A Geha or Pelikan pen? For a long time, that was the big question faced by every child starting school. And the blue school fountain pens with the embossed water bird are still well-known in Germany today. What’s even more interesting is that the stationery giant also makes elaborate luxury fountain pens by hand. We took a look behind the scenes at Pelikan’s factory in Peine.
Lime-green cuboids that look like a shoe box turned upside down: those entering the premises of the Pelikan factory in Peine wouldn’t immediately see any sign of the valuable little gems that are made here by hand. Only upon taking a closer look does the location reveal its charm: writing utensils are handcrafted here under melodic names such as ‘Limited’, ‘Premium’ and ‘Elegance’.
Master toolmaker Ralf Drefs has been with Pelikan since 1993 and helped set up the manufacturing area at the site. Today he is in charge of the department. Thanks to his day-to-day work, he is well-versed in every one of the approximately 100 steps that are necessary for handcrafting a fountain pen: ‘Generally, the fountain pen consists of three parts: cap, ink cartridge and nib. The first two are moulded parts, which are formed from high-quality plastic. The body is then placed around the ink cartridge, which is rolled from a flat sheet of plastic to form a tube and processed in the CNC turning shop. The nib of the pen is manufactured separately. Finally, the individual pieces are assembled and polished to a high gloss.’
His personal favourite is the anthracite-striped ‘Stresemann’ from the Souverän series, which, together with its green counterpart, is an absolute classic in the Premium segment. The piston fountain pen, which first appeared on the market in the 1930s, owes its nickname to the legendary suits worn by statesman Gustav Stresemann. The foreign minister of the Weimar Republic loved striped patterns – and that’s how the Pelikan fountain pen with the fine-line sleeve got its name ‘Stresemann’.
Turning a gold ribbon into a fountain pen
Like any fine fountain pen, the ‘Stresemann’ is made of high-quality materials, the sleeve of special plastic and the nib of 18-carat gold. Drefs guides us through the production process and explains how a genuine Pelikan pen can be created from a gold ribbon in 30 individual steps: ‘There are auxiliary tools or machines that we need to use. However, the parts are inserted into the tool by hand at each step and reshaped. The process involves rolling, stamping and punching holes – and at the end, a grain of iridium is welded onto the pen as the tip.’
Mr Drefs can often be seen in production area, ensuring that the writing instruments being produced meet high standards of quality: ‘We have an in-process control method; that is, every employee checks his or her own work before it is passed on. If there are problems, I will be called in, and we work together with quality assurance to decide whether small deviations – for example, in the material and colour – are still within the tolerated range, whether we have to rework it or whether the part has to be rejected.’
Drefs is devoted to the Pelikan brand and would never trade his work at the factory for a job in conventional industrial manufacturing: ‘I look after all the processes here from start to finish, and they culminate in a high-quality writing instrument. Everything is highly automated in an industrial plant where they manufacture mass-produced goods. I would probably end up looking after a machine or a production line if I worked in a place like that. But I am a master craftsman, and here I can practise my trade.’
Writing the first strokes by hand – to ensure the proper flow of ink
High-quality writing utensils leave the Peine plant in large numbers every year, and each one is previously tested by hand. It takes two years before a new, premium fountain pen reaches the market, from the idea to production, because the process of procuring materials is complex in and of itself, explains Drefs: ‘Some of the developers fly halfway around the globe to get material samples. We create colour and function patterns here – and only after extensive testing will there be an initial pilot series at some point.’
And quality of this caliber has its price: The small ‘Blue Marbelt’ is available from around 100 euros, the green or blue Stresemann can be purchased for around 500 euros, and the most expensive product, the Maki-e, costs almost as much as a small car, depending on the version. We have to gulp, but Drefs has a precise explanation for this steep price: ‘Maki-e is Japanese craftsmanship. That’s why the fountain pen travels to Japan for finishing after production. Over there, many layers of of elegant finishes are applied, some with a single-hair brush. Depending on the model, materials such as mother of pearl or gold dust are also used.’
That leaves just one question: who is able to spend such sums on a fountain pen – businessmen, politicians, Arab sheikhs? ‘Yes, absolutely,’ confirms Mr Drefs, ‘but we actually produce pens for everyone. And no matter which model you buy, our quality standards are always the same.’ Meanwhile, he continues, the handcrafted models have become real collector’s items and are in huge demand amongst collectors. Especially limited-edition fountain pens, which are produced with elaborate designs based on topics such as ‘The Seven Wonders of the World’ or ‘Outstanding Achievements of Civilisation’, and are manufactured in mini-series of only 300 pieces in some cases.
A seamless change of generations
The fact is, the company’s order book is far from empty, and Drefs even wants to hire new employees. many members of the company’s long-term staff are set to retire in the next few years: Potential employees must have ‘fine-motor skills and a good eye for detail’ – the specialist knowledge is taught on site. But do expensive instruments for a cultural technique that’s become old-fashioned really offer job prospects for the future? ‘There’s no doubt in my mind,’ replies Drefs. ‘In this era of Whatsapp and the Internet, handwriting is a pure luxury that people use to express things that are important to them. Who would want to receive a love letter that was typed on a computer?’
It’s evident that Drefs is proud of his factory and the work of his 50 employees, even if they make up only one fifth of the entire workforce at the Peine location. The rest of Pelikan’s employees work on a traditional assortment of office goods – and produce around 6,000 items, from ink cartridges to paint sets. Taking into account all of its locations and subsidiaries, Pelikan is one of the largest producers of stationery products in the world today. However, a majority of Pelikan’s products is still produced in Germany, mainly in Peine – including the classic school fountain pen, the Pelikano.