Luxury Pens Make Their Mark With Jewelers

The pen is mightier than the sword the saying goes, yet many independent jewelers treat the pen as though it’s a wimp.

Just over half the jewelers who responded to a nationwide JCK poll this summer carry pens (58%). These jewelers say pens account for about 1% of total sales, and four out of five say pen sales have been unchanged or shrunk in the past two years.

Most do little to promote fine writing instruments, and this puzzles Nancy R. Olson, editorial director of Pen World, the leading magazine covering the fine pen industry. Jewelers who want exclusive, profit-making, traffic-building items miss a unique and profitable opportunity by not stocking and promoting luxury pens, she says.

Luxury pens, like high-end Swiss mechanical watches a decade ago, are growing more and more popular with affluent consumers. To meet this demand, manufacturers are producing handcrafted writing instruments that also function as jewelry accessories, status symbols, lifestyle statements and collectors items. They sell for hundreds to thousands of dollars, with sizable margins for retailers.

The link between jewelers and fine pens is logical, says Olson, and some jewelers agree. “Fine pens are a natural for fine jewelry stores,” says Robert Filotei, vice president of Cartier, New York, N.Y. “The same people who buy luxury watches and jewelry are the ones interested in fine writing instruments.”

Despite some jewelers’ reluctance to stock fine writing instruments, they comprise a thriving market. In the U.S. alone, the $2 billion market has doubled in units sold and grown 70% in value in the past decade, according to the Writing Instrument Manufacturers Association. Luxury pens – mainly fountain pens, but also rollerball pens – comprise one of the fastest-growing segments.

Spurring this growth are the big bucks penmakers are spending to spread their message. Two of the biggest – A.T. Cross and Gillette (owner of Waterman and Parker, two of the top brands) – spend more than $10 million on U.S. ad campaigns to promote their upscale lines each year.

More pen manufacturers are positioning pens as accessories or collectibles. “We know there’s a lot of competition in pens, but we’re also certain that many jewelers are ready for a unique, design-inspired product not found in virtually every stationery and gift store in America,” says John Hubacher, president of Chronotime, which distributes pens by Swiss watch designer Jorg Hysek.

Their efforts seem to be working. A number of pen producers say their jeweler clientele is growing. Montegrappa, Italy’s oldest penmaker, says jewelers account for 20% of its U.S. business. Montegrappa pens retail for up to $12,000. Colibri, Providence, R.I., distributor of Colibri pens (retailing up to $650) and Alfred Dunhill pens (up to $995), have seen business with U.S. jewelers grow in the past two years to 26% of total sales. And in Paris, S.T. Dupont says 20% of its pen sales are to U.S. jewelers.

Jewelers & pens

Jewelers polled by JCK who sell fine writing instruments offer generally positive feedback. “We enjoy selling the product,” says Rob Simon of Windsor Jewelers, Winston-Salem, N.C. “It brings in customers, especially watch people interested in collectible items at that [price] level. Once they’ve accepted that, this is one more product we can sell them.” Windsor Jewelers carries Montblanc and Renaissance Pen, a fast-growing luxury brand with pens based on Fabergé designs.

Carlyle Jewelers, Greensboro, N.C., offers pens retailing for $350 to $5,000 in some of its 81 Carlyle and J.E. Caldwell stores, says Chairman Russell Cohen. The company created its pen sections three years ago as one more way to differentiate its stores, he says. These writing instrument sections have been so successful they’re now being expanded.

Cartier – probably the world’s best-known luxury jeweler – has launched a three-year plan to promote its high-end writing instruments in its boutiques and with a select group of retailers. Cartier also hired its first-ever national account manager for pens and added another high-end pen line – Diabolo – in September. “We want to take Cartier into the forefront of the luxury writing instrument business where we see a window of opportunity,” says Filotei.

Renewed interest

The pen revival was spurred in the 1980s by collectors, who pay $50,000 or more for mint-condition vintage pens. That led to annual limited editions of pens starting in the early ’90s. Most upscale brands now produce one or more limited editions a year. Among the high-profile collectors are King Hussein of Jordan, actor Bill Cosby and fashion designer Giorgio Armani.

But the market has broadened beyond collectors. “Today, we hear much more about buying fine pens as status symbols, like fine watches, as accessories and to use,” says Olson.

The popularity of luxury pens, say suppliers and retailers, is a reaction against a computer age that has made life faster and more efficient but also more impersonal. “People are more interested again in making individual statements,” says Elizabeth Fish, manager of The Reminiscence Collection, Glen Rock, N.J., which distributes Montegrappa pens. “A handwritten note, versus a typed message, is seen as more personable, and a signature written with a fountain pen is more bold than a typed one.”

Pen merchandising expands this personal aspect into a statement of personality. In fact, Wolff Heinrichsdorff, vice president of Montblanc, says his company “is in the lifestyle business, not the pen business.” Waterman’s new “Express Yourself” ads urge consumers to choose a Waterman that makes a style statement and shows they are a success on their own terms, says a company spokesperson.

Also pushing the luxury pen revival is what Cartier’s Robert Filotei calls “the nostalgia factor” – a yearning for simpler times and quality products that hold their value. “Handmade writing instruments look more precious and valuable in this computer age – just like fine watches and antique cars,” says Bernard Lyn, president of Trio USA, the writing instrument division of Dani International, whose pens retail for up to $800.

But there’s also snob appeal in owning a brand-name luxury pen. As with designer jewelry, it’s a subtle but clear sign of affluence, success and prestige. “As corporate dress codes ease up, a pen becomes more important as an accessory and as a status symbol,” says Andrew Kohler, president of A.B. Kohler & Co., Montville, N.J., which does 10% of its business in pens retailing for $150 or more.

Pen in hand

Today’s typical buyer of fine pens is 30 to 50 years old and affluent. Pen World says its readers have an average personal annual income of $100,000 or more. Most are men. “A fine pen is one of the few fashion accessories, other than watches, available to men,” says Olson.

But the market isn’t limited to men. Women are claiming a larger share of the market. Montblanc and Colibri each say a third of their pen buyers are female. Some other penmakers say female customers account for 15% to 20% of pen purchases.

“With the number of professional women who are making up an ever-larger percentage of the work force, it would be surprising if this trend of women purchasing and receiving writing instruments didn’t continue,” says Frederick N. Levinger, president and owner of Colibri.

The customer base for fine writing instruments is changing in other ways also as more brands seek wider markets. There are more “affordable” and innovative pens for younger professionals, such as A. T. Cross’s Metropolis, Montblanc’s Euro Classique and Parker’s brightly colored ballpoint Duofolds.

There also are more products for smaller jewelers. Colibri’s traditionalist 925 Collection of sterling ballpoint pens is tailor-made for the jeweler who doesn’t want to commit significant dollars or space to pens but wants to offer customers something special in this category, says Levinger. And for top jewelers in smaller cities and towns, Renaissance Pen Co. will introduce Fabergé pens next year starting at $800 retail, says national sales manager David Oscarson. Cartier, Montblanc and S.T. Dupont also offer models retailing under $1,000.

Selling Luxury Pens

Two factors affect jewelers’ pen sales:

1. Some jewelers doubt a pen sale is worth the effort. “Merchandising pens can be intimidating because jewelers must cross the bridge to thinking of them as luxury pieces,” says Nancy R. Olson of Pen World magazine. “They’re unaware that thousands of people buy several pens annually at retail prices of $1,000 or more.” Adds David Oscarson of Renaissance Pen Co., “The half hour a sales associate spends selling a $50 pen is better spent on one retailing for hundreds or thousands of dollars.”

2. Jewelers don’t know or ignore the distinct selling point of fine writing instruments. “Pens require different skills than jewelry,” says Olson.

A jeweler and his staff must understand luxury pens, agrees Rob Simon of Windsor Jewelers, Winston-Salem, N.C. “We have to educate customers on what distinguishes luxury pens from other products and what justifies their high price.” Here are some tips to make that pen sale.

Know thy pen. There are four types of pens, based on writing tip. A fountain pen has ink reservoirs that feed ink to the pen point. A rollerball pen uses a ball-and-housing tip and thin ink for free-flow writing. A ballpoint pen uses small balls inside a housing to transfer ink. A porous-point pen has a hard felt tip that is a conduit for ink, like a sponge. Fountain and rollerball pens are the most common upscale pens; ballpoint and porous-point pens are most common in less-expensive pens.

Size. Pens come in various sizes, such as women’s, slim, regular, standard, midsize and senior.

Learn the terms. A feeder is a tube that carries ink to the fountain pen tip. A nib is the writing tip of a fountain pen and is split for free-flow writing. Nibs come in several widths – the wider the nib, the better the script.

Use fine pens. Use the pens you sell so customers see them in action. Handle them like fine jewelry. Let customers feel and use them.

Know the construction. Intense work – most of it done by hand by European craftsmen – goes into making a luxury pen. S.T. Dupont’s goldsmiths and master lacquerers uses authentic Chinese lacquer in finishing the Vertigo pens. Cartier applies 40 coats of lacquer to each pen it makes, a month-long process. Eight German and French companies do the mill work and prepare parts for Renaissance pens. A.T. Cross’s Pinnacle pens have sculpted clips crafted from a precision mold using the lost-wax process. In addition, penmakers use precious metals and exotic woods in pens aimed at jewelry stores. They also use high-tech materials. Montegrappa, Jorg Hysek and Alfred Dunhill’s AD2000 offer pens made of carbon fiber, which is stronger than steel.

Sell the aesthetics. As much originality and precious materials can go into creating fine pens as go into fine jewelry. Some have barrels of sterling silver, while others are covered with malachite, coats of fine lacquer or enamel accented with gold or silver. They often have 14k or 18k nibs, stylish karat gold clips and precious gems and diamonds on the caps or barrel. “Accent the aesthetic. That’s what sells pens,” says Robert Filotei of Cartier. Russell Cohen of Carlyle Jewelers, a leading southeast chain, concurs. “In selling diamonds, you note rarity, size and quality,” he says. “With pens, talk about limited editions, exclusivity and appreciation in value.”

Sell it as a unique gift. “People go to a jewelry store to buy a special present, but they also want something different, distinctive and stylish, the sort of product that induces customers to make an impulse buy,” says John Hubacher, president of Chronotime, the distributor of Jorg Hysek pens. Luxury pens are ideal gifts for graduates, rising young professionals, special occasions such as Father’s Day or Mother’s Day, corporate awards and as heirlooms.

Get excited. It’s important not only to have people trained but also excited about what they sell, says Cohen. “Send your people to see quality pens being made,” he says. “They’ll come back more knowledgeable and passionate about them and will transfer that excitement to customers.”

Stress service. Like a fine watch, a $1,500 pen needs occasional care (cleaning, repair, refurbishing). Explain what the supplier provides, including warranties. Most high-end watches offer service for the life of the pen.

In-store merchandising. Display luxury pens with men’s jewelry and watches. Put them with upscale products. Carlyle and Caldwell stores display Renaissance’s Michel Perchin and Fabergé pens with Fabergé eggs, jewelry from Victor Mayer of Germany and creations from the St. Petersburg Collection of Theo Fabergé, grandson of the legendary Peter Carl Fabergé.

In-store events. Invite customers to special events, especially near appropriate occasions such as Mother’s Day, Father’s Day or graduation. Carlyle, for example, plans to display some limited-edition Montblanc pens, including a $10,000 platinum pen. Some suppliers provide personnel support for events that introduce new pens. Invite collectors and customers to meet pen experts and suppliers.