• 24 Mar 2016
  • Italian fountain pen maker shows that luxury conglomerates aren’t the only route to global success

    Chiara Beghelli
  • Quality aside, the story behind Montegrappa fountain pens is exceptional for two reasons: first, because the company is one of the very few that had been bought back by the founding family from a luxury behemoth (in this case, the Swiss-based Compagnie Financière Richemont); second, because a business of writing instruments is succeeding in a world dominated by digital devices.

    The Montegrappa factory lies on the slopes of Mount Grappa, in Bassano del Grappa, Veneto, where pens have been produced since 1912. In 1930s, Neapolitan entrepreneur Leopoldo Tullio Aquila started the commercial relationship with the producer, then his son Gianfranco bought the company in 1981 and his grandson Giuseppe, now CEO of Montegrappa, in 1992 left Naples to join the located family business located in Italy’s north.

    “In 2000 we sold the company to Richemont, which had been wooing us for five years: they wanted to put in their portfolio Italian brands similar to Cartier and Montblanc, but the experiment didn’t go very well,” says Giuseppe Aquila. “So, in 2007, during a dinner in St. Moritz, the then-CEO of Richemont, Norbert Platt, said to me: ’Why don’t you buy back Montegrappa?’ And so we did, in 2009.”

    Since then, the Aquila family has changed the positioning of the brands, focusing on high-end pens, opening the first directly operated stores worldwide and involving celebrities both as brand ambassadors and partners.

    In 2015 Montegrappa had revenues of about €15 million, and for 2016 a single-digit growth is expected.

    Last year 80,000 pens were produced in the facility on the slopes of Monte Grappa, the majority of the “regular” collections, for a daily use, then the limited editions (“a segment that generates the 42% of our business and is growing and growing, with pens starting from €1,500-2,000,” said Aquila).

    The niche of “bespoke” pens “ covers the 15-20% of our revenues, with prices starting from €7,000 up to no limits, since we are able to satisfy any fancy with gold, gems and other precious materials,” the CEO said.

    Women’s fountain pens are the 5% of the business and also a growing market, so the company has chosen to dedicate for the first time an “Icon” fountain pen to a woman, the very iconic Sophia Loren.

    The Italian actress is the most recent in a long series of celebrities that had a Montegrappa pen named after them, as writer Paulo Coelho and musician Quincy Jones, co-designers of the “Alchemist” and the “Secret Garden” pens.

    To writer Ernest Hemingway, one of the first fans and brand ambassadors of Montegrappa creations, has a “dedicated” limited edition collection of four pens, to be released in the coming months.

    Moreover, former F1 driver Jean Alesi and actor Sylvester Stallone are both partners of the company, “and the Chaos pen designed by Stallone is one of our best sellers,” Aquila said.

    Since 2010 Montegrappa has inaugurated 13 boutiques worldwide, in London, Dubai, Mumbai, Riyadh, Milan among other cities.

    “One of the latest has been opened in Tehran and is going very well, the Iranian market is very promising for luxury brands,” said Aquila. “ We have been studying the US market for a long time, and for sure in the next future Montegrappa will have a store also in New York. That market it’s a strategic priority for us, but we are also looking to China.”

    The very first boutique was opened in Moscow, in a country that recalls joys and pains for Aquila: “When Boris Yeltsin gave his Dragon pen to Vladimir Putin on 2nd January 2000, with this pen he symbolically handed over his power to him. We made special pens for the members of Russian parliament, oligarchs and we still are making them. But the recent troubles caused a slowdown for our business there: four years ago Russia was our first market, today is the fourth, after the Middle East, Italy and US.”

    But, since the number of high-net worth individuals is growing worldwide, Montegrappa high-end production looks more than safe.

    “The more expensive pen ever sold is a Montegrappa ,” Aquila explained. “It had a value of about €2-3,000, but in a charity auction in Shanghai two Chinese businessmen raised the price to the impressive sum of €6.3 million. Many collectors love our pens: for a Hollywood producer we make bespoke pens worth $150-200,000. We work also with many Arabian sheiks and politicians such as the Kazakh president, that ordered pens with the map of the country engraved to give as state presents.”

    To realize all this, highly-skilled artisans are needed.

    “We are focused on the training of young artisans since the 90s, and after the buyback we have started to involve also very high skilled ones, such as stone setters and enamellers,” he said. “Our engravers come mostly from the school of Zecca dello Stato (state mint) in Rome. So, we’re not facing the lack of new artisans, as other luxury brands do.”

    Speaking of future, the fourth generation of Aquila family is already involved in the business through Diana Aquila, Giuseppe’s daughter. And among the last creations, the Q1 pen is a sort of modernist experiment, both in design (it's made of titanium, stainless steel and Italian leather) and features, since it's the world's first multi-cartridge fountain pen for easy switching of ink colors.