Crafted to perfection: the art of bespoke writing instruments

Bespoke fountain pens featuring exceptional miniature artworks, produced from a Western Cape studio, are being snapped up by collectors worldwide.

By Debbie Hathway

Most people would not put “slow food” and the art of writing in the same sentence, but then they’re not Di Möhr, who founded Stanford Pen Studio with her husband Dave during the lockdown.

Di and Dave Möhr – Founders of Stanford Pen Studio

The couple, who met while doing their MBAs, had always hankered for a life that allowed them to express their creative spirits. They found it by uncovering a demand for exquisitely handcrafted fountain pens and deciding to produce them in Stanford, an artsy village in the Overberg region of the Western Cape. “We started the business because there was demand but we have stayed in it because the fountain pen community is made up of some of the loveliest people one could hope to meet. They are caring and supportive and creative. And, similarly to the slow food movement, they appreciate slowing down and using analogue tools such as fountain pens and journals,” says Di.

International interest surged when they collaborated with South African artists such as Val Myburgh, who hand-painted original artworks onto the pens. “For example, a recent fountain pen by botanical artist Lisa Strachan decorated with a Sweet Thorn illustration sold to a client in the Philippines in less than 15 minutes of going live on Instagram. Other clients complained that they did not see it in time as they live in different time zones or they would have bought it immediately,” she says.

Clients hail from as far afield as the US, Germany, the Canary Islands, Hawaii, South Korea, Canada and Switzerland. Fountain pen aficionados who have heard about these finds in their respective forums have learned to watch the Stanford Pen Studio’s Instagram feed for news of the latest releases.

The couple combines original art, innovative design, and precision engineering to create fine writing instruments on a par with the best in the world. It’s a painstaking process beginning with Di’s creation of custom resin mixes in her Pen Studio. These must be degassed in a vacuum chamber before being placed in a pressure pot (at twice the pressure of a car tyre) for 24 hours and cured in an oven for another 12 hours. Dave then shapes the pen on his wood lathe before sending the pen parts to the artists to create their masterpieces. Once returned to Stanford Pen Studio, they are re-resined, degassed and cured again before Dave completes the final shaping and polishing.

The nibs arrive “scratchy” and need careful tuning by Dave with a microscope and specialised equipment, including different grades of diamond-embedded lapping paper and diamond paste. This is a critical part of the process that ensures each stroke of the pen glides across the paper.

The sterling silver rings are made by a local jeweller, the clips and medallions for their logo are produced by a talented metalworker in Pakistan, and the nibs and ink feeds are sourced directly from the manufacturer in Germany. An ultrasonic bath cleans the pen for the last time before being packaged and dispatched with a handwritten note.

The starting price is a steal at R4 000, averaging around R8 000. Some sell for as much as R20 000 for a commissioned artwork that incorporates engraved centre bands and clips, perhaps inlaid with precious metals, and 18kt gold nibs.

It takes an exceptional artist to paint fountain pens. Di explains that in addition to being artistically brilliant, they must also be able to paint in miniature and have perspective superpowers as their “canvas” is not only round along one axis but curved along its length.

Among the seven artists currently involved, two are botanical artists whose work is scientifically accurate and exquisite. Another is a former illustrator of medical textbooks, so her work is exact, even when painting steampunk skulls or images from ‘Alice in Wonderland’. There is a former draftsperson in the mix whose Zendoodles are so detailed they are best admired through a loupe, and a young man from the Eastern Cape who loves incorporating traditional designs into his eye-catching pieces. “The common thread is that our artists are all playful and joyful. We work hard to protect them from pressure to become too commercial, instead allowing them the freedom to paint what gives them pleasure. And it shows in their work!” says Di.

Stanford Pen Studio plans to stay small and focused on individually handcrafted pieces, catering to a very exclusive clientele.

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