We visit Montblanc's factory and museum in Hamburg, where the company has been crafting quality writing instruments for most of its 112 year history.
My first Montblanc was a grad school graduation gift from my wife – a Meisterstück 149, which is as iconic a pen in the world of writing instruments, as, say, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak or Rolex Submariner are in the world of watches or a Porsche 911 in the automotive realm.
The only time it's been out of sight is when I was careless enough to drop it, uncapped, a meter and a half onto asphalt; it landed point down, and the nib got badly bent.
Montblanc's New York boutique sent it back to Hamburg for repair and I got it back in a week, working just fine, no charge (watch companies, take note). I suppose I ought to admit that at one point I had about sixty vintage and modern pens, which eventually struck me as excessive, and I de-acquisitioned most of them, but I still have the 149.
After carrying it for most of my working life, it, and I, returned to its birthplace, in Hamburg, Germany, to visit the Montblanc nib-making factory as well as the Montblanc Museum.
The pen that became a brand
Montblanc's history goes back to, roughly, the beginning of the history of the modern fountain pen itself.
Fountain pens as they exist today, first started to appear towards the end of the 19th century and really began to take off in the early 20th; all fountain pens share certain basic characteristics.
First, they all use water soluble, water based inks (you can ruin a fountain pen by filling it with the wrong ink).
Second, they all have a reservoir for the ink, which can be the barrel of the pen itself, or a flexible rubber sac; nowadays the majority of fountain pens use disposable ink cartridges (which purist pen enthusiasts tend to look down on a bit).
There have been, over the last century, a wide range of filling systems as well, including lever, piston, so-called "touch-down" and snorkel filling systems, and so on. Third, they all have a nib – this is the flexible metal tip, which has a tiny slit down its centerline.
A fountain pen relies on capillary action to work – this is the tendency of liquids to flow through narrow spaces thanks to adhesion between the fluid, and the wall of the narrow space through which it flows.
More expensive fountain pens have nibs made of 18k or 14k gold, and the point is generally tipped with a tiny ball made of an alloy of one of the platinum group metals (osmium, iridium, and ruthenium are all in the platinum group) otherwise the tip would wear away very quickly.
There were precursors to the modern fountain pen that had certain elements of what we know as the fountain pen today, but it wasn't until the late 1880s that recognizably modern fountain pens began to appear.
In the beginning, they were generally just simple tubes (usually made of vulcanized rubber) which could be filled with an eyedropper; by the turn of the century, however, the development of filling systems using pistons or inflatable rubber bladders had begun.
Montblanc got its start when three German partners created the Simplizissiumus-Füllhalter pen company in 1906, which changed its name to Simplo Filler Pen in 1907, at the same time it moved from Berlin to Hamburg.
The company's first pen was the Rouge et Noir safety pen (below).
Safety pens are so-called because they have a retractable nib; when the nib is telescoped into the barrel and the cap screwed down, the pen is sealed against leakage. The Rouge et Noir advertisements played up this angle with an image of a gent in white tie placing a Rouge et Noir pen into a white vest pocket – risky business in 1907.
The first pen to be called "Montblanc" came out in 1910, and had a plain white cap; the distinctive six-pointed Montblanc snowcap appeared in 1913. (It's often thought of as a six-pointed star, but it's actually a stylized representation of the mountain's snowy peak).
The name "Meisterstück" was first used in 1924 for flagship fountain pens with a piston filling system, which featured the Montblanc snowcap, and eventually the identification for the public between these high grade pens, and the company, became so strong that in 1934, Montblanc was adopted as the name of the company overall.
By that time distribution had exploded; Montblanc sold pens in over sixty countries, supported by extensive advertising campaigns.
Montblanc at the time was part of a major worldwide industry that included dozens of pen manufacturers. Like mechanical watches, fountain pens could be luxuries and good ones certainly were.
But they were also essential tools for business and communication and as with watches, you might have to settle for a lesser one but you still generally tried to get the best you could afford.
Vulcanized rubber (which is also called ebonite; materials euphemisms in luxury go back further than many of us think) was gradually replaced by other materials, most notably the first generation of industrial plastics – celluloid for many years, and then newer thermoplastics, as well as acetate and acrylics – whose hardness, luster, and workability made them ideal for pen barrels.
The same improvements in natural and synthetic rubber gaskets that made water resistant watches possible, also made a wider and wider range of filling systems available to the public.
Hamburg was devastated during the war years, and immediately after the armistice pen production moved briefly to Denmark, but Montblanc rebuilt its manufacturing capabilities and distribution networks quickly, and in 1952, the modern Meisterstück model no. 149 was launched.
A thick, black, imposing fountain pen with a piston filling system and gold trim, it's the most recognizable writing instrument anyone's ever made, and has been in production, with occasional modifications, ever since.
Postwar Montblanc pens evolved a sleeker silhouette and a new, modern-looking form for fountain pen nibs.
Montblanc today is a company that produces a range of products which in the Richemont Group is pretty much matched only by Cartier in terms of diversity, but of course a major, and indeed essential, part of the company's identity is in the making of fine writing instruments.
As with mechanical watches, fountain pens have become increasingly a luxury as they've become less essential to the conduct of daily life, but interestingly enough, Montblanc has seen a significant uptick in its pen sales in recent years. I wonder if the same nostalgia that's the engine behind so many watch sales might be behind this as well.
Montblanc's writing instruments offerings today include a very wide range of both standard and limited edition pens and the latter are extremely avidly collected.
The company will also do completely bespoke pens and over the years, its Creation Privée department has fielded and fulfilled some quite unusual requests, including, believe it or not, a pen for a cigar enthusiast client with a barrel made of actual tobacco leaves, which presented, as you might imagine, some non-trivial technical challenges. I would have bet real money that you couldn't do that in a million years, but where there's a will there is apparently a way.
A very interesting room at the Montblanc Museum is set aside for limited editions from, among others, its Writers Editions, in which each pen is dedicated to a particular writer (which is a natural enough connection with a pen, heaven knows).
For Montblanc collectors who have missing pieces in their pen collections, looking around this exhibition can be an exercise in frustration with a capital F, because that one pen you need to fill a critical gap is right there – so close, yet so far – but it's still quite cool to see them all together.
Each pen is in a vitrine with a sample of correspondence from each writer so you can see what their handwriting looked like. The letter from Ernest Hemingway, shown below, is a bit on the salty side (he is writing about an "unnamed bitch").
It's intriguing to see how various literary works have influenced the design of the pens. Sometimes it's very straightforward, but others are more subtle – the Franz Kafka, for instance (below), has a barrel that tapers from a round to a square cross-section, which is a nod to his Metamorphosis.
Nib making at Montblanc
The nib is the place where pen meets paper and where ink is delivered, and as you can imagine, your experience when using a fountain pen is heavily dependent on the characteristics of the fountain pen nib.
There are dozens of different possibilities in terms of the tip shape, flexibility, and writing angle for which a nib is designed, and in the days when pens were used in daily life, for everything from personal correspondence to journalism to stenography, to making carbon copies, pen makers around the world made a truly bewildering variety (which is one of the things that makes collecting vintage pens so much fun).
Nowadays, there are very few companies left that make their own nibs, and Montblanc is one of them.
This is how a nib starts out: a ribbon of gold, from which the basic form of the nib is stamped in a machine that can apply up to 20 tons of pressure. There are a huge variety of nib shapes made at Montblanc, but this is how they all begin.
Each coiled ribbon of gold weighs about 7.5 kilos – enough gold for several thousand nibs.
Once a ribbon is used up it's melted down and the gold recovered for further use.
After the nib has been stamped out, there are quite a few further production steps, including engraving, plating with rhodium – for instance, for the two-tone nib of a 149 – and welding the tipping material onto the nib.
The tipping material, as we've already mentioned, is usually a combination of various metals from the platinum family. The reason for using these metals is that they have excellent resistance to abrasion (a property which makes them extremely hard to machine, but very good for things like jewelry and watch cases).
The use of such materials for nib tips is essential for creating a pen that can be used for many years and in my own collection, there are pens from the 1920s and 1930s with iridium tips that write just as well now as they did ninety or a hundred years ago.
One of the beauties of well-made pens is that, like a good mechanical watch, they seem capable, with care, of lasting essentially indefinitely. Originally, pure iridium was used, which is meteoric in origin, but nowadays alloys allow for better materials control than meteoric iridium.
One of the most interesting operations to watch is the cutting of the nib slit.
The slit is essential as it feeds ink, via capillary flow, from the vented feed under the nib to the tip, and it also gives the nib flexibility.
The cutting operation is done with a graphite disk that's impregnated with diamond. The gold from which the body of the nib is made is easy to cut but platinum family metals are quite dense and tough, and when the disk meets the tip of the nib, you get a startling little jet of fire.
The single most critical operation, however, is polishing the tipping material, which is done to ensure you get a smooth writing experience at every angle. Doing this is a manual operation and it takes years to really become proficient at it.
The nib is swept over the polishing cylinders in an hypnotic figure 8 pattern, and the craftsperson doing the polishing inspects the results repeatedly. This hand polishing, like the other nib manufacturing processes, is the same for every fountain pen made at Montblanc, whether it's a six figure unique piece or a standard issue Meisterstück.
Putting pen to paper
Once a nib is completed, the final step is a writing test. As with the polishing of tipping material, a writing test is performed on every nib that Montblanc manufactures.
The figure 8 pattern used by the polisher is duplicated in the writing test. It's a challenging skill to master, as the evaluation of the feel of each nib is highly subjective and very influenced by the emotional state of the person performing the test.
Come in off a great weekend skiing, and every nib feels great; come in off a nasty spat with your spouse, and you're in an unforgiving mood.
Where you are in your workflow also influences how you evaluate a nib; if you've just been testing a batch of double-broads, fine nibs feel extra-scratchy at first. The paper used for the test is plain A4 paper, the idea being to test pens on something similar to what they'll encounter once they go out into the world.
An interesting side note is that it's something of an article of faith among pen enthusiasts that nibs "break in" to a person's individual writing style and this broken in pen shouldn't be lent to others, as this might lead to the nib losing its special characteristics.
We asked the head of Montblanc's nib department, and were told that while they don't break in, in the sense of the nib reshaping itself to a particular person's hand, that it is true that lending out a fountain pen poses some risks – the example given was lending a pen to someone who usually writes with an oblique nib.
This could result, over time, in a change in the width of the tines of the nib, which would make the feel of the pen more scratchy.
Very few watches can claim true originality, and the Cartier Santos is among those few.
The Santos made its debut way back in 1904 as a personal timepiece for aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont, making it both the first pilot’s watch and one of the earliest known men’s wristwatches.
As we've previously detailed, the Santos was borne from a request by Brazilian flyer Santos-Dumont, who told his friend Louis Cartier – then a Parisian watchmaker – of the challenge of timing flights using the then-conventional pocket watch, as pilots needed to keep both hands on the aircraft controls.
In response, Cartier designed a large square-faced watch and fitted it to a strap so it could be worn on the wrist – quite a revolutionary concept at the time.
The first commercial Cartier Santos watches went on sale to the public in 1911 with solid gold cases and ultra-thin mechanical movements designed by French clockmaker Edmond Jaeger.
(In order to produce this movement for Cartier, Jaeger worked with Swiss movement manufacturer Jacques-David LeCoultre, a partnership that would lead to the birth of storied brand Jaeger-LeCoultre.)
The enduring design of the Cartier Santos was reimagined in the late 1970s as a luxury steel sports watch, later adding two-tone steel and gold and the now-iconic screwed bezel with exposed gold screws along the bracelet for a modern, industrial aesthetic.
For 2018, Cartier has once again re-invented the Santos.
The distinctive screw-set bezel now tapers at both ends towards the bracelet to create an organic, integrated look.
The satin-brushed case features a wide mirror-polished bevel along its length, extending all the way to the gracefully curved crown guards at 3 o’clock. A square watch the Santos may be, but there’s hardly a sharp edge or straight line to be found.
The case has been slimmed dramatically from previous incarnations of the Santos, allowing this watch to disappear easily under a shirt cuff when needed.
The bracelet is fitted with a new 'QuickSwitch' system allowing for easy swapping with the included tan calfskin strap or Cartier’s alternative crocodile straps, providing some style versatility.
Adding or removing bracelet links has also been made easier with a new 'SmartLink' design which allows the wearer to expand the bracelet during a hot summer’s day without requiring a tool.
While the bezel, case and bracelet have all been modernised, the dial remains classic Cartier. With Roman numerals, a railroad minute-track and heat-blued hands, it’s hard to imagine a more traditional look.
The 2018 Cartier Santos can serve dress-watch and sports-watch duties equally well, and boasts a history that few timepieces can match.
• In-house mechanical movement with automatic winding
• Seven-sided crown set with a faceted synthetic spinel
• Silvered opaline dial, blued-steel sword-shaped hands, sapphire crystal
• Water-resistant to 10 bar (approximately 100 metres)
• Medium version case width: 35.1 mm, thickness: 8.83 mm
• Large version case width: 39.8 mm, thickness: 9.08 mm
• Pricing from A$8,750 for the Cartier Santos Medium in steel, to A$52,500 for the Cartier Santos Large in solid pink gold with matching pink gold bracelet. For stockists, visit www.au.cartier.com.
Formula 1 race team and supercar maker McLaren is aiming to win over wealthy drivers keen to prove themselves on the track with its latest model – the $250,000 circuit-ready 600LT.
Street-legal but capable of sprinting to 60 miles per hour in 2.9 seconds, the 600LT is a match for the company’s 675LT road and race model, which cost US$100,000 more and was built in limited numbers through 2016. That makes the new car an entry-level auto by the U.K. group’s rarefied standards.
But you'll want to shell out rather more to get the full track experience, with one upgrade adding light-weight carbon-fiber seats and interiors for about US$30,000.
Another US$5,300 buys a six-point safety harness, a wise purchase before putting a car that can reach speeds of 204mph through its paces.
“The price point is very different to any LT that we’ve done before,” McLaren Chief Financial Officer Paul Buddin said in an interview. “We hope to welcome new customers to the brand, more younger people as well.”
The 570S, the baseline model in the McLaren Sport Series lineup that the 600LT joins, was designed equally for road and track use, whereas the new car leans “75-25” toward the race circuit, Buddin said. “The LT just takes everything a little bit harder, a little bit faster and more away from road use and into track performance,” he said.
Beyond it’s sheer pace, the 600LT comes with aesthetic and engineering appeal in the form of a unique top-exit exhaust system featuring twin pipes that protrude from below the back window.
Unveiled at last week's Goodwood Festival of Speed in England, the car also has what McLaren calls an “elongated silhouette” (though it’s just 74mm longer than the 570S) that’s led it to be badged as an LT or “Longtail.”
The name harks back to the F1 GTR, the racing variant of the auto with which McLaren made the leap from Formula 1 to street models in the early 1990s and which ranked as the world’s fastest road car at the time.
Woking, England-based McLaren, whose race team ranks second only to Ferrari in Formula 1 driver-championship wins, aims to build 4,300 cars this year, up from 3,340 in 2017 as it seeks to grow beyond its former niche status. The total should swell to 6,000 by 2025, helped by the introduction of 18 new models and variants, according to a statement Thursday.
All McLaren cars will be hybrids by that year, possibly barring the top-end Ultimate range, and the company will invest US$1.6 billion in the new models and a plant in Sheffield, northern England. A fully electric prototype is under development but there are no launch plans right now, Buddin said.
How do you become a better golfer? As a golf coach, I hear many reasons why students feel now is the right time to get a lesson.
There’s the lifelong golfer who has survived without a single coaching session, but just can’t kick a bad habit. Or the spontaneous student who recalls their lesson a couple of years ago and reports they just haven’t hit it as well since. And of course the analytical golfer who has self-diagnosed their driver to be the issue.
Here are the three principle areas I focus on with my students which regularly result in improvements to their swing.
Rid yourself of bad habits
The main reason people fall into a slump is because bad habits, known in golf as ‘movement patterns’, creep in.
On the one hand we’re all lucky to be surrounded by so much information out there. And while it can be very tempting to try something we discover on TV, online or in a golf magazine, if not executed perfectly these new tricks become bad habits and those patterns take over.
It can be nearly impossible to change unless you have someone look at them. Next time you want to try something, it would be wise to run it by your nearest professional golf coach.
Balance your golfing life
Like with anything in life there has to be balance. You cannot expect to improve if you continually work on one type of golf club or one aspect of your golf game.
When I have a student in front of me who comes for that first lesson, I treat the lesson like an assessment, from which we map out the blueprint of their golfing future
I like to prescribe drills to be used in practice sessions, golf lessons every few weeks, as well as rounds of golf. If all of these are worked on in a balanced manner, every golfer will see dramatic improvements to their golf game.
Be kind to your body
If you are willing to get your golf practice in shape, I recommend you do the same for your body.
Regular stretching and general conditioning exercises should be an essential part of your routine. Not only will this make you feel physically better, your mind will be more open to learning and your body more receptive to changes to your swing.
So what are you waiting for? If you feel like your golf game needs work, or you want to finally identify your areas of focus, book in for a lesson with your golf professional and map out your path to a better and sharper game.
"Alexa, what's the weather in London this week?"
A few months ago I was packing for a flight to London, wondering whether to toss an overcoat into my carry-on bag or if the space could be better used by my trainers and activewear.
But instead of reaching for my smartphone, I asked the compact Sonos One smart speaker in my bedroom - something I find myself doing more and more each day.
The $299 Sonos One adds ’digital assistant’ smarts to the popular Sonos Play:1 speaker. You get the same superb sound – rich, rounded and warm, with app-based tuning to tailor the speaker’s output to the shape and acoustics of any room – partnered with Sonos’ effortlessly easy WiFi setup and a minimalist design in cool white or stark black that blends into any home or office decor.
What’s new to the mix is support for digital assistant software. It’s like having Apple’s Siri or the Google Assistant sitting in the speaker awaiting your command – except that the Sonos One works only with Amazon’s Alexa.
The company has added support for Apple's AirPlay 2 system so you can direct music from your Apple device to their entire range of current speakers. The Play One works with Apple’s AirPlay 2 so you can at least beam music from your iPhone or iPad, skip tracks or change the volume using voice control through your iPhone.
But, while you can use Siri on your iPhone, iPad or Mac to send some tunes to a Sonos speaker, you can't say "Hey Siri…" to your Sonos Speaker and expect a response. You can't ask Siri, through the Sonos One, to turn on the lights or control any other HomeKit accessories.
Sonos has no plans to add Siri support to its speakers at this stage, but expects they'll work with Google Assistant via a software update later this year.
Of course, Alexa can do far more than deliver than a weather forecast, give you a traffic report or even a live news or sports update through the Sonos One. I used it to play a podcast each night while I was cooking dinner and fire up a Spotify or Apple Music playlist to enjoy during the meal.
Where the combination of Sonos and Alexa really shines is in connecting and controlling a wide range of ’digital home’ accessories such as smart power plugs, lighting, video doorbells, security cameras and even digital door-locks. You don’t need to have an electrician rewire your pad: just add an Alexa-compatible device onto your WiFi network and let the Sonos One do the rest.
I’m especially enamoured with intelligent lighting systems like the popular Philips Hue and funky Nanoleaf Aurora which makes lighting into a decorative as well as functional feature.
After returning home each day I just say “Alexa, turn the lounge lights on 50% brightness and play my '80s playlist from Spotify in my bedroom". A few seconds later, the music plays from the Sonos One, the lights come up and I’m sliding into the relaxation zone.
If you’re not locked into the Apple ecosystem then the Sonos One is a top choice for delivering premium audio and providing your stepping stone to creating a smart home.