Hubert Burda Media

Montblanc gets radical

How a century-old writing instruments brand stays relevant in 2016.

A century and a decade ago, three gentlemen set sail from New York for their hometown of Hamburg. The world back then was vast, and that convenient communication tool we call email would not be invented for generations to come. So when they were away, they did what others of their time did — they wrote letters, by hand. A hundred and ten years ago, pen and ink were separate apparatuses, and the company Montblanc was established by this trio not simply as a symbol of status and luxury, but on principles of convenience and innovation. To cut a long story short, the founders created a simple device that allowed ink to be encased within a safety pillar connected directly to the nib.

It was a simple shortcut – but it revolutionised an industry. And while that particular invention has long been taken for granted, even forgotten in the digital age, the company’s spirit for seeking technological innovation has been both unconditional and unwavering.

Though he’s been with the brand a mere three years, Montblanc’s Creative Director Zaim Kamal learned this early on. Kamal is an elegant and precise man, one whose speech is equal parts articulate and rhapsodic. He uses words the average person might not choose for a  writing-instruments company that evolved into a men’s luxury accessories house: radical, evolved, future-full.

2016 Montblanc Rouge et Noir writing instruments

Kamal’s job is to ensure creative synergies and a holistic approach between the label’s three product lines: the original writing instruments constructed in Hamburg; the complementary leather-goods and accessories line developed in a workshop in Florence; and the brand’s youngest but fastest-growing department – watches, whose manufacture is located in Villeret. So his influence in pushing the brand forward is substantial.

“Tradition has rules, and rules are rigid,” he teases. “But heritage has values – values evolve. And we are a heritage brand. It was my personal attitude when I started; I wanted people to say, ‘I didn’t know Montblanc did that, but it makes total sense.’”

For the company’s 110th birthday, Kamal issued a “radical approach”. Though the new collection is named Rouge et Noir, the same as the brand’s original fountain-pen series released in 1909, the similarity ends with the colour scheme and the vintage vibe. Longer and slimmer in shape, the pens incorporate a modern piston technology, and are adorned by a serpent motif that harks back to popular images from the art nouveau era, when the red-and-black writing instruments originally made their debut. The serpent also makes an appearance as an engraving on the nib.

But how radical can a pen be in 2016? Forget e-mail, that’s old school. We can voice-dictate text messages through smart watches, send voicemails via mobile apps, even sign for credit-card purchases using just a fingertip and a touch screen. In some ways, it makes a fancy pen as much an I-don’tneed- it-but-I-have-one-anyway luxury item as an anachronism. The insinuation seems to be a frequent one for Kamal, who is well equipped with an anecdotal retort.

“At Richemont group [which owns Montblanc], we have a creative academy, and so I go every year to present Montblanc, and I get this question every time. They say, ‘How is writing with ink relevant to me as a young person in my 20s?’ I have to smile sometimes. I give them my sketchbook, I give them my favourite fountain pen, and I say, now, think of a person, and write, ‘I love you’ by hand. Now you’re sitting in front of a computer, I want you to write in Helvetica 12 point, ‘I love you’. Look at the two and tell me honestly – where does the emotive lie?” He is a font of further examples: besides handwriting letters to his family, he himself still sketches by hand before transmitting designs to digital formats. “It’s not saying that one is obsolete and the other is the future, or the other is evil and the past is the best,” he clarifies. “Our clients and our world require that we gel these.” It’s all part of that Montblanc passion for innovation, right?

Montblanc's 110th anniversary at New York's Rainbow Room

Montblanc’s 110th anniversary at New York’s Rainbow Room

Emotion can be wrought from more than three words in looping cursive – it can even come from something as technical as a timepiece. For Montblanc’s CEO Jérôme Lambert, an experienced horology-house commander who joined in the same year as Kamal, emotion can come even from a grand complication. “Yesterday, I was working on a prototype, and I could not see the assembling, but I saw the grand complication of the [anniversary edition] Tourbillon Bi-Cylindrique with the Heures Mysterieuses and the serpent inside. And I had to say, wow. It was a true source of emotion. If that emotional impact can be transformed into a source of fascination and inspiration, then it will last forever.” This anniversary thus marks the first maison milestone under its new sleek and driven leadership. Though birthdays are often a time for reflection and celebration of the past, this is a future-facing era at Montblanc, and it is a future that is highly focused and laden with lofty ambitions. With only a quarter century of history, the relatively nascent watch division can be ranked within the top 20 fine watchmakers in the world, according to Lambert. Innovation is much more prized in that business, and he thinks that the stiff competition (admittedly lacking in the writing-instruments sector, where Montblanc has less opposition) is part of what has forced them to “raise the bar”.

“We have so many things to invent; we have a nice field of expression and a nice complement between all of [our product categories] – I want to explore them at our best,” says the Frenchman, whose words may not always land correctly by definition, but whose energetic intent is always crystal clear.

It’s not a birthday without a party, and that the brand throws. Rouge et noir is the theme, mais bien sûr, and it is held, fittingly, in New York, the founder’s port of departure on that fateful trip a century ago. And darling, Montblanc has most certainly arrived. The legendary Rainbow Room is transformed into an exhibition space of ebony and crimson that peacocks the house’s expert craftsmanship in each area. The guest list is tellingly fresh — alongside brand ambassadors Hugh Jackman and Charlotte Casiraghi are Kate Bosworth and Matthew Morrison; socialite-turned-styleicon Olivia Palermo and boyfriend Johannes Huebl; Victoria’s Secret models Emily DiDonato, Jasmine Tookes and Sara Sampaio; and bloggers Garance Doré and Alice  Gao. Their combined Instagram following tallies in the millions.

The hashtag, #montblanc110, is used over 500 times, with a guest tally at the dinner of just over 100. Among the tagged shots are photos of handwritten notes, and it looks indeed like the team has wittingly stumbled upon one way to combine analog and digital, romance and practicality. In the next 110 years, it certainly won’t be the last.