One of the more perplexing things about our community is the lengths that some members will go to in order to support the firms which provide for us and sustain the hobby – the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers – but some of those very same members will dig the boot into one particular brand, Montblanc, without hesitation. Most experienced members of the community will have seen this special treatment and have their own views about whether it is justified, but it undoubtedly exists. And it’s a problem: not because MB or any other brand should go uncriticised but because undeserved criticism distracts from criticism which is actually deserved and can help to make our community a better place. In today’s essay, we’ll explore one criticism that is utterly undeserved: that of Montblanc’s ‘precious resin’.
It’s quite common to see the claim made that Montblanc pens aren’t really made from ‘precious resin’ but from plastic. Often, it’s followed with the argument that Montblanc have chosen a fancy name for a common material and somehow use this terminology to convince stupid customers to pay huge amounts for low-cost pens. (This rather neatly fits with the idea of some that Montblanc have some magical advertising powers which enables them to dupe their customers. If true, this power would make them the most profitable company in the world but, of course, they’re not. That’s because their true marketing skill is in precisely targeting their products to the preferences of a specific demographic – a skill which doesn’t mean they’re actually that good at advertising or sales, as you would know if you’d ever watched a Montblanc ad or dealt with their staff, who are usually very friendly and professional but aren’t exactly master salespeople.)
Nonetheless, let’s consider the claim that precious resin is marketing magic. It doesn’t take long to realise there’s a few problems with it, the first problem of which is that, if there is some magic with those words, you’d expect to see them as part of Montblanc’s advertising and sales training. But that does not seem to be the case. If you look around the Montblanc website or their brochures, the term is barely used at all and, when it is used, it’s typically only in the product specifications table. The same goes for their sales training: I’ve spoken to staff at MB boutiques and dealers in Australia, Europe, and North America, and none of them have been trained about the term, let alone to use it as part of a special sales tactic. Of course, you might say that they are lying – perhaps it’s a trade secret! – but I’ve also had the chance to peruse some internal training materials (from the rather grandly-named Montblanc Academy) and there’s no mention of it there either. It’s not clear how this term helps sales if it’s not actually used in sales.
A second problem is that the term is not exclusively used by Montblanc. If you look at sales materials from Faber-Castell (both FC and Graf) and Pelikan, they also describe their pens as being made from ‘precious resin’. Despite this, I’m yet to hear anyone make the same criticism of these brands that is made of MB – but, if we are to be consistent and intellectually honest, the same term used in the same way should lead to the same criticism, regardless of the brand. Of course, we don’t see this criticism made consistently because it would be absurd to argue that Faber-Castell are using some magic words to sell us overpriced pens. But if the criticism cannot be made of Faber-Castell, it’s not clear how it can fairly be made of any other brand.
The third problem is that the resin isn’t equivalent to plastic – especially not the ABS plastic that most of us think when we hear the term. This is the material that is used for the Lamy Safari and, if you were to place a Meisterstuck alongside a Safari, you certainly wouldn’t say that they have been made from the same material. In fact, it would be quite dishonest to do so (not that this necessarily stops anyone). Montblanc’s resin is smooth, sleek and glossy; it feels quite different in the hand and, at least in my opinion, feels much nicer than the Safari.
The differences go deeper than just the appearance. I purchased a brand-new 149 almost two years ago and, to this day, have not polished it. It’s been my daily writer for most of that time, getting heavy use, travelling between home and the office (and the Philippines), and even being dropped on occasion. Despite all of that, it still gleams. It’s as glossy as the day it left the showroom and there are no obvious marks or scratches. My fingers are often a bit grubby (I usually write outside and often pause to play with the dog) but I have to hold the pen up to the light and turn it at odd angles just to see fingerprints. In other words: it’s no ordinary plastic.
And I’m sure that’s not by chance. I’ve compared my 149 with older models and the resin has clearly changed over time, as Montblanc have refined the composition and improved its performance. Earlier models didn’t keep the glossy look as well and were more prone to scratches and, for a brief period, the resin could be quite brittle. Obviously, they’ve kept working on it to come up with a material which is different to other resins or plastics; arguably, a far superior product.
This is also a bit problematic for the critics who claim that the pen is made from plastic and there is no reason to pay more for a pen made from precious resin than you would for a pen made from plastic. If you were to compare the two side-by-side, not everyone would prefer the resin and even those who preferred it might not be prepared to pay Montblanc prices. That’s entirely fair but it’s not fair, and nor is it correct, to say that the two are the same.
Depending on your point of view, these three points either challenge or entirely refute the hypothesis put forward by the critics. They claim that the term is used by Montblanc to sell more pens, but it isn’t really used in their sales materials and isn’t used exclusively by the brand. They claim that the product is no different from plastic, but this is false. Montblanc is entirely deserving of criticism for some of their decisions but to criticise them for this is nothing more than an act of confirmation bias – but, as the kids say, haters gonna hate.
Lost in Translation
You’re probably wondering why they chose to use this rather pretentious name if it didn’t yield some kind of marketing advantage. Critics obviously suggest that this was a cynical choice, made to convince customers into thinking the pens were made from some unusual material akin to gold or silver, and therefore more valuable than mere plastic. This assumes intentionality – that it was a deliberate choice – but this is not the only possible explanation.
If you’ve ever tried to translate something from one language to another, you’ll know that it’s not a straightforward task. A direct, literal translation doesn’t always achieve the desired effect: each word might be ‘correct’ but the overall sentence can fail to convey the intended meaning. Some translators therefore use an idiomatic approach where they choose words which are not the exact equivalents but get the right message across. When it comes to precious resin, I think that the Germans have opted for a literal translation when an idiomatic translation might have been more appropriate.
The German equivalent of precious resin is edelharz, which we can break into the two syllables. (The second, harz, means resin and is not controversial so we’ll leave it to the side.) Even if you’re not familiar with German, you might’ve noticed a similarity with the name Pelikan uses for their premium inks, edelstein. An idiomatic translation of this would be gemstone or jewel but the direct translation is precious stone.
If you were a German working with edelharz and needed to put it in English, any translation dictionary would have led you to precious resin. It’s the direct equivalent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it conveys the intended meaning for every variant of edel. As discussed in the above section, MB’s precious resin is different to an ordinary plastic or resin and it also differs from the precious resin used by Faber-Castell or Pelikan. It’s a material which is exclusively used by Montblanc, so a better, idiomatic translation might be ‘exclusive resin’.
While the terms ‘precious’ and ‘exclusive’ can be synonymous, there’s a nuanced difference which might not have been obvious to a German translating the term more than a century ago. Precious implies a natural scarcity while exclusive can imply an artificial scarcity. In this sense, exclusive resin would be more precise. But we can take things a step further for an even clearer translation. In English, ‘exclusive’ can be synonymous with ‘proprietary’, a special type of exclusivity where the scarcity is due to specific legal restrictions. While ‘precious resin’ is the correct direct translation of edelharz, the term ‘proprietary resin’ might be the best idiomatic translation as it conveys the desired meaning far more clearly.
We can evaluate whether this was the intended meaning by considering how the term ‘precious resin’ has been used. If you were leaf through a sales brochure and saw a list of technical specifications, the term ‘proprietary resin’ would not seem out of place at all. The same is true if you were reading the description of a pen and saw the term or if you were training salespeople about the material. A proprietary resin might be a selling point – distinguishing between a patented resin used exclusively by one brand compared with other plastics or resins – but it’s not something you’d put front and centre of your marketing. It fits perfectly and so it’s quite reasonable to conclude that proprietary resin is what the Germans had in mind when they used precious resin.
A dodgy translation seems a far more plausible explanation for the name and it seems to sit more comfortable with the facts than the idea that this cynical marketing ploy was hatched a century ago, but you have both sides of the argument can decide for yourself.
(As an aside, it’s interesting to ponder why none of the brands have adopted a different translation, given the criticism which is attached to ‘precious’. I suspect that FC and Pelikan haven’t bothered as they haven’t directly copped any criticism for it and Montblanc simply listen to, or don’t care about, criticism from people who mostly aren’t going to be buying from them anyway. It will be interesting to see if this changes as Montblanc has to pivot in the coming years to a new market.)
The Literal and the Functional
Finally, I wanted to explore the claim that plastic and resin are the same thing. While this claim applies to precious resin, it’s made more broadly in the community, with some making the case that artificial resin is chemically equivalent to plastic. As a disclaimer, I should say that I’m a social scientist, not a physical scientist, and I must leave questions of chemistry and physics to the experts. It may well be that true that the two are effectively the same – but it turns out this doesn’t really matter all that much. The chemical differences are irrelevant.
We use language to convey ideas and meaning and sometimes it can be useful to construct words which convey a difference between two things which are, in some sense, equivalent. A good example of this is the humble converter. To an engineer, a converter is a piston and it would be appropriate to say that a pen with a converter is a piston-filling pen. But if any of us were to purchase a pen described as ‘piston-filling’ and receive one with a converter, we would feel cheated. Even though the description is technically correct, it does not convey the correct meaning. We have constructed a difference between a pen which fills with a piston and a pen which fills with a converter, even though the two are equivalent. This construction is useful and has become an invaluable part of commerce and discussion in the community.
The same is true of the terms resin and plastic. They may be chemically equivalent but they convey very different meanings. Your expectations of a resin pen will be very different from that of a plastic pen: it’s likely that you would expect a higher-quality material (perhaps you would even use it as a signal of a higher build quality across the entire product). If you purchased a resin Lamy Safari, you would probably feel deceived to receive a stock-standard ABS plastic model, even though that description may be technically correct.
We can include celluloid with this discussion as it is also said to be a chemical equivalent to plastic and resin. Despite the equivalence, no-one in the community would feel like it was appropriate to describe plastic or resin pens as being made from celluloid. We have a very different understanding of each of the three materials and this affects their value – a celluloid Montblanc 149 from the 1950s commands a premium price to a resin model from the same decade and any trader who tried to pass off resin models as celluloid would be considered a liar and a cheat.
So our language has developed different words to convey different meanings, even when the underlying chemistry or physics is equivalent. When someone – particularly a reviewer – makes the case that plastic is resin, they are in a very grey area between telling the truth and telling a lie: it is true only in a very literal sense, and the message which is conveyed to the audience is false. And, if the wrong message was intentionally conveyed, this is obviously a lie.
As I said at the beginning of the essay, there are lots of criticisms which can be made of Montblanc but the precious resin argument is undeserved and unfair. It is obviously not a term they’ve invented to sell more pens, but a dodgy translation which could probably do with correction.
There are perfectly good reasons to criticise Montblanc but when critics focus on things like precious resin, they lose the attention of those who buy MB pens. Those folks aren’t fooled: they already know that precious resin isn’t part of the sales pitch and that the material is genuinely different to plastic, and so they’ll dismiss the criticism as uninformed. For the critics, this diminishes their credibility and leaves them dismissed as ignorant, liars, or haters. This is a shame because it means that any future criticism – including that which is fair, well-informed, and fully deserved – doesn’t register with those who might help drive change and make things better. And that’s bad for everyone.