Dante Del Vecchio is considered one of the current pen-making masters, and rightfully so. His path to his current role as chief pen designer at the traditional Florentine stationery company Pineider started back in 1988 when he teamed up with a friend to create Office Dream, which would later be renamed to Visconti. His friend, a really good salesman, told him “Dante, if you make them [the pens] I’ll go out to sell them”.
His early research took him to Osaka, Japan, where he met craftsmen like Mr Kato Kiyoshi who were hand-turning pens out of celluloid, a highly flammable thermoplastic, using a process that even back then would have been forbidden in Italy (Dante recalls how in some of the workshops you’d find buckets of water next to the maker’s tables to quickly extinguish the flames if the celluloid caught on fire). The breakthrough was when Del Vecchio came across a Japanese maker of urushi (Japanese lacquer) fountain pens which they decided to import to Italy under the Visconti brand. These pens were outrageously expensive and didn’t sell well, until an antiques dealer suggested that such a precious object would never sell unless it was numbered. By following his friend’s advice, Dante essentially invented the concept of limited-edition fountain pens, which is now such a common practice. The success that followed with the numbered urushi pens, which sold well for 5 years in a row, became a turning point for Visconti and for Dante himself, who by looking at the market dynamics understood that a pen had an 8 to 10 years cycle. But for a new brand with no history in a rather traditional market it was very difficult to grow. This prompted him to invest in research and development to create things that others didn’t have, to the point that he currently holds 18 patents to his name.
After a few minutes of talking with Dante Del Vecchio you can tell he has a strong ego but also a noble spirit, one that favours quality of work, friendship, and collaboration over cutthroat competition. He does have a competitive mindset though, and loves speed. Aside from fountain pens, Dante is passionate about motorbikes — he has four — from a well-tuned road bike that he uses to commute to work to an aggressive Kawasaki 750cc Mach IVnicknamed the widow maker. He even started competitive racing at the tender age of 50!
He also gets a kick out of new, innovative technology, and would happily change it as often as possible if it allows him to create new, exciting objects. Making pens today the same way that they were done in the ’20s is something that Dante abhors. For example, when it came to creating the Avatar, currently the entry level pen in the Pineider lineup, he adopted an artisanal approach made with an industrial logic (think 3D modelling and CNC machines). First came the definition of the target price and what would make a successful product at that level. Del Vecchio commissioned a new material, called Ultra-Resin (UR), that took 8 months to develop and aesthetically resembles celluloid but is incredibly strong. To stay within the desired price, the pen had to be assembled by hand rapidly and with absolute precision, so he opted for a glue-less process. The Avatar still packs the feel of more expensive pens and it resulted in an incredible success, selling more than 10,000 units in the first three months, which is something incredible for this market.
What fascinates me the most about Dante Del Vecchio’s work is his exploration of new materials, like with the ultra-resin. When in 2009 he was presented with a compound substance using lava, he had the intuition of making a pen out of it, which be became the Visconti Homo Sapiens, one of his better known designs. There were some failures too, with products using wood briar root or marble that never took off.
“I don’t claim to be a stylist or a designer, but I have 30 years of experience, have created many, many pens and I’m good at picking up the one design out of 10 that works, or modify it until it does. My success has been due to a mix of proficiency, good instinct, and luck. I’m attracted to what’s new and innovative and you can see that in my pens.”
In the pen world, Dante Del Vecchio is called “maestro”, a title he has earned through 30 years of creating unique writing instruments. He has designed fountain pens for luxury Maisons like Girard-Perregaux, Ulysse Nardin, and Franck Muller, but his training ground was well before that, back in ’96 when he was tasked to design something like 20,000 different pens for a very famous brand he can’t name due to a gentleman’s agreement made decades ago. While doing that he learnt that it’s impossible to create the perfect pen because writing is in itself an imperfect activity, we all write slightly different and therefore you cannot create a product that will satisfy everybody. That being said, you can create different pens for different functions. The same way that nowadays you don’t need a watch to tell the time, you don’t need a high end luxury pen to write, you can use a cheap ball-pen for that. His designs like the Pineider Mystery Filler, include a series of complications that are not necessary but pleasant. Dante’s work is a celebration of the love for fountain pens that’s absolutely independent from the object per se.
Dante at Pineider
Two years ago he had a painful break-up with Visconti and made the move to Pineider, founded in Florence in 1774 and which had been recently bought by the Rovagnati family. The company had good assets and a fabulous heritage, but its pens were mere objects. A Del Vecchio fountain pen is first and foremost an instrument that tells a story by using the right symbols.
“I love to to constellate my products with symbols, because those are the ones that last. Maybe that’s why I’m fascinated by the Middle Ages and its mysteries. I don’t create pens, I create stories.”
He established a classic shape for the new Pineider pens, because that’s Dante’s preference and in a luxury market unusual shapes have a short lifespan and can even act as a barrier to potential buyers. Next came the design of the 3 key symbols that stand out when you notice a fountain pen for the first time: the clip, the nib, and the cap’s closing mechanism.
- 1 — The clip is visible while you have the pen in your pocket. He picked the shape of a goose quill that could be made in different styles to identify different pens, from elegant and timeless to one suitable for for a younger, tech-savvy crowd.
- For the nib he created the hyper-flex, a soft tip featured in pens as like the La Grande Bellezza or the Mystery Filler.
- A smooth and reliable opening/closing mechanism that clicks together thanks to two semi-circular magnets with opposite polarity.
On a fun note, you’d be surprised to discover that Dante does not have good handwriting and he jokes that the same way that Samuel Colt was good at making pistols but was not a good shooter, he has a talent for making pens but is not good at writing.
Disclaimer: at the end of the interview with Dante Del Vecchio I was invited to visit the Pineider production facility where his office is located and I was introduced to some of his old-time and new collaborators, and was kindly gifted an Avatar fountain pen.