible mark of a person of prominence. A fountain pen displayed your personality for all to see, which, depending on the model chosen, could exude sophistication, social status or confidence.
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The heyday of vintage fountain pens was from the 1920s through the 1970s. During this era, pen designers manufactured creations that dripped with the glittering zeitgeist of the prevailing age. Fountain pens of the 1920s glimmered with angular metal and geometric designs, reflecting that era's optimism and daring. Those from the 1930s combined bold designs with rich colors to express the affluence and solidity so craved during the dark years of the Great Depression. Vintage fountain pens of the 1940s, 50s and 60s possessed a streamlined sleekness that echoed the predominant aerospace milieu of the time.
A variety of companies produced high quality fountain pens during the mid 20th century. US producers like Parker, Wahl/Eversharp, Sheaffer, and Waterman dominated the global pen industry during this time. Pelikan and Montblanc are two notable German pen companies that were also active. Waterman and Montblanc, in particular, are widely regarded as having created some of the finest (and consequently most expensive) vintage fountain pens known. The preceding list of vintage fountain pen manufacturers is not exhaustive. Many other pen companies existed and some of them made very interesting and desirable fountain pens.
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Vintage fountain pens come in a wide range of materials. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were a time of tremendous innovation in the new field of plastics and this was reflected in the pens of that time. Hard rubber, Celluloid, Bakelite and Lucite were all used extensively in antique fountain pens. The metal trim and caps of vintage pens could be stainless steel, or plated, filled or even solid silver or gold. Although uncommon and more expensive, some vintage fountain pen bodies are composed entirely of karat gold.
The nib, or metal tip, of a fountain pen is considered by most pen experts to be the most important part of the entire pen. Most fine vintage nibs were made from solid 14 or 18 karat gold, although they can also be found in 10 karat gold, palladium and gold-plated steel. Gold was the preferred material for fountain pen nibs because it allows them to be flexible. This is a highly desirable characteristic that allows the writer's script to flow both effortlessly and artistically from the hand.
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Steel nibs were only used on cheaper pens. All nibs, regardless of material, were generally plated with iridium or another of the platinum group metals to improve wear characteristics. Vintage nibs came in broad, medium, fine and other specialty tips in order to accommodate almost every conceivable writing style.
As with other antiques, condition is paramount when buying an older fountain pen. A pen that is not in working condition will always be worth much less than one that can write. A possible exception to this rule is new-old-stock (NOS) fountain pens. These are pens that have sat in their original box for decades and have never been "inked" before - that is they haven't been used even once.
NOS pens are quite desirable, even though there is no guarantee they will work directly out of the box if filled with ink. In most cases NOS pens only require minor restoration in order to work beautifully, even though they might have lain unused for well over half a century!
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Most vintage fountain pens that you encounter will be used rather than NOS, which is perfectly acceptable. However, one has to make certain that any pen under consideration not only works, but also isn't too worn. Brassing is a common wear phenomenon where the gold plating over a pen's metal trim or cap is worn through revealing the brass underneath - hence the name.
Depending on a vintage fountain pen's rarity and desirability some very minimal brassing may be acceptable in an investment grade piece, but the less brassing the better. It is also paramount to search for examples with few or no nicks, scratches or dents, a requirement that can be challenging, especially with pens that have metal caps. Avoid any pen with a broken clip or cracked barrel or cap; they cannot be considered investment grade under any circumstances.
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One of the great advantages vintage fountain pen collectors enjoy is reasonable pricing. Elegantly crafted specimens from the golden age of the fountain pen vary in price from about $50 for lightly used, common models to over $1,000 for the rarest and most desirable types. But a wide variety of enticing, investment grade examples can be purchased for only $100 to $250. This makes vintage fountain pens one of the sleeper hits of the antique world.
In fact, vintage fountain pen prices have already risen dramatically over the last 20 years. It used to be possible to pick up good specimens at flea markets, second-hand shops and antique stores for $5 or $10 a pen. While those days of ridiculously underpriced bargains are over, I still believe these overlooked tangible assets possess substantial future investment potential.
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Vintage fountain pens allow both words and ideas to flow with a smoothness unmatched by today's keyboards or touch-screens. In addition to potentially being an appreciating asset, a fine vintage fountain pen grants its user an echo of its glamorous past, allowing you to sign your name with a flourish and look stunningly good while doing it.