In 2001, Chartpak, Inc. became the exclusive distributor for the Pelikan brand in the United States as well as Mexico and Canada. The company manufactures and imports fine artist materials, fine writing instruments, and office products for distribution in the Americas. Their website states; “Chartpak has an established portfolio of 14 brands with 60 product lines that span 17 distinct categories of art materials, fine writing, craft & hobby and office products, many of which are made in the USA or Europe.” Chartpak is located in Leeds, Massachusetts and is nestled in the five-college area of the state which boasts a vibrant and active student artist population. While Chartpak’s story accounts for nearly the past 20 years of Pelikan in the United States, have you ever wondered about Pelikan’s past US operations or who distributed their products in North America before Chartpak? A recent inquiry from a reader led me to ponder that very question in greater detail. When you search Google for the answer, you come up with surprisingly little, most likely because the bulk of the history occurred prior to the rise of the internet. Not to be discouraged, I turned to a resource that was satisfyingly nostalgic, the newspaper. After searching through dozens of papers and hundreds of articles, I learned that Jack Kelly was probably correct when he said, “…headlines don’t sell papes. Newsies sell papes.” I also learned a great deal about Pelikan’s more public affairs throughout the 1980s and 90s. While the record in incomplete, we can get at least a basic sense of Pelikan’s operations in the USA over that two decade span. It is important to keep in mind that Pelikan’s business structure is incredibly complex with many divisions. Pelikan AG and later Pelikan International acted largely as holding companies, a type of financial organization that owns a controlling interest in other companies called subsidiaries. While the parent corporation controls the subsidiary’s policies and oversees management decisions, the days to day operations are left to the subsidiary. In this way, the holding company protects itself from losses accrued by the subsidiary (creditors can’t go after the holding company). What we had in the US focused on hardcopy or printer consumables which started out as a product group in the Pelikan product range. The distribution of fine writing instruments in North America has been managed by various agents over the years which I will endeavor to explore. I should make it clear that at no point were fountain pens or fountain pen inks manufactured in the USA. Read on to learn how the company’s fortunes rose and fell over the span of approximately 15 years and why operations eventually ceased.
Over the last month, I have been repeatedly asked by fellow pen lovers as to why U.S. prices for Pelikan’s fine writing instruments far exceed that which is available elsewhere. It’s no secret that over the last few years, an increasingly growing number of U.S. consumers have awakened to the realization that Pelikan fountain pens can often be had for significant savings when purchased from overseas vendors. The U.S. market has seen a steady increase in the price of Pelikan’s fine writing instruments, the last swell coming in February of 2016. Consequently, authorized United States’ retailers have historically had to offer their Pelikan wares at significantly higher prices than competing international merchants. Regardless of what factors may have contributed to that discrepancy, the end result was a tilted playing field that made it incredibly hard for US vendors to compete in what is clearly a global economy. I have always questioned the disparity in pricing and wondered why U.S. customers are dealt with so differently? It’s a passionate issue for me because I have a deep affection for the brand but their marketing strategy has prevented me from recommending even an entry level Pelikan pen to anyone starting out in this hobby since these too are often priced higher than competing brands.
For the last month, I have done extensive research into the economics of why Pelikan’s U.S. pricing might be the way that it is and that is what I intended to present to you today. Just as I was preparing to publish that article, Pelikan/Chartpak called an audible on me and therefore I have scrapped that entire post in favor of this one. What I present to you now is evidence that there may be a major shift in U.S. pricing silently occurring and our domestic vendors and their customers are likely to reap the benefits.
One of the reasons that Pelikan has such an ardent following is the fact that their pens are durable and dependable. Pens that are 50+ years old can continue to write problem free if cared for properly. Despite their durability, there are pens that will experience failure in various situations. Also, even the best quality control is not infallible and products not quite up to standards will make it past the factory floor and into a consumer’s hands. Since so many of our purchases occur electronically these days due to the scarcity of brick and mortar stores, there really is not an opportunity to identify many of these flaws before purchase. Thankfully, there is a system in place for when service is required. In the United States and Canada, that service is provided by Chartpak, Inc.
If you peruse Chartpak’s website, you will learn that they were first established in 1949 as a graphic and design products company within the United States. They have been innovators with products for artists and draftsmen and have expanded their reach over the years by designing products for the engineering and visual communications fields. The Chartpak of today is described as a global leader in the creative product enterprise and reportedly has 9 brands with 38 product lines that span 17 categories of art materials, fine writing, craft & hobby and office products for home, school, and office.