Since the 1970's I have been a pen afficionado. Although my initial collecting has been by sets, my main passion is with fountain pens and those are the pens I find that I buy the most often. My pen collection includes many brands of pens, however, I always find myself drawn to my Waterman pens.
It's the way the Waterman nib glides across the paper. There is the balanced weight and size of the pen body. The secure fit of the cap to the barrel. All these give an overall feeling of quality. That's what keeps me going back to my Waterman pens. So when planning a previous trip to France I arranged a visit of the Waterman factory in Saint Herblain which is located just outside of the city of Nantes. I was lucky, as although Waterman does not give tours to individuals, an exception was made. I was able to visit the factory.
When I was walking about the factory, and seeing the various phases of the manufacturing process I immediately gained an appreciation for the amount of work that goes into making a quality fountain pen.
I met Waterman employees who showed me how they manufacture and assemble the pens. The quality I have recognized in Waterman pens is a direct reflection of the concern for quality shown by the Waterman employees.
Patrick Hulot, of the Quality Department, hosted my visit. He explained the various phases of the manufacturing and assembly process. We started the discussion and tour in the stamping section. Here large bands of brass are automatically fed into machines that stamp out small circles. The circles of brass are then shaped into the pen parts by compressing the metal into various moulds. The process which compresses the brass gives the metal its strength. The stamping machines are set to produce each specific pen part.
Although the process is very automated, employees check for quality throughout the process. The final barrels and caps are placed in wire baskets which are labelled as to pen line and part. The parts are then cleaned. This is an automatic process which immerses the parts in a bath to remove the oils used in the stamping process.
The cleaned parts next go for cutting. Here the stamped-out barrels and caps are cut to the exact measurements of each particular pen. While much of the cutting is done automatically by machine some pieces are cut by hand-operated machines. Even for the cutting done by machines, employees must set the programme for the specifics of each individual pen part.
All the manufacturing stages involve quality checks. Waterman employees are trained in a self-monitoring quality control checking process. This way, quality is not something that someone else does, it is the responsibility of each individual employee. The employees I met demonstrated pride in their work and their concern for the quality of the finished product.
From the cutting section the metal pen pieces next go to be polished. The barrels and caps are placed on spindles and pass under circular polishing brushes. All metal parts are polished and then cleaned again to remove oils used in the polishing process.
At this point, Patrick explained we were at a crossroad. The top-line pens are produced in a segment of the factory that involves a considerable amount of hand work. The other pen lines go to a section of the factory where the process is more automated.
I was especially interested in the manufacturing of the Man and Patrician series--some of my favourite Waterman pens, so I am only writing about the process for the top-line pens.
With the final cutting completed, the top-line pens require gold plating of various parts. Here, racks of pen parts are immersed in plating baths. Employees programme the machines that immerse the pen parts in the baths so that each part receives the right amount of gold plate.
The making of the nibs for the top-line fountain pens is a very manual process. Bands of gold pass through a machine that make an initial cut into the rough shape of the nib. These pieces are fed into a presser that compresses the metal. This process increases the strength of the metal, gives the nib a tapered thickness and develops the "spring" of the nib. The nib piece then receive a final cut appropriate for the specific pen model. At this point, engraving is added to the nib. The tip is then coated with a mixture of hard metals and the ball is manually welded to the nib. The nib is then cut to create the forks. There is a final moulding and calibration of the tension of the forks.
I have always been impressed with the smoothness of my Waterman nibs. I now know why! Employees test each nib for smoothness by trying the nib on a sheet of paper. Once the nibs pass this test they go through a final polishing process. The nibs and pens are assembled and then tested with ink for proper flow.
Waterman produces all the parts for their pens. The plant has an extensive moulding section that produces the various non-metal pen parts for all lines of pens. They even mould their own ink cartridge bodies. In addition to the pens, Waterman produces their own ink at the factory and makes all the colours by adding colours to a base ink.
At the end of the tour I have an even higher appreciation for my Waterman pens. I never realized how many people worked so hard to produce the pens that I cherish!
I thank my hosts--Patrick Hulot, Quality Department; and Christiane Pinguaud, Secretary to the Factory Manager for their assistance with the visit.
I now look back at this article and think how much the pen lanscape has changed from the year that I toured the Waterman factory. Waterman had gone through a number of owners. With each new owner, the company has revised its relative marketing plan. For a number of years, the number of upper end Waterman pens that were issued dimmissed. My Man 100 pens still today, some 13 years later remain good looking pens that write great. My Edsons, I have bought the red, blue and green as there just is not a better made pen. Period. It will be interesting to see the relative market line that Waterman takes.
2670 Plymouth Drive
Oakville, Ontario L6H 5R6
Telephone: 800 668-4575
PO Box 6 | Newhaven | East Sussex BN9 0AX
Web Site: www.waterman.com
In March, 1884 Lewis E. Waterman started the Ideal Pen Company in New York. Waterman started assembling and selling pens from parts supplied by local companies back in 1883. He designed a feed system that would allow ink to flow out of the pen, while air could travel back into the pen, for a controlled flow of in. He applied for a patent of his design in 1883 and it was granted February 12, 1884.
His company started on a kitchen table at the rear of a cigar store on Fulton Street in New York. He produced about 200 pens in his first year of operation. If you bough one of his pens you received a five year guarantee.
Things kept going very well and his production increased to 500 pens in his second year of operation. These were pens made by hand. Things kept getting better, he moved his company to a building at Broadway and Courtland where he ran a larger operation to handle the increased business. By now he had two factories to supply the key parts. A factory in Connecticut for the pen body and one in New York itself for the gold nibs.
In 1899 Waterman opened a factory in Montreal Canada. By 1901 it is reported that Waterman was selling 1,000 pens a day. A big increase from his humble beginnings of 200 a year.
Lewis died in 1901 and his nephew, Frank D. Waterman took over the very successful company. Now the company was reported to be produced 350,000 pens a year..
In 1988 the company was renamed the L.E. Waterman Company.
In 1926 Jules I. Fagard (JIF) who was the brand's French agent opened his own company, JIF Waterman, to manufacturer Waterman pens in France.
In 1927 one of the researchers who was working for JIF-Waterman invented the ink cartridge and this remained an exclusive item to JIF-Waterman for some 20 years.
The company had a number of pens that were extremely successful. One series, the Patrician, issued in 1929 was re-issued again in 1992. The lacquer coats, there are 19, take over two weeks to complete.
In 1954 production of pens in United States and Canada ceased. JIF-Waterman in France remained the sole company.
In 1971 the company became Waterman SA located in France.
In 1983 the company celebrated its 100 anniversary and issued the LeMan 100 pen which was a mainstay of its line for a number of years.
In 1987 the company was taken over by Gillette. In 2000, Gillette placed its stationery line up for sale with Newell Sanford purchasing the company.
I was pleased to have the opportunity to tour of the Waterman Factory in Nantes, France