On Pen Collecting
An interview with Michael Gutberlet, CEO Kaweco
This week we have the pleasure of interviewing Michael Gutberlet, CEO of German pen maker KAWECO est. 1883, on the topic of pen collecting following a visit to Kaweco's head office and factory in Nuremberg where we were treated to a viewing of his private pen collection sparking our interest to find out more. At its height, this comprised thousands of Kaweco pens and accessories and has since been bought-in as Kaweco’s own company archive and museum. Such a collection endearingly imparts on us the impression that Kaweco’s amazing reversal of fate was made possible thanks to Michael and his father Horst’s passion, enthusiasm, even obsession - a mark of the family’s idiosyncratic character and drive.
The Gutberlet family has owned Kaweco since the 1990s when the company had found itself in financial trouble as many other pen makers did in the wake of the computer era. The Gutberlet’s own family business as pen component makers gave the new owners an innate understanding of the pen making scene and certainly a technical savoir faire essential to successful production. Nevertheless the Gutberlets’ particular contribution was to recognise and zone-in on the brand’s most eye-catching and singular model, the 'Sport' 1930's design, adapting it both technologically and aesthetically to the modern day by way of contemporary colours and industrial materials, like aluminium and brass.
Another dimension to Michael’s amazing turnaround of Kaweco’s fate, is his astute understanding of marketing - ie: where pens should sit in the retail market - away with dusty pen shops - Kaweco is a certainly a youthful and fresh product which can stand up to any smart phone or MacBook, alongside fashion and lifestyle.
We hope you enjoy the short exchange we had on the topic of pen collecting a few days ago.
For further reading, we highly recommend Michael Gutberlet's latest book Gutberlet Crossing Kaweco available to buy at Choosing Keeping.
Kaweco was formed in 1883 and led by the Gutberlet family since the 1990s, what is your family and personal relationship to the Kaweco Brand ?
Michael Gutbertlet: My father Horst, started his own business in 1960 as a salesman for pen parts. Initially he was overseeing the southern parts of Germany and naturally his customers were Staedtler, Faber Castell, Schwan Stabilo, Lyra, Lamy, Waldmann and of course Kaweco. He was offering parts like refills, internal mechanisms, cartridges etc. You can say he had regular contacts.
CK: You are a history buff and natural born collector - I understand it is your personal hobby of pen collecting which put you into the path of acquiring and continuing the Kaweco story. Would this be accurate?
MG: I fell in love as an afterthought. In the early 80s I found an antique Italian Safety pen at a flea market and had the idea to gift this pen to my father for his birthday. My interest stemmed mainly from technical interest, how pens were made. It sparked a deeper thought process around the history of pens, materials and technology. From that day on, I was hunting them down. Calling-on old connections, buying old stock from forgotten factories, cleaning out dead stock raw material. I took every pen I could get. In my heyday I would take out classified ads in newspapers and magazines for antiques, collecting several thousands of pens and propelling pencils.
Can you tell me a little but about your pen collecting habit ?
MG: Until then (the 1980s), I was never a collector but I was a user of everything. By using, I mean that as a child I would break and destroy everything. Collecting came later, when I was about 23, I learned the value of old things. That you can learn from them.
What is your most valuable collectible pen possession, both for sentimental value or in terms of rarity and commercial value?
MG: The first safety pen I gifted my father, is still in my collection.
Emotional pens - I have several. They have come to me from older people writing me a letter by hand and including their pen as part of their own personal story, explaining when they got it and how they used it, in high school, for their exams… Some didn't even ask for any money.
In terms of value, I have some which I know there are only a handful known examples - 1 or 2 in the world. The highest price I paid was €4.000 - an old Montblanc.
Once I broke a €1000 Montblanc safety pen while polishing it on a machine.
At its largest point, how many pens did you count in your collection ?
MG: Last year I sold my full Kaweco collection to the Gutberlet company, in order to bind them together, including both historical and new pens; We built a small museum. I still have Waterman, Montblanc and some old/new stock of Kaweco pens. But I am trying to narrow down my private collection.
How aggressive / persistent a collector are you ?
MG: I have slowed down, but am still interested in very special pens or special techniques.
Are you actively pen collecting presently ?
MG: A little
Would you encourage anyone to start a pen collection ?
If so how should they proceed - by era, country or brand ?
MG: If someone collects by brand, they can be more focused. For pen brands like Pelikan, Montblanc, Waterman, Soennecken and Kaweco there are books to learn from. If you start buying, you will buy a lot of half/fakes etc. If you collect by country or era it is much harder to control this.
How do you rate your pen collection - are there any other collections you covet ?
MG: Not anymore. I bought one Kaweco collection, so I am fine.
Is there a point of too many pens ?
MG: If you start collecting, you need a point of focus, otherwise you will run out of money. In the past, some months, I would spend more than that entire month’s salary. My wife was not happy.
Do your children also collect pens ?
MG: No, they do not collect old pens. They like them, but not like I do. (CK: Both Michael’s children Sebastian and Christiane work in the family business)
Do you catalog your pen collection - are you a tidy or hoarding type of collector ?
MG: For the upcoming and latest release Kaweco book and for the purpose of the Museum we registered all the pens according to age and type.
Do you collect anything else in life?
MG: I like Porsche cars…but at last, I sold my oldest one, I’m getting older... I do also collect model toys of Porsche 911’s which include a radio. There are only 30 pieces to collect all produced in the 60s and 70s.
Minimalist or maximalist?
MG: I was a maximalist, but with age I’m becoming a minimalist.
What do you think has been the best and most impactful influence brought to the Kaweco story by the Gutberlet family ?
MG: I still remember the day, where my Dad and I, sitting together, looking at all the pens I had collected over 13 years. In that meeting we made the decision that we would make a pocket fountain pen, because this market niche had been neglected. Then our direction was clear: Kaweco Sport.
Do you have a particular family personality trait which contributes to the success of Kaweco?
MG: I think the most important point is the love for pens. Money, ok, it is a part of business. But that isn’t our first idea. We like what we do, the customers around the world can feel it. Our family is a part of the pens and the other way around.