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  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
    John Reche of Fort Wayne writes on a traveling desk from the 1880s in a journal with a Esterbrook dip pen. Reche is an avid collector of fountain pens.

  • Reche’s collection includes, left, an 1898 Parker eye dropper fountain pen and a 1930s Parker Duofold fountain pen, shown on a sample of a student’s handwriting practice book from the 1870s.

  • A tray of vintage Esterbrooks, a circa 1880s traveling desk, antique ink bottle and dip pen and a penmanship book are just a few of the fountain pen items collected by Reche.

  • Antique ink bottles are part of Reche’s collection.

  • Photos by Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
    Reche keeps some of his fountain pens, ink bottles and dip pens in an original Sheaffer pen case.

  • Along with his fountain pens, Reche also has a collection of penmanship medals.
March 02, 2017 1:03 AM

A feel for fountain pens

Retro instruments draw fans for their look, feel and value

Corey McMaken | The Journal Gazette

John Reche’s collection began with something headed to the garbage dump.

Don’t stop reading. Reche’s collection isn’t old candy wrappers or used Kleenex or anything gross. No, the retired teacher collects something more classic: fountain pens.

In the 12 years since a friend brought him a few pens found in a neighbor’s trash, Reche’s collection has grown to fill a room of his home. When you ask him how many pens he has, he laughs.

“Hard telling,” Reche says. “I’ve never counted them all – but a few hundred.”

When you think of a fountain pen, you might conjure up the image of an old-timey doctor scribbling out patient notes or a tweed-clad author bent over a draft of the next great American novel. But just because the 21st century has ballpoints and gel ink doesn’t mean fountain pens are only for display.

Entire magazines, fan clubs and message boards are dedicated to buying, selling and talking about fountain pens. They can still be found on the desks and even in the pockets of enthusiasts.

“I was a teacher for 37 years, and I used to love grading papers with fountain pens,” Reche says. “Now I just use them for journaling or writing letters or check-writing – whatever.”

Status symbols

Writing enthusiasts swear by fountain pens, as a means to both teach and improve handwriting.

“I like to write, that’s why I like fountain pens,” says the Rev. Jeffrey Geisler, pastor at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Fort Wayne. Like Reche, Geisler is a proponent of cursive writing, and the pastor believes fountain pens help students learn the style.

While serving at a previous church, Geisler bought a bag of 50 or 60 fountain pens that would have been used in an old school. He loaded them with ink and gave them to the third-grade teacher whose students were having trouble with their cursive lessons.

“It was amazing the difference it made,” he says. “It made the kids hold the pen right to get it to write, and you had to hold it the same every time you wrote with it.”

Learning to properly hold the fountain pen helped the students catch on to the writing style.

But not all pens seem to be made with writing in mind. This is a world, after all, that includes such pens as Montblanc’s Johannes Kepler High Artistry Stella Nova Limited Edition 1. The $1.5 million fountain pen is named after the astronomer and is decorated with 570 diamonds and 5,294 sapphires to capture the mood of the Milky Way.

“Some pens have become pieces of jewelry for people,” Reche says. “I know people that collect high-end fountain pens that have no desire to ever use them, but to display them,” he says. “And when the price goes up, they may resell it and make a little profit.”

But for Reche, the point of owning a pen is to use it. “I don’t worry about not inking it up,” he says.

Pen shows

Geisler, who has been collecting for 25 years, has gathered many of his nicer fountain pens through trades. He buys older, sometimes non-working, pens at auctions. He takes them apart to clean them and get them writing again, then trades them for more expensive pens he might not be able to afford otherwise on a pastor’s salary.

He mostly trades with other collectors he knows from the area, but he has also been to fountain pen shows such as ones that happen in Chicago and Columbus, Ohio.

Reche says the number of people that come to the shows is incredible. You can buy inexpensive pens or models that might run you $2,000.

“It’s just like people that collect sport cars,” he says. “It’s just pens.”

Reche’s extensive collection began with those pens his friend found headed for the dump, but since then, it has expanded to include all things writing-related.

After getting the first pen restored so he could display it in his classroom, “I started reading about pens and ink and so forth, and it has blossomed into a hobby,” he says.

In his displays, you will find vintage ink bottles, print ads from old magazines, dipping pens (a precursor to fountain pens) and even school writing books dating as far back as 1873.

Identity choice

Fountain pens have a long history and saw innovations throughout the 1800s and 1900s. By the 1950s and ’60s, however, a new kid on the block was surpassing fountain pens for writing dominance as ballpoint pens became cheaper and manufacturers fixed glitches in the design.

As the decades have passed, fountain pens have survived by transforming from a utilitarian writing utensil to a luxury item sought by collectors and writing enthusiasts such as Reche and Geisler.

In North America, fountain pen sales shrank 3.5 percent year-over-year in 2016. But according to market research firm Euromonitor, global fountain pen retail sales were up 2.1 percent in 2016 from a year earlier, reaching more than $1 billion.

“The relevance that fountain pens and handwriting had is diminished,” says Nicky Pessaroff, editor-in-chief of Pen World magazine in a recent story for Bloomberg. “It’s become more of a lifestyle choice and an identity choice. It’s a throwback and a cultural comment.”

‘It is a lifestyle’

Local pen enthusiasts see Pessaroff’s point. Geisler says he has seen a rise in displays of fountain pens when he goes into offices. When he asks the owners whether they use them, they say, “We do now.”

“I think it’s sort of a style thing for the younger business people and writers,” Geisler says. “I would suggest it if somebody was asking me what I would write with if I was writing my memoirs. I would write with a fountain pen.”

Rollerball or ballpoint pens may be more popular these days because they’re cheaper and more readily available, but there’s something about using a fountain pen that takes writing to a different level, Reche says.

“When you pull out your fountain pen, it’s to write a ‘Thank You,’ it’s to write sentences in Christmas cards and maybe journaling,” he says. “And people take pride in that. It is a lifestyle sort of thing.”

Troy Patterson of Bloomberg contributed to this story.

cmcmaken@jg.net