Written into History: Collecting Vintage Fountain Pens with Timeless Elegance

Collecting Vintage Fountain Pens Fountain Pens L-R: L: Two Montblanc Meisterstück Fountain Pens in Black Resin with Gold Nibs. Middle: Rare Vintage Parker Gold-Filled "Ribbon" Overlay, Eye-Dropper Fountain Pen; #4 Lucky Curve Nib, c.1900-1910. R: Sheaffer Fountain Pen, Balance Model.

A nib’s pull across a piece of paper while its ink flows with satisfying regularity immediately recalls the elegance and artistry of fountain pens. Behind that artistry is incredible technological advances that over the 20th century paved the way for consistent, reliable writing. 

Join in this journey into the history of fountain pens through the stories of some of the most influential inventors and designers. In addition to a brief history of how writing tools evolved from the reed pens of antiquity to the refined writing implements of today, we’ll showcase some of the most iconic creators of fountain pens via their most successful models.  

From Reed Pens to Internal Reservoirs: The Evolution of Fountain Pens

The fountain pen’s origins can be traced to the development of the earliest inkwells and reed pens that emerged among the cultures of ancient Rome and Egypt, where such tools were essential in early writing. Centuries later, it would also be in Egypt that the first pen with its own reservoir of ink was reportedly developed when the 10th-century Fatimid Caliph demanded a tool to facilitate writing without the mess of dipping one’s nib in an inkwell.

Rumors of fountain pens – that is, pens with reliable internal reservoirs to hold ink – would not emerge for centuries. Some have suggested that Renaissance inventor Leonardo da Vinci designed a pen with its own ink reservoir. A similar pen was described in German inventor Daniel Schwenter’s 1636 publication Deliciae Physico-Mathematicae, and that same century inventories in England noted the presence of the “fountain pen.” Though no physical prototype of these earliest references survives, these imagined models experimented with drawing the ink to the pen’s tip while also working to secure the reservoir effectively. 

Those visions manifested heading into the 19th century as inventors flooded the patent office with fountain pen plans to streamline designs and improve writing quality. Notable was that filed by John Scheffer for the “Penographic” in 1819; not long after innovator Petrache Poenaru filed for a patent for his pen that featured a swan-quill barrel that also sought to improve ink flow. Progress in fountain pen design accelerated rapidly as additional inventors developed popular brands of pens such that by the end of the 19th century the fountain pen market was on the cusp of exponential expansion. The early years of the subsequent century marked the pinnacle of fountain pen production, with prestigious makers from Montblanc to Waterman dominating the market with pens that both optimized filling and writing while also showcasing increasingly elegant, streamlined profiles. 

Legendary Fountain Pen Brands and Producers

Write these names down: the following are some of the most iconic brands and producers who have crafted legendary fountain pens beloved by collectors worldwide. 

Montblanc

Established in Berlin in the early 20th century, Montblanc was originally incorporated as the Simplo Filler Pen Company in 1908, however, the rapid success of its earliest models – including the eponymous Montblanc first released in 1910. True fans of Montblanc will vie for the Montblanc Meisterstück 149, produced since 1952 and one of the most expensive models thanks to its nib made from precious metals (the most exquisite being the limited edition 2022 sold gold model). Less expensive but offering an equally smooth writing experience is the Montblanc Meisterstück 146.

Parker

George Safford Parker, the namesake of the Parker pen brand, first patented his revolutionary fountain pen that was leak-free and wrote beautifully in the 1880s. The next decade he patented his “Lucky Curve” design that prevented leaks, and by the dawn of the 20th century Parker had delved into new, elegant designs that were truly works of art. The year 1921 witnessed the release of the now iconic Parker Duofold, a fountain pen with a streamlined profile and premium writing capacity (along with a 25-year guarantee).

Waterman

Collecting Vintage Fountain Pens: Waterman Carène Roller Pen.

Waterman Carène Roller Pen. Auction Passed (Est: €65 EUR – €75 EUR) via Aste Bolaffi (September 2023).

One of the most Rrenowned fountain pen makers of the late 19th century, Lewis Waterman launched his company on a mission to revolutionize pen craftsmanship. In addition to enhancing fountain pen reliability, Waterman pens led the market in developing shirt-clip and retractable pens early in the 20th century. Waterman closed its doors in 1954 shortly before being bought by the Bic pen company, but its pens continue to be in high demand. Collectors clamor for models like the Waterman 52, a clipless fountain pen made around 1920 and designed from hard rubber. Waterman fans might choose the Waterman Carene, which was made from lacquered metal and assumed a sleek profile reminiscent of a sailboat’s hull.

Pelikan

Originally established in the 1830s as a maker of paints and inks, Pelikan produced its first fountain pen, the Model 100,  in 1929. This pen featured an oversized reservoir along with a piston system that regulated the ink flow for remarkably smooth writing. Pelikan’s production peaked in the 1980s when the company released both the M400 and M800 models as part of their Souverän (“Sovereign”) series. The M400, the smaller of the two, came with a 14-karat gold nib, while the larger M800 included an 18-karat gold nib and gilt brass accents. 

Sheaffer

Known for their early models of lever fountain pens, which fill with ink thanks to a hinged lever that creates a vacuum when depressed, Sheaffer grew to prominence from the early 20th century onward for their sleek, sophisticated pens. One of the most classic Sheaffer fountain pen models is the Sheaffer Balance, first released in 1929 and immediately recognizable for its rounded cap and curved cap clip. In 1952, the Sheaffer Snorkel debuted as a revolutionary new means of filling the inkwell: so named because a shaft extended from the nib (like a snorkel) to provide easy filling without having to dunk the pen into an inkwell. 

Collecting Vintage Fountain Pens: Aurora 88 fountain pen.

Aurora 88 fountain pen. Sold for €100 EUR via Setdart Auction House (Feb 2024).

Aurora

Founded in Turin in 1919, Aurora fountain pens are some of the most elegant to emerge from Italy. Most of their designs consist of limited edition models of only the most exceptional materials, so it shouldn’t surprise that  one of the most expensive pens in the world is the Aurora Diamante pen crafted from platinum and diamonds. For the collector who still wants Aurora quality at a more reasonable price point, the Aurora 88 proved to be one of the brand’s most popular models during its 30-year tenure on the market. The Aurora Optima, made between the later 1930s and mid-1940s, was a more elegant counterpart.

Starting Your Fountain Pen Collection

While the advent of ballpoint pens proved detrimental to the market, fountain pens nevertheless upheld their prestige and continued to be a symbol of status from writers to statespeople. Whether it’s adding one of these vintage fountain pens to your desk or your larger collection, using this primer as a guide will help set you on course to find the fountain pen that will last you for generations to come.