A Greek tri­umph

Gulf Business - - CONTENTS - VARUN GOD­INHO

Gulf Busi­ness trav­elled to Messinia in Greece to wit­ness the un­veil­ing of Montblanc’s epic new writ­ing in­stru­ment, the Homer Writ­ers Edi­tion, which pays trib­ute to one of lit­er­a­ture’s most pro­lific and mys­te­ri­ous fig­ures

Gulf Busi­ness trav­elled to Messinia in Greece to wit­ness the un­veil­ing of Montblanc’s epic new writ­ing in­stru­ment, the Homer Writ­ers Edi­tion, which pays trib­ute to one of lit­er­a­ture’s most pro­lific and mys­te­ri­ous fig­ures

WHEN I MEET Franck Juhel, pres­i­dent of Montblanc for the Mid­dle East, Africa and In­dia, on the sec­ond floor of the $12,000-a-night Villa Koroni at the Costa Navarino re­sort in Greece’s south­ern Messinia re­gion, he doesn’t look one bit rushed. This is a man who, tasked with over­see­ing 33 mar­kets, knows much more than many of us ever will of multi-task­ing and time man­age­ment. He’s just made his way up­stairs from a se­ries of back-toback pri­vate meet­ings that morn­ing with col­lec­tors from Dubai, Jo­han­nes­burg, Riyadh, Chen­nai and Kuwait City, all of whom are there at the in­vi­ta­tion of Montblanc to cel­e­brate the launch of the Homer Writ­ers Edi­tion.

These are Montblanc’s most pro­lific fans – some third-gen­er­a­tion col­lec­tors, oth­ers newly-minted col­lec­tors who have al­ready amassed col­lec­tions worth a small for­tune.

The Writ­ers Edi­tion, which is now in its 27th year, is an ul­tra col­lectable line. Each year, Montblanc pays trib­ute to writ­ers from Vir­ginia Woolf and Franz Kafka to Wil­liam Shake­speare and Leo Tol­stoy. This year’s pen pays trib­ute to Greek lit­er­a­ture leg­end Homer. The matte black ver­sion of the Homage to Homer, which starts at Dhs3,065 ($834) is avail­able as a foun­tain pen, roller­ball and ball­point and has a stylised ver­sion of the sil­hou­ette of a Tro­jan horse on its black resin body, while the nib has an en­grav­ing of Odysseus’ hel­met. There are cham­pagne gold trim­mings on the body too and the clip is a nod to Achilles’ spear.

A sec­ond vari­a­tion is the Homage to Homer Lim­ited Edi­tion 1581, priced at Dhs16,200 ($,4,410), in which the black has been re­placed by Greek co­ral paired with cham­pagne gold trim­mings. The sil­hou­ette of the Tro­jan horse is in gold and there are en­grav­ings of Achilles’ ar­mour on its body and the Tro­jan horse on its nib. The clip re­sem­bles Achilles’ spear and there are two sails on the cap, one rep­re­sent­ing Odysseus on his way to war and the other his son, who went search­ing for his fa­ther.

Iron­i­cally, the pre­vi­ous day the me­dia and some of the col­lec­tors were taken to the Palace of Nestor, a 20-minute drive from Costa Navarino, which dates back to around 1300BC and was dis­cov­ered in 1939. Homer’s Odyssey re­veals that it is the Palace of Nestor where Odysseus’ son Telemachus first came call­ing when he set out to search for his fa­ther seven years af­ter the Tro­jan war ended.

When it comes to choos­ing the spe­cific num­ber at­trib­uted to a lim­ited edi­tion, there’s a method be­hind each one. For ex­am­ple, the Shake­speare edi­tion was lim­ited to 1531 pieces be­cause that was the year when the Queen gave her seal of ap­proval to Romeo and Juliet. Why 1581 for the Homer col­lec­tion? “This one is num­bered to 1,581 pieces, which is the year of the first trans­la­tion of the Odyssey to English. Fun fact: It wasn’t trans­lated from Greek to English, but

from French to English. Only years later, a di­rect trans­la­tion from Greek to English was made,” ex­plains Juhel, who has just com­pleted read­ing the en­tire 800-odd pages of Odyssey and Iliad.

There are two ma­jor de­par­tures in the Homer pen that dif­fer­en­ti­ates it from ev­ery other Writ­ers Edi­tion in­stru­ment be­fore it. “It’s the first time we’ve used the big­gest nib from our en­tire col­lec­tion, the 149, in a Writ­ers Edi­tion pen. This was be­cause of a re­quest from our col­lec­tors to do so. Also, it is the first Writ­ers Edi­tion where we don’t have an en­grav­ing of the sig­na­ture of the writer as no one has con­clu­sively es­tab­lished the iden­tity of Homer.” Montblanc was founded back in 1906 at a time roughly co­in­cid­ing with the birth of the mod­ern foun­tain pen it­self. In the more than 110 years of its ex­is­tence, the com­pany has branched out smartly into other core cat­e­gories like watches, leather goods and ac­ces­sories. But the writ­ing in­stru­ments, which are man­u­fac­tured in Ham­burg, re­main the brand’s halo prod­uct. In­ter­est­ingly, it is an all-women team, some of whom are third-gen­er­a­tion em­ploy­ees within the de­part­ment that hand grinds the nibs for ev­ery Montblanc pen. They test it by mak­ing art­ful num­ber eights on sheets of pa­per, lis­ten­ing to the ‘swish and the swoosh’ mak­ing sure it’s up to scratch.

Apart from the Meis­ter­stück (of which the model 149 re­mains an iconic one), there are four im­por­tant col­lec­tions on the radars of Montblanc col­lec­tors. The first is the Great Char­ac­ters col­lec­tion, which over 25 years since its in­tro­duc­tion has had trib­ute pieces to one great char­ac­ter each year. A col­lec­tor from Dubai that I meet the pre­vi­ous day tells me of his Ma­hatma Gandhi pen, of which the saf­fron ink is as ex­pen­sive as the pen it­self.

Then there is the more re­cent Her­itage col­lec­tion, which is an in­ward-look­ing line pay­ing trib­ute to Montblanc’s own loaded his­tory of pens. For ex­am­ple, the 1914 col­lec­tion un­der the Her­itage um­brella launched four years ago as a take on Montblanc’s pens from that year, which fea­tured soft re­tractable nibs (in the early 20th cen­tury, the com­pany’s fa­mous mar­ket­ing cam­paign had a pic­ture of a per­son wear­ing a white coat with a foun­tain pen in his front pocket claim­ing that it wouldn’t leak).

The Pa­tron of Arts line is for sea­soned col­lec­tors, usu­ally lim­ited to 4810 (the height in me­tres of the Montblanc peak in Europe) or 888 (a lucky num­ber in some Asian cul­tures). This year’s launch for the col­lec­tion was the Lud­wig II model that cel­e­brated the Swan King.

The fourth core col­lec­tion is the Writ­ers Edi­tion, which once courted mi­nor con­tro­versy. In 1993, Montblanc launched the Agatha Christie edi­tion with the clip fea­tur­ing a snake – an omi­nous sym­bol among the Chi­nese. Montblanc promptly pulled that edi­tion out and re-launched another Agatha Christie model, this one fea­tur­ing a dag­ger in place of the snake.

Franck, one of five re­gional pres­i­dents for Montblanc, fre­quently meets the CEO, the com­pany’s in-house his­to­rian and the head of the ar­ti­san work­shop that tem­pers ex­pec­ta­tions from am­bi­tious ideas to work­able so­lu­tions. “Be­tween the idea and the prod­uct that’s ready to go to mar­ket you’re talk­ing of be­tween four-five years. Each prod­uct idea is pre­sented to us by the in-house his­to­rian and dur­ing each meet­ing we talk about all our lim­ited edi­tions, which are in dif­fer­ent stages of pro­duc­tion.”

While there are sev­eral other com­peti­tors in the writ­ing in­stru­ments space like Italy’s Vis­conti, France’s ST Dupont and Ja­pan’s Namiki, Montblanc is the heavy­weight cham­pion ac­count­ing for roughly 75 per cent of the to­tal mar­ket share. “We keep telling our­selves and our teams that although we are the lead­ers in the lux­ury high-end writ­ing in­stru­ment mar­ket both world­wide and the Mid­dle East, don’t act like a leader but act like we’re at No. 2 or No.3 po­si­tion so that we con­tin­u­ously im­prove.” Here, in the Mid­dle East,

Montblanc has made

The clip re­sem­bles Achilles’ spear and there are two sails on the cap, one rep­re­sent­ing Odysseus on his way to war and the other his son who went search­ing for his fa­ther. Montblanc Writ­ers Edi­tion, Homage to Homer Lim­ited Edi­tion 1581

“Most of the time, col­lec­tors know more than we do. When I meet a col­lec­tor, I will learn some­thing about Montblanc from him be­cause that per­son has been a col­lec­tor for the last 30 years.”

sig­nif­i­cant strides. “The big­gest mar­ket for Montblanc in the GCC is the UAE, fol­lowed by Saudi Ara­bia. Kuwait, for ex­am­ple, will not reach in terms of sales what the UAE is to­day or what Saudi Ara­bia will be to­mor­row. How­ever, what we have seen in the past cou­ple of years is that the knowl­edge and the col­lec­tor base of Kuwait has in­creased sig­nif­i­cantly.”

It is that growth in the re­gion that has re­sulted in the re­lease of in­stru­ments like the ar­ti­sanal 65-piece only Ibn Sīnā (Avi­cenna) ear­lier this year, which re­port­edly com­mands just shy of $50,000 in the sec­ond-hand mar­ket.

“The big­gest share of our prod­ucts in the Mid­dle East re­mains the writ­ing in­stru­ments fol­lowed by leather goods and watches, with watches grow­ing by dou­ble dig­its ev­ery year.”

The fo­cus on the Mid­dle East re­gion re­sulted in the open­ing of the ‘Neo-con­cept’ Montblanc store at the Dubai Mall last year – one of only 15 such stores glob­ally at the time. There’s a col­lec­tor’s cor­ner at the Dubai Mall store where you can get up close with highly lim­ited-edi­tion pieces that stay there for a short pe­riod be­fore cir­cling out to other bou­tiques glob­ally.

There’s also a nib ser­vice where cus­tomers use a spe­cial writ­ing ma­chine that al­lows Montblanc to un­der­stand their hand­writ­ing pat­tern and rec­om­mend a nib for the spe­cific style of writ­ing. You can or­der a be­spoke nib and if money is no bar, as is of­ten the case with the full-blooded col­lec­tors, you can opt for an all-out be­spoke writ­ing in­stru­ment too, which can take up to 18 months to craft at the Cre­ation Privée de­part­ment in Ham­burg. Dur­ing this process, clients can check-in on the progress via video calls with the ar­ti­san work­ing on their unique piece.

Col­lec­tors, as Juhel ex­plains, col­lect pri­mar­ily out of a pas­sion to be­gin with but are of­ten mind­ful of the fi­nan­cial value of their col­lec­tion as well. “We have a col­lec­tor here [at the villa in Greece] who buys two of each. One to use and the other to keep in the safe," says Juhel.

When it comes to these writ­ing in­stru­ments ex­chang­ing hands be­tween col­lec­tors, most pre­fer recog­nised auc­tion houses rather than dodgy on­line chan­nels. “Montblanc works with auc­tion houses. We don’t re­store for the auc­tion houses be­cause the auc­tion houses don’t own the prod­ucts – they are only ser­vice providers. We re­store in­stru­ments di­rectly for a client. That client could be from the auc­tion house, but the auc­tion house it­self is not our client. We also help with nec­es­sary cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and sup­ply the story be­hind the lim­ited edi­tions go­ing on auc­tion,” says Juhel.

With mil­lions of dol­lars worth of writ­ing in­stru­ments cir­cu­lat­ing in pri­vate hands, Montblanc has a ro­bust mech­a­nism to make sure that the coun­ter­feit in­dus­try is kept un­der check.

“Our mai­son falls un­der the Richemont Group, which has le­gal teams in Geneva, Lon­don and Asia and takes ac­tion against coun­ter­feit­ers. This isn’t some­thing that will dis­ap­pear to­mor­row, but we have to fight it as much as we can ev­ery day.”

With the in­ter­view draw­ing to a close, I can hear another set of an­i­mated col­lec­tors mak­ing their way into the liv­ing room wait­ing for Juhel to join them. There are pro­to­types of up­com­ing mod­els and other con­cepts that are still just pic­tures on his smart­phone.

“We want our col­lec­tors to know first hand what is com­ing be­fore any­one else, and I wouldn’t feel com­fort­able if one of them learns about our next prod­uct on Face­book or In­sta­gram,” he says.

By let­ting these col­lec­tors in on closely guarded projects, Juhel is not only whet­ting their in­ter­est, but also gaug­ing feed­back that he will chan­nel back to Ham­burg.

“Most of the time, col­lec­tors know more than we do. When I meet a col­lec­tor, I will learn some­thing about Montblanc from him be­cause that per­son has been a col­lec­tor for the last 30 years.”

Franck Juhel, pres­i­dent of Montblanc for the Mid­dle East, Africa and In­dia

Col­lec­tors from Dubai, Jo­han­nes­burg, Riyadh, Kuwait City and Chen­nai joined Montblanc in Greece

Montblanc Writ­ers Edi­tion, Homage To Homer

Costa Navarino re­sort in Greece’s south­ern Messinia re­gion

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