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March 2012: Montblanc Bespoke Nibs: Interesting, Expensive

Extra Fine Points Index  ]

BY DON FLUCKINGER • Up front, understand: I haven’t ordered a Montblanc bespoke nib, and I don’t plan to. At 650 euros ($869 at this writing) added on top of the usual Montblanc prices, a pen machine-customized to my hand would cost roughly as much as the worth of the commuter Corolla I’m driving the wheels off of. The kids, you know, need to eat. Otherwise, I’d be in for one.

A specially equipped Montblanc pen records a customer’s writing pressure, speed, the angle at which he holds the pen, how much he rotates the nib, and the “swing angle,” which measures variance in wrist movement. Extra Fine Points

The technology — which Montblanc just rolled out in the U.S., according to the February 2012 PEN WORLD — is fascinating: A specially equipped Montblanc pen records a customer’s writing pressure, speed, the angle at which he holds the pen, how much he rotates the nib, and the “swing angle,” which measures variance in wrist movement.

Montblanc takes these readings and custom grinds nibs to the writer’s hand. The manufacturer offers points in the bespoke line unavailable in standard Montblanc fountain pens, including XXF, an extra broad signature point, and a calligraphic nib.

I love this stuff. In theory, at least. I just got back from a week in Las Vegas, covering a major medical technology trade show. For the third year running, the doctors and vendor executives I interviewed — and for that matter, fellow journalists — asked me repeatedly about the Livescribe Pulse Pen, the technology behind which has literally changed my journalistic life on site at such events. I can write stories much faster; my note-taking style has evolved into something akin to blog tags, and when it comes to transcribing quotes, I zip back and forth through the accompanying audio much more efficiently than when I have just a voice-recorder file with some strategically placed index marks.

But, to put it in Vegas terms, what are the odds that an $850+ Montblanc retail gamble would pay off in the ultimate nib? After all, that’s a pretty big bet.

I put the question to Richard, who says that the thought scares him. Having watched his customers sit down and write for many years at trade shows, he approximates a custom grind on sight. I’ve watched him myself; he can get pretty close with a first pass, but sometimes it takes further minor tweaking in a second and third pass to achieve the perfection they demand.

“I don’t know if I could trust a single set of measurements,” he says of the Montblanc bespoke system. “So many things influence how a pen performs: The ink you use, the humidity in the room, and personal variation from writing session to writing session. I’ve seen people change how they hold the pen more than once in a span of five or ten minutes. When you grind a nib for somebody like that, you have to make it write under a significantly greater range of elevation, rotation, and swing angle than you’d think necessary with only a single sitting.”

That’s an interesting point. Montblanc’s computerized system does try to compensate for variations in pen movement in its measurements, but can it really encompass the infinite variety even one person exhibits? If Montblanc could get the price down to a hundred or two hundred bucks, I might go in for one. Of course, Montblanc might not be able to add in the custom engraving and other “bespoke” trappings that come with it — which matter none to me…how well it writes is the thing, right?

Ideally, a competition along the lines of Deep Blue vs. Garry Kasparov — the famed 1990s throwdowns between the reigning world chess champion and an IBM computer — would settle the matter. Would Montblanc’s system beat the masters of the nib-grinding trade?

Against Kasparov, by the way, the computer won matches in 1996 and 1997, although Kasparov disputed the outcome of the latter match, alleging that humans nudged Deep Blue to victory. IBM refused his request for a rematch and dismantled the computer, leading conspiracy theorists to wonder whether or not it was a public-relations stunt designed to boost IBM’s stock value.

Ironically, that February PEN WORLD also features an article on the father-son Nagahara duo of Sailor pens, which feature what many fountain pen aficionados consider the best nibs in the world. It was written by John Mottishaw, a renowned nib expert himself. Between the three of them — and Richard, who also wrote an article for the issue — they represent decades of nib-grinding common sense no machine could learn.

For me, the point is moot. I’ll put my money on the humans. After all, my kids need to eat.

cover Further Reading: The Art of Urban Sketching, by Gabriel Campanario
Just out last month is a pretty cool book for the artists among us. It’s both a comprehensive guide and a showcase of location drawings by artists around the world who draw the cities where they live and travel.

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 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. Don Fluckinger
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