The Write Stuff

The pleasures of an exquisite pen go beyond placing ink on paper
art, fashion
Written By Mary Landers

Likely writing with a simple quill, the father of the Italian Renaissance once paid tribute to the instrument he held in his hand.

“There is no lighter burden, nor more agreeable, than a pen,” wrote the poet Petrarch in the 1300s. “Other pleasures fail us or wound us while they charm, but the pen we take up rejoicing and lay down with satisfaction.”

If the Italian scholar and poet felt so strongly about a feather plucked from a goose and dipped in ink, imagine his delight in a David Oscarson fountain pen. Oscarson’s eponymous company is only 15 years old, but already his creations are poised to become treasured heirlooms.

“David Oscarson makes the top, top pen,” says Irina Denisevich, director of Brinkhaus Jewellers in Vancouver, British Columbia. The appointment-only boutique is the exclusive dealer for these pens in Canada, carrying no other brand. “He is the Patek Philippe of the pen world.”

Beauty and Meaning

What sets Oscarson’s pens apart is the rare combination of hard enamel applied over intricate carvings. It’s an art that harks back to the lavish Faberge Imperial Easter eggs, once gifts to the Russian Imperial family. The Stockholm-raised Oscarson, who now lives in St. Louis, Missouri, begins his creative process with an idea, often one inspired by a historical figure or event. He mines his themes for symbolism that speaks to him and to the pen’s ultimate users.

What sets Oscarson’s pens apart is the rare combination of hard enamel applied over intricate carvings. It’s an art that harks back to the lavish Faberge Imperial Easter eggs, once gifts to the Russian Imperial family.

Thus on an Alfred Nobel pen, doves of peace—to signify his creation of the Nobel Peace Prize—fly over a dynamite explosion. His Magna Carta pen exhibits both the Union Jack and Old Glory. And a black water dragon pen is adorned with the Chinese symbol for water as well as a pearl of wisdom in the dragon’s mouth.

Once an idea gels, Oscarson sketches it. Then the sculpture begins with a solid rod of sterling silver bored to a uniform thickness. That pen barrel and cap form the canvas for the repetitive carved background patterns called guilloche.

Pattern of Perfection

Image Courtesy Of David Oscarson

The Harvest Collection showcases centuries-old carving techniques and expertise in hard enamel.

Like the Faberge craftsmen, Oscarson uses an engine-turning machine to engrave intricate patterns on the sterling silver surface of the pen. With the pen’s barrel or cap fixed vertically in the machine, Oscarson pulls a diamond cutting head down the length of the element, carving away a delicate thread of silver with a motion set by a pattern bar of his choosing. At the end of one line he rotates the element ever so slightly to make the next cut, repeating the process up to hundreds of times on each pen.

The results might include a basket weave, wave pattern, tree bark, seashells or a reed and pellet design that evokes falling rain. Often Oscarson carves more than one pattern on the same pen.

He rejects casting and stamping as inferior processes. “If you use a casting, it’s dead to the light, it’s soft,” Oscarson explains. “You could stamp it but that flattens toward the edges. That’s a dead giveaway it’s been die-struck.”

Along with his signature guilloche, many of his designs incorporate high relief as well. A good example is found on the “Wheat” design of his Harvest Collection pens, which required three separate levels of engraving; the wheat stalks, grass and kernel outlines remain in high relief while the basket weave background is interrupted by a third dimension of delicate lines of hair.

Smooth as Glass

Image Courtesy Of David Oscarson

The Alfred Nobel pen highlights Nobel’s two achievements: the peace prize and dynamite.

After the engraving comes the sometimes heartbreaking stage of production. Oscarson enamels his pens, mixing metal oxides with powdered glass and firing it to perfection in a kiln. But not every pen makes it through the process intact.

His penchant for multiple colors on the same pen makes this already painstaking process more arduous. Each metal oxide is finicky. It must reach a certain temperature to melt and fuse to the glass, but it can’t get too hot or it risks burning. So the heat tolerant colors go first, followed by the next highest melting point, and the next, until all the colors are in place.

“All the blues that we use have to go over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit in the kiln or they’re milky and have opalescence,” according to Oscarson. “When we go over 1,000 degrees the metal oxides really melt and fuse in with the glass and that’s that beautiful sapphire blue that we love to see. If we have red enamel on the same surface, that cannot tolerate heat of 830 degrees or the copper will burn and it will start to turn brown and be ruined.”

Each color can take up to five layers to reach the proper thickness. Each layer must be smoothed with a diamond file between firings. The result is a lustrous surface free of blemishes. The glass is cool to the touch, a dead giveaway that no enamel substitutes, such as spray epoxy or resin, have been used.

But along the way to this perfection, failures are a given. If the silver layer cools ahead of the glass it can contract and shatter the new enamel. Finding just the right combination of carved thicknesses to keep the two married is a matter of trial and error, with ample opportunity for the latter.

Each color can take up to five layers to reach the proper thickness. Each layer must be smoothed with a diamond file between firings. The result is a lustrous surface free of blemishes.

“If we have five colors that one pen cap has been in the kiln 20 different times,” he says. “And the failure rate is about 20 percent.”

Oscarson points to an example: a pen made for physicians commemorating the work of Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin. It went through six iterations depicting the engraved penicillin mold spores with guilloche pinstripes in the background, cracking as it came out of the kiln with each attempt. To Oscarson’s great relief his seventh time was the charm.

Drawn by this level of craftsmanship and attention to detail, pen collector Rick Schwartz has eschewed all other active pen makers in favor of these modern masterpieces.

“I have every pen he’s ever made, 175 of the regular pens plus a few special editions,” says the California-based tax attorney. “I’ve just said, ‘David, whatever you make I’ll buy.’ He made a pen that had six different colors; I wound up buying eight extra colors of the same pen.”

Made to Write

From concept to prototype, Oscarson’s creations can take up to two years. Each style is produced in limited editions with his England-based craftsmen turning out only about five to 10 pens a week. Unlike other luxury pen makers such as the venerable Mont Blanc, he offers no low price entry-level product. Instead, his pen prices start in the thousands of dollars.

Despite their stature as objects of art, these pens, with their German-made iridium-tipped gold nibs, are made to be put to paper.

“It’s a crime not to use the pen,” states Oscarson. “It writes beautifully.”

Denisevich, of Brinkhaus Jewellers, not only sells David Oscarson pens, she also collects them, 16 so far. In a world filled with computers and texting, people are returning to their roots, she says.

“It’s a bit like men wearing cufflinks,” according to Denisevich. “You feel like a different person when you’re wearing cufflinks. It’s the same thing with writing. When you have a proper pen in your hand your writing improves.”

Owners needn’t worry about damaging their pens. Yes, it will shatter if it’s dropped, but Oscarson doesn’t charge for repairs, though patience is required. It can take up to six months to recut the parts and re-enamel them.

The rarity and the collectibility of these pens attract connoisseurs like Denisevich, who holds that if you meet Oscarson and experience the passion he has for this nearly lost art, “Watch out, you’ll be buying a pen.”

“The fact that I’m not going to bump into another lady who uses the exact same pen at the dinner party is very important to me because it makes me unique within my own style,” she says.

They are a statement of style for discerning men, too, asserts Oscarson.

“Gentlemen have very few things,” he says. “They have a wristwatch and then unless they’re into jewelry like necklaces, bracelets and rings, the pen is the other extension. That’s the other statement they can make.”

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