from Parker Pen Co. is pressing the doorbell of the 16th century
farm house where I have just finished the breakfast part of
"bed and breakfast".
rainy weather is not uncommon in October on the South Downs,
being fully exposed to the open Atlantic, so my driver, a
courteous man sitting on the right hand side of the new minivan,
has no trouble, to my amazement, navigating the rush hour
lanes and motorways to New Haven, the center of Parker Pen
into an empty slot by the front and make a dash for the large
bronze arrows that serve as handles for the doors. They are
overscale enlargements of early 1930s Vacumatic clips,
with feathers and triangular arrow head.
I am led
up a broad winding flight of stairs into the office of Steve
Beaumont, who is in the process of finishing a thought on
his word processor. Stephen is the marketing director for
Parker and has carefully planned my visit. As he shows me
the schedule, he asks me if I would care for a cup of tea.
I am reminded that we are in the United Kingdom and gladly
share some. This will give us a chance to cover some general
ground before I see the factory and especially the nib works.
My stated intention here is to find out as much as I can about
the Parker nib works.
As I talk
with Beaumont I become aware that what goes on at this level
of the company is every bit as important to whether the parker
pen Co. Survives and thrives as is the design of the latest
product and the feel of the finest nib.
came to Parker on the accountancy side, as plant controller
in the early eighties, then as finance manager and as finance
director. After the 1986 buy out, he "was asked to run
New Haven as a site". For two years, he moved to the
middle east and Europe to look after finance and administration.
When Gillette was proposing the purchase of Parker, Steve
presented the case to the Monopolies commission, a panel of
senior industrialists concerned with the anti-trust issues.
Steve if the purchase of Parker and Waterman by Gillette will
mean that the nib works would be consolidated either in England
or France. (I was disappointed to find out during my visit
there in 1992 that Parker no longer makes nibs in Janesville,
Wisconsin, the historic home of the company.) Parker will
be competing with Waterman head-on" he says. "We
share management meetings of Gillette, which includes people
from blades, as well as Paper Mate, Waterman and Parker. General
strategies are discussed and the pen companies share upcoming
products". " Let me give you an illustration".
"Jean Vuillion, the head of Waterman argued that Waterman
had the rights to the blue pen." "I asked him, does
that mean that Parker cannot make a blue pen?"
Mr. Vuillion agreed, but was overruled. "Of course, that
was an insupportable argument." Parker has been making
blue pens since the 1920s. Thinking back about the fierce
competition between these two companies from the turn of the
century on, I am gratified that both of these names will persist.
is more concerned with style, Parker with quality, substance
and history," Stephen proposed. "When Gillette bought
Parker, the brand name was probably its biggest asset."
"Let me tell you a story to illustrate." "At
the opening of Moscows 850th anniversary, and a new
department store, we were asking where to find the expensive
fountain pen department". "A store clerk replied,
You obviously mean Parkers. They are right over here
in the corner". "I was disappointed with the
location in the store, but gratified with the response".
Beaumont has been to Janesville, Wisconsin , the historic
home of Parker Pen Co. And the site of the archives. Together
with a designer, he explores the graphic resources for materials.
Calendars, backdrops for pen fairs, and future pen designs
may have their genesis here. This year they picked out 24
to 30 images for retouching and use.
he think of the new Parker snake pen? "The gold one is
good value for the money". "It makes me feel like
Indiana Jones coming upon the treasure". "Today
people are looking for value". "Gone are the days
of conspicuous consumption that we saw in the 80s. Parker
wont use borrowed ideas for their limited edition pens.
We want our pens to link back to our heritage or an event
that makes sense with the company."
occupies an enormous range of prices from $5.00 to $10,000.
We are not interested in producing disposable pens."
"Parker competes head-on with Waterman. Montblanc has
11% of market share, Parker 9% and Waterman 4% followed by
Pelikan, Omas, Cartier and Aurora. Of the 10 to 12 billion
made by Gillette, Parker with stationery has about one billion,
and one half of that is Parker."
fountain pens so popular? "People want to craft something
themselves which is personal and different. And the idea of
a refillable pen, appeals to the environmental concerns that
people have about disposables.
is the quality at Parker? "We build quality into our
Parker moved so much production to the UK? "It is less
expensive to produce pens here. We save on labor, freight
amounts to 5% of production costs and it is cheaper from here
to most markets. Also, we save 7.8% on duty into the Common
market." "Several of our lines are duplicated in
the US including the Insignia and Frontier. The Sonnet is
produced in France."
you come up with a new design? "Research and Development
people work together with Marketing. Twelve months ago we
hired six agencies from around the world to make proposals.
From those, three were selected for the competition, and the
first place was chosen."
here at the age of 14 and worked 47 years for Parker. "It
was great fun being here during the war", said Poney
Eagan. "I used to watch the troops and airplanes and
armor line up for the invasion of Europe". "This
piece of ground was also the original transit camp for the
1914 - 1918 war." Poney, now retired three years, still
keeps his hand in at Parker, guiding visitors through the
factory while relating the history. He remembers Parker making
strike pins for land mines.
takes me to a large display board showing photos with the
history of the site. As we are examining the photos of the
Valentine pen company, bought by Parker in 1939, a woman pushing
a large tea caddie rolls by us and down the hall , reminding
me that here in Britain, some creature comforts are sacred.
filled me in on the Gillette acquisition of Parker: "Parker
was heavily involved with Manpower, a job placement service
which ran on hard times". The Parker management at the
time sold off Manpower and mortgaged everything with Schroeders
Bank in order to keep the company going." When the five
year bank note came due, Gillette was there with the money,
had the statistics at the tip of his tongue: Parker spends
67% on manufacturing, 12% on marketing, and 20% on distribution.
They produce 700,000 units a week including all kinds of writing
instruments and sell in 72 countries. Most of the pen manufacturing
is done right here in New Haven. Two exceptions are the making
of the acrylic for pens and the metal plating, which are sub-contracted
out. Parker turns the raw pastic into pens.
past an open, empty and today, very wet courtyard surrounded
by modern industrial buildings. "This is where metal
caps are made, and jotter pens," Poney shouts. This machine
is wider than a living room. It does all of the stamping,
crimping, fitting and assembly operations. Tiny parts seem
to dance, every few inches, down a line on posts. Two men
are watchfully attentive to the modular progression. If I
had known that the flash of my camera would have caused such
a strong reaction, I would have warned them in advance. They
snapoff the line thinking that something is seriously wrong.
It starts again immediately only to be shut down again as
Poney shows me how, if anything breaks the beam read by the
eye at the other end of the machine, it quits so that no one
can get their hands caught. For his demonstration, Poney gets
a humored dirty look from the machines overseer. Poney
explains that this assembly machine is made by Rudy Hutt in
Germany and produces 2000 units per hour. "They are not
exclusive, anyone can buy these machines". He is quick
to add that "Parker designs its own tooling and mold
tools for pens."
were two of them facing one another like Victorian armories,
the Bruderers. We had moved to another part of the factory
and were peering in through an oil soaked window at successive
pressings that looked like shell casings being stretched into
shape. If it werent for the ear plugs, I might not have
noticed the concussion in my organs. The Bruderers run day
and night, with a sound like distant rhythmic distant artillery.
They are the deep draw machines that punch out metal pen caps,
clips and steel nibs from flat sheets of stainless steel.
Nobody was there when we came and nobody was there when we
explains that Parker runs in three shifts, "round the
slow churning vat filled with pen caps sits on rubber and
spring cushions , vibrating. The polishing room is a lot quieter.
The vats are filled with pure geometric forms, as if Plato
had been consulted before deciding what to fill them with.
The tetrahedral shaped polishing abrasives go in with the
caps, pristine cone shapes made of ceramic are in with soapy
water and clips, jiggling and sloshing together. These pure
shapes penetrate every nook and cranny of the parts, polishing
all of the surfaces, the way a key fits is a lock.
our ear plugs out and enter a well populated room. High work
benches, good light, endless small tools and lots of standing
people, about thirty, occupy this tool making shop. These
are the people who make the machines that make the pens. In
some cases, they make the tools that make the machines that
make the pens. Parker puts high priority on the quality of
the tools. Here is where I see quality being made. The rumble,
clatter and boom of the manufacturing floor is replaced by
and atmosphere of tolerance, the kind that is measured on
a micrometer in parts of a millimeter. I am looking at a massive,
but perforated slab of steel about the dimensions of a standing
business brief case. It is being assembled here on a high
work bench. When it is installed next to the other manufacturing
tools, molten plastic will flow and harden in its crevices,
only to be popped out, ready for the next injection of plastic.
door to the nib works is locked, so Poney and I must wait
for Moe Morgan, the nib shop foreman to disarm the door and
let us in. Moe Morgan introduces me to Nigel Brooks, the man
who keeps the machines in this room set to the proper tolerances.
This room is also well populated, but with workers seated
at smaller machines in rows. Most are making the 295,000 steel
nibs and about 1,800 gold nibs that come out of here a week.
Because my questions grow increasingly technical and are specific
to the making of gold nibs and the various styles of points,
Moe Morgan turns me over to Nigel, who promises a working
explanation. I have the feeling that Nigel has only rarely
been interviewed. I learn as much by watching his hands as
by what he says.
the intensity of activity here reminds me that nibs are, far
and away, the most complex part of the fountain pen, requiring
more processes, more labor, and more cost than any other.
Parker bought the Valentine Pen Company here in 1940 and by
the next year Parker nibs, stamped "N" for New Haven
were being produced. The Valentine Pen Company nib works,
including the skilled workers and the equipment was the prize.
buys its gold already rolled to a taper from Kooksons
of Birmingham. It comes like heavy ribbon on the roll, weighing
about three to four kilograms, with one edge of the ribbon
thick, about 20/1000 inch and the other edge thin, about 6/1000
inch. This taper, not found on gold pens of less high quality,
allows the nib, once it is cut out to be thicker at the point
than it is at the heel. The coil is fed into a machine that
gives the gold a flat imprint, makes the vent hole, used for
all further registration, a heal slot, a square hole, for
registration with the feed, and cuts out the overall shape.
It then goes into a forming press which gives what is now
only a cookie cutter shape its familiar rounded form, establishing
the width across the shoulders and towing down the point end.
When I ask Nigel hao all of these foperations can be done
by one forming press operation, he gives me a sly grin and
says, "It is amazing what we can do with tooling".
as Nigel picks up a single piece of tipping material with
a tweezers and puts it in a timy cup in the middle of a small
welder that has much the same vaulted shape as a 1930s
tube radio. He presses a switch with his right hand and the
current fuzzes the gold around the pellet. He hands the finished
weld to me for inspection. Under the ten power loupe that
I haul from my pocket, I view a gleaming silver colored ball,
thoroughly cupped by and attached to the gold point. This
is excellent workmanship. The tipping material is applied
with a welder that operates in an oxygen free, hydrogen environment.
"We use large pellets on the gold nibs to have somthing
to grind off," explains Nigel.
tipped nib gets the bump grind first. Parker is one of the
few remaining companies who make their own nibs and make them
to high quality standards. Lower quality nibs are noticeable
for their lack of forming on the tip. Parker takes the time
to sculpt the tipping material into more choices of point
style than any other company that I know of.
again as Nigel gives a demonstratioon of this machine. Even
toug every machine in the room is equipped with vacuum dust
collextors, heavy dust falls onto all flat survaces in a dark
shadow. He loads six nibs into holders and turns on the whir
of spinning stones, He lowers the gang of nibs, I watch as
they oscillate in the bench top bump grinder, being shaped
into good writing tips. "These little grinders cost £30,000
each." Nigel is proud of what they can do. "We started
using them in 1992."
half of the thickness is ground away to make an italic point.
Now we are hunkered down, looking into the gap between two
spinning stones in what Nigel calls " the back and face
grinder". The Parker italic and oblique tips, which I
am sometimes asked to copy on vintage nibs, are handled in
a special way here. The tip is passed between two adjusted
parallel grinding stones, which take off everything but a
"tongue". Care is taken not to remove material in
the area where the tipping is fuzzed to the gold so that the
connection is not weakened. This process of "back and
face grinding" gives the pleasant effect on paper of
a wide down stroke and a thin side stroke.
machine that Nigel takes me to is much less complex, just
a sumple grinding wheel with a nib holder which he adjusts
to a specific angle. Again, most of the dust, ths removed
metal and the wear on the stones, is sucked up into the vacuum
system, a system of pipes that runs above head height throughout
this well lit room. The tip grinding machine cuts the final
shape, straight across for stub, and at an angle of 15%, either
left or 15% right, for the oblique tips.
try to dispel some of the confusion about stub, italic, calligraphy
and oblique nibs. They are all cut on a back and face grinder
as described above, or by some similar operation, to give
them their characteristic difference in line width between
the wide down stroke and the narrower side stroke. Stub, italic
and calligraphy nibs are all cut straight across. Because
italic pens, found in calligraphy sets, came on the scene
in the 1960s that term has come to mean the same thing
as the more traditional word "stub". The oblique
nibs are cut at an angle, either down on the left, looking
like your left foot from the top, or down on the right. The
effect is like turning your angle to the paper, except that
it feels natural. Stub, italic and oblique nibs can be found
in either rounder, cursive forms, used by those who like to
write letters and in the sharper, more calligraphic, and harder
to use form, used by people who form their letters one at
a time. Some pen companies are so affraid of giving their
customers a "scratchy" nib that they err too far
in the direction of softness, with the result a point so rounded
that the "stub" effect is entirely lost. Calligraphy
nibs, almost always made of steel, are the sharpest, hardest
to use and most dramatic in their writing characteristics.
They are not made by the pen companies because of the difficulties
of use. I make them for the seasoned calligrapher.)
opens the door on what might be a pizza oven. Before slitting,
the nibs are "age hardened" in an oven at 350 degrees
C to take out the stresses.
in the slitter is so intense that Nigel dismantles the machine
so I can see how it operates. Tiny guides hold the paper thin
rubberized, carbide wheel from wobbling and two tiny blocks
prevent the nib tip from moving ouut of position with the
slitter. He tells me that it is necessary to change these
blocks all to often, "because the hardness of the tipping
material wears away the blocks, making it necessary for me
to re-set them often." He fits a nib into the holder
and up against the blacks, turns on the spinning wheel and
cuts the tipping material and the rest of the point in half,
all the way up to the center of the vent hole.
the nib is slit, there are eight corners which might catch
the paper, four on each tine. The purpose of "blend grinding"
is not to give the nib its general shape, but to smooth these
outer and inner corners and the edges. I can notice the deposits
of heavy metals and polishing stone dust below the wheels
as Nigel places six nibs in six more holders. They are lowered
onto the fine grinding stones. They do an odd dance, a show
of mechanical articulation, pivoting, standing up, turning
over and pivoting again, until every surface that the writing
paper might meet is polished smooth.
nibs here which cannot be done on the machine grinders are
the extra fine or accountant tips. "They do not turn
out well if they are done by machine." Nigel tells me
that he does the very small number that are ordered by hand
at the back of the shop in his extra time. This squares with
my understanding of the exacting nature of the extra fine
point. They have always been done by the most highly skilled
workers. Human skill, at least in this area still exceed the
limits of machine tolerances.
are then tumbled in what is known as the barreling process.
Walnut shells, detergent and the nibs all roll around together
until burs from the slitting, and any other sharp edges are
removed. One final impact in the point closing tool sets the
nib closed, making the tips come together. Rhodium plate is
applied over a masking which when removed, leaves the gold
color to contrast with the silver colored plating making a
finished two-tone nib.
4:30 and the room is growing quieter. Moe Morgan tells me
that my driver is waiting for me. I follow him back upstairs
to the carpeted area and to Stephen Beaumont. We all say our
goodbys. In the van on the way back along the partly dry roads
I think about how small the nib is and how important it is
to the pen companies. In many ways the survival of pen companies
has always rested on the tiny area at the tip of the point.
think about how great pen designs of the past came into being,
I realize that a lot of what happened was based on intuition
and fortuitous accident. (Think about the Parkers big
Red coming out of the tool room while George S. Parker was
off flying around the world.) These things are not done in
such a hap-hazzard manner today.
in the pen companies and in the pens themselves is aesthetic
and artisan in point of view. However, I realize that the
modern pen company is the combined organization of many specialists
and even a few generalists. I find it easy to see the value
of the work done by the highly skilled workers, the setters,
the machinists and the precision assembly people. I have also
come to realize the essential nature of the managers, organizers
and those people who are higher up in the corporate structure.
Without them and their skills any particular pen company would
cease to exist just as surely as if the nib did not write.
So in my search for the quality designs and structure of the
fountain pen, I cannot divorce the extremes of the modern
1998 John Mottishaw No reproduction or distribution without
published in Pen World Magazine, July/August 1998, Vol. 11,