I love fine writing paper about as much as anything. J. loves fine writing instruments. My dad has what he calls his lucky pen. This next long-form conversation in the Shopkeeper Series is a high point for me. It returns me in spirit to Carmel-by-the-Sea in California…like Charleston, a siren call to my heart. I remember two things about our time there. J. bought his first fountain pen from Robert (Bob) T. Leeds at Bittner in Carmel, and we found antique French shutters with a glorious Pantone green-of-their-own patina at Whittakers to place around windows in our living room. One of the lowest moments of my interior design-loving life was returning home to find them stripped of their hundreds of years-old, erratic but nevertheless interesting, color-marbled, weathered individuality. Cleaned ‘em up great before I hung ‘em, said our painter.
Words are life and picking up pen and paper to convey them in everything from thank-you notes, letters and wish lists to blessing counting (I loved Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts”) and journals is…place your words here, and if you use a word like hard or impossible, I dare you to stretch.
Believing in the importance of relationship and connection during this time of a global pandemic, I reached out to Robert at Bittner to see if he’d talk to me about the value of the handwritten note. Detlef Bittner, the founder himself, took the call and unspooled the subject vastly beyond my questions and preparation. An aside, I will never cease to be amazed when someone with a reputation as illustrious as his is open and available to help others learn. Thank you, Detlef, for being so gracious with your time and interested on behalf of young people, business leaders and everyone in between in the power of written expression.
You are a global influencer. What words would you use to describe your personal legacy…how you hope to be remembered?
JR: Detlef is still young. I ask this question because I want to understand the man behind a brand that encompasses writing instruments costing more than many homes.
I love the customer interaction so it would be great to be remembered for my helpfulness to customers, for promoting and giving people joy and peace with writing and by presenting beauty.
Tell us about Detlef, the boy, what you loved and how that relates to the man you are today.
JR: Detlef grew up in Ulm, Germany, on the River Danube. Wiki says Ulm is primarily known for having the church with the tallest steeple in the world and as the birthplace of Albert Einstein.
I get a lot of my inspiration from nature. I’m a graphic designer so I draw a lot of inspiration from that. When I was young I was outside in the woods every day from morning until evening when I wasn’t in school.
I’m inspired by natural forms…texture, tree bark, rocks…when the light moves through the woods and sparkles on forest life. This gives me immense pleasure and joy. This has not changed.
I have always been about creating beauty and presentation. This is ingrained in my DNA. And I believe it comes through in everything we do at Bittner, from presentation and the way we built our showroom and boutique here in Carmel to the paper and products we choose for our customers. Assembling a collection like we have is a treasure hunt really. We sail the seven seas and hunt the far corners of the world to bring our customers the finest products. Writing instruments and papers are interesting and fascinating for me…so much forgotten artistry and craftsmanship are brought back in them.
In your online bio you refer to your “Wanderlust”…an infrequently used expression in this country. Tell me what it means to you.
Different cultures, new smells, new textures, new experiences. Interactions with people with different energies. Exploration of the new. My wanderlust takes me into the metaphysical and spiritual realm. I’m currently reading “Conversations with God,” a three-book series by Neale Donald Walsch. I’ve read Eckhart Tolle’s “A new earth.” (JR: A self-improvement book that encourages its readers to live their lives in each present moment and to create happiness for themselves without emphasizing material possessions.)
Bittner is described as a leading pen and paper empire. You have both an in-store and online presence.
Few retail businesses can survive these days on walk-in business only. A website is a necessity, and a component of half our business. Our Carmel store will do what it’s going to do. The web half of the business is growing steadily.
Just running a retail store by itself is a 110 percent commitment. A website is a business in itself. So we basically run two businesses and each business needs its own skillsets. The small business or small retail shop that can figure out how to handle both will be successful. The one that doesn’t take the online platform seriously won’t be with us tomorrow.
JR: For the business reader of this post, Bittner believes its business is won on the “trifecta” of a website, Instagram and weekly emails (which you can sign up to receive on the Bittner website)—each “horse” captained with the attention and earnestness it deserves.
Bittner is more than a shop for the world’s most elegant writing instruments. You’ve rounded out your offering with watches, cufflinks and belts.
A pen is desk jewelry. The fine watch is part of the outfit of the modern professional. Like a fine writing instrument in a business setting, it is a business and style component. Fine writing instruments and fine watches go together very well. Just in Carmel, Bittner shares many clients with Fourtané Jewelers, a luxury watch store.
Some of the companies that make pens have ventured into the luxury realm via watches and accessories…Montblanc and Visconti and Cuervo y Sobrinos (the latter, the “Latin soul and Swiss brand” formed in Cuba and one of the oldest watch manufacturers in the world). We choose watch lines that have affiliation with our writing instruments.
What is the most beautiful writing instrument you’ve ever held in your hand?
So…Detlef laughs…normally you would get a different answer from me every day of the week. Well, I’m being very diplomatic. I consider myself Switzerland. But I have four loves…
I would take the Pelikan Toledo with me to Mars. This is one of my personal pens.
I’m proud of the Limited Edition created by Platinum Pen Company from Japan. This is a 100-year old, three-generation, family owned Japanese company. I’m very proud of the Platinum Izumo Urushi Soratame (Toyko Mist) Bittner Special Edition fountain pen that just came out. Urushi lacquer is the world’s hardest natural lacquer. Forty layers of blue lacquer followed by 40 layers of black lacquer give the pen a depth and sheen like a Steinway piano.
A Pen of the Year instrument by Graf Von Faber-Castell, the oldest pen company in the world (dating to 1761 and 10th-generation family owned) is eye candy. Graf Von Faber-Castell appreciates precious materials, from petrified oak to various semi-precious stones to fossilized mammoth tooth and ebony wood. They create a pen once a year, the Pen of the Year, that embodies lost craftsmanship and uses these rare and precious materials. One year, the pen featured horsehair. The anthracite metal barrel of the current “Sparta” pen is decorated with a milled pattern and 42 uncut diamonds of 2.1 carats in seven rows of six diamonds each. The Pen of the Year Collection is like a natural history tour.
My fourth choice, coming soon, is the Wahl-Eversharp DECOBAND pen in special-edition, Bittner yellow. The DECOBAND pen was created based on the company’s iconic pen design from the 1920s. It features a superflex nib that’s trending as the best modern flex nib on the market.
JR: A nib is the thin, iconic, pointed piece of metal that draws ink from inside the pen and channels it through a small slit onto the writing surface.
If I were a budding pen aficionado without much money in my pocket what pen would you encourage me to purchase?
JR: Detlef doesn’t give an easy answer to this. He wants the age of the person in my mind, so we settle on a young 30s male.
For the person who has never used a fountain pen and is a novice, we will start with a Pilot Vanishing Point. It is the world’s only push-button (clicker), retractable fountain pen. Capless, it is the only fountain pen that is guaranteed never to leak. Our young customer can put it in his shirt, jacket or backpack. This easy, functional and ready-to-use-at-any-time instrument will convert him into a fountain pen user. It’s the single bestselling pen in the store and the best-kept secret in the world of writing.
JR: This is the pen Robert sold J. Detlef tells me Bittner’s nibmeister can customize the Pilot Vanishing Point nib to a Bittner broad italic. He says you get a thick line on the downstroke and a thin line on the horizontal stroke.
If the former is the coolest pen, then the hottest pen is going to be the Visconti (a company from Florence, Italy) Homo Sapiens, made from volcanic rock in Italy on the island of Sicily. Visconti takes the lava rock from the Mount Etna volcano, grinds it into a powder and mixes/reinforces it with a new-age resin. It becomes a space-age material that’s flame- and heat-resistant, unbreakable and scratchproof, and it absorbs moisture from the hand. With Visconti, I designed the Magma Homo Sapiens with the red trim and it is available as a pumice-style ballpoint, rollerball and fountain pen.
This is a cult pen that checks all the boxes and won’t wear out. Any young person or professional will love it.
Is the pen and paper industry recession-proof?
JR: For context, Bittner sells across an immense price spectrum, from under $200 all the way up to $200K for a limited-edition fountain pen.
In my opinion, yes, pen and paper do withstand the times. The quest for the fine writing instrument will never end. I believe we’re at the start of the third golden age of fountain pens. The first golden age was in the ’20s and ’30s. The second golden age was in the ’90s up to the recession of 2007-2008; during that time we saw the advance of and preoccupation with the Smartphone. Today, the technology pendulum has swung as far as it can and over the past three years there has been a remarkable and noticeable renaissance of young and old alike interested in sketching, drawing, journaling and calligraphy. Bittner is absolutely seeing a resurgence.
We’re just south of Silicon Valley. Computer nerds and geeks love writing with a fountain pen. It’s yin and yang…super modern and ancient art. Many novel writers, technical writers and software code writers tender their first draft and ideas by longhand on paper…and then transfer that to computer. This allows a different flow of ideas. Writing by computer is like skipping a stone over a lake…it skips, skips, skips. With longhand, the stone sinks there, which is to say writing by longhand connects us to a different, much deeper level.
Writing by longhand is used as a therapeutic tool to bring out inner and artistic thoughts. It’s used by neuroscientists as therapy for stroke victims or people with neurological problems. And it’s shown to improve memory. In a Harvard study with two control groups of students, one took notes on a computer. The other group took notes of a lecture by longhand. The memory retention of the group that took notes by hand was 80 percent higher. The process of writing something by longhand imprints it on your brain in a completely different, more permanent and accessible way.
Your passion for writing…does that mean penmanship? Writing stories? Writing in journals? Writing letters and handwritten notes?
As with our tagline, I mean it in an all-embracing and all-inclusive kind of way. Every day in the store we hear, This is such a great journal. Let me get it. The customer comes back a year later and we ask if they have used it. No. My handwriting is not good enough. My thoughts are not good enough. We say, Just write. Just enjoy the process.
Once you start writing it will lead you to more attention to your handwriting. Just using a fountain pen improves the legibility of your handwriting. A fountain pen and ink change handwriting as you become more artistic and expressionistic…you can’t help yourself as you try swirls and wigglies and decorative lines and fleurons.
A fountain pen is a gateway drug. It should come with a caution to readers: Might be habit forming! You will eventually get a second and third and fourth. Pens express moods differently. They write different. I choose a pen depending on what I want to do.
Hence your tagline, The Pleasure of Writing.
Yes. I’m reminded that when our daughter Dominique was in the 3rdor 4thgrade we gave her classmates starter fountain pens. One of those students told me she wrote her college application letter with it to great success. I’ve had schoolboys tell me, Mr. Bittner, you told me to write a letter to the girl I like telling her why I like her. It worked!
If a young person today goes through the effort to hand write a note or cover letter and send it with a college application…out of 1000 applications, it will go on to the special pile.
Your father Hans instilled in you a natural love for writing?
Hans had the most beautiful handwriting. I always admired his handwriting. When there was a big occasion—a birthday or anniversary for friends or colleagues—he would write a poem on beautiful handmade paper and frame it as his gift. Everyone would wait for Hans to give his speech and poem. It became a tradition.
When I grew up, the Montblanc 149 was the iconic fountain pen. I received my first Montblanc at 14. It was 83 Deutsche Mark then. Now it’s a $700 pen. That’s how my love of pens developed. I took alphabets and letters and copied them to develop my writing style.
Hans loved to write and take notes. I write a lot.
Will you share an example?
I started writing a letter to my daughter Dominique once a month a few years ago. You can go so much deeper with a letter and share so many different thoughts. A letter has permanence and when you write you’re writing for posterity. Think how nice it will be to have a letter from your grandmother or parents after they pass. Everything else…a text or phone call, is so fleeting.
Now, while you’re sheltering at home, turn off the news and TV, get a piece of paper and pen and write the sons and daughters of your family friends a letter.
JR: I have lifetime friends who have sent notes to our kids to mark special occasions. These remembrances have meant the world to them.
What’s your favorite writing paper?
The Almafi Armatruda stationery on our site with its beautiful drawing. The paper is made in the exact way it’s been made for 800 years in one of Europe’s oldest paper mills dating back to the 14th century. The Naples, Italy, mill makes it from the finest cotton. It has great texture and holds ink.
You’re a champion for penmanship.
JR: Detlef says he believes strongly that handwriting education must be reintroduced as part of the school experience. He calls it a lost art form among children and refers me to several news stories that point to states like Alabama, Louisiana, Arkansas, Virginia, California, Florida and North Carolina that now have laws to bring it back. According to a late 2019 CNN article cursive handwriting has fallen out of favor in the digital age, even getting dropped from Common Core standards in 2010.
We’re seeing a revival of handwriting. It’s concerning that over a 10-year period kids graduated school without being able to read or write cursive. We had four or five people huddled around the shop discussing this…and…telling me this is straight from the horse’s mouth…a professor said, In the big auditorium writing up the class notes to the freshman class, one of the students said, “I can’t read cursive.” I said, “Better learn quick. I’m not going to change my handwriting.”
Many studies show handwriting is important to brain development.
JR: Detlef is correct. I found many, including these:
You believe eroding skills in penmanship and writing will hurt the business leader in the next few decades? Will you elaborate?
Many business people come through the store. High-level people. CEOs. We consider them our friends and build close relationships with them. And top leaders come through here playing golf, vacationing and visiting. These are people you normally can’t get to…from Fortune 500 companies. I always tell them that a handwritten thank-you note is the most direct and effective and inexpensive marketing tool anyone and any business has. In contact with a customer after the meeting sit down to write a handwritten note. You don’t have to say much. Thank you so much. It was great meeting you. Here’s my card. Please call me if I can do anything for you.
Two things are true: a customer must need a service for a sale to occur, and the timing has to be right. Perhaps the customer appreciates you, your product and what you do, but the timing is wrong. If the timing occurs in six months or a year from now, your card reaffirms who you are. Think…when you make the effort to go through your process to write one client a day, five days a week, you have 250 possibilities. That will make you successful. I am a big, firm believer in this for companies, as it is so neglected and so powerful.
If Dominique one day has children, and you become a grandfather, what values will you instill in them?
I know for sure I will keep a journal for them and share my thoughts. I actually read something which I have not yet done myself…just with everything else, you know…running our lives and our businesses. I thought this was the coolest thing…a thanksgiving journal. A journal that you write for someone you love and who is important to you. You just write a little line or two lines or a paragraph…something you admire about that person…every day of the year and give it to them on Thanksgiving.
That’s beautiful. Parting thoughts?
Pick up a pen and paper, write and draw and be more creative. Sit down and write your mom and dad a letter and tell them how much they mean to you.