Recently, the manufacturing industry in China celebrated a very special achievement. Before I tell you what it was, let me give you a sense of how big this was for them—this is the country that does almost 90 per cent of the world’s manufacturing, making everything from pins to satellites. They finally managed to make something that had eluded them for the longest time: the ballpoint pen.
Now don’t jump to conclusions, saying how we (okay: not you, but your ‘friends’) have all used fake Mont Blancs and other branded pens given to you as part of the company’s Diwali gift hamper, most of which comprised goods from China. While that country excelled at making the packaging for all types of pens, the ballpoint nib was a point of silent shame. Despite churning out close to 40 billion ballpoint pens annually, their’s remained rough and coarse, at best. So, all this while they had to import the nibs from the west, or worse still, from Japan, ideas that are anathema to the Chinese communocracy (my term for saying communist and democracy). Finally, however, a local steel giant claims the knowhow to produce uniformly ultra thin steel sheets strong enough to be moulded for the job.
While we rave about fountain pens, the art of the ballpoint, industrial as it may be, still has much technical charm and play involved. It may not make the renaissance man squeal in delight, but an engineer would understand why it’s special.
This little piece of news made me respect my own ballpoint pens a bit more. I have found myself, of late, stepping out with one in my pocket, instead of my usual fountain flair. So far, I had disdained them for being cheap and industrial without realising that industrial can be painstaking and beautiful, too.
China’s admission of their inability inspired me to broaden my perception of luxury and not confine it to conventional meanings. Handmade, Boutique, Small Batch, Limited Edition, Single Run, all these were words that to me epitomised luxury. How vain of me to not have seen these words for the marketing jargon they embody and spread!
Now, I feel less burdened. Gone is the need to justify what I may define as luxury, but more importantly, gone is my limited understanding of the idea of luxury. All it took was for the world’s biggest manufacturing giant to ‘fess up to what could have seemed like an insignificant detail.
So, until China gets their ballpoint pens right, the brands I continue to root for remain: Caran d’Ache is right up there; Pilot is next; then Waterman and Parker. Mont Blanc is fantastic, too, but considering how everyone knows the brand, I mentioned the others first. Lamy, the space-age brand makes some super slick ballpoint pens. And Birome (by Biró), the original! Lastly, to Reynolds and Bic for being the most unfailing ballpoint brands, ever.