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The Grail Pen

At a pen meet in Manila, I finally got to see my grail pen with my own eyes and hold it in my hand. It had been a long time coming, an experience that led to a week of asking myself some important questions about grail pens: is the time and expense really worthwhile, particularly when a grail is more expensive than several top-quality pens? Today, we’ll explore this question and my own attempt to answer it. 

Since announcing my travel plans last year, I’ve been corresponding with a Filipino who is at the heart of the local pen community, Jose ‘Butch’ Dalisay. You may have seen Butch in a video I shared on social media last month, where he talks about his collection and what it means to him. He is a professor of Engish and one of the Philippines’ most celebrated novelists, as well as a passionate advocate for the community. He’s been incredibly helpful and supportive in my transition to Manila and it was wonderful to finally meet him last weekend. 

With him came some of the pens featured in that video, along with many others. All were remarkable in one way or another, but especially enjoyable were the burgundy Vacumatic, an Onoto with a fat, juicy nib, and a Montblanc Agatha Christie with a broad stub nib (which had been retipped, something I did not know was possible or so affordable). I was finally able to try out a Conid Bulkfiller — technically impressive pen but aesthetically bland, ideal for an engineer — and then there was the Hemingway.

For those who aren’t aware, the Montblanc Hemingway has quite some renown. It was the first of Montblanc’s Writers Edition pens, a series of annual limited editions designed around a famous author which continues to this day. The Hemingway’s design is an homage to the Montblanc 139, predecessor to the 149, and the colour scheme harkens back to the ‘rouge et noir’ pens manufactured when Montblanc were still the Simplo Safety Pen Company. Released in 1992, 20,000 Hemingway fountains were produced and today, the pen is highly desired by collectors and users alike. 

That desirability and limited number mean that Hemingways are now somewhat scarce, and the price is not as low as it once was. Used models sell online for around US$2000-2500 while mint condition pens are scarcer, more desirable, and correspondingly more expensive. That has led some aficionados to settle for the homages produced by Pelikan and Sailor.

The Hemingway is a pen that I’ve admired for a long time without really understanding why. It’s something about the aesthetics of the pen, that magnificent shape and style, which captures and holds my attention. But the price tag meant that it was a pen I would only ever admire from afar, and the imitations never really measured up to the original for me. 

So the opportunity to try out Butch’s Hemingway was exciting, and his generosity in allowing me to do so was deeply appreciated. He handed it over rather casually and said, “I believe you wanted to see this,” and all of a sudden, there it was, in my hand, at long last. But … there was no halo around it. There was no choir of angels singing from the heavens, and no hush in the restaurant as it was revealed. It turns out that the famed Hemingway was really just a pen after all. I scribbled a few notes and found the nib pleasant but similarly unexceptional. A feeling of disappointment began to set in; obviously, my expectations had been way too high, to the point where I half-expected the pen to emerge from a glowing briefcase, a la Pulp Fiction. Disillusionment soon followed, along with questions about the sanity of anyone who would drop a couple of thousand dollars on such a thing. 

Lunch arrived soon after and my attention shifted to other matters (such as the gentleman from whom I rather absent-mindedly stole a breadstick, something I still feel strangely guilty about). Later on, I needed to jot down some notes and reached over to use the Hemingway again (with Butch’s blessing, of course). It was likely to be the last time I’d get to see or use one, and I wanted to have another moment with it. 

To my surprise, this experience was completely different. Nothing had changed about the pen, but it wasn’t the same as before. First, I noticed how well it fit into my hand. It was neither too big or too small, nor too long or short. It was just a comfortable size. The weight also felt right: not too light or too heavy, not balanced too much to the front or rear. Those things combined to create quite a pleasant and comfortable writing experience. I made my notes and took a moment to appreciate the design a little more: the red-orange barrel is a gorgeous colour, bold enough to stand out without being ostentatious. The yellow gold trim looked smart, not gaudy as on many other pens (including the standard Meisterstucks). I could see it as the sort of pen I would enjoy using, not something to be used in meetings or to jot notes while having coffee with a friend, but for actual writing. This would be perfect as a real writer’s pen. 

It wasn’t immediately obvious but, in retrospect, I can see that once my expectations had been swept aside, the pen could be evaluated on its own merits. And I rather liked what I was seeing. Not to the extent that I was willing to spend weeks or months searching for the opportunity to drop a bundle of money on one — certainly not when the same money could cover a new Omas and a Peli M1000, with enough left over for a new platinum 149. No, the economist in me determined that the costs vastly outweighed the benefits and so the Hemingway would remain a grail pen: desirable but unobtainable. 

Pens occupied my mind for most of that Saturday, and I was ready for some escapism by bedtime. This might sound a little odd, but I struggle with fictional books. Occasionally, something will grab me but my literary escapism tends to be non-fiction, particularly biography or history. That night, I settled in with the strangely engaging Norwegian Wood, by Lars Mytting — ‘Chopping, Stacking, and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way’. In a climate where the weather barely deviates from 32 degrees (90 F) and sunshine each day, it was nice to think about snow and a roaring fire, and the cabin we liked to visit back home. 

But the book was a terrible choice for that evening, as I soon reached a chapter on the tools of the woodcutter. Though the woodcutters aren’t really professionals — by and large, they only chop wood for personal use through the long, cold winters — they choose their tools with even more care than we FP folk do and kept them for long periods (the author noted the average age of an axe was more than 15 years). The attitude was that it made sense to have the best tool for the job, then maintain it properly, and keep it for a lifetime. 

It was clear the woodcutters found their work quite meaningful. The wood has to be chopped in the early spring so it can dry over the summer and be both ready and effective when the snow starts to fall again. Each log they chopped was a log they would later place on the fire, a log which would keep their family warm and enable food to be cooked. When the power grid failed, it was the wood they had chopped which would keep their their families alive and comfortable for hours, days, even weeks at a time. So their work was meaningful, and the tools which enabled them to keep their families alive were valuable and imbued with meaning themselves.

The parallels with FPs were striking. Although I wear a few different hats — researcher, teacher, blogger — they all revolve around communication, writing in particular. Unlike wood, my writing doesn’t directly sustain life but it does put food on the table and a roof over my head. Hopefully, it also enriches the lives of others in some small way, giving them a different way of thinking about the world and making their experience of life fuller and more satisfying. For me, those things make my work meaningful. 

My tools for that are my pens, and I’m passionate about fountain pens because they enable me to do something I find meaningful. There are other tools I could use — a Bic, a laptop, a Youtube video — but none would be as effective. A ballpoint pen strains the fingers and the wrist, which impedes long writing sessions and the formation of long think-pieces. A laptop provides no time to think while writing, and Youtube means spending much more time on the presentation than the idea. It is only a fountain pen which provides time to think from one letter to the next, time to assess the flow of a sentence, the construction of a paragraph, and the logic of an argument. It enables a complex, nuanced idea to come together in a form that can be expressed and understood. And though it might seem odd, writing with a nice fountain pen almost makes that process seem effortless. If it makes sense to use the best category of tool for work that I find so meaningful, it seems to follow that I should also use the most effective tool as well. 

These ideas were in my mind as I went to bed, and that night I dreamed of a future time, working away in the cabin on something with the Hemingway in my hand (and some expertly-chopped wood piled neatly by the fireplace). By morning, I knew that I actively wanted one — to the point where I was having thoughts that would make any enthusiast uneasy. I didn’t realise how deep those feelings went until Dan Smith (the Nibsmith) asked which pen would be sold from the collection to make room and I replied that I’d be willing to sell them all, if it came to that. That probably came across as hyperbole, but it was true — one of these deep truths that you know for sure in the pit of your stomach. Knowing that made me uncomfortable. 

Desired or not, the question remained whether buying the pen was actually a good idea. My current workhorse is a solid and reliable writer, a pen I adore for its design as much as its performance. Would the Hemingway — a pen which also uses the 149 nib, albeit the 1992 version — actually be better? So much better as to justify the expense? This is far from obvious. 

For any grail pen, three questions need to be answered. First, is the money there? Second, could the money be spent more sensibly on something else? Third, is the value of the purchase greater than the cost? For me, the answer to the first question is a certain yes. The second seems to be no: I have no other hobbies or pursuits, and if it wasn’t for the Hemingway, the money would probably end up used on another, currently unknown pen, or possibly a trip to a pen show. But there is no obvious opportunity cost here. 

The final question is simply whether the value is worth the price. Here we can break down the question into two parts: the financial return and the satisfaction (what in economics we generally combine as a single concept, utility). For a woodcutter, a better tool would enable him to work faster, securing the necessary amount of wood in less time or enabling him to acquire more wood in the usual time, which can then be sold. The value of a new chainsaw or axe can be easily calculated from this. As much as it pains me to admit it, I’m not sure the Hemingway will lead to any more work being done. Perhaps the quality will be better, but that’s not something I’m willing to bet on. Which leaves us with the satisfaction. 

Calculating the extra satisfaction is a more challenging proposition, but fortunately we have a tool to help with that. When economists make decisions, we generally reduce questions to a cost-benefit analysis. This is a useful tool, but it means everything is ideally measured in dollar terms. Sometimes that dollar value is not obvious or easily measured: what is the value of your free? Or a local park? In those situations, we can use shadow prices — a proxy with a known value. 

In the case of the Hemingway, I genuinely don’t know how highly I value it. But I would be willing to sell a collection of much-loved pens in order to own it (even though that would be a painful experience). That means we can use the selling price of those pens to provide a kind of proxy, or shadow price: if the collection is worth more than $5,000 and I’m willing to sell it to get the Hemingway, the pen must be worth more. This is its shadow price, our proxy for how much satisfaction I expect to get from the pen. And because the cost of buying a Hemingway ($2,000) is much lower than how much I value it ($5,000), we can make a rough conclusion that the purchase is worthwhile. 

It’s still hard for me to believe that I could value something so highly, but I have faith in the theory which has lead to that conclusion. It also corresponds with what I feel at an emotional level: that, more than any other pen, this is the one I could see myself using for years to come, to craft pieces of work which will bring meaning to myself and to others. It may not be the sort of pen I would take to presentations, to fill in forms, or to grade the student work, but it would be the ultimate workhorse pen, something which makes me want to transform ideas into text, into blog posts, journal articles, books, and lectures. For almost anyone else in the world, this pen is absolutely not worth the money: if you are looking for the supreme pen, you will probably be happier spending your money on something else. But for me, the Hemingway is no longer a grail pen in the sense of being unobtainable; instead it is a grail in that it is the ultimate pen, the final one. It may not be the last pen I will ever buy but it’s certainly the last one I will ever need to buy. 

And so, sometime this year, I will be spending a ridiculous amount of money on a twenty-four year old piece of plastic and it will make me happier than any other purchase I’ve ever made. The hunt is on!

Part 2

I’ve had a few people asking whether I’ve pulled the trigger and the answer (so far) is no. Partly because it’s a monumental amount of money and I haven’t quite come to terms with that, but it’s also partly because the pen was discontinued shortly after that post was published. There’s still a few available here and there so it remains a possibility, but there’s also a new Skeleton being released. The official announcement is this weekend but I’ve been fortunate to enjoy an early look. 

The new Skeleton is part of Montblanc’s long-term partnership with Unicef, means part of the proceeds go towards the UN’s children’s charity. While there’s many questions about the effectiveness of many charities, Unicef isn’t one of them. They do good work, have low overheads, and don’t suffer from the same bureaucratic and political inertia that afflicts much of the UN. But while I don’t have reservations about supporting them, I do have reservations about the honking great sapphire in the Montblanc Unicef Skeleton, which denotes the charitable relationship. Seems a weirdly mixed message to use gemstones as a way of symbolising charity and generosity. But Montblanc have given Unicef more than US$10m for promoting children’s literacy and if sapphire-studded pens helped get that figure up, is it really something to complain about?

Anyway, there’s a whole range of products, including four different fountain pen lines, and obviously it’s the new Skeleton which caught my eye. Only some parts have been redesigned since the Blue Hour was released three years ago. The blue-tinted glass barrel, cross-hatched piston engraving, and mother-of-pearl snowcap remain the same, but the cap and barrel overlay has changed. On the Blue Hour skeleton, the overlay had a bit of a spotted design and on the BMW Skeleton, it was a slanted rectangle design. This time around, it’s far bolder: a collection of basic letter forms from six major alphabets, the shapes that children start with when learning to write. The design forms the overlay but continues as engravings on the metal (platinum) parts of the pen: the section, piston knob, cap ring, etc. The nib is rhodium-plated with the same alphabet characters. 

The overlay design is a nice throwback to the idea of supporting literacy and I have to admit that the design concept has a serious hold on me. As someone who loves to write, and spends a good deal of my professional and personal time writing, the idea really hits home. There’s a wonderful harmony between a pen, children’s literacy, and a pen designed around letterforms. It’s even got me thinking that more of my giving should be focused on supporting literacy and education (though I generally argue that you should donate to charities which simply give cash to the poor as it’s one of the cheapest and most effective aid methods out there).  

As much as I love the concept, I’m not quite sold on the execution. At first, the overlay looks like a jumble of random shapes and my initial impression was that the pen had been damaged. Then I thought it looked like the wild scrawling of a toddler with a crayon and a bare wall. Later it reminded me of Kandinsky’s later, more adventurous works. Two of the letterforms were immediately familiar to me, and the catalogue spells out the others, but it didn’t exactly jump out at me. 

Admittedly, this impression is not based on firsthand experience with the pen, but the rather unimaginative images used in the catalogues and product alerts. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been disappointed by the catalogue but excited by the product: the 1912 looks very bland on paper but is a truly wonderful pen, one of Montblanc’s best modern products. On the other hand, the silver Martele looked superb in the catalogue but was underwhelming in the hand. 

The Value Proposition

The other thing which most people won’t like is that the price has jumped up. The retail price for the 90th Anniversary and Blue Hour skeletons was €7700 but the Unicef model will list for €8900. That increase might be defensible if the extra money is going to Unicef, but it’s unclear exactly how much gets donated from each product (Montblanc have committed to a minimum €1.5m in the next year). While the increase is rather a lot of extra cash, it’s less than a 4% increase per year between the 90th’s announcement and the Unicef release, which is hardly an excessive growth rate for premium products. It’s still a stupendous amount of money (even if you manage to snag a discount) and that has to be weighed against the value: is the pen a worthwhile acquisition? 

For me, an FP in that sort of price range has to be something that I simply couldn’t do without: something I would use every day, at home and at work, which would displace most of my other pens (and therefore enable some offsetting sales). The Unicef skeleton has some good points – the concept is brilliant, the Unicef relationship is a real positive, and it’s a skeleton with one of Montblanc’s wonderful #9 nibs – but I can’t see myself pulling the trigger on this one. From what I’ve seen so far, the design isn’t something that I love; it’s not burned into my brain like the Blue Hour.

A while back, I published my (very long) post on Fountain Pen Aesthetics. One of the aesthetic frameworks I discussed was the Beardsley criteria – complexity, unity, intensity – and I’ve found this to be a really useful starting point for my own aesthetic judgements. The Blue Hour worked for me because it had the right mix of the three elements: the design was complex but not excessively so; there was variation in the design within a cohesive whole, and the overall impression was intense without being overwhelming. In other words, it was well-balanced, harmonious. This isn’t the way I would describe the Unicef: it is far more intense and complex, at the expense of the design’s unity. Overall, it doesn’t feel balanced and I don’t find myself connecting with it the same way I did with the Blue Hour or certain other designs. 

In a practical sense, the pen doesn’t strike me as something which I would carry to work each day. The Anniversary and Blue Hour skeletons are both pens that I’d be comfortable with using in a meeting, even if they stand out rather more than I’d like. The Unicef would be a next-level stand out, which means I wouldn’t use it in certain situations – and if a pen like that isn’t going to be used all the time, in every situation, it’s probably not worth having. Certainly not at the price that’s being asked. 

Also complicating things is the upcoming (July/August) release of the new MB Writer’s Edition, the Antoine Saint-Exupery. I’m still waiting on pictures but the design theme is a WW2 fighter plane – think about the Montblanc Miles Davis but a fighter instead of a trumpet. The Limited Edition version has an aged metal look and skeletonised cap, in the style of the glass ‘bubble’ sitting over the cabin, and everyone who has seen the design seems to be very excited about it. At less than half the price of the Skeleton, the LE obviously has my attention but I’d be surprised if it could properly scratch that itch. This will be launched mid-year.

Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Unicef and Saint-Exupery fail to fire up the same excitement in me that the Blue Hour provoked. Which leaves me with two options: I either start to seriously look into the mint condition Blue Hour Skeletons which have trickled onto the market (and pray to the Pen Gods that I don’t have to pay the ridiculous prices being asked) or I wait another few years for Montblanc’s next skeleton design and hope that it’s a better fit. I’m not in any particular rush to acquire one but I also recognise that spending authorisation can be revoked at any time and life can take surprising turns. If my partner ends up posted overseas, or a baby Pen Economist gets on the cards, I may not get another shot at this for a very long time. 

The journey continues!