Claire Adler is a London-based luxury goods journalist.
In a society dominated by technology, luxury pens have taken on a new role. They're no longer old-world writing instruments, says Giuseppe Aquila, CEO of family-owned Aquila Brands, but ultimate status symbols and luxury fashion accessories
Giuseppe Aquila is constantly travelling: Budapest, Monaco, Shanghai, Bahrain, New York, London, Paris, Rome, Geneva. You name it, he's probably just come from there – or is about to board a plane there.
With distribution of his company's luxury pens extending across 45 countries, it is perhaps hardly surprising. In running Aquila Brands, this dapper 30-something Italian is carrying on the pen-loving tradition of his father and grandfather.
But times have changed radically since Giuseppe's grandfather, Leopoldo Aquila, started off as a pen salesman in 1930s Italy and opened a pen factory in 1938 near Naples, establishing the Lalex 1938 brand, which is still sold in Selfridges and many other outlets round the world. Like his grandson, Leopoldo travelled constantly across Europe to see clients and promote his pens – a personal touch he believed was essential in creating customer loyalty and expanding business.
But in a world where most people are connected to their emails and blackberries 24-7, doesn't a luxury pen manufacturer have to justify its very existence?
From the everyday to the extravagent
"The world of writing has evolved deeply in the course of the last few centuries from the quill to the fountain pen, from the ballpoint pen to computers, laptops, palmtops, mobiles and SMS. The pen is no longer strictly necessary for communication," admits Giuseppe. "But it has become a fashion accessory, a cult object, a status symbol and a collectible. And for those who still enjoy the pleasure of writing a letter to their loved ones, it's still their favourite choice."
Today, Gianfranco Aquila - Leopoldo's son and Giuseppe's father - is chairman of the third generation family business. Giuseppe's brothers used to be involved in the family business when the Aquila family owned Montegrappa, Italy's oldest pen manufacturer, between the 1970s and 2000. Today, one of Giuseppe's two brothers, Leopoldo, occasionally designs pens while Ciro runs a successful music business. The Aquilas turned Montegrappa into an international brand and then sold it on in 2000 to the Richemont Group, one of the world's largest luxury goods groups.
Aquila Brands now owns two marques - Lalex 1938 and Tibaldi, which it acquired in 2004. The firm licences world-class automotive brands Ducati, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz and Smart.
"The newly launched Mercedes-Benz collection has encountered an overwhelming success in the market," says Giuseppe. "Ducati is the hot brand for bike enthusiasts, Jaguar is the choice for the more traditional customer, while Smart is pure fashion. Bike and car aficionados are very loyal to their brand of choice and proudly boast accessories which carry the name of their favourite brand."
Tibaldi, which is at the top luxury end of the scale, was originally established in 1916 in Florence and became Italy's first ever fountain pen manufacturer.
"Tibaldi exudes Italian-ness all over. First and foremost, its design encapsulates a very old Italian design code, known as the Divine Proportion, which was used by great masters of the past, like Leonardo da Vinci," says Giuseppe. Phi informs every aspect of the structure of all Tibaldi writing instruments; for example, the proportion between the cap and the visible portion of the barrel when the Tibaldi pen is closed equals the phi ratio of 1.618.
"Tibaldi pens suggest discretion and yet soberly rich sophistication," he continues. "Italians are hugely creative - being raised in an environment rich in art, culture and architecture, and coupled with Italy's influence from other cultures, such as Spain and France, the result is obvious. Just think of the beauty and richness of Saint Peter's Cathedral or any ancient Italian palazzo."
Tibaldi produces pen collections in collaboration with Bentley cars and in January launches its first pens for Riva - makers of the most luxurious powerboats in the world - and for fellow Italian Giorgio Armani. In 2005, Tibaldi signed a merchandising deal with Sony Pictures to produce the official Tibaldi Da Vinci Code pen to coincide with the film.
Aquila's research and development team (consisting of engineers and writing instrument experts) work closely with creative directors, such as the head of concept car design at Jaguar and head of interior design at Bentley, to develop pens which echo the design codes of their partnering brands. Even the packaging is highly innovative – travel document wallets and even casing that slots neatly into Bentley car arm rests are now produced.
Friends in high places
During the course of his frequent world trips, Giuseppe Aquila has met countless celebrities who are fans of the company's pens. In 2000, Aquila Brands made a special pen collection that raised money for a project to help Brazilian street children, giving Giuseppe the opportunity to meet Italy's most famous resident at the time and an inspiration to millions worldwide – the late Pope John Paul II.
At the most memorable meeting of his life, Giuseppe presented the Pope with a specially created pen as a gift. "I was admitted to a private audience and still cherish those memories. Meeting the Pope gave me a sense of peace that I had never found in my life. I felt I was in seventh heaven," remembers Giuseppe.
As a brand committed to the highest levels of craftsmanship and accustomed to fulfilling the requirements of the most discerning and demanding of customers, Tibaldi also offers a bespoke pen-making service. "The idea originated from the profound conviction that, just like a handmade suit, a pen can be personalised to best reflect the character or the taste of the person for whom it is intended," says Giuseppe.
Anyone interested in making a statement by bestowing the gift of a Tibaldi pen, bespoke or otherwise, will be in good company. Tibaldi is the choice of some of the world's greatest movie, sporting and music stars, writers, authors, film directors, heads of state and royalty. Owners include actor Tom Hanks, director Ron Howard, author Dan Brown, musician Phil Collins, Apple founder Steve Jobs and even Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Tibaldi recently dedicated a spectacular one-off pen to Brazilian footballer Pelè. The player is represented on the barrel of the 18-carat gold pen, studded with 274 emeralds and surrounded by 718 diamonds. The cap is adorned with 744 yellow sapphires and 187 green emeralds inspired by the colours of the Brazilian flag. Exhibited in Berlin's new main station at the Potsdamer Platz during the 2006 Football World Cup, this unique pen was valued at a cool €100,000.
Another show-stopping piece is the Tibaldi pen crafted for singer-songwriter and producer Pharell Williams. He walked away with a pen encrusted with a bounty of 1799 precious stones combining black and brown diamonds, blue and orange sapphires and rubies.
On a recent trip to the Middle East, Giuseppe was commissioned by the son of the King of Bahrain to create a pen featuring a royal portrait on the barrel, hand painted by artist Lorena Straffi. "Throughout the years, we have always managed to give our customers the care and attention of a business focused on craftsmanship and original ideas," says Giuseppe. All of which seems to confirm that acquiring a pen is about infinitely more than the mere act of writing.