An Interview with Barry Gabay

May 2019

Barry Gabay is a retired high school teacher and adjunct university instructor. He has been a writer and contributing editor to Pen World magazine for more than 20 years. His seminal article on the evolution of the 149 published in 2002 is a must read -->download

c. 1973 Montblanc price list

How important is the 149 in the history of Montblanc's production, and why? 

The 149 is certainly the world’s most recognized fountain pen of the second half of the 20th c. As such, it represents a landmark of design and production. Just as the Parker Duofold’s design and colours came to represent the economic prosperity of the Art Deco era and of the Roaring 20s, and the Parker 51 typified the “form equals function” International Style of 1940s-60s, so too the 149’s design has much to say about post-war prosperity, elegance, and confidence. I do not offer these observations lightly, as any comparison to the Parker 51, the world’s most recognized and imitated fountain pen of all time, must be made very consciously and deliberately. The 149 emerged more slowly than did the other Montblanc post-war rounded models. The 146, 144, and 142 models appeared in 1949, but the 139 flat-end Meisterstuck remained in production until 1952. Because German pen designs tended to be far more conservative than the US, Italian, Japanese, French, or English of that era, the company’s choices clearly reflected consumer tastes. This, of course, should be the practice of any sensible manufacturer. Therefore, it seems to me that the company tested the waters of consumer preferences with smaller models before embarking on a newly designed, round-end large, flagship model. The 149 quickly became a beacon for the company. Though it had followed the smaller 14x models by 3 years, it appears to me from catalogues and advertising of the 1950s, that the 149 was recognized by the company as a leader. It is also important to remember that in the early 1960s when streamlining again became popular, the entire Montblanc line of pens and pencils became slim, tapered, and flat-topped. The sole exception was the 149 which retained its design, though at the time the materials change was made from celluloid to injection-moulded plastic. 

What influence has the 14x series design had on the fountain pen industry? 

Though the 149 remains the company’s flagship model, the basic design of a black, round-end, tubular fountain pen characterized the second half of the 20th c. This happened when the fountain pen was in decline in popularity because of the appearance of more and more functional alternatives to wet ink, especially the ballpoint. As the ballpoint was perfected, fewer fountain pens made their appearance. This, of course, was far less the case in Europe and Asia, but in North America, with the decline and less frequent appearance of the fountain pen, particular models naturally stood out in the public’s mind. I believe the 14x series came to typify beauty and function in an age when mass production was dominant. 

What are, to you, the most significant design changes that the 149 has experienced over time? How do you feel about those changes?

This will likely be the longest of my answers. In the response, I name several countries where I was either living or travelling when encountering particular changes in 149s.

c. 1954 Montblanc catalogue

I mention these new components and dates and where I initially saw them to suggest that some components may have been introduced in one place before others. For e.g. I saw many two-piece barrel 146s in Europe before I saw a two-piece barrel 149 anywhere. I first learned about the 149 when I lived in Germany in 1974. I was working in a factory in Hamburg, and near my apartment, there was a stationer. Each afternoon when I walked home from work, I would stop and look at the fountain pens in the window and in the display cases inside.  Among the many models at the shop, the 149 stood out because of its beauty, size, and incredible nib. I did not know that it was made in the city where I was then living.

In those days, I had very little disposable income. I wrote with a Sheaffer No-Nonsense cartridge filler, a Pelikan Pelikano student model, and an Osmiroid lever-filler with a calligraphy nib. When I decided to move back to the US and resume my university studies, I saw 149s in the Frankfurt duty-free shop. At the time, they were about $140 US ( but priced in D-marks, of course). That was the same as my weekly salary at the factory, and I thought the price was far too much for me. I put the idea away but continued to think about the 149. When I looked through German magazines in the university library, I occasionally saw photos of the 149 and my interest was renewed. About six years later, the year before we married, my girlfriend gave me a 149 as a special gift.  I was shocked at so expensive a gift, so stunned in fact that I did not fill it for three days. Finally, in frustration, she told me that she would return the 149 to the stationers if I did not begin using it. That afternoon, I filled the pen with black Montblanc ink, and it has remained my single favourite fountain pen since that winter day in 1979. Almost exactly one year later, while honeymooning in NYC, I bought a 149 for my former girlfriend, then wife, as a gift. There were then two in the family, mine with M nib, hers with EF nib. Those two remain the two most sentimental fountain pens in my collection. In December 1981, I gave a friend who was travelling to the Netherlands some money to buy another 149, as I had heard that Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam had the best duty-free prices in Europe.  Our friend returned with a long, narrow MB box which I had seen in stores containing 146s and smaller Montblanc pens. I was sure my friend had bought a different model. I opened the box hesitantly and was delighted to discover a 149 with an F nib. We now had three 149s with two-tone 14C, long tined nibs. This pen had the first split-ebonite feed I had encountered. At first, I believed it to be damaged. I considered using some epoxy glue to seal the split, but did not. I showed it to several friends who were engineers, asking their opinions. They concluded that the split was too regular to be damage, and must have been an intentional design. A year later, I bought my first second-hand 149, a B nib with all components identical to the F nib, split-ebonite feed version from Amsterdam. At this point, I had 149s with each of the four standard nib grades: EF, F, M, B on pens from 1979-1982, the sole difference being the solid ebonite feed on two of the pens and the newer split-ebonite feed on two. 

Far more changes were on the immediate horizon. In 1983-84, I saw the first two-piece barrel 149. It also had the wide & protruding nib-feed collar. I thought the barrel must be from another company, as all other components were the same as on earlier models. The next year in 1985, when I saw the first 14K nib, I was shocked and sure the pen was counterfeit. I was barely used to the two-piece barrel and wider collar, and now the nib itself was changed. This was the first change in a nib I had encountered from the 14C nib. The nib’s tines were slightly shorter relative to the nib’s overall length. I liked the pen. It wrote well, but it took a while to become used to the very dramatic appearance changes in just 5 years: nib marking and tine length, protruding collar, two-piece barrel, split-ebonite feed. By this point, I understood that manufacturers make subtle changes over the years in many products. I suppose these changes stood out so dramatically to me because I not only wrote daily with the 149, I studied it.  I spent long hours examining the pens, as well as other 149 models I saw in stores. I also began to correspond with two people at the Hamburg factory and asked many questions about the changes in various components of the 149. One of my correspondents was Herr Bottinger and the other gentleman’s name I have sadly forgotten. 

Favourite Nibs: Two from late 60s-early 70s,  one late 70s, and one early '90s 

There have been so many changes over the years. The brass threads from about 1990 made the barrels (and as a result the entire pen) feel heavier. However, this wasn’t an oppressive weight. It was a comfortable and secure weight which made the pen feel somehow more reliable. This, of course, is just personal tactile pleasure, and not an aspect of actual performance. 

 

I liked the 1992 first generation plastic feed immediately. It made switching nibs from pen to pen much easier than with the ebonite feeds. By this point, I had several spare 149 nibs I had bought at pen shows, and I enjoyed changing nibs in various 149s. Of course, the plastic feed only fit in pens with the protruding collar and two-piece barrel.  I found no flow difference between the two feed materials. In fact, the plastic feed created such a tight seal that I observed something I had not seen before while working on any fountain pen. There was a slot in the collar where the plastic feed was set. This allowed the feed and nib to fit perfectly into position. When inserting the nib and plastic feed, I would watch through strong magnification. There was a distinct “Phffft” from air being released as the nib and feed displaced it. And then, I saw ink rise from the pen’s ink chamber through the slit in the nib. I saw this happen often. So tight was the seal with the new plastic feeds that ink was actually drawn from the ink chamber through the feed to the nib. Remarkable! 

Early '70s BBB nib, standard factory production.

The first time I saw the three-tone 18K nib was on a Hemingway fountain pen in 1992. Later in 1995, when that nib appeared on 149s, I began calling it the Hemingway nib, since that was my first connection to it. For some people, the name seems to have stuck. 

I must address the question of celluloid 149s because so many people who have used them find them the best 149s of all. I have owned two 1950s celluloid 149s and two celluloid 146s. I no longer own any of them. All were sold or traded for other models over the years. I do own other celluloid Montblancs and enjoy them enormously. The performance of an older celluloid 149 depends upon how well it has been maintained, as with any fountain pen of any era. The celluloid does have a different feel from later plastic models. Some writers describe it as warm and comfortable. The two-stage piston in the celluloid models is intriguing too, more sophisticated than later pistons. Finally, the celluloid 149s are slightly smaller than the later plastic models. Maybe, this provides greater comfort for some writers. Perhaps not. Suffice it to say that celluloid is more beautiful than plastic and has a different feel in the writer’s hand. This in no way, for me at least, diminishes the pleasure I find in using 149s of later manufacturer. 

I like the additional weight of the 149s made since 1990, although they are not my favourite models.  These are not superior or inferior to earlier versions, merely different. In my opinion, preferences and one’s perspective of quality may depend on what one has become accustomed to. Since my first 149 was from the late 1970s and have owned mostly late 70s very early 80s 149s, those are the ones by which I tend to measure all others. That is merely a matter of acclimation and habit. All 149s are magnificent fountain pens and great writers. 

 

When I first encountered three-tone 14C and three-tone 18C nibs, I was immediately smitten by their beauty. They were different in appearance from the two-tone 14C nibs I was used to, and this was prior to the introduction of the two-tone and three-tone 18K nibs. The three-tone 14C nibs were softer and provided more line variety. Although not nearly as flexible as my 204 and 216 model nibs, the three-tone 149 nibs do give some line variety. In fact, the single most flexible 149 nib I have owned is an older three-tone 14c nib. I have let friends from the UK and Europe write with it, as well as US friends, all of whom are Montblanc fans. Several have said it is the most flexible 149 nib they have encountered. There is nothing modified about the nib; it just happens to be quite soft and flexible. Those who love the older, softer 149 nibs often decry the current production nibs. These newer nibs are quite rigid and are set against their feeds quite low, relative to the nib’s overall length. In design, the nibs appear squat and with far shorter tines than earlier models. This is not a flaw, merely a design change. Most contemporary writers do not use flex nibs to create flairs and swirls when writing. Thus, there is not so much current demand for truly flexible nibs on 149s. As I mentioned earlier, I believe one’s preferences tend to be connected to what one is accustomed to. People buying their first 149 after 2012 or thereabouts may find the shorter-tine 149 nibs far more interesting and satisfying than earlier models. We all have our favourites.

Which era 149 is your favourite, and why? 

1950s catalogue

Despite resisting this answer because I find interesting aspects of all the 149s I have seen, owned, and written with, my favourite era is the mid-late 1970s through 1982. That was the last era of the single-piece barrel which I find superior to the two-piece barrel. I suppose my affection for 149s from those years is based on experience as much as on aesthetics. Because I have owned more 149s from that time period and have learned the most about them, they have become my favourites. That is also the first generation 149 I owned, so I tend to measure all 149s based upon similarities or differences among various components in 149s from those years. 

Each generation of 149 interests me. The 149 is ubiquitous, and that is one of its appeals for me. Good quality used ones can be found everywhere. I have bought second-hand 149s in a London antique shop, Istanbul flea market, and New Delhi antique market, as well as at numerous US pen shows. Not only is the 149 easy to find, but it is also easy to sell or trade when one tires of it. Like any high performance, well cared for object, it retains its value. I frequently buy older 149s, use them a while, and then sell or trade them. When I bought my first 1950s celluloid 149, I was intrigued because it was so different from the others I had. The nib had different markings (etching behind circled central M); the pen was slightly shorter than current 149s, and the two-stage telescoping piston mechanism fascinated me. There was so much to study. I removed its nib and feed just to have a closer look and discovered the nib’s tail was marked “139.” I assumed this meant that my new-old celluloid 149 was an early model, one which incorporated a nib and perhaps a feed from the previous flagship Meisterstuck model, the 139. When I showed the nib to my friend Dr. Osman Sumer, he told me it was indeed a fairly rare nib, and he asked if I would like to sell it or trade it for something.  Because the nib was a B which did not appeal to me, we made a trade. I received three two-tone 14C #149 nibs for that three-tone 14C #139 nib. We were both pleased with the trade. 

There are so many other ways in which older and newer 149s differ from the pen I think of as the “standard” 149, for me at least, the mid-70s to 81-82 model. In 1983-84, a truly transitional model was produced. It had all of the components of the previous 149 with the exception of a two-piece barrel. There was the two-tone 14C nib, split-ebonite feed, and identical cap. However, the two-piece barrel was made in slotted bayonet fashion and had a protruding collar, much more pronounced than earlier recessed ones. Because the nib and feed were the same as those I preferred, I came to like this era very much. Another major change came within a year or two. In 1985, in the US at least, the two-tone 14K nib was introduced. This nib was slightly less tapered than the earlier two-tone 14C nib which had very long tines relative to the nib’s overall length. There was such a difference in appearance in this model, as I was still becoming accustomed to the two-piece barrel, that I thought it might be a counterfeit pen. Of course, it was not. I bought that model and became used to it, and still own one from that generation: 1985-1990. 

Near-mint 1960s 149 with box and papers

During the very late 1980s and 1990s, when Montblanc’s US repair facility was in Bloomsbury, NJ, there was a wonderful practice involving exceptional MB customer service. People could call the facility and talk with repair technicians.  The chief repairman was Mr. Pierre Matel. Although we never met, we spoke several times and corresponded a few times. He was as kind and knowledgeable as was Mr. Arthur Twydle, the former UK chief repairman for Montblanc. I was fortunate to meet him several times, and he was a wealth of information about 149 service and repair. He taught me how to disassemble a 149, and sold me some of his spare nibs and feeds. In any event, Pierre Matel ran a terrific repair shop. In those years, I could send him a 149 nib, and he would assemble a complete pen for it. The cost at the time, when 149s sold for around $250 in the US was just over $100. I had plenty of spare nibs, and because I was happy to test and use any 149, I was always pleased with the results. In fact, I never knew what I was going to receive other than my spare nib set in a new 149. Usually, it was a model which looked just like the 1983-84 models, but if I sent a 14K nib instead of 14C, the result was a 1985-90 model. That was also the time when I met Chuck Edwards at Fahrney’s in Washington, DC. He was an authorized Montblanc repairman, and he too taught me a great deal about the model.  

 

Another transitional model which I liked very much, but no longer own is a 149 made for a very short period of time, 1990-91. It is the standard 1985-90 model (14K nib, split ebonite feed, two-piece barrel) but has brass piston threads. This was the first time I had seen the brass piston threads. The pen was slightly heavier than those with plastic piston threads, but this weight was not oppressive. I liked it because it was different, yet another version of the 149 I so loved using and studying. Within two years, beginning in 1992, the nibs and feeds were changed on this model. In 1992, the two-piece barrel with brass piston threads had a newly designed two-tone 18K nib and the first generation plastic feed. The nibs were fairly tapered, and I found them completely satisfying. By that time, I was used to the slightly shorter tines on the 14K nib, and although I still preferred the longer tines on the two-tone 14C nib, these newer ones were fun to use as well. 

2014 Montblanc catalogue

In 1992, the Montblanc Writer’s Edition began with the Hemingway. The Patron’s Edition had been released some months earlier, or perhaps it is just that I saw the Hemingway after I had seen my friend’s Lorenzo di Medici. The Hemingway nib was a three-tone 18K nib, and it was not until c. 1995 that it appeared on standard production 149s. For this reason, I have always referred to that nib as the Hemingway nib. I owned two of those Hemingway fountain pens, having bought them at half retail when stores could not easily sell them. The two colours were considered an unattractive combination. How tastes change! The Hemingway is now the most sought after non-precious metal limited fountain pen in the world. In my single worst pen deal ever, I traded both of them about a decade later for two other models, but that is a story for a different day. Since 1995, the 149 has had the three-tone 18K nib and the second generation plastic feed. I like these feeds, as I did the first generation plastic feed. Interestingly, there is a protrusion on the feed’s end where a notch in the nib fits. This allows current nibs to fit perfectly because of a cut out in the tail which meets the feed’s raised “bump.”  However, by filing away the slightly raised triangular protrusion, it is possible to then set older nibs into the newer pens. I do not currently own a 149 made after 1992-1994, so maybe the feed no longer has the protrusion. Many people discuss sending older, inoperable 149s to MB service and having a brand new pen with the older nib returned. I have used a couple of these, and they write perfectly with their older nibs and newer components. In fact, two or three years ago, I owned one of them for a couple of days: a current 149 set with a three-tone 18C nib at least 40 years old. It wrote perfectly, but the nib was not a grade I liked very much, so I traded it to a friend for a 149 he did not care for. The real appeal of the plastic feeds for me is that they can so easily be removed from the collar housing. This allows for switching nibs among pens, something I enjoy doing to see how a particular nib performs in a different pen.  

All 149 fountain pens interest me, even broken ones.  I have a 1960s model with a significant barrel crack, and at the moment, I do not have a spare friction-fit barrel. So I use the pen as a dip pen. I can generally write about one full legal page per dip due to the great capacity of the grooves in the feed. At one time, I owned 39 model 149s. No misprint. They were as follows: 

18 Extra Fine 

13 Fine

7 Medium

1 Broad

They dated from early 1950s celluloid to plastics from early 1960s-1992-94. The vast majority were mid-1970s through 1981-82 models. 

*All of the nibs from those dates were represented, except for the elusive two-tone 18C. On my 149s were three-tone 14C, three-tone 18C, two-tone 14C, two-tone 14K, two-tone 18K

*All of the feeds were present: recessed ski slope, full grooved ebonite, half (face) grooved ebonite, solid ebonite, split ebonite, first-generation plastic. At the time I owned 39 model 149s, I did have a second generation plastic feed or three-tone 18K nib.

*All of the barrel configurations were present: celluloid with telescopic piston, single-piece barrel with friction-fit piston, flat-flush piston ring on single-piece barrel, two-piece barrel with plastic piston threads, two-piece barrel with brass piston threads.

*Caps had the plastic nipple and those dating from the early 1980s onwards with a brass screw holding the cap crown in place.

One of my most prized 149s! A sterling silver overlay by the Argentinian silversmith Ariel Kullock. This series was called The Millenia, with 20 149s and 20 Parker 51s. Mine is a late 1970s or very early 1980s 149 beneath the overlay. Each pen has scenes from world history of the past several thousand years. Mine has, among other images, the moon rocket, Beatles, Montezuma meeting Cortez, world religions, Volkswagon, Vikings, and the Eiffel Tower.

Which is the most favourite variation of the 149 that you own?

Do I have a single favourite 149? Of course, the one my girlfriend (now my wife) gave me 40 years ago! How could I care for any other pen as much? She was a fountain pen user when we met, but I fell in love with her for many other reasons. That pen has been kept in my desk and used lovingly for nearly 40 years. It has a two-tone 14C medium nib and is as smooth as butter. The pen now has countless scratches from use over the years but has continued to perform perfectly. It does have a replacement feed, however, a split-ebonite feed instead of its original solid-ebonite one. Sometime in the 1980s, I broke its original feed when removing it. Pierre Matel at Montblanc Service replaced the feed with the current one at that time. That pen has travelled with us when we lived and worked in Mexico, Turkey, and India. It is completely reliable and satisfying. My second favourite 149 is the one I bought for my wife on our honeymoon in NYC. She wanted a 146 because of its size. However, Art Brown, a great stationer no longer in business, had a remarkable sale at the time, December 1980. There must have been an overstock of 149s because they were on sale for a bit less than the 146. My wife used that 149 on her desk at work, but it was just too large. In fact, the 146 I later bought her was a bit large too. When the 144 was issued, it turned out to be the perfect size for her. She uses hers with its EF nib almost daily. So, the honeymoon 149 is kept with my other 149s, but I still think of it as my wife’s pen. Our sons, an attorney and a teacher-translator, both use fountain pens. Once everything else in the collection is sold, aside from what they want to keep, I will give one of those two 149s to each son. 

My favourite 149 nib is unquestionably the late 1970s-82 two-tone 14C nib in EF. I have changed my tastes. At one time, I preferred standard medium nibs and still use them frequently. However, I find the greatest variety among 149 EF nibs. Others may find this an issue of quality control, but I do not. As we know, MB does not mark its nib grades. Over the years, I have had 149 EF nibs which were razor narrow and others which were considerably wider, nearly mediums. There are several EF nibs I own from the late 1970s-82 era which, under magnification,  resemble wedges. Some people call this a Hebrew-Arabic or architect’s grind. Mine are from the factory and unmodified. The nibs write wide on the horizontal and narrow on the vertical. For me, with a severe left hook when writing, it is an interesting nib to use. Its lines are the reverse of how a right-handed person’s writing looks, and it was odd looking when I first saw that nib’s writing. There are even some F nibs from the time period with that same shape. The second 149 I owned, the one my friend brought me from Amsterdam, had a wedge-like nib.  

One aspect of this fountain pen affection is meeting interesting people from around the world. Dr Osman Sumer has been a dear friend for about 30 years. We have watched one another’s children grow into adults and have shared many fine times. Osman is such a genuine person, in addition to being a world-recognized authority on Montblanc pens. He has taught me much. In fact, Osman has forgotten more than I ever learned about my favourite model. As I age and become more forgetful, I find that I make more errors in just about everything I do. The two-piece 149 story I wrote for Pen World in honour of the 149s 50th anniversary has mistakes. For e.g., I was wrong about the dates of the three-tone 14C and 18C nibs.

c.1955 Montblanc catalogue

At the time I wrote it, I did not even know of the existence of the rarest of 149 nibs, the two-tone 18C which some experts say was made only for the French market. I also had date errors regarding the friction-fit piston mechanism. Because I don’t remember as much as I once did, I often ask my friends and acquaintances about 149s. Several knowledgeable friends fill me in, especially as concerns the 1950s celluloid-era 149s. 

I am no longer actively collecting, though I still occasionally buy fountain pens for my collection. These days, I am selling my fountain pen collection of more than 40 years, and have already gotten rid of hundreds. I will know the end is near when the 149s and other Montblancs are sold. Right now, my collection includes many Montblancs, including 149s. At the moment, I have 13 model 149s: 5- EF, 4- F, 3 -M, 1-B. In the entire collection, there are two other models for which I have great affection: the 1920s-early 30s senior Parker Duofold and the 1940s-50s Parker 51. I have approximately 25 of the former and more than 130 of the latter. Those three fountain pen models constitute the majority of my collection at the moment. 

As a very young boy, before I knew the alphabet or how to write, I used to sit at my grandmother’s, great aunt’s, and parents’ desks and play with their fountain pens. I pretended I was writing by moving the nib across paper as I had seen adults do. It was a practice, a motion, I have loved nearly all of my life. I have never lost my fascination at watching the air bubble in an ink chamber or ink cartridge. I can still sit for a long time, contentedly peering through the transparency of a clear Sheaffer cartridge pen, turning the pen up and down, watching the air bubble travel through the ink, and then use it to make marks on clean paper with ink from a hand-held nib. I can do this with endless fascination, as I have done for more than 60 years, and will surely conclude my days and hours doing just that with a smile upon my face.  

c.1969 Montblanc catalogue

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