BY DON FLUCKINGER • “To get people to look at a new pen, you’ve got to have something different,” says Jim Hickman, a semi-retired history professor with Newman for a middle name. That’s where he derived the name of his fledgling fountain pen manufacturing company, Newman Pens of Duluth, Georgia.
Hickman is neither a longtime pen collector nor an industrial designer. Yet he’s a master craftsman, a jack-of-all-projects who learned to write with fountain pens such as vintage Montblanc school pens — the same Montblanc marque that’s now positioned in the market as the crème de la crème.
|“To get people to look at a new pen, you’ve got to have something different,” says Jim Hickman, a semi-retired history professor with Newman for a middle name.|
Now he’s set out to take on the Montblancs and other pen giants by doing everything right with Newman Pens, including using precious materials in the logos, clips, tassies, caps, bands and barrels. Every part of a Newman pen except the feed includes valuable materials — and an 18K gold two-tone nib made by Peter Bock, who at last count provides nibs for more than 30 high-end modern marques.
“I can’t compete by putting out a plastic pen with a plastic logo on top and say it’s a $1,000 pen like some big companies can because they’ve got the name,” Hickman says. “I’ve got to make mine more realistically valuable than that… . I’ve got to put more precious materials in mine. And that is the way it should be — if you are going to pay for precious materials, then you should get precious materials.”
The pen-making bug bit Hickman — don’t laugh, all of us hobbyists started out somewhere — when he started making wooden kit ballpoints about a dozen years ago. He made one for a holiday gift just for fun and then ended up making another. And then another. And another. Later he ventured into exotic woods, like many people who got into the pen-building fad back then.
Friends became paying clients as orders began to roll in at Christmastime. Hickman differentiated himself from the other pen makers by using expensive, resin-impregnated wood burls purchased from a man in Ohio who originally intended the material to be used in custom-made knives and pistol handles.
“I’ve been a woodworker as far back as I can remember and have always looked for different and exciting things to make,” Hickman says. “I’ve made reproduction furniture, self-designed furniture, and even some of my grandbabies’ furniture and cribs — turned every spindle by hand — and if they take care of it, they can hand it down to their grandchildren.
“I enjoy being creative and making pretty things. That’s where I’m coming from,” he explains. “Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy trying to write with pens, but my real love is creating a beautiful fountain pen. Fountain pens are an art treasure in and of themselves.”
At the next pen show you attend, take a look at the Newman Pens. They’re big, beautiful, and amazingly individual with their swirls of many-hued “pearl essence” resin, including a stunning mother-of-pearl pen that in my opinion just might be the best-looking pen that’s come out in the last decade. They cost good money — in the high hundreds, some much more — but Hickman spends so much on production and development that he has yet to see a profit. Newman Pens may not break even for another couple years, he says. He’s still enlisting good pen dealers, both brick and click, to market his pens.
To get a glimpse of the painstaking process that Hickman goes through when he creates his pens, take a look at his clips: First, he drew up the clip, and then he sent the rough design to a industrial designer specializing in jewelry, who modeled it with the help of CAD (computer aided design) software. The model then went to a mold-cutting specialist, who created a “cold mold.”
The mold ended up with a Philadelphia goldsmith who now uses it to custom cast the clips. The cast clips come back to Hickman, who heat-hardens them and then forwards them to a bench jeweler, who despurs, tumbles, cleans, and polishes the clips.
After that, the clips take another trip, this time to Rhode Island, where they are double-plated. Even the solid gold clips get double-plating, for extra durability and uniform hue. Finally, they are sent back to Georgia to be placed on the pen. The clip on one Newman model even features an imported, Israeli-cut diamond with solid platinum trim — made in production runs of two at a time.
In its pen barrels and caps, Newman Pens uses flakes and dust of actual pearls (not shells or pieces of abalone) imported from Southeast Asia. Creating this material involves a chemical heat fusion process that was difficult at best for Hickman to perfect with yet another partner — a Tennessee chemist. Now that they’ve got it down after three years of experimentation, Hickman’s patenting the process.
Hickman approaches all parts of his pens with the same zeal for quality, enlisting the help of many craftspeople along the way to help create the specialized parts that go into Newman Pens in small, cottage-industry quantities. He also has had help from other pen people, especially Howard Levy of Bexley Pens.
“Howard has been a godsend,” Hickman says. “He knows how to make superb, high-quality pens and he has certainly helped me in my production ideas… . Pen people have to be the friendliest people in the business world. I have not met one yet that was not willing to help, give sound advice or encouragement. That’s just not [typical of] the cutthroat world of business.”
So what’s Hickman’s next project? It’s under wraps, but he’s willing to reveal that his new model incorporates Tahitian black pearl flakes and dust. If it turns out the way it’s supposed to, Hickman promises it “will absolutely take your breath away.”
In reading bulletin boards and email lists, I shudder at many of the complaints — and nightmare stories — pen lovers express regarding the quality control of much larger, more well-established modern manufacturers. Those dissatisfied hobbyists would do well to take a look at Newman Pens. Hickman’s might be a smaller shop, but chances are pen lovers will be happier with the fit, finish, and workmanship of Jim Hickman’s writing instruments.
That’s what happens when you have one guy in charge of making fine pens, overseeing every detail of their gestation. It’s the stuff of which old stories about Sheaffer, Waterman, and Parker are made, except that it’s happening today, before our eyes, in a shop down in Georgia.
“If I don’t win, I will have put up the good fight, and it has been enjoyable,” Hickman says. “I’ve had fun, it’s not a matter of life or death. It won’t alter my life style. I don’t need the money. I just want to have something to leave to the kids and grandkids — just a little reminder that I passed through and left something beautiful.”
Pen photos courtesy of Newman Pens
Further Reading: Start Your Own Business: The Only Start-Up Book You’ll Ever Need, by Rieva Lesonsky (Editor)
Inspired by Hickman's example? Start your own pen company.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|