The third generation of his family to head Italian pen-makers Montegrappa, Giuseppe Aquila is defying the digital age with fountain pens that can sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Here, he reveals his winning formula for a company steeped in heritage.
Handling one of the most perfect, remarkably designed ink pens on the planet is a particularly emotional experience. Montegrappa, an Italian, family-owned company founded in 1912, creates work that elevates the experience to peerless levels. And business is booming. The picturesque town of Bassano del Grappa (pictured above), where Montegrappa is based, is just over an hour inland from Venice, in a region well known for its fine craft in silver and goldsmithing. Montegrappa shares many similarities with those industries. The ingrained culture of the local craftsmanship aside, most of the products the company produces are made in sterling silver or solid gold.
Montegrappa’s narrative arc over the past 20 years has been as florid as calligraphy. Today, things are headed up by 49-year-old Giuseppe Aquila, who joined the business in 1992 to work alongside his father Gianfranco. Annual turnover stands at $17 million (€15.1 million), with a minimum of 10 percent growth each year for the past decade, while the company’s key markets are the US, the Middle East and its home territory of Italy.
Giuseppe works at the HQ with his father, who is the company's Chairman and takes care of finance, his mother Diana, who is actively involved in production and quality control, and his daughter, also Diana, 26, futureproofing a business that thrives despite being – to all intents and purposes – an anachronism, though a captivating one. “I’ve always loved this world. We all do,” he says. “My grandfather loved the company because he was a chemist, and was so fascinated by pens that he made his own inks. He asked the people at [local pen makers] Elmo to make pens for him under his own name. The family that owned the company didn’t have children, which is part of the reason we ended up taking it over.” Giuseppe has fond memories of his parents walking him to the factory as a child, and spending whole days immersed in the culture of it: “They would get me to do little jobs, like put the springs in the ballpoint pens.”
Giuseppe’s daughter’s role would not have existed when his parents ran the factory – she is a fashion stylist who directs all the shoots, the social media and the influencer marketing campaigns for the brand. This is how a heritage brand stays successful in the 21st century. “I filter every graphic and all the photographic work for Montegrappa with the visual aesthetic I believe represents the brand and our values,” Diana explains. “At times, I get in touch with influencers personally; other times, we rely on specialized agencies. There’s not a specific target influencer for us – what inspires me is a creative personality and good taste.”
Diana, along with other members of the family, also offers ideas for future designs, but the main creative direction originates with Giuseppe. “I am the conceptualizer,” he says. “I come up with the majority of the ideas for new designs, and then I work with our designers on the engineering. Research and development are big areas of our business: we are always experimenting with new technology, techniques and materials.”
Today, Montegrappa combines state-of-the-art technology at its Veneto factory with the expertise of 55 full-time craftsmen. And the company’s contemporary business model relies on the skills of those individuals more than any high-tech sorcery. “There are many luxury pen makers,” says Giuseppe, “but we employ entirely unique materials, manufacturing processes and techniques. We use a lot of etching, painting, low-relief engraving and enameling. All of it is done by hand.”
The biggest twist in the way Montegrappa operates took place during the year Giuseppe committed to working in the family business full time. It was when, to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the company in 1992, they first proposed to create a limited-edition sterling silver pen. A total of 1,912 pieces were produced, with highly ornate and precise leaf patterns detailed on each facet of the body and cap. This limited-edition business model is now responsible for 54 percent of the company’s sales.
Consider the parallels with the art and fine furniture markets. If merchandising and industrially produced mass-market furniture generate a certain profit margin at a certain volume, then, for example, a limited edition of silkscreens, or an edition chair by Marc Newson, represents a different kind of business model – one that relies on far fewer customers with an infinitely higher single spend. You can buy a Montegrappa Parola ballpoint for the same price as a pair of Nike trainers, but you can also sign up to pre-order one of the 500 Leonardo Da Vinci 500th Anniversary fountain or rollerball pens from the Genio Creativo series, finished in brass and olive wood, with a marvelous machine-inspired graphic lid, for over 20 times as much. “For the limited editions, the sky is the limit,” says Giuseppe. “We have some solid gold limited editions of the Samurai design that retail for $146,000 (€130,000).”
If these limited editions represent the core of the business, customization is something that is growing fast. Many clients opt for what Montegrappa calls Extra Bespoke. “We are already able to customize pens with our online configurator ordering [system], via 200,000 possible combinations. But when we are talking about Extra Bespoke, our craftsmen hand-paint or engrave an image from a client on the barrel.” Then there is the Arte model, aimed at collectors of fine art: “Someone will provide us with an image of an artwork they own, and one of our artists will reproduce it on their pen, using just the naked eye and a brush. It takes about three months to finish.”
Giuseppe had grown up, as the family joke goes, with “ink in his blood”. His grandfather, Leopoldo Tullio Aquila, was a stationery merchant. Ever since the 1930s, he had worked closely with the local pen manufacturer Elmo. Leopoldo was a close friend of the brand’s founders Alessandro Marzotto and Edwige Hoffmann. When Giuseppe’s father Gianfranco bought Elmo in 1981 – having long since established himself as its largest customer – it took the name of Montegrappa.
Under the exclusive auspices of the Aquila family, the brand made serious inroads into a new luxury market for pen craft. So much so that it attracted the attention of Richemont, which counts Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Montblanc as part of its global portfolio of luxury brands. In 2000, Montegrappa joined that portfolio. Then in 2009, the Aquila family took it back with the assistance of close friends and investors, who included the actor Sylvester Stallone and Formula One driver Jean Alesi. The culture of the company changed instantly, and with it came a new focus and purpose.
“We wanted to stay away from industrialization,” says Giuseppe. “We wanted to take things back to the original spirit and develop limited editions and bespoke products. It was frustrating for somebody who has always been used to working in a family business, where decisions are made within a very small group of people, to then have to work with a committee.”
The Montegrappa business model continues to change. The family wants to create fewer units and a more rarefied product. Their factory, on the bank of the River Brenta, close to the town’s 13th-century bridge, cannot expand significantly. And acquiring the craftsmen needed to maintain quality is difficult. “We have an internal program of training for younger craftsmen,” says Giuseppe, “but it’s hard. Because of where we are, and the tradition of families working with gold and silver in the Vicenza Province, that kind of craft is already in the DNA of the people who live around here – it’s not an alien world to them. But we have to face the fact that it’s difficult to recruit younger people and convince them that this is the right job for them.”
If Giuseppe is finding it difficult to recruit a new generation of craftsmen to join the four generations of Aquilas who have been, or still are, responsible for Montegrappa, there is no shortage of offers from potential collaborators. The company is working on a project with NASA to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first Moon landing. And having recalibrated its atelier as a place for the ultimate craft in handmade pens, without budgetary restraints, Montegrappa now works with fine jewelry brands. The company has also cornered the market for collaborations with certain luxury automobile manufacturers. “Private-label projects are great because they put us in touch with designers from different industries,” says Giuseppe. “They bring new ideas and often get us to use new materials. Working with car manufacturers has let us experiment with carbon fiber, titanium and magnesium.”
The main materials that Montegrappa is known for are found in its most sculptural pieces, such as the Samurai pen, a $13,000 (€11,500) figurine with fully movable parts made from sterling silver and plated with rose gold, which was introduced in 2018. Then there is the celluloid that is used in the body of the Dragon pen, with the gold or silver iconography set over it. Montegrappa is unusual in its continued use of celluloid, a material notoriously difficult to manufacture and work with. While it is technically a resin, it originates from cotton fiber, which is ground down before a natural color pigment – which can include mother-of-pearl – is introduced into it. The paste is baked in a tray for a whole year, and only then can the craftsmen start to process it for use, cutting it into round rods before drilling. Apparently, the material is so durable it will not shatter if it is thrown from the top of the Empire State Building. “When we work on the launch of a new color in celluloid, it takes three years before we can actually make the pen,” says Giuseppe. “But it’s like a good wine – you have to wait.”
Montegrappa has a long list of loyal customers who are prepared to pre-order and wait. When each new limited edition is ready for sale, 60 to 70 percent of the pens are already spoken for. And the secondary market is buoyant. The first limited editions from the Dragon series, launched in 1995, have increased five times in value. While the Dragon pens come with auction estimates of $35,000 to $50,000 (€31,000 to €44,000), they cannot compare with the Montegrappa-made, Tibaldi-branded Fulgor Nocturnus, which sold at auction in Shanghai in 2010. Adorned with 2,058 black diamonds and 139 rubies, this pen went under the hammer for $8.7 million (€7.16 million) and remains the most expensive pen ever sold. Montegrappa bought Florence pen makers Tibaldi in 2004.
While craft and materials play their part in the aura of Montegrappa, the family business trades on the resonance the brand has had through history. Pope John Paul II wrote with a Montegrappa pen, and Boris Yeltsin passed his Dragon pen to Vladimir Putin as a symbol of the passing on of the presidency of Russia. Most famously, author Ernest Hemingway wrote using a Montegrappa pen. He lived in Bassano del Grappa for a period during World War One while he was serving as a volunteer ambulance driver – and is strongly connected with the brand. In a tribute to the author, and in association with Hemingway’s grandson John, Montegrappa launched a Mightier Than the Sword collection in 2016.
Though few great writers of literary fiction in the 21st century work exclusively with pen and paper, Giuseppe believes there is a solid future both for ink and for Montegrappa. “We know that millennials are using pens,” he says. “There is a need to detox from the digital world, and handwriting is very stimulating for the brain.” This is not just conjecture from Giuseppe – he fed it through his usual rigorous process of research and development, collaborating with the American neurologist and neuropsychiatrist Richard Restak on the Brain pen, which features a stark body, yet has an apposite, visually complex cap. “We discovered he was a collector,” says Giuseppe, “and I was fascinated by the fact that he was writing all of his books with a fountain pen. We talked and he explained to me how handwriting stimulates the brain in the way that a keyboard doesn’t.”
Like so many heritage mills, tailors, shoemakers, ceramicists and parfumiers across the country, there is something about an Italian family business that guarantees a level of devotion to craft that is harder for a corporation to achieve. For Giuseppe, his life could not have taken any other direction. “I never felt like I had an option,” he says. “My father made that very clear to me. And while my daughter has the freedom to do whatever she wants, she loves the brand and the family tradition, and she enjoys bringing her expertise into our world. It’s still the Italian family business model, but it’s a new way of working.”
How Montegrappa pens have fared at auction in recent years
Five limited editions that have made their mark under the hammer:
1997 Red sea fountain pen
Sold for 40,000 Hong Kong dollars (around $5,000; €3,800) in November 2013. Numbered 368 of a limited edition of 888, this pen has a body and cap made of celluloid with mother-of-pearl. It is decorated with Ancient Egyptian-style imagery in vermeil, including a scarab with pink sapphire-set eyes, while the nib is 18-karat white gold.
2005 Dragon fountain pen
Sold for $43,750 (around €32,000) in June 2014. The existence of this artist’s proof – created to mark the 10th anniversary of the original Dragon design – was not public knowledge until it appeared at auction at Bonhams. It is made of celluloid and 18-karat yellow gold, with blue sapphires.
2005 Eternal bird fountain pen and inkwell
Sold for $43,750 (around €33,600) in June 2013, this pen, in 18-karat solid yellow gold, is an artist’s proof of a limited edition of 10, conceived as a successor to the Montegrappa Dragon. It has 244 diamonds and phoenix eyes set with rubies, while the casing is marbled red celluloid offset with gold overlay.
2010 Bruce Lee dragon fountain pen
Sold for $31,250 (around €24,000) in June 2013. Made as an homage to Hong Kong’s celebrated 20th-century screen idol, the 18-karat yellow gold pen features a cinnamon-veined red celluloid body and a nib engraved with a silhouette of Bruce Lee. The pen comes in a velvet drawstring bag with a brocaded silk pen-sleeve and is numbered 70 from a limited edition of 88.
2012 Chaos fountain pen
Sold for $8,500 (around €6,500) in December 2012. A collaboration with Sylvester Stallone, it incorporates the skull imagery that dominated the star’s action movie The Expendables 2. The graphic elements of this pen, which was the first in a series, include lizards and snakes, and a fist wrapped around the handle of a sword. It is made of celluloid, silver and 18-karat gold.
Mark C. O’Flaherty is a London-based writer specialising in luxury. He has written for publications such as The Financial Times, The Guardian and The Telegraph.
This article first appeared in the May 2019 edition of WERTE, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.