Nuremberg – a picturesque city in the heart of Bavaria, Germany. Thanks to its position on the important trade routes between Italy and Northern Europe, Nuremberg’s craftsmen had a good view of the developments happening all over Europe for hundreds of years. One of these were the graphite sticks originating from England’s Lake District and rapidly becoming a popular marking tool, consisting of slabs of mined graphite wrapped in cloth, leather, string or wood. Nuremberg businesses couldn’t access raw graphite but eventually developed pencil lead made from powdered graphite and a major industry was established. The Nuremberg pencil-making legacy continues to this day with the stationery giants Faber-Castell, Staedtler and Schwan-Stabilo based in and around the city.
Ink-based writing instruments evolved alongside the pencil, primarily refining the dip pen, but exploded in the 20th century with the development of fountain pens, ballpoints and fibre-tip pens. The Kaweco company was one of those riding the boom in writing instruments in the first half of the century. Born in Heidelberg in 1883, as Heidelberger Federhalterfabrik, it started by producing a modest range of wooden dip pens. The Kaweco brand name, originally developed as a model name and coined after Koch, Weber & Company, the owners, was adopted as the company name in the early 1900’s. By the 1930’s over 600 staff were producing a huge array of fountain pens and pencils, including the popular Sport range of pocket pens. Sadly Kaweco didn’t prosper after a series of business mergers and by 1980 had closed down completely.
In 1950’s Nuremberg, a salesman for the Kurz pencil company, Horst Gutberlet, was fascinated by the wider world of writing instruments and his eye for detail, creative approach and business sense led him to found his own company in 1960. H & M Gutberlet GmbH quickly became an essential part of the global writing instrument sector, designing and producing components for many of the best-known brands in writing. As key players in the writing instrument world, Horst Gutberlet and his son Michael naturally developed a passion for collecting pens, pencils and writing instrument ephemera. They were particularly drawn to the Kaweco brand and were fascinated by the rich variety of designs and innovations they found. Michael Gutberlet had already inherited his father’s passion for the pen business, and was attending trade shows from an early age. As a producer of components, their name wasn’t on any actual finished products, but they had ambitions for their own range of complete pens. In 1994 the planets aligned and the Kaweco brand name became available. Horst and Michael snapped it up and dreamed of reviving this once-great brand with the skills and knowledge they had acquired.
As with most big dreams the realisation took many years of dedicated work. Starting with a revival of the Sport pocket fountain pen, the Kaweco brand was initially distributed by Diplomat. Over the years, the model line-up has steadily expanded and Kaweco have created their own international network of distributors. Thanks to these efforts the Kaweco brand has taken off during the last few years, and is now firmly re-established as a premier writing instrument brand.
Cult Pens were recently invited to Nuremberg to see the Kaweco operation and talk pens with Michael Gutberlet.
First up was a guided tour of the Kaweco offices. All Kaweco manufacturing is outsourced to industry partners with whom H & M Gutberlet have been working for many years. At Kaweco’s office in Max-Brod-Strasse products are assembled, quality-checked and packaged for onward shipment to their network of distributors. It’s a busy but calm place, with thousands of components in stock, and hundreds of shipments incoming and outgoing. Side rooms are filled with development tools, QC testing machines and old displays. Michael recently purchased some of the contents of a defunct steel machining factory, which is being turned into Kaweco’s display for the forthcoming PaperWorld trade exhibition in Frankfurt. Michael works on this in the evenings, with his son Sebastian and daughter Christiane, who have followed him into the family business. One of Michael’s many strengths is his limitless capacity for working on multiple projects at all hours. Cult Pens was exhausted just hearing about it, let alone doing it. As the day progressed we got the feeling that Michael has done 6 impossible things before Cult Pens has even thought about breakfast.
We popped our heads into H & M Gutberlet’s cosmetics business. It’s a curious fact that many pencil brands got into cosmetics when beauty brands needed pencils as a vehicle for eyeliner, and later because some specialist cosmetics products have production techniques and components in common with pens. H & M Gutberlet manufactures on behalf of many major beauty brands. It was fascinating to see an eyeliner pen being manufactured in almost exactly the same way as an artist's brush pen.
Next up was a viewing of Michael’s enormous collection of historic Kaweco items. A mind-boggling collection of early ‘safety’ fountain pens; propelling pencils; 4-way multi-colour mechanical pencils; ornately carved gold bodied pens; pristine 70’s ballpens in their original boxes; and drawers full of pouches, gift boxes advertising cards and posters. Michael points out early ridged grip zones and multi-function mechanical pencils with 4 colours, proving that many ‘recent’ developments are not as recent as you might think.
Each new product is carefully designed, drawing inspiration from Kaweco’s heritage, but incorporating modern manufacturing techniques. Prototypes are produced, discussed, tested and refined over and over. It’s a time-consuming and expensive process but it pays off in the quality and reliability of the end product. Michael takes a Dia 2 ballpen from his jacket pocket and drops it tip-first through a home-made drop tester – a 1 metre plummet onto a metal surface. He clicks the pen open – no problems. A nearby refill tester draws endless circles on a slowly moving paper roll to measure ink life. The ballpoint and roller refills come from the Swiss Starminen brand and will have already been exhaustively tested there, but Michael wants to make doubly sure that they’re meeting his standards.
Discussion turns to forthcoming releases. The classic Sport range is constantly being extended, with new colours on the horizon for the plastic models, and a new heavy brass version due soon. We handle the brass prototype and admire the weight – what’s not to like about a fountain pen made from a hefty chunk of machined brass? The Liliput mini pen is another sales hit, and new versions are constantly under review. A titanium model? Maybe…
Both black and solid gold nibs are now available as upgrades for all pens except the plastic Sport models – they’ll be available shortly, or even by the time you read this, here at Cult Pens. As with the calligraphy nibs recently introduced, customer demand quickly feeds back into product developments. New ink colours are under discussion and the pen refill range has been broadened in both senses – with the addition of big fat 1.4mm options. We also admire the recent Elegance range and make a note to add that to our offering – it’s a pleasing blend of matt black octagonal aluminium barrels and lustrous chromed caps.
Time to go back for a look at Nuremberg with the help of Michael’s local eye. First a visit to city-centre men’s lifestyle store Bube und König where Kaweco pens and pencils fit naturally in amongst an array of desirable and expensive jeans, hats and jackets. The owner is very pleased with sales of Kaweco. A stroll through the atmospheric Christkindlesmarkt; up the hill to the old castle walls; and finally into the cosy warmth of Bratwursthäusle. Here we sample Nuremberg’s most famous product – which despite the ongoing pencil manufacturing all around is actually Nürnberger Bratwurst – Nuremberg sausages!
(Image of Christkindlesmarkt from above by Roland Berger)
Now we've had the tour, why not browse the Kaweco range - there are some beautiful pens there!
12 January 2015