A Grail Pen Update

Since my last post on the grail pen, I’ve had a few people asking whether I’ve pulled the trigger and the answer (so far) is no. Partly because it’s a monumental amount of money and I haven’t quite come to terms with that, but it’s also partly because the pen was discontinued shortly after that post was published. There’s still a few available here and there so it remains a possibility, but there’s also a new Skeleton being released. The official announcement is this weekend but I’ve been fortunate to enjoy an early look. 

The new Skeleton is part of Montblanc’s long-term partnership with Unicef, means part of the proceeds go towards the UN’s children’s charity. While there’s many questions about the effectiveness of many charities, Unicef isn’t one of them. They do good work, have low overheads, and don’t suffer from the same bureaucratic and political inertia that afflicts much of the UN. But while I don’t have reservations about supporting them, I do have reservations about the honking great sapphire in the Montblanc Unicef Skeleton, which denotes the charitable relationship. Seems a weirdly mixed message to use gemstones as a way of symbolising charity and generosity. But Montblanc have given Unicef more than US$10m for promoting children’s literacy and if sapphire-studded pens helped get that figure up, is it really something to complain about?

Anyway, there’s a whole range of products, including four different FP lines, and obviously it’s the new Skeleton which caught my eye. Only some parts have been redesigned since the Blue Hour was released three years ago. The blue-tinted glass barrel, cross-hatched piston engraving, and mother-of-pearl snowcap remain the same, but the cap and barrel overlay has changed. On the Blue Hour skeleton, the overlay had a bit of a spotted design and on the BMW Skeleton, it was a slanted rectangle design. This time around, it’s far bolder: a collection of basic letter forms from six major alphabets, the shapes that children start with when learning to write. The design forms the overlay but continues as engravings on the metal (platinum) parts of the pen: the section, piston knob, cap ring, etc. The nib is rhodium-plated with the same alphabet characters. 

The overlay design is a nice throwback to the idea of supporting literacy and I have to admit that the design concept has a serious hold on me. As someone who loves to write, and spends a good deal of my professional and personal time writing, the idea really hits home. There’s a wonderful harmony between a pen, children’s literacy, and a pen designed around letterforms. It’s even got me thinking that more of my giving should be focused on supporting literacy and education (though I generally argue that you should donate to charities which simply give cash to the poor as it’s one of the cheapest and most effective aid methods out there).  

As much as I love the concept, I’m not quite sold on the execution. At first, the overlay looks like a jumble of random shapes and my initial impression was that the pen had been damaged. Then I thought it looked like the wild scrawling of a toddler with a crayon and a bare wall. Later it reminded me of Kandinsky’s later, more adventurous works. Two of the letterforms were immediately familiar to me, and the catalogue spells out the others, but it didn’t exactly jump out at me. 

Admittedly, this impression is not based on firsthand experience with the pen, but the rather unimaginative images used in the catalogues and product alerts. It wouldn’t be the first time that I’ve been disappointed by the catalogue but excited by the product: the 1912 looks very bland on paper but is a truly wonderful pen, one of Montblanc’s best modern products. On the other hand, the silver Martele looked superb in the catalogue but was underwhelming in the hand. 

The Value Proposition

The other thing which most people won’t like is that the price has jumped up. The retail price for the 90th Anniversary and Blue Hour skeletons was €7700 but the Unicef model will list for €8900. That increase might be defensible if the extra money is going to Unicef, but it’s unclear exactly how much gets donated from each product (Montblanc have committed to a minimum €1.5m in the next year). While the increase is rather a lot of extra cash, it’s less than a 4% increase per year between the 90th’s announcement and the Unicef release, which is hardly an excessive growth rate for premium products. It’s still a stupendous amount of money (even if you manage to snag a discount) and that has to be weighed against the value: is the pen a worthwhile acquisition? 

For me, an FP in that sort of price range has to be something that I simply couldn’t do without: something I would use every day, at home and at work, which would displace most of my other pens (and therefore enable some offsetting sales). The Unicef skeleton has some good points – the concept is brilliant, the Unicef relationship is a real positive, and it’s a skeleton with one of Montblanc’s wonderful #9 nibs – but I can’t see myself pulling the trigger on this one. From what I’ve seen so far, the design isn’t something that I love; it’s not burned into my brain like the Blue Hour.

A while back, I published my (very long) post on Fountain Pen Aesthetics. One of the aesthetic frameworks I discussed was the Beardsley criteria – complexity, unity, intensity – and I’ve found this to be a really useful starting point for my own aesthetic judgements. The Blue Hour worked for me because it had the right mix of the three elements: the design was complex but not excessively so; there was variation in the design within a cohesive whole, and the overall impression was intense without being overwhelming. In other words, it was well-balanced, harmonious. This isn’t the way I would describe the Unicef: it is far more intense and complex, at the expense of the design’s unity. Overall, it doesn’t feel balanced and I don’t find myself connecting with it the same way I did with the Blue Hour or certain other designs. 

In a practical sense, the pen doesn’t strike me as something which I would carry to work each day. The Anniversary and Blue Hour skeletons are both pens that I’d be comfortable with using in a meeting, even if they stand out rather more than I’d like. The Unicef would be a next-level stand out, which means I wouldn’t use it in certain situations – and if a pen like that isn’t going to be used all the time, in every situation, it’s probably not worth having. Certainly not at the price that’s being asked. 

Also complicating things is the upcoming (July/August) release of the new MB Writer’s Edition, the Antoine Saint-Exupery. I’m still waiting on pictures but the design theme is a WW2 fighter plane – think about the MB Miles Davis but a fighter instead of a trumpet. The Limited Edition version has an aged metal look and skeletonised cap, in the style of the glass ‘bubble’ sitting over the cabin, and everyone who has seen the design seems to be very excited about it. At less than half the price of the Skeleton, the LE obviously has my attention but I’d be surprised if it could properly scratch that itch. This will be launched mid-year.

Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Unicef and Saint-Exupery fail to fire up the same excitement in me that the Blue Hour provoked. Which leaves me with two options: I either start to seriously look into the mint condition Blue Hour Skeletons which have trickled onto the market (and pray to the Pen Gods that I don’t have to pay the ridiculous prices being asked) or I wait another few years for Montblanc’s next skeleton design and hope that it’s a better fit. I’m not in any particular rush to acquire one but I also recognise that spending authorisation can be revoked at any time and life can take surprising turns. If my partner ends up posted overseas, or a baby Pen Economist gets on the cards, I may not get another shot at this for a very long time. 

The journey continues!

Updated with links to pictures of the new Skeleton.