Technology threatens the ancient art, but people still love to put pen to paper. They love the feel of the flow of ink through a sensitive gold nib, and the texture of hand-pressed pulp. They love the soft deckled edges of Arturo paper from Italy (which Napoleon chose for cards that announced his wedding to Marie-Louise). They love the satisfying click of a stainless-steel pen cap once the job is done. "It's a tactile world," says Joan Flax, owner of Westwood's Flax Pen to Paper. "In a world of e-mails, writing is so personal. When you sit in front of a computer you think differently; when you are sitting with a fountain pen, it pours out of the depths of who you are."
Of all writing instruments, the fountain pen, with its refillable reservoir of free-flowing ink, is the most expensive. If you're going to spend hundreds of dollars, you should know how to purchase and protect your investment.
1. WRITE BEFORE YOU BUY
Scribbling on the back of an envelope at the store won't teach you much about a nib. Spell out "Egypt" in flowing strokes; it's a word that forces a pen to move every which way so you'll get the feel of it.
2. PREVENT HIGH-LEVEL LEAKS
Fluctuations in a jetliner's cabin pressure can affect the ink in a fountain pen, causing it to blot when you're using it or ooze when you're not. So pack your pen nib-up, and point it toward the overhead bins when you remove the cap. To stave off leaks, travel with the ink cartridge either filled to the brim or running completely on empty.
3. AND LOW-LEVEL ONES
Even when you're on terra firma, keep the nib skyward during the capping process. Otherwise, ink driblets may fall into the cap, accumulate and spill unceremoniously onto your favorite white shirt.
4. UNDERSTAND "PERMANENT"
If that should happen with permanent ink, apply bleach and go on with your life. Unless, of course, it dripped onto your favorite blue shirt. In that case, blot the splotch with rubbing alcohol, nail polish remover or a brew of baking soda and water. And cross your fingers.
5. KEEP YOUR COOL
When you clean your pen--and you should at least every 60 days--don't use hot water. If the nib is particularly mucked up, try a formula of two-thirds cold water and one-third non-sudsing ammonia. Then dry the nib with a soft cloth--very carefully.