Montblanc Meisterstück 149. Germany, 1952
Ask anyone if they know any German words and you might hear it named. Words like Autobahn, Zeitgeist or Vorsprung durch Technik might get more mention, but if you ask anyone around the world to name a famous fountain pen, you can count on them to say “Meisterstück”.
In 2014, Montblanc’s signature pen has been celebrating its 90th anniversary. A star-studded party held in New York in April marked the occasion.
Over the last two decades, Montblanc has been one of the most reliable growth brands in the luxury industry. The jet-black façades of its boutiques have become commonplace in every glamour shopping destination in the world. It’s a luxury brand success story built on the most coveted of pens.
The Meisterstück’s rise to global notoriety is remarkable in itself, but is even more special for providing Montblanc with two vital platforms for its growth: first, as a roaring financial success; and second, as a stylistic point of reference that would fuel an era of spectacular brand expansion. The purity and distinctiveness of this simple, elegant pen gave the Hamburg-based company the gravitas and style credentials that would allow Montblanc to grow into a global name synonymous with sensible luxury.
In 1924, the Simplo Filler Pen Co. adopted “Meisterstück” as a descriptor for its most exclusive product lines. For German-speaking customers, the line’s promise was literally written on the box: “masterpiece”. But already by the late 1920s, Simplo was shipping its products to more than 60 countries.
At the time the Meisterstück 149 model made its debut in 1952, mass-produced ballpoint pens were making big inroads into the sales of traditional writing instrument manufacturers. Despite the huge, disruptive success of the ballpoint, refined customers considered them tacky – even morally inferior – to fountain pens. For the cognoscenti, nothing of meaning could possibly be written with a ballpoint.
It’s this belief that Montblanc has done much to perpetuate, even in the digital age where ballpoints are being replaced by styluses, fingers and voice recognition. Today, Montblanc refers to the Meisterstück 149 as “the ultimate symbol for writing culture and a style icon for perfect, timeless design.”
Over the decades, the Meisterstück has been an object of desire for a diverse consumer base. Quite possibly, its influence reaches as deeply into cultural consciousness as any other single luxury product.
For one thing, it’s a product that appeals to both genders. But, more significantly, its popularity as a prestige gift reveals a rare combination of intrinsic and symbolic value. A Meisterstück is used to sign important contracts, to signify milestones like graduations and promotions, or to recognise outstanding writing. What better way to express sincerity and recognise accomplishment than with an elegant, German-made writing tool?
For the marque’s 90th birthday celebrations, Montblanc premiered a series of new, Meisterstück-branded creations: soft-grain leather accessories, men’s jewellery and watches sparkled in the spotlight. Just as in 1924, the company still uses the name to identify its most coveted products.
And, as it does every spring, Montblanc showcased its new special edition pens. This time, they even made a reissue of the 75th anniversary Meisterstück.
Montblanc’s craftsmanship, creativity and the collector popularity of fine pens make it viable for it to bring several special edition Meisterstück designs to market every year.
From Product to Platform
Beginning in the nineties, Montblanc started an aggressive campaign of expansion that saw its interests extend beyond writing instruments. With the Vendôme luxury group (now Richemont) at the helm, Montblanc correctly identified that the values it had built into the Meisterstück over decades were transferable into other areas of luxury consumption. Leathergoods, jewellery, luggage, timepieces and fragrances were added. Montblanc also knew it could not hope to maintain control of their brand or meet growth expectations by focusing exclusively on the writing segment.
But rather than abandoning its roots in writing culture, Montblanc discovered its brand’s essence in the Meisterstück 149 and used it as a blueprint for the way forward.
With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to see how an object as sentimental as a pen could provide such fertile ground for brand growth: a beautiful pen must balance form and function; as an everyday implement and a status symbol, it is, by nature, a product that users can become unusually attached to.
It’s remarkable how little useful brand real estate exists on a 145 mm cylindrical object. Yet the Meisterstück’s designers made the very most of limited possibilities, endowing the 149 with several distinctive identifiers that would go on to become important touchstones for Montblanc’s future extension, including:
- the name, Meisterstück – an expression of strength, leadership and efficient Teutonic beauty;
- the iconic white tip. Montblanc’s ‘white star’ mark is one of those rare logos that is both beautiful and essential to the product’s aesthetic. It represents the snow-capped peak of Europe’s highest mountain;
- ‘made in Germany’. Historically, fine pen brands were generally Italian, French and Japanese, a fact that has largely been obscured by Montblanc’s success;
- vivid contrasts of black and white. Montblanc are masters of monochrome – they take care to achieve intense tonal finishes using traditional, high value materials. Consistently high standards make such a stark use of tone a powerful expression of quality and integrity;
- precious metals, used in conjunction with other materials. The Meisterstück was originally made with celluloid but composite resin has been used throughout most of its history;
- the number 4810. Artfully engraved onto the nib of every Meisterstück, 4810 refers to the height of Mont Blanc in metres, and provides a denomination for many of the brand’s limited edition series.
As well as baking intrinsic qualities into its products, Montblanc has worked hard to construct an image of itself as a patron and purveyor of high culture. Germans refer to their country as “das Land der Dichter und Denker” (country of poets and thinkers) and this national characteristic is woven into the classically earnest identity of the Montblanc brand.
Although sales of writing instruments only make up around 40% of the company’s revenues today, Montblanc still relies heavily on its writing instrument ranges to define the brand’s cultural domain. It’s a tactic that retraces the footsteps of the Meisterstück’s success, while playing on the unique emotional power of pens.
Every year, Montblanc releases elaborately designed pieces in celebration of the arts (‘Patron of Art’), literature (‘Writers Edition’), and artists (‘Artisan Editions’). Recent subjects have included Picasso, Defoe and Brahms. Meanwhile, homages to figures like Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly have appeared within their ‘Great Characters’ and ‘Divas’ series. Under the ‘Donation Pen’ imprint, great musicians provide a front for Montblanc’s patronage of the Philharmonia of the Nations.
Projects such as Signature for Good have seen the company make significant contributions to UNICEF literacy programmes. This most recent effort compiled handwriting samples from 149 celebrities – another nod to the considerable legacy of the Meisterstück 149.