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Montblanc

This company was founded in 1906 by an interestingly diverse group, which can almost be the foundation for a silly joke: a banker, a stationer, and an engineer walk into a bar….  Whether the venue was a bar, salon or office, these three professions in the respective persons of Alfred Nehemias, Claus-Johannes Voss, and August Eberstein got together and founded a pen company.  The official corporate history speaks of a “simplicissimus pen” being their goal, although it does not offer any explanation; the Latin translates as “most simple” and is somewhat ironic given some of the baroque excesses the company would later offer.

1906 is, by the way, the first date on the company’s own history page.  However, it doesn’t appear that there was an actual company in place until 1908, and production did not begin until 1909.  There was also a great deal of movement amongst the heads of the company until 1910.  Apart from some backers who come and go in the course of a year, Nehemais died and Eberstein was ousted for embezzling, so by the time the company was really on the map, the men at the head were Voss and two new money-men by the names of Wilhelm Dziambor and Christian Lausen.  At the beginning, the company was known as The Simplo Filler Pen Company, one assumes because “Simplicissimus” is both a bit of a mouthful and a lot of letters on an advertising flyer.

It was in 1910 that the company first associated itself with the mountain by which they are now known.  There is a legend in which the name was suggested over a card game in reference to a new Simplo pen with a white derby, and in 1910 Simplo registered “Montblanc” as a trade mark.  This has caused some people, myself among them, to be chronic mis-spellers of the company’s name, since we know Mont Blanc is two words, and the company itself frequently breaks up the name at the traditional place.  The well-known star, or “bird-splat” as irreverent pen enthusiasts have it, did not appear until 1913; it was not possible to trademark an all-white derby, apparently.

Mont Blanc. Not Montblanc.  The pens are slightly more portable. (photo © Matthieu RieglerCC-BY, via Wikimedia Commons)

In 1914, Germany entered into war, which while not quite as disastrous as the next did have some effect on the national economy; Simplo is known to have been involved in materials production for the army, and to have cut back pen production to some degree in the conflict’s latter stages as resources became difficult to lay in.  The difficulty of importation from the United States and England saw point production brought in-house, which definitely falls under the heading of making a virtue of necessity; they became a parts supplier to Pelikan and other German companies.  The other effect of the war was to reduce the international nature of the company’s naming practices; the original “Rouge et Noir” pen became the “Rotkäppchen” and the company itself became Simplo Füllfedergesellschaft.

Following the war, the company engaged on what we would now call a saturation campaign to make their brand known.  The original Montblanc boutiques opened in this 1919, and over the course of the following decade they introduced a range of branded products in a manner familiar to the modern company, although most were in some way pen-related; inks, note-books, photo albums and similar accessories.  Not all of these products were the work of Simplo– the inks, for example, were made by Pelikan– but they were not averse to buying up a supplier if opportunity offered.  In 1924, production began on the Meisterstück, which remains to this day the company’s iconic pen, although it has changed somewhat through the years. It is interesting to note that this top-end pen from a high-end company appears almost immediately as one of Germany’s worst economic crises comes to an end.

In 1929, the company underwent what could be called either a restructuring or a coup.  It was taken over by Ernst Rösler, who had joined as the head of point production in 1919, and who insisted upon having himself made he at whom the buck stops after accusing the rest of the company’s partners of poor financial prudence.  Unlike a similar spat in the boardroom which looks to have been the start of Waterman’s collapse in the US, Simplo seems to not have suffered unduly from the event, so there may have been something in the accusation.

Apart from this command restructuring and from becoming officially “Montblanc Simplo GmbH” in 1934 and thus coming in line with the public idea of what the company’s name was, Montblanc continued through the 1930s in much the same way as it had in the previous decade, but got more up-to-date equipment for the factories.  Matters changed slightly with the start of World War Two.  It seems that they were allowed to produce pens only for export (“to what markets?” springs instantly to mind), although parts for domestic consumption were still made; like other German makers, Montblanc had to be content with steel points, and the non-brass innards of the pens tended to go bad from ink corrosion.  There was also production of military parts, as most makers of pens on both sides of the conflict engaged upon.  In 1944, the factory was struck by a bomb, which put an end to production until after the war.

Production resumed in 1946.  While initial production was of much the same sort of pens as before the war, they also introduced “wing points” in the 1950s, which allowed for a slightly sleeker front end and a slightly more economical use of metal, as they were smaller and more linear than the traditional point shape.  Plants were opened in other countries, and there is apparently a cachet attached to Danish-made celluloid pens as being somewhat more attractive than those coming out of the home plant.  Designs tended to be conservative until the 1960s, when styling similar to contemporary Parkers and Pelikans appeared.  Montblanc, like Parker, apparently wasn’t caught up in the initial fever for ball point pens, and didn’t make one until 1957.

Montblanc continued to prosper through the 1960s and 1970s, but  it was decided by Jürgen Rösler (son and heir of Ernst; I cannot find any information regarding when Jürgen took over) that Montblanc was in need of a substantial renewal of its production line if it were to remain in its place in the market, and so he sold majority of shares in the company to Dunhill, a British luxury manufacturer.  The sale was finalized in 1977, and in 1985 Dunhill took control of Montblanc entirely, rendering it essentially a subsidiary.

Under Dunhill, Montblanc returned to, or perhaps resumed on a broader scale, the sort of marketing it had engaged in during the inter-bellum period.  Branded boutiques opened and advertising of Montblanc as a brand for the wealthy and thus making ownership of a Montblanc a signifier of wealth appeared.  Dunhill was itself acquired in 1988 by Richemont, a luxury goods conglomerate (one will also see references to purchase by a group called Vendôme; this was a subset of Richemont apparently aimed at separating tobacco and non-tobacco aspects of their interests, which did not appear until after 1988).  The only apparent effect on Montblanc was a possible escalation of the effort to associate the brand with affluence; unlike many pen companies which were bought up in a similar manner, the new master’s main thrust of making expensive stuff for rich people is essentially in line with what the company’s focus was before the purchase.

Starting in 1992, and in conjunction with the discontinuation of all models that were not “upper rank”, Montblanc began what is an ongoing campaign of offering limited edition models, as a further appeal to exclusivity– not only are they very expensive, but there’s not many of them, so if you’ve got one you’re very special.  This sort of artificial rarity, as opposed to the organic sort developing through lack of original sales or materials failures in all but a few unlikely survivors, combined with prices many consider artificially high on even the regular line-up and the slightly unfortunate use of “precious resin” to describe their primary material (“edelharz” in German, “edel” also offering the possibility of “noble” or “fine” which don’t necessarily help), produces polarized opinion among collectors.  Some, and I admit to having at least a foot in this camp, are angry at Montblanc for generating an air of pretention around fountain pens in general and for fostering the popular misconception that the whole breed of fountain pens are unattainably expensive.  The opposing side general respond with declarations of value through impeccable quality and point out the likelihood of the detractors’ position having a foundation in jealousy; if you had one, you would understand why they’re so expensive.  There is a middle ground in these opinions, of course, and I won’t urge the reader to join either side.

This association with luxury has also resulted in the brand being furiously duplicated and knocked-off; the examples down those links are relatively benign, as some are genuine attempts, right down to the bird-splat, to pretend to be a Montblanc for the purposes of fraud.  Buyers of second-hand Montblancs and those who patronize non-authorized sellers of new ones should think very hard about their purchase.

Models I’ve examined:

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