When they need money at Montblanc, they just sand down the oak parquet floor. This is where the gold fountain pens are manufactured and the filing, engraving, bending and cutting produces very fine particles of gold dust that eventually settles on the floor.
The most recent sanding produced gold worth a five-digit sum, the factory manager said, when it was retrieved from the vacuum bags of the sanding machines and the air conditioning ducts.
It’s a nice bonus for Jérôme Lambert, 45, chief executive officer of Montblanc, a company whose roots are in Hamburg. Now, the parent company’s headquarters are in Switzerland.
Mr. Lambert is in a good mood these days and not only because of the fine layer of gold dust covering the workspace. His job, he said, is “developing passion,” which means he has to create a future where customers willingly pay a small fortune for a product that’s actually outdated – a fountain pen.
Twenty years ago, digital was still rare, everyday life was analog. Today, almost everything is possible digitally, while analog things are only used for fun.
Mr. Lambert speaks German with an accent and continually weaves French and English words into his conversations. He talks frequently about feelings, even though he’s a numbers man.
Asked if fountain pens have a future in an era of smartphones and laptops, Mr. Lambert answers with a rueful smile and a gesture meant to remind the questioner he is taking notes with a cheap, chewed-on, promotional ballpoint pen.
Then, surprisingly, he says he believes digitization is the best thing that could have happened to Montblanc. “Twenty years ago, digital was still rare and something cool, everyday life was analog,” he said. “Today, it is the other way around. Almost everything is possible digitally, while analog things are no longer necessary and are only used for fun.”
This reality is a good fit with the luxury brand’s strategy. According to Mr. Lambert, Montblanc produces about 250,000 fountain pens a year and three times as many ballpoint pens, pressurized ink refills and similar pens. Measured against all other writing instruments produced worldwide, Montblanc’s global market share likely is a miniscule 0.04 percent.
Mr. Lambert notes that fountain pens are one of the few luxury articles owners actually can use.
“Writing is something active and personal,” he said. “You do it, feel and hear how the pen glides over the paper.”
In contrast, an expensive watch may thrill the owner with its workmanship and history, but it can only be worn.
Video: Montblanc makes a range of products from watches to leather goods.
Would Mr. Lambert say that if he were still working in the watch business?
For more than 15 years, he was all about expensive chronometers, first at A. Lange & Söhne and then for a much longer time with Jaeger-LeCoultre in Le Sentier in Switzerland. The business studies graduate rose from head of finance to chief executive officer at Jaeger-LeCoultre. Both watchmakers – as well as Montblanc – are part of the Richemont corporate group.
At first, the fountain pen makers were not too happy when a former watch executive became their new boss in 2013, but, Mr. Lambert said, “the shock at Jaeger-LeCoultre was a lot greater. After all, it is a watch brand with a 170-year-long history and I was only 33 when I started there.”
Much of Montblanc’s work is about telling stories, something the luxury industry does well.
Watch producers elevate their innovations with increasingly absurd narratives to justify complicated manufacturing process and ever-rising prices. After all, watches simply show the time in the end and it may not make much difference if it can withstand water pressure at a depth of 3,000 or 4,000 meters.
It’s the same with fountain pens. Montblanc makes 4,810 special collector’s edition pens – the height in meters of the Montblanc mountain, but otherwise just an arbitrary number.
But a good story makes all the difference and the company dedicates its fountain pens to Charlie Chaplin, Luciano Pavarotti or Genghis Khan.
Montblanc also makes wishes come true for sheikhs, oligarchs and others with huge amounts of money, such as a pen barrel made of granite, for example, or one from the mammoth ivory that rests on a high black table in the Montblanc workshop and was found in the expanses of the Siberian tundra.
The prices of such pens start at €250,000, or $276,618; the waiting time is one to two years.
“We certainly aren’t cheap, but with prices beginning at €500, our fountain pens also aren’t unattainable dreams,” Mr. Lambert said.
He said the view of luxury goods is based on personal attitude. “If someone only cares about status, it’s quite difficult. But actually, it’s about enthusiasm for a very old artisan tradition.”
Every product is produced from start to finish in Hamburg. More than 600 of the 1,200 employees are directly involved in pen production.
They include toolmakers, watchmakers, goldsmiths and technicians –all highly skilled personnel who benefit directly from the business of luxury.
“We also train apprentices here, and as far as fountain pens are concerned, we are practically the last ones in the world who do that,” says Mr. Lambert. Fountain pens can be cheaply mass-produced, but that would mean one less artisan tradition.
In addition to the core pen business, the range of Montblanc goods has expanded to include belts, jewelry, perfume, eyeglasses, and even watches.
This article originally appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org