Can Writing Instruments Be As Collectible And Enthusiast-Infused As Watches?
by Nancy Olson
Thrill of the chase. Intellectual satisfaction. Investment. Brain blip.
There are nearly as many reasons for collecting things as there are things to collect. But when it comes to watches and writing instruments, a variety of shared motivations, perhaps catalyzed by the obvious common characteristics of the objects themselves, make them conspicuous crossovers for collectors.
For example, a pen – like a watch – is a relatively small, mechanical object that adds some punch to the somewhat restrained category of “men’s accessories.” Each provides more than a little intellectual stimulation thanks to the respective (and often complex) product catalogs and brand histories, and they can both provide a generous hit of luxury for those so inclined.
Then again, maybe you just like them.
New York native Jon Messer, who has been amassing pens and watches for more than four decades and has earned the distinction of “expert” in both fields, represents many collectors when he says, “Those who merely wish to write or tell time simply take anything at hand or eye shot: a Bic or hotel pen, a wall clock or phone . . . but, for me it’s personal and probably what I perceive as magnetically desirable.”
He adds that he is also “enchanted by [their] micro machinery,” which is a common theme.
But not all collectors are after the same prize, leaving lots of room to fulfill every interest, such as provenance (brand or artisan), model series, types of materials, or rarity. The preference for antique or vintage versus new, often considered the “great divide” among collectors, also seriously shapes one’s collection.
The great divide: vintage or new
Most reliable sources agree that a watch 25 years old or older may loosely be considered vintage, though there’s lots of wiggle room and lots of extenuating criteria depending upon the source.
Defining “new” is much easier and puts “vintage” into some perspective, if only by determining what it is not.
Texas watch and pen collector Cliff Harrington notes that, in general, older collectors seem to prefer vintage pieces, while younger collectors go for more recent models. He chalks this up to the belief that “[older] collectors focus on what they wanted, but could not afford, in their youths.”
As for pens, the 1920s marks the beginning of what is considered the “golden age of fountain pens,” with some of the most exceptional writing instruments being produced through the 1950s.
Pens from this era are highly collectible, though a rare, contemporary Montblanc limited edition or a brand-new unique piece by a respected artist is also a notable addition to any collector’s cache.
Vintage pen collector and owner of www.thepenguinpen.com, Rick Propas, urges collectors to listen to “their instincts. There is no better way to collect. Follow your inclinations, buy what you like, buy responsibly, and be aware that your tastes and aesthetic may change as you proceed.”
Harrington and Propas both discourage collecting primarily for investment purposes. Some discretionary income, however, is indeed necessary. “My experience is that both hobbies are similar in that collectors often are professionals – doctors, lawyers, engineers, bankers – and successful entrepreneurs,” says Harrington.
But available cash should not be the sole determining factor of one’s collection. “There are a number of watch and pen collectors who have become occasional dealers to fund their personal collections [and] there are many collectors who focus on less expensive pens and watches that are within the budgets of a broader range of collectors.”
Messer concurs, explaining, “Essentially, personal latitude – the ability to access and invest – is the key ingredient. Add to that available time and commitment.”
Which writing instruments are most collectible?
Montblanc pens – vintage and new – immediately come to mind. “For every good reason they are the predominant maker of wide variation, historical linkage and association, and they produce value from constructive finish to market demand. Hence, they produce more than a pen,” says Messer.
Propas agrees: “Montblanc certainly has name recognition and seems to be the gold standard.” Each adds that there are other brands offering high-quality, collectible writing instruments as well such as Pelikan, Caran d’Ache, Namiki and pens produced by independent artisans, among many others.
The “most collectible” watches are more difficult to pin down since their universe is so much bigger, though we all know that Rolex (particularly the Daytona) and rarer Patek Philippe examples hover at the top of the list of “watches to covet.”
Not in your price range? “Among vintage watches made in the U.S., and at much lower price levels, there is continuing interest in vintage Illinois, Hamilton (particularly those with unusual shapes like the Ventura), and certain Gruen models,” explains Harrington.
Propas notes a burgeoning trend among pen collectors in their twenties and thirties who are not as interested in the high-end pens, but rather focus more on the nibs, inks, and “fancy writing” potential of lower-priced contemporary models. “But I would guess that as they go on in the hobby they will discover the magic of vintage and modern pens of quality.”
Timepieces generally span a higher price range than pens. Though a few fountain pens have been produced over the years that have exceeded $1 million at the time of their debuts, this is owed mostly to the expense of their jeweled exteriors.
Timepieces, on the other hand, regularly exceed that price point for their mechanics, provenance, or rarity alone.
Witness the May 2018 Geneva timepiece auction, wherein Phillips in association with Bacs & Russo announced the record sale of an 18-karat white gold Omega wristwatch owned and worn by Elvis Presley, gifted to him in 1961. It sold for $1,812,318.
A rare, signed Dunhill-Namiki Double Dragon Maki-e fountain pen, Emperor size, from the early 1930s, sold at Bonham’s in December 2017 for $225,000.
But another important, yet often overlooked, aspect of collecting, I believe, is the social gratification of the “sport.” On any given week, in any given location around the world, pen and watch collectors gather at homes, restaurants, bars, online and, more formally, at regional hobbyist shows to share information, garner feedback and generally commune with like minded souls.
After all collection size, auction prices, or the next hot product all pale when compared to the humanity of common interests and goals.
The RedBar Group, a worldwide collective of watch enthusiasts who meet on a regular basis to talk and share, was founded in New York City (and has since spread internationally) by Adam Craniotes and Dr. Jeffrey Jacques.
Craniotes sums up the their purpose: “When you get right down to it, watch collecting is a social, tactile endeavor that cannot be properly addressed solely from behind a keyboard and a computer screen. The study of, practice, and appreciation of horology cannot exist in a vacuum, which is why it’s vital to take the conversation offline and share our collections, ideas and, most importantly, our passion on a face-to-face basis. At RedBar we like to do it over a drink or two, but we accept teetotalers with open arms, too.”
Propas credits the Pen Collectors of America, founded in 1984, and its many social and educational aspects, with supporting the community of those interested in writing instruments. “I’d be hard pressed if I had to choose between the pens and the people,” he says. “Anyone who collects in solitary is missing out.”
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