Manuscript - the word alone conjures up one of two things: either a thick pile of A4 sheets with double-spaced type representing a hopeful author's literary debut; or - if you're more of a romantic bent - a scroll-like piece of parchment covered with curly dip-penned letters and the odd rogue blob of ink.
For Cult Pens, Manuscript means calligraphy: lettering pens, nibs and inks competitively-priced and designed to bring calligraphy to the masses, if you will. So when they told us - quite a while back - that they were looking at producing a luxury fountain pen, we were intrigued. And when we actually received them, we thought it would be a good idea to find out why Manuscript has decided to go down this route.
Cue Charlie Stockbridge, Managing Director of Manuscript, who was meant to visit us in the company of Crumble, his Labrador, but in the event turned up alone. Herbie was quite disappointed, and so were we, but on being told that Crumble didn't travel particularly well in a car, we decided it was probably for the best.
So, having plied Charlie with coffee (but no biscuits. No dog, no biscuits…) we asked the Big Question: why a luxury fountain pen?
Quite simply, a case of a gap in the market, says Charlie. In recent years, development of luxury British fountain pens has dwindled, whilst evidence suggests that demand is very much still there. Combining Manuscript's modern brand with its 150 year history ensured they were well-placed to capitalise within this new sector. Despite Manuscript being one of the remaining UK nib manufacturers, the ML1856 nibs are in fact German, as they specifically offered the size required to bring necessary gravitas to the product. The nibs are available as handwriting iridium, 1.1mm or 1.5mm italic, and the barrels are finest Italian resin, but the pens are manufactured here in the UK from Manuscript's original in-house designs. Solid blocks of resin are turned on a CNC lathe and hand-polished, down on the south coast, so each is very subtly unique. The seven designs available include the dark orange of Molten Lava, the deep blue of Northern Lights, the pearlescent sea green of Turquoise Ocean and the crystalline Purple Mist. The clip, though, well that's pretty special, as it was designed and made in-house at Manuscript in Shropshire. Along with nib manufacture, Manuscript also has decades of experience in designing pen clips, and this will help as they continue to develop the brand into the higher end of the pen market over the coming years.
So is Charlie a Fountain Pen Man - a bit like our own Michael? Well, not really. Although he certainly has ink running through his veins, and steel nibs making up his backbone (and we'll go into that in a minute), it wasn't pens he was involved in post-university, but sports management for IMG, and then accountancy (briefly!) with PwC before a few years in the city at wealth management firms Barings Bank and 7IM.
It wasn't until 2009 that Charlie joined the Manuscript gang as Commercial Director, but he's the fifth generation to be involved. While Manuscript in its present form was established in 1989 by his father, Nicolas Stockbridge, it was born out of their parent company, D Leonardt & Co. Leonardt's were founded in Birmingham in 1856 (hence the fountain pen's ML1856 label), and were penmakers to the kings of Italy, Spain and Portugal (hence Manuscript's crown logo). Charlie's mother Malissa is a descendant of Andrew Charles, who established the pen company T Hessin in 1870, which later became part of D Leonardt & Co. Together, Nicolas and Malissa successfully ran and grew the D Leonardt business from the 1970s, having respectively earned their trade in the accountancy and legal professions. They remain active members of the board as Chairman and Company Director, whilst Charlie took over from his father in 2016 as Managing Director.
When Charlie joined, Manuscript employed 31 people, and now there are 53, and turnover has more than doubled. He admits that he found it very strange commuting into work in the Shropshire village of Highley every day from his parents' house - probably trundling along leafy country lanes listening to birdsong - having spent a number of years living in London and doing battle with tubes and buses and suicidal cyclists. But he seems to have got used to it, because after a three year 'trial', he's still there eight years later, although these days his office is a little more comfortable than the unheated, six foot square room in which he was initially installed!
So from sports and wealth management to pens - quite a jump. Yes, Charlie agrees, but it helped the stigma of being the boss's son. Instead of appearing as a spotty-faced youth in a badly-fitting suit, Charlie appeared as somebody with a little more substance, with a background in something useful (finance). He just happened to be the boss's son, rather than being there because he was the boss's son. He was involved from the start in the growth of the brand; he enjoys working with something that he loves, and thrives on the challenge of exciting the market. The stationery industry attracts a wide range of different people, from intense types and lovers of detail, to arty people and eccentrics at trade fairs, and Charlie enjoys mixing with them all. I should mention here that he was the brains behind World Calligraphy Day at Birmingham's Pen Museum in August this year. Let's face it, stationery is a nice industry to be in - it's full of lovely people (take Cult Pens for example!)
What are his visions for the future? Has his experience with the ML1856 whetted his appetite for more? In a word - yes. Calligraphy is, and will always be, what Manuscript are known for, but Charlie is keen to continue his foray into Fountain Pen Land. The whole process - slow though it was, and Charlie admits to being an impatient sort - was an education in achieving the level of quality he wanted, and learning about what people expected for the price they were being asked to pay. It was a pleasure to welcome Charlie at Cult Pens, and it sounds as though exciting times are ahead.
25 October 2017