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PUTTING PEN TO PAPER

What’s made of enamel and solid gold, costs thousands of dollars and can balance your checkbook and execute exquisite thank-you notes?

It’s not a new-fangled invention, but a high-end fountain pen, designed with artistic perfection that makes even the most noncommittal collector drool.

Limited-edition fountain pens constructed by craftspeople around the world have intrigued consumers with their individuality, rarity and painstaking craftsmanship. “High-end pens are definitely becoming more popular,” says Jacob Murad of The Reminiscence Collection in Glen Rock, N.J., which imports Montegrappa pens from Italy. “Fountain pens are an expression of style and individuality. In a world of computers, it’s one of the ways to make yourself stand out.”

It’s also a welcome addition to the small category of high-end accessories for men, on a par with a quality mechanical watch, and useful for personal and corporate gift-giving. Using a fountain pen also bespeaks time and luxury. “About 30 or 40 years ago, it was the height of style to send a typewritten note because it meant you had a secretary,” he says. “Now it’s much more personal to send a written note.”

The Luxor Collection of Montegrappa pens recalls the origin of writing in its handcarved depictions of Egyptian gods and goddesses in sterling or solid gold overlay. The pen, available in a limited edition of 2,100, is offered in 20 U.S. stores and sells for $4,000. Evidently, money is no barrier to enthusiasts. Murad says his company has sold more than $1 million worth of the pens since their introduction in the U.S. two years ago.

High-end thematic pens are more like art and jewelry than writing instruments, says Pat Pinkston, president of Renaissance Pen Co. in St. Louis, Mo. Pinkston is the designer and producer of the limited-edition Michel Perchin pen collection inspired by the art of Carl Peter Faberge and his workshop director, Michel Perchin, who built the famous Imperial Easter Eggs.

Pinkston’s Blue and Gold Ribbed Pen is modeled after the Faberge Blue and Gold Ribbed Egg. The outer portion of the crown is cast in sterling silver and coated with 22k gold; the inner parts are cast, guilloched, enameled and polished. A translucent cobalt blue enamel is hand-applied to the body, and the nib is made of 18k gold. Only 4,321 pens have been made, and almost 1,000 have been sold in the U.S. since released last year. The fountain pen is $2,700 retail.

The jewelry connection is strongly felt in a joint project between fine jewelry maker Alain Boucheron and pen maker Waterman. A modern Art Deco trellis of 18k gold overlay wraps around the sapphire blue and gold Edson fountain pen, and there are seven different 18k nibs to choose from. Production of the pen, called Waterman signe Boucheron, is limited to 3,741 – the sum of the founding years of Waterman in 1883 and Boucheron in 1858. The pens will launch worldwide this month at $2,500 retail.

Renaissance Pens’ Pinkston says that while many customers are probably collectors of fountain pens, he’s also noticed many are buying pens as gifts. These collections are competing with pen companies such as Cross and Schaeffer, which have released limited editions that duplicate vintage styles, but Pinkston believes people will appreciate the one-of-a-kind art of pens. “That uniqueness is going to be our signature,” he says.

DEMAND FOR PLATINUM INCREASES

Increased production of platinum jewelry, a rise in auto sales and a tight margin between supply and demand may boost platinum prices in the second half of 1996, says a recent survey. The CPM Group’s “Platinum Group Metals Survey” tracks trends in the supply and demand of platinum, palladium and rhodium by country and sector through June.

After several years of large surpluses in platinum, the survey shows the margin between supply and demand narrowed from 347,000 ounces in 1993 to 31,000 ounces in 1994. Although the surplus increased again in ’95 to 146,000 ounces, supply is expected to exceed demand by only 50,000 ounces at the end of this year.

Meanwhile, platinum prices, which rose 38.1% between 1993 and 1995, have steadily declined following a sharp increase in February 1996. The survey predicts prices will rebound in the second half for several reasons, including:

  • Jewelry manufacturing, which makes up 36% of the market, is expected to use 1.9 million ounces by the end of ’96, up 9.4% from last year. Consumer demand for platinum jewelry may escalate in Japan, where overall consumer spending is on the rise after a devastating recession. The platinum jewelry market is expanding also in the U.S.

  • Automobile manufacturing, which uses 35% of the total platinum supply for pollution-control devices, is expected to increase as auto sales rise in the U.S., Japan and Europe.

  • Russian exports, which made up 20% of total platinum supply in 1995, are expected to remain stable this year with a projected supply of 1 million ounces.

  • A wildcat strike at the world’s largest platinum mining company this summer may affect overall production.

CPM Group, 30 Broad St., 37. Fl., New York, NY 10004; (212) 785-8320, fax (212) 785-8325.

COLLECTIBLES WILL GROW STEADILY

Almost 14 million Americans call themselves collectors, and this passion sold more than $8.2 billion of collectible merchandise in 1995, a 13% jump over the previous year, according to a recent study.

The study, commissioned by the Collectibles & Platemakers Guild Inc., Northbrook Ill., forecasts steady industry growth, fueled by changes in demographics, improving technology and new distribution channels.

These collectors spent an average $600 each last year, says the study. And that should increase as they age and more people join their ranks. “Collecting is a hobby associated with the ’empty-nesting’ years,” says Hunter Haines, CPGI managing director. “With the gigantic Baby Boom generation starting to reach 50 this year, the total number of collectors is expected to grow rapidly between now and the year 2000.”

Figurines are the best-selling collectible, capturing more than 40% of the total market and notching sales of $3.3 billion. This segment also has shown rapid growth, jumping 18% over 1994 levels. Other fast-growing categories are cottages and architectural collectibles, teddy bears, Christmas ornaments and music boxes.

Aiding this growth are improvements in manufacturing and sales through new distribution channels. These include electronic retailing – such as shopping on-line and TV shopping networks – and direct response marketing initiatives. Direct mail sales accounted for more than 10% of total collectible sales, up 6% from 1994.

JEWELRY STORES HIRE OLDER WORKERS

The country’s older population is not what it used to be. Members of the over-55 crowd are enjoying longer, healthier lives.

Many in this age group also are dealing with the fallout from corporate downsizing in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Many older workers accepted early retirement buy-outs, but rejoined the work force.

According to a special report the U.S. Bureau of the Census released in April, 55% of men and 36% of women now stay in the work force when they reach ages 60 to 64. Half of the males ages 55 to 61 and one-quarter of males ages 62 to 64 who took their “first retirement” since 1990 have reentered the work force, many for the challenge that working provides, the study says.

Jewelry stores are among businesses tapping into the resource offered by older workers, according to a JCK poll of retail jewelers. Of those who participated in the poll, 70.7% employ workers who are 60 or older. Among these businesses, older workers make up an average of 19.7% of their staffs.

Retailers cite dependability, experience and knowledge as the major advantages of hiring older workers. Stability is also a big factor (12.9%). “They are less interested in jumping from one job to another without aim in life,” says J. Edgar Cox of Grassmuck & Lange Jewelers in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Some jewelers say older workers have many contacts in the community and frequently bring in new clientele. Older employees also have a strong work ethic, are loyal to their employers and like their jobs, say jewelers. “They’re done working for big bucks, but enjoy the work and the challenge,” says Randy Wimmer of Wimmer’s Jewelers in Fargo, N.D.

Despite the number of stores employing older workers, 81.9% of respondents say they had not hired an employee over 60 in the past 12 months. Some jewelers have found problems working with older employees. Many seniors are resistant to learning new things or are harder to train, say 25% of jewelers.

Some jewelers report problems caused by the age gap. Some older salespeople have trouble relating to customers. “Their peer group has already gone through the buying-jewelry stage,” says Daniel Moyer of Moyer Jewelers in Carmel, Ind. A lack of stamina and energy and a desire for part-time and short-term work also create drawbacks.

While jewelers enjoy “the old school” attitude of hard work, they also recognize that the sales environment is constantly evolving. “Lots of change occurs all the time,” says J. Allison of Allison’s Custom Jewelry in Sidney, Ohio. “Older workers don’t change quickly enough.”