One of the more famous brands in the enthusiast pen and pencil world is Rotring (often spelled out as “rOtring”). But figuring out the history of Rotring reveals a somewhat tangled web. Perhaps it is no more tangled than any other modern company, but Rotring’s corporate changes have had notable impacts on its popular products so it’s a more interesting company to dig into than most.
Rotring’s history page starts in 1919, with the birth of the Bauhaus movement, and then offers no information about the formation of the brand. Wikipedia tells us that Rotring was founded by Wilhelm Riepe in 1928 as Tintenkuli Handels GmbH, based in Hamburg, Germany. “Tintenkuli” translates into “ink pen” so it’s a pretty clear description of what the company was up to at the time.
Not much else is written about the early days of the company. In 1936 the name was change to RIEPE-WERK Gmbh and then, at some point in the early 1950s, the name was changed to Rotring, which translates into “red ring” This, of course, explains why almost all the company’s products have some sort of red ring on them. In the 1950’s the founder’s son-in-law, Erich Barthe, got involved which is notable as he would one day run the company.
It’s written that the company’s factory was destroyed in World War II but Rotring came back strong after the war with the release of the famous Rapidograph pen in 1953.
Not much comes about the corporate history in the next few decades, but in 1974 the Rotring trademark was registered in the US by Rotring-Werke Riepe KG, the West German entity based in Hamburg. It’s now owned by the 13th owners, Luxembourg Brands SARL (SARL being a corporate entity type, Societe a Responsabilite Limitee), a company based in Luxembourg.
In 1970 Rotring, which was never an acquisitive company, acquired Adolf Waldmann KG of Pforzheim, Germany. Waldmann still makes pens today, but seems to be operating independently, to the company must be been sold off or spun off at some point. Also in 1970, Pelikan — as Günther Wagner Pelikan-Werke GmbH — bought 50% of Rotring in a deal that was designed to expand the size of the business of both entities.
In 1998 Rotring was sold to Sanford Brands (previously known as Sanford Manufacturing and later as Sanford, L.P.), which was famously the company behind the Sharpie permanent marker. At this point Sanford was part of Newell Brands, which is the conglomerate that makes Ball jars, Caphalon cookware, and Rubbermaid rubber goods, just to name a few of its more famous products.
This sale made Rotring a sister brand to Parker, Waterman, and Paper Mate pens. These relationships bore little fruit, through some Rotring pens were rebrands (with slightly modifications) and sold as Parker pens, more importantly the Quattro Executive, which has a near-exact Parker counterpart.
We know through the release of pens, specifically items like the Koh-I-Noor Rapidomatic 5645 that there was some sort of partnership between the two companies. It seems like Koh-I-Noor, an Australian company, was actually a US distributor for Rotring but Rotring purchased the Koh-I-Noor USA business, opening the door to whitelabeling Rotring pens as Koh-I-Noor for sale in the US.
Rotring 600 Paused And Restarted
Rotring’s most famous (by our unscientific observation) pen, pencil, fountain pen, and even rollerball has been the Rotring 600. The Rotring 600 line had an amazing run, but it was replaced by the Newton in the late-1990s — the first iteration of the Newtons being a very close match to the Rotring 600 family.
Interestingly some of the Rotring 600s and later the Newton pens were made in Japan, not Germany as they originally (or West Germany, as they were for a brief period). The Japanese-made pens were largely being made by Japanese manufacturer Holbein, though it’s said other makers may have been involved as well.
At some point in the mid-aughts the new Newton — which started in 2005 — was cancelled and the Rotring 600 and its predecessors were no longer made.
In 2018 the Rotring 600 mechanical pencil returned, followed by the ballpoint pen in 2019. These pencils and pens were only made in Japan, mostly (or perhaps entirely) by Holbein. These reimagined line has not yet produced a fountain pen or capped rollerball, but they have bought to lift a variety of new colors as well as a new take on the Rotring 600 Trio multi-pen.