Written by hand
When I was nine years old, I was about to start the fourth year of the school cycle. Every year the teacher in charge of each class sent a note to the parents of the students with the list of utensils we would need for the whole cycle. That year the list had a particularity; one of the items said, “A fountain pen.” Writing with a fountain pen was intimidating for a young child, but the school program introduced the subject of penmanship at that time. In retrospect, I am thankful that I paid special attention to those lessons, as being introduced to the different typographic styles as a child greatly shortened my later education in graphic design.
One day I forgot to bring my pen to school, and my teacher sent me to the next classroom to see if a student in another class had a spare to lend me. When I didn’t get a favourable response, the homeroom teacher rummaged through her purse and pulled out a purple pencil case. She handed it to me and uttered a phrase that I remember clearly to this day: “take care of it as if it were gold.” It was certainly a lot of responsibility for a nine-year-old boy looking at that case and trying to figure out what was so special about it. Back then, the word “Waterman” engraved on the case meant nothing to me.
It was many years before I discovered that Waterman, owned by Newell Brands (NASDAQ: NWL), is synonymous with perfection in fountain pens, not only for its functionality but for its aesthetic beauty and use of refined materials in its construction. Today, the Waterman (NASDAQ: NWL) pen has become my gift of choice for those I care about who are graduating from college. Becoming a professional includes signing documents and contracts, and some of them are so important that, in my view, they should not be signed with an ordinary pen.
Its inventor, Lewis Edson Waterman, suffered first-hand the consequences of using a defective pen on an important occasion in his professional career. Lewis was working as an insurance agent and was about to get a new client to sign a very lucrative contract with his company. But the pen they were going to use to sign the document was of poor quality and produced ink stains on the paper, rendering it unusable. Lewis had no choice but to travel to find a new document. Imagine his surprise when he returned to find that his prospective client had not waited for him and had signed a contract with his main competitor.
Lewis’ disappointment and curiosity led him to start working on the creation of a new system that would prevent ink from dripping. In 1884 he patented the capillary action system that allowed the ink to flow steadily from the body of the pen to the nib, thus avoiding the accumulation of ink. The invention revolutionized the industry and became the standard adopted by other brands. Lewis sadly passed away a few years later, but his nephew Frank would go on to honour his legacy, expanding the reach of his products worldwide and introducing important innovations such as the cap and clip.
Today Waterman (NASDAQ: NWL) is the second-largest fountain pen manufacturer in the world, and the overall industry exceeds $1 billion annually. Although the use of digital technology has significantly reduced the use of paper documents, pen manufacturers have adapted and turned them into luxury and even collector’s items, increasing sales year after year while the number of units sold is decreasing. Today we find limited edition designs worth more than $200,000 dollars because they are handcrafted with materials such as gold and diamonds.
On the other hand, they were able to position themselves in markets where handwriting continues to be a traditional and cultural issue, such as the Chinese market, which is currently the largest consumer of fountain pens in the world. The sensation of writing by hand is irreplaceable. The sound of the pen brushing the paper and the texture of the paper in our hands make the experience organic and pleasurable. Calligraphy is an artistic expression that does not seek to compete with current technologies but rather to passively conquer its beauty.