At its best, writing is a fine art. A tool for storytelling over the ages, it’s the very basis of advanced societies. It’s fitting, then, that the making of writing instruments is an art itself. And Montblanc has mastered it.
The German manufacturer of timepieces, leather, and writing instruments began making its flagship Meisterstück fountain pen in Hamburg in 1924. With a client base that spans Ernest Hemingway to Queen Elizabeth II to Barack Obama, it’s safe to say that the maison is behind some of the most significant stories and signatures of this century—and for good reason. Montblanc pens are both objets d’art and feats of intricate engineering, requiring great skill, patience, and time to make.
“Our pens are a combination of design, material, and detail,” says creative director Zaim Kamal, a self-described “child of the seventies.” His rock ‘n’ roll and vintage inspirations winningly combine with the technical know-how of Montblanc’s engineers to create innovative pieces. “It truly requires the thinking of an engineer [to design a pen],” Kamal says. “One of the most important things in my process is working together with the manufacturers.”
Such collaboration is key, considering that each pen takes more than 100 assiduous steps to create, and the pen’s nib requires around 35. The nib is the heart of a fountain pen, and Montblanc’s are made from 14- or 18-karat gold. It’s a craft mastered mostly by women, whose expertise lies not only in how a nib is supposed to look but also feel and sound. “I always call it the gestures of familiarity,” Kamal says. “There’s a memory when it comes to gestures. For me, it’s as precise as a ballet dancer.”
Despite the ubiquity of digital communication, Montblanc pens remain as relevant as ever. The company is diligently focused on constant evolution, from aesthetics to efficient technology to the pen’s actual use. (Last year, the company released Augmented Paper, which digitally transcribes handwritten notes.) “Our working steps combine different technologies with handmaking,” says Frank Derlien, the head of the nib department, where custom state-of-the-art machinery balances ages-old manual techniques.
“Every new solution brings a new touch to the writing instrument,” Kamal adds. “It’s always about being non-complacent.” Here, a look inside the nib department, before the ink begins to flow.
Montblanc’s heritage lies in Hamburg, Germany, where the company was founded, in 1906. It is here that creative director Zaim Kamal works collaboratively with the head of the nib department, Frank Derlien, and other engineers to make the company’s writing instruments.
The nibs of Montblanc’s fountain pens are crafted from 14- and 18-karat yellow, red, white, and champagne golds. Strips of the precious material are first segmented into the correct size, then measured for exact thickness. If the gold is not within .01 mm of the target measurement, it will not be used. Following this step, the material is fed through a machine that cuts the gold into its distinct shape. These are called “blank nibs.”
Each blank nib is embossed with the number 4810, the altitude, in meters, of Mont Blanc’s highest peak. (Special editions and custom pieces have individual stamps.)
Once embossed, the nib is assiduously buffed by hand using a diamond file. It requires great skill to achieve the perfect shape and symmetry, identifiable by only a selection of Montblanc’s detail-oriented craftspeople. From there, pressure from a device called a “nib swage” forms the curved shape.
An iridium tip is then added to the gold nib. This is done by a welding machine, which heats to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit to attach the small, but crucial, piece. The tip’s material is ideal for writing due to its durable and smooth qualities.
A .01 mm disc with diamond dust spins at a rate of 7,000 rotations per minute to cut the nib precisely down the middle. This incision will eventually function as a capillary for the ink.
Kamal refers to the next step—nib grinding—as a “balletic dance.” It is here that craftspeople, many of whom trained on grinding for six to twelve months, shape the tip of the pen using a figure-eight motion. It is considered a special skill because it requires exact precision and directly affects how its user will write.
Once the nib is formed into one of Montblanc’s eight tip sizes, it’s polished and assembled to the ink feeder. One last final—but very important—adjustment sets the nib and ensures that the ink will flow properly. This is yet another process that requires a high level of knowledge, skill, and dexterity.
The last step for the nib manufacturer requires much focus and happens inside a quiet, Zen-like room. Here, each pen is tested by hand to ensure quality. This process is not just about how the nib looks; it requires knowledge of the exact feeling and sound of writing with a Montblanc pen.
From the nib department, the perfectly crafted gold tips are assembled to the instrument’s body. It’s an equally exacting process, requiring each piece to be precise in order to fit together.
The finishing touch is Montblanc’s white emblem, representative of the peak of Mont Blanc. Though it’s a signature of the maison’s craftspeople since 1906, it fits seamlessly into modern day, just like the pens themselves.