It’s been a few years since Montblanc, the German jeweler, brought out the Meisterstück, the world’s grandest fountain pen. In fact, it was an old design going back to the early twentieth century, but through some kind of marketing alchemy, the pen suddenly became ubiquitous in American malls and upscale catalogs in about 1988. I received one, as a gift, upon graduating from college; it had been one of those presents I told my girlfriend to tell my parents about, and crossed my fingers. The silly thing was as big as a Cuban cigar, and probably the most spendy stock fountain pen one could ever hope to find. I put the price tag at about three hundred dollars. (There are limited-edition, precious-metal versions of the Meisterstück and its competitors, but I like to think that the standard jewelry-store versions top what is reasonable for a normal person.)
It is, of course, the kind of pen you want to reserve for signing declarations of war and bilateral trade agreements. This is true of fountain pens in general, I suppose. They are a delight to write with, once you’ve mastered them, but they can be a pain to master. Fountain-pen ink has not yet been developed to the point where it will dry as fast as the ink from your typical ballpoint, felt-tip, or rolling-ball pen. This is both a weakness and a strength, because fine pen ink is silky, almost oily as it goes onto the page. It is a widespread fallacy that fountain pens are “scratchy.” They are only so when they have a cheap nib, or when the ink is inferior. Like vintages in wine, you can’t really go by brand. The finest bottle I ever had was an inexpensive, opaque black Platignum that flowed like my grandmother’s chocolate syrup poured over a sundae. I’ve never found another bottle like it, though a well of Pelikan turquoise came close. Also, you can tell a lot about a fountain pen’s owner by the ink color she chooses—blue-black and brown are especially eccentric and beautiful.
The Montblanc’s main selling point is its nib, which contains both yellow and white gold, along with some dramatic filigree. Although I felt terribly self-conscious about using it to take notes in grad school, I quickly got over that, due to the pure sensual pleasure of using it. When I missed a lecture, I mostly regretted the missed opportunity to take notes that day. I believe I developed a kind of iron grip with my right hand that has—like my brain—atrophied considerably since then.
A good fountain pen with real gold in the nib will quickly form to the hand of its owner. It will feel as if it intuitively knows the slope of your words. When people ask to borrow my pen, I know it will not work for them. When I first got my Montblanc, I thought it might become an heirloom, something I’d pass along to my children or grandchildren. Surely the price justified that sort of exaltation. But it will never quite write in anyone else’s hand, and that seems a shame.
A pen like that you constantly worry about. I had several close calls when I left a book bag in a bathroom, or dropped the uncapped pen and watched in slo-mo horror as it pin-wheeled down to the floor, only to bounce off the safe end. Eventually, I retired the Montblanc to my home office; sadly, I don’t use it much anymore. I bought a cheaper and more modest Pelikan, and the truth is, it fits my hand better than that massive Meisterstück. Besides, the first and last peace treaty I’ll ever sign was my wedding license, fifteen years ago. Other than that, I’m not really in the business of signing Important State Papers. But it’s nice to know that I’d be well equipped when the next opportunity comes along.