WHATEVER you do, don't call them pens. At more than $25 a piece, the fancy fountain, roller ball, and ballpoint pens that are a vital accessory for executives and a nostalgic novelty for students are properly called writing instruments. For the 10 companies in the United States that manufacture or import the prestigious pens, the past few years have seen lots of black ink.
Parker Pen, now a British-owned company with US headquarters in Janesville, Wis., saw 1989 sales increase 50 percent, primarily of its `Duofold' pens which sell for $300 and up. Group chief executive Jacques Margry expects sales to grow by 20 percent this year.
Pen sales of the German Montblanc writing instruments priced $99 and up have tripled in the past five years, says Craig Skinner, assistant product manager. While Montblanc's most popular pen is the Meisterst"uck, $99 to $300 line, its most rapid growth has been in a $325 to $650 line.
Contrariwise, Waterman pens, made in France and owned by Gillette Co., has seen the greatest unit sales increase in its lower priced, $50 to $100 range pens, says marketing manager William Wendell. The company makes the most expensive pen on the market: an $8,000 18K gold pen.
A.T. Cross has seen double digit growth the past two years in precious metal pens, such as gold-filled, for $45 to $120, says marketing manager Dan Lammon.
Companies won't divulge precise sales figures for their pen lines. There are, however, industry-wide production figures. In 1988, some 21 million domestic-made or imported fountain pens were made (including some disposables as well as imports under $5) worth $63 million to the manufacturers. That's way up from 1987, when 12 million units were made worth $41 million.
``This was an enormous jump in an industry as stable as this one,'' says Frank King, consultant to Writing Instruments Manufacturers Association. Production had been relatively flat since 1984 at around $39 million.
Who's buying these pens? Professionals, students, and corporations. Many are purchased as gifts. Stores say 60 percent of the customers are men.
Fountain pens are all the rage among Harvard students. ``Fountain pens are coming back to what they were 10 years ago,'' says Charles McDonald, pen buyer at the Harvard Cooperative Society in Cambridge, Mass. Sales of fountain pens priced $10 and above increased by 30 percent last year, he says.
One satisfied Montblanc user, Boston lawyer Paul Allison, says he used one expensive fountain pen at college and after for 12 years - until it went through a dry cleaner's machine.
``I like nice things,'' says Mr. Allison. ``And they write very well.'' Plus, they last longer. ``If I have an inexpensive pen, it doesn't stay with me more than a couple of days,'' he says.
To attract the new boom of customers, the pen companies are trying out new ways to spend their promotional dollars. To associate its product with high-brow culture, Parker Pen recently spent $295,000 to sponsor an 11-city US tour by the London Philharmonia Orchestra.
Montblanc sees its principle competitors as other luxury items, such as Rolls Royce cars and Rolex watches, says Mr. Skinner. Montblanc advertises in upscale magazines like Architectural Digest and Gourmet.
Waterman's publicity department is always on the lookout for exposure as props in movies and TV shows.
Pen companies boast about rich and famous patrons: Montblanc users include Dustin Hoffman, Diane Keaton, Garrison Keillor, Yasuhiro Nakasone, Margaret Thatcher, and Donald and Ivana Trump; Waterman fans include Fred Astaire, Diane Sawyer, and Nancy Reagan. And President Bush? ``He just uses whatever anyone hands him,'' says a press agent.
But some consumers will never be persuaded to buy a fine writing instrument. Says another lawyer, ``I lose enough pens that the thought of owning a $250 pen is absolutely mortifying.''