The Write Stuff

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Which is mightier, the pencil or the pen? Two Lowcountry collectors find joy in putting ink — or lead — to paper.

In the days of the ever-present keyboard, a few who write or draw still enjoy the feel and appearance of a well-made pen or pencil — and they’re willing to pay for it.

Hilton Head Island resident Pete Caramello has collected luxury pens for about 25 years, ever since he stumbled across a Montegrappa Alfa Romeo rollerball pen in a Massachusetts mall.

“I had owned an Alfa Romeo (Spider) when I was in my early 30s,” he recalls. “I had sold it years ago and saw the pen, and it brought back good memories.”

Since then, he has added 15 to 20 pens to his collection, ranging in price from about $200 to $3,000.

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He falls for the ones that catch his eye.

“They do feel better in your hand when you’re writing,” he says, “but I like the way they look.”

The pens aren’t just showpieces, as he uses the ones he buys. He likes the impression they make on others.

It appears that his love of pens may be an inherited trait. It started with a Montblanc his mother gave him 39 years ago.

“It was the first nice pen I ever got,” he said. “I still have it today, and I use it every day.”

He later learned from an aunt that his father also was a pen lover.

“Father started collecting pens many years ago, and when he died, his collection went to one of his siblings,” Caramello said. “Maybe it’s genetics. I didn’t even know he collected them until long after I started collecting them.”

His favorite, a limited-edition Ferrari Montegrappa, came from Las Vegas, and it’s the only part of the story he didn’t leave there.

“I bought it in Vegas after a good night in a casino,” he says with a laugh. “I couldn’t afford the car.”

Some of his other favorites include a Fabergé pen and a recently acquired special-edition John F. Kennedy Montblanc. On a visit to Italy, he made a point to purchase a Visconti fountain pen in Florence, where they are made.

Caramello says most of his pens come by happenstance during his travels for business, and he plans to keep buying one or two a year. Many are valuable and have likely appreciated, but he isn’t looking to cash in.

“I do it just because I like them,” he says.

A FAN OF LEAD

While Caramello has found his love in ink, Hilton Head Island resident Charles Grace prefers lead.

“I’m a big fan of vintage mechanical pencils and vintage wooden pencils,” says Grace, designer for Hilton Head Monthly.

Grace’s art career began on the cusp of the digital design age, and he still loves to put pencil to paper. His favorite is the Eberhard Faber Blackwing 602 wooden pencil, used by “Looney Tunes” cartoon illustrator Chuck Jones and composers such as Duke Ellington.

What’s the appeal of a pencil that can fetch as much $800 a dozen on eBay and will eventually be whittled down by a sharpener?

“It’s because of the lead mix, the feel, the balance and the adjustable eraser,” Grace says. “… I will attest to the smoothness of the mark.”

He’s also a collector of mechanical pencils, favoring those with advertising labels because of their look.

He especially likes the ad pencils from the 1950s and 1960s with logos of long-gone companies such as Sinclair Oil, with its green dinosaur logo.

“The weirder the product, the better,” he says.

Most of his finds come from flea markets, where he bought his first mechanical pencil 20 or so years ago. They cost from 25 cents to $20.

As with Caramello, he also has no plans to sell his collection — and he won’t even consider switching from lead to ink.

“I rarely write with a pen,” he says.

In advocating for his favorite writing utensil, he adds: “Are you sure what you wrote down doesn’t need to be erased?”