There’s an interesting line about fountain pens in the movie Duplicity. Conniving CEO Dick Garsik (played by Paul Giamatti) is reading a handwritten draft of a memo by a rival company head. The memo bears bad news and the flustered Garsik stops at one point, turns aside to his employees, and says:
“I mean, who the hell writes with a fountain pen anymore? How fricking pretentious is that?”
He’s being a little harsh, for sure, but the line raises some good questions. Do people still use fountain pens regularly, as they did several years ago when the pens were enjoying a resurgence in popularity? Or, has that time passed? And, if so, has there been a resulting slowing of sales?
American pen artisan Richard Merritt certainly thought so last year.
He had planned to start an online venture called TheFountainPenStore.com to sell a range of fountain pens, inks and accessories. But after examining the market, he concluded that it would not be viable because the fountain pen market was shrinking.
He wrote on his pen blog:
While the market for “new” fountain pens is declining rapidly, the used, collectible vintage and antique fountain pen market is much stronger. Well, it is still declining, but not nearly as fast as the market for new fountain pens. It's all logical – technology will continue to strangle several “analog” niches and markets. It has to be expected.
I have done some rigorous testing over the last few months. I've even penetrated the market and “owned” the online side of the industry for a while with certain targeted BIG keywords. After much measuring and testing, my personal experience and tests show that yes, the interest in fountain pens is shrinking fast. The offline market is also declining, but this varies drastically depending on location – where New York and Europe have more demand and still do well in high business traffic areas.
As one bit of evidence, he provided a graph from Google Trends showing a steady decline in online searches for the terms “fountain pen” and “fountain pens.” He was right, and that downward trend has continued into this year, as you can see from this screen capture.
Global sales figures of fountain pens are hard to come by (without spending several hundred pounds to buy a commercial market analysis), and the fountain pen makers we contacted didn’t respond.
But we did find two small tidbits of information that seem interesting.
The Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association is, as executive director David Baker explained to us, primarily a regulatory and safety organisation for pen makers in the US. However, while the group doesn’t get involved in marketing, it does hire Technometrica to compile annual statistics on pens produced.
According to those figures, the number of fountain pens shipped in 1998 was 12 million. That number rose to 17 million by 2004 and hovered near there through 2007, the most recent year for which statistics are available.
That would seem to indicate that – at least as recently as two years ago – fountain pen sales were fairly healthy and stable in the US. It would stand to reason that fewer fountain pens are sold in the US than in the UK and Europe because the pens are not standard in schools there, and their use is less likely to be habit.
Meanwhile, the Writing Equipment Society in the UK reported earlier this year that data from Terrapeak show that sales figures of vintage fountain pens on eBay have been holding steady for the last two years. According to the report, buyers spent an average of £2,000 a week on vintage pens between 2007 and 2009.
Of course, that does not shed light on what is happening in the new fountain pen market, either in the UK or globally, but it does indicate that there is still a segment of the population willing to spend significant amounts of money on fountain pens.
As always on fountain pen matters, we consulted the enthusiasts at the Fountain Pen Network – which boasts nearly 28,000 registered members – for their thoughts.
Yachtsilverswan had this to say:
I am not part of the industry, just a consumer and a fan. But it seems that over the past ten or twenty years, the fountain pen industry has refocused and redefined itself as an upscale luxury product, rather than as a common utilitarian tool.
More limited editions at higher prices are being released across broad themes to appeal to special interests. Sterling silver, 18k gold, and platinum are used more often as the core construction of pen, rather then just as adornments. Pens are becoming fashion accessories, rather than just tools. Montblanc has introduced bejeweled pen lines like the Boheme, the Etoile de Montblanc, the Garbo, the Dietrich, and the Bergman to appeal to women to broaden its market beyond the classic masculine Meisterstuck lines, and to accentuate the pen as a high end functional fashion accessory, very much like a wristwatch.
Luxury pen makers like David Oscarson and Montblanc are doing well, while lower end pen companies like Cross are closing or shifting all manufacturing to China.
Of course, those who currently collect vintage pens and can afford the more high-end pens described above are probably older, affluent buyers who consciously choose fountain pens over standard writing pens.
As they age, they are likely to be replaced in the marketplace by younger buyers with no interest in or knowledge of fountain pens and who buy standard pens just because that’s what they’ve always used. Even if they could afford to, it’s unlikely they would choose to spend money on expensive fountain pens.
We were speaking recently to handwriting expert Dr. Rosemary Sassoon. She told us she presented her grandson with one of her own fountain pens, an iconic Parker.
“He didn’t even know what to do with it,” she said. “He'd never seen one.”
So, how about it? Is the end in sight for the fountain pen market, new or used? Let the discussion begin.