The Art of a Pen

It seems such a simple thing, a pen. We click the top or turn the barrel or take off the cap and write, an act so fundamental that, even in this age of keyboards, it’s deeply intuitive. The simplicity and reliability of the pen allows us to focus on what we’re thinking or writing, rather than on the technology we’re using. That’s one of the pen’s profound advantages: We can take it for granted.

But sometimes, with some pens, it’s worth pausing for a moment to look more closely.

Consider the new 21st Century fountain pen from Cross. It is indisputably an elegant writing instrument. Its sleek, streamlined form manifests an economy of design; there is nothing here that shouldn’t be. Its gold color is striking. In fact, this is the first-ever pen made of 21-karat solid gold. Turn it, and you’ll see a small, 1/10th of a karat diamond embedded in the iconic Cross cap. Pick it up and you’ll notice the Cross 21st Century has heft, but it’s not heavy. It seems to balance at just the right point, and the length feels exactly right.

The Cross 21st Century costs $10,000, and if you’re not a collector, this fact might startle you. Ten thousand dollars for a pen? How could that be? The answer lies in the fact that simplicity, in form and in function, is not as easy as it looks. And, too, that the buyer of this pen is purchasing something rare—Cross is only making 170 of them—and filled with history. Because, while most know the brand, the story of this American company is less well known. That’s too bad—it’s a terrific story.

Cross dates its founding to 1846, when there was a boom in writing due to the industrial revolution. New businesses powered by industry required paperwork. Most writing was done by pencil, as fountain pens were prone to leaks, clogs, blots and various other malfunctions.

Cross founder Alonzo T. Cross was the son of Richard Cross, an immigrant jeweler from Birmingham, England, who came to Providence, R.I., in the 1830s. Providence was then the U.S. jewelry-making capital, thanks to the presence of metal-plating mills in the area. Boosted by the gold rush of 1849, Richard made fountain pens, mechanical pencils and decorative pencil cases. Alonzo worked with his father, then launched the A.T. Cross Company, eventually known as Cross. His business did well, but in 1915 an aging Cross sold the business to a partner, Walter Boss, whose sons, Ellery and Russ, would be the company’s majority shareholders for decades.

The sleek, streamlined form manifests an economy of design.

During Ellery and Russ’ cotenure, Cross introduced the pen for which it is most famous, the Classic Century. It came from a pencil that Ellery introduced in 1935 called the Signet. Available in silver or gold, the Signet had clean lines and what became known as a frustoconical top, essentially a cone whose tip has been shortened parallel to its base. Eleven years later, the Signet would evolve into the Classic Century. The clip now had a spade-shaped terminus; a series of vertical lines in the finish subtly indicated whether it was a pen or pencil; and it operated with a propel-repel mechanism—users easily turned the top to “propel” the pen or pencil tip. The pen also included that soon-to-be iconic frustoconical top. The Classic Century looked simple and timeless but incorporated 100 years of technological innovation. And, like all Cross pens, it’s backed with a lifetime guarantee. This was American luxury—beautiful form, flawless function—and, like a Frank Lloyd Wright home or an Eames chair, it has become an icon of American design.

Now, the oldest maker of writing instruments in the world—and still based in Providence—Cross has introduced the 21st Century to commemorate its past and remind consumers that it crafts stunning, ambitious writing instruments. Visually, it references the Classic Century, but technologically, the 21st Century pushes into the future. The mechanism that holds the cap in place, for example, is tested on machines that put the cap on and off, on and off, and is expected to last for a million uses.

If you own this pen, you can take for granted that it will work. But the pleasure of owning such a marvel of design, having it at hand whenever needed? That will never fade.

Richard Bradley is chief content officer at Worth. This is part one of a four-part series.



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