Reviving an Old-School Practice
(Originally published in the Napa Valley Register)
As Valentine’s Day approaches, images of three things that go together like chocolate, roses and cupid come to mind. They’re old-school things that I’d like to see come back into fashion. Beautiful stationery, refined fountain pens, and handwritten notes. Today’s times are fast, hurried, digital, and in my opinion, in need of an injection of nostalgia. A quiet moment of heartfelt sentimentality. Beautiful words on beautiful paper is one way to both give and receive such emotion.
A few years ago, I happened upon a company called “Rossi 1931”. It was in the year 1931 that Antonio Rossi opened his artisan typography shop in Borgo San Lorenzo, Florence, Italy. After World War II, Antonio’s daughter-in-law and student of Florence’s Academy of Fine Arts, Patrizia, helped to expand the shop with hand-printed paper and stationery. The papers, cards and notebooks combined the most exquisite, and then-advanced technology, with the love of artisan history and heritage.
I’m sure you’ll recognize many of the paper designs – marbled swirls, peacock feathers, paisleys, and elaborate vines to name a few. You’ve probably also seen them cover decorative notebooks, journals, boxes, and this week, Valentine’s candy. Although I’ve always thought that the decorative paper art form originated during the Italian Renaissance, I’ve since learned that it dates back to 10th century China. It was later known in Japan as “suminagashi” or “ink floating”, and as “ebru” or “cloud art” in Persia. By way of the Silk Road, it traveled west, most notably to Venice and Florence. Throughout its history, this paper has been treasured.
It seems only fitting that a special note written on elegant paper should be written with an elegant instrument. A fountain pen. But does the thought of such a pen send you back to your early school days with a perpetually ink-smudged first knuckle? Our school day pens came in a variety of colors and barrel diameters. Nibs were fine, super fine, medium or thick. Some flowed smoothly while others scratched and squealed. There was also a handful of ink colors. Who remembers peacock blue? It shared its popularity with peacock blue Levi jeans around 1968.
Understandably, elegance may not be the first word that comes to mind when you think of fountain pens. But the Nakaya Fountain Pen company, founded by Toshiya Nakata in 1997 in Tokyo, Japan, might change your mind. Toshiya is the grandson of Shunichi Nakata who had founded the multi-award-winning Platinum Pen Company in 1919, also in Tokyo.
To ensure the same quality established by his grandfather, Toshiya brought craftsmen, who had worked for the Platinum Pen Company for more than 40 years, out of retirement. Each was a master in one area of the pen-making process whether it be a designer, a metal presser, a nib engineer, or a lathe craftsman. The mission of the Nakaya Fountain Pen company is “to design a perfect pen for your hand and for your hand only.”
It can take six months to sketch the design of a single Nakaya pen and then another ten months to produce. The barrels are mostly made of ebonite. Some are acrylic and resin. The nibs are either 14 or 18 karat gold or stainless steel. Both barrels and nibs are richly and elaborately decorated with images such as dragons, gold fish, bamboo, lotus flowers, and birds. The pen that caught my eye was one called “Dorsal Fin Version 2” with a motif of a Hindu deity – and a $5000 price tag. It took multiple layers of hand-applied lacquer, over a number of months, to create the fin shape on the cap and barrel. Depending on the materials and design, Nakaya fountain pens range in price from $100s to $10,000s.
A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to hear on a Bloomberg Businessweek radio program that, according to a report by Euromonitor International, fountain pens are a $1 billion industry. Seems strange in our highly-digital world. It’s most pronounced in the Japanese market and attributed to an increase in foreign buyers purchasing high-end Japanese products.
While you may not be writing this year’s Valentine’s notes with a Nakaya pen, a company called “Nostalgic Impressions” can still turn this ritual into a special experience. As its name implies, Nostalgic Impressions transports you back in time with feather quill nib pens, wood and metal dip pens, glass dip pens, and a myriad of ink wells. They also have sealing waxes, engraved sealing stamps, gorgeous letter openers, book marks, and so much more. They, in themselves, would make novel Valentine’s gifts.
Imagine the excitement your loved ones would feel opening their mailboxes and finding a beautiful and decorative envelope. One that they’re anxious to open. One that is unique and especially created with thought, time and appreciation just for them. It may be an old-fashioned gift, but the sentiment never goes out of style.
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