In 1924, the humble fountain pen was transformed into an object of desire. This was the year Montblanc launched its now-iconic Meisterstück writing instrument, a pen that’s been used by every statesman from Barack Obama to Nelson Mandela.
The name comes from a long-running German tradition whereby any craftsperson has to produce a Meisterstück – or ‘masterpiece’ – to demonstrate their skills and be admitted into the relevant professional body or guild. As Christian Rauch, Montblanc’s managing director of writing instruments, explains, ‘We liked this idea so much that it was decided that Montblanc would apply this spirit of the Meisterstück to everything, whether it be writing instruments, leather goods or watches.’
Once Montblanc had created its ‘masterpiece’ pen, the company was understandably reluctant to reinvent the design to any great extent. After all, why mess with perfection? ‘The last real design change was at the beginning of the 1950s,’ Rauch explains. ‘Since then we have made small alterations; for example, we improved the way they work on flights. It’s like looking at the Coca-Cola logo, which seems to have been the same for ages but is actually not.’
In terms of the look and feel of the pen, however, little has changed. ‘If you ask someone to draw a fountain pen, from Nigeria to Paris it will always look like a Meisterstück, and that’s why we stick so closely to that shape,’ Rauch points out. Careful thought goes into any proposed modification. ‘For the 90-year anniversary we created a version in rose gold for the first time. The Meisterstück comes in four sizes and the biggest, the 149, we usually never touch. But this time we made a version in rose gold and we discussed it for more than a year – with the board, with external consultants, with our friends from Richemont [the Swiss luxury goods group of which Montblanc is now a part] … Finally we did it and we love it – but it was a big decision for us.’
It’s because of this reluctance to make vast changes that the Meisterstück has stood the test of time. ‘It became a real luxury icon, and there aren’t many of those. There’s the Trinity de Cartier ring, the face of the Rolex Oyster watch, the Chanel No5 perfume bottle … maybe 10 to 15 items that are really recognised all over the world.’ Now that the Meisterstück has entered this hall of fame, Montblanc is keen to ensure that’s where it remains.
For Montblanc, part of that is making sure the Meisterstück is technically perfect. ‘With a regular Meisterstück, there are around 100 different working steps; the nib alone takes 35,’ explains Rauch. After a thorough set of quality controls – by eye, by magnifying glass, by computer measuring – the finished handmade pen then goes through a crucial final check. In a soundproofed room, trained members of staff write with each one; as Rauch puts it, the testers ‘experience the soul of the writing instrument’ by how it feels and sounds.
The Meisterstück was one of the first writing instruments to be made to last; because of this the brand is respectful of every piece, whether it was made in 1924 or 2004. ‘We always said that the Meisterstück should be meant for life and be passed on to the next generation. This is very untypical; usually with a pen, you use it and when it’s broken you throw it away. This was the world before Montblanc came along, and it’s still the world of pens in most cases.’
This pride in its products is clear in every aspect of Montblanc’s aftercare. ‘We make our products to live for ever, and we also repair them, no matter how old they are,’ says Rauch. ‘We have a strict policy here; if you send us a Montblanc from 1941 we will repair it with materials from 1941. For example, the piston of a fountain pen today is made out of silicon; in 1941 it would have been cork, so we do the repair with a cork piston.’
Given such attention to quality, the Meisterstück seems set to be as desirable and famous in another 90 years as it is now.