WITH the proliferation of e-mail and cyberchat, people are spending much less time dotting their "i"s and crossing their "t"s these days.
Ironically, those who make fountain pens say that's one of the reasons why their business is thriving. "People want to retain some expression of themselves, and a fountain pen helps them do that," says David Rogers, a vice president of A.T. Cross Company in Lincoln, R.I.
Spurred on by the high-tech wave as well as strong overseas markets in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, fountain pens are a growing segment of the estimated $5 billion global writing-instrument industry.
These status writing tools - with names like Great White Shark (LeBoeuf), and Dynamic Titan (elysee) - range in price from $50 to $350 and come in a variety of colors and finishes, including the blue gemstone lapis lazuli.
Despite slow retail sales in general, Christmas 1995 has been a "terrific" season for Sheaffer Inc.'s fountain-pen sales, says Anne Griffith, vice president for marketing at the Ft. Madison, Iowa, writing-tool manufacturer. Sheaffer's total fountain pen sales grew 20 to 30 percent in 1994, she says.
Boston-based Gillette Company whose writing-tool divisions include Parker, Waterman, and Paper Mate, saw its sales of premium pens (those $10 and up) rise by about 10 percent in the United States in 1994. Sales of its pricier fountain pens grew at a similar rate last year, the company reports.
About 50 to 60 percent of Gillette's premium-pen business comes from Christmas sales, says Bob Walker, the company's marketing manager for stationery products. By his estimates, Gillette probably picked up some market share this holiday season, in part thanks to the success of two recently released limited-edition fountain pens.
Widely used in America in the early part of the century, fountain pens were gradually sidelined after World War II, when the ballpoint pen was introduced.
Fountain pens became popular again in the 1980s when the affluent adopted them as a status symbol.
"What the yuppie era did for fountain pens was to really increase the level of visibility," says Gillette's Mr. Walker.
Today, hundreds of fountain pens are available, many of which have been introduced in the last two years.
"We can hardly keep up," says Nancy Olson, editor of Pen World International. The Houston-based magazine, which started in 1987 with a few thousand subscribers, now has a worldwide readership of about 30,000.
While many consumers still buy such pens for status, pen experts say all kinds of buyers are finding out how easy it is to use these pens, which require less pressure to write with than do ballpoints.
Penmakers are trying to reach this broadening audience by advertising in poplar magazines such as Parade and Vanity Fair, and by hiring people such as the writers of the hit TV show "Friends" to appear in their ads.
Even as they seek a broader market base, penmakers aren't forgetting that many key buyers are upper income. "We are selling a lot of pens which are ... pure jewelry at the end of the day," says Norbert Platt, head of Montblanc International, in Hamburg, Germany.
The firm's ads champion "the art of writing," but Mr. Platt says "we are not in the pen business." Instead, the company is in the business of "culture," he explains in an interview in Boston.
In 1995, Montblanc opened stand-alone boutiques in the US for its luxury wares, which now include a line of leather goods. The company's hand-crafted fountain pens range from $235 to $110,000 (for a diamond-encrusted one).
The price of a fountain pen often depends on its nib, or writing point. Pens with solid gold nibs are the most expensive and tend to last longer because their nibs are less susceptible to corrosion, experts say.
Limited-edition pens are also expensive - the two that Parker offers, for example, are $850 each - but generally sell out fast. Since 1992, these collectors' items have grown in number and popularity. Often their value doubles or triples in just a few years.