I've had an interesting conversation with Robert Rosenberg, the man behind the revival of the beloved Esterbrook pen brand.
As pen collectors know, Esterbrook made classic fountain pens in New Jersey for more than 100 years until it was absorbed by a series of other companies in the early 1970s. At its peak, Esterbrook turned out 600,000 pens a day, according to the Asbury Park Press.
Rosenberg picked up the lapsed trademark and announced late last year that he would begin making Esterbrooks again. The new generation of pens are now on sale.
After stumbling upon a newspaper article about the new company, I decided to write a blog post about it. Boy, did that turn out to be way more involved than I thought it would.
Fountain pen collectors are a passionate bunch, especially with a revered brand like Esterbrook. They love their vintage Esterbrook Js and Dollar pens and have high expectations for anyone reviving a respected pen company.
Turns out that collectors have not responded well to Rosenberg's plans.
A 23-page thread on the Esterbrook revival at the Fountain Pen Network serves as one long attack on Rosenberg and the new pens, which users have dubbed "Zombiebrooks." Collectors have complained about the quality of the pens, about the company's social media skills, or lack thereof, and about Rosenberg himself.
(Rosenberg and his father previously revived the Conklin pen brand before selling it to Yafa.)
This comment summed up what seems to be the consensus among FPN members:
Looking at the new J it seems like they weren't even trying to emulate the original. I knew it was a long shot to expect a good revival, but I'm still very disappointed. They should have created a new company instead of trying to "revive" an old one. They could have made a brand new company with a brand new product that wouldn't carry the huge weight and fan base of the old. It could have been a success, but the new "Esterbrook" will always be compared to the old one.
Brian Anderson, of Anderson Pens, runs a website dedicated to Esterbrook pens and has a large collection of the originals. He bought and reviewed the new Esterbrook J fountain pen and the rollerball. His verdict: meh.
A Kickstarter project to help fund new Esterbrook pens ended earlier this month without reaching even 20 percent of its funding goal. That's also not a good sign from the market.
I ended up talking to Rosenberg a couple of times and asked him what he thought of the reaction from pen collectors.
He said he's busy running a business, so he hasn't spent a lot of time monitoring what's been said online about his company. However, he is aware of the backlash from the fountain pen community.
(He's been in a few angry back-and-forths with pen collectors on the new Esterbrook Facebook page.)
Bottom line, he says, is that fountain pen collectors represent a very narrow segment of the market, and his business is not aimed solely at them.
"Our goal is not just to revive Esterbrook for pen collectors," Rosenberg told Tiger Pens. "As a business, we really have to think about pens for everybody. "
While the new Esterbrook does want to attract fountain pen collectors, "we're running a business. We can't let them dictate what we do. We're going to continue doing what we do."
Rosenberg said the new Esterbrook will turn out replicas of vintage models – including a replica of the original Dollar pen coming out in April – but the company also intends to sell new designs in fountain, rollerball and ballpoint pens.
After all, Rosenberg said, if Esterbrook were still in business, the company likely would not still be producing the same pens they made in 1952.
(The new designs are coming from an in-house production team in which he plays a major role, Rosenberg said.)
He'd like to sell the pens from his website, Esterbrookpen.com, as well as through a network of retailers in the US, Europe and Japan. Fahrney's Pens already is selling models of the new Esterbrook J that go for US$65 to US$350.
Rosenberg said nibs and refills for the new Esterbrooks are made in Germany, while other parts come from manufacturers in Europe, Japan and Taiwan. He said the company tries to avoid Chinese factories.
(The idea that the new Esterbrooks are manufactured in whole or in part in China is a main concern on FPN.)
Rosenberg said he doesn't really understand the resistance from pen collectors. In fact, he said "they should be happy" that he is bringing the name back.
He's also "very confident" that eventually his new pens will win them over. But even if they don't, he can't afford to focus his business on the relatively small number of avid pen collectors, he said.
"We're not making pens just for them," Rosenberg said. "We're building a brand."
So my take on all this?
Rosenberg certainly could have done a better job working with the fountain pen community in re-launching the Esterbrook brand. It seems that whatever experiences he had in reviving the Conklin brand may have left him feeling antagonistic toward collectors. It never helps to alienate the people who could form the core of your fan base.
But, collectors also need to accept that the world changes; it moves on. Very few brands stay the same over centuries, or even decades – not anymore. A new incarnation of an old brand is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just the way of business.
Truly, the only helpful voice I've seen in all this has been Brian Anderson's. He actually tried out the the pens in question and reported his impressions. That's what I would recommend to anyone.
Because this will all come down to the pens, as it should.
If, over time, they exhibit good quality and good performance, then the revival of Esterbrook is a positive. If they don't, the name likely will fade back into pen history.