The Rain In Spain

When Alan Jay Lerner composed this song in 1956 for the musical “My Fair Lady,” he may not have realized the meteorological folly of his lyrics. The rain in Spain does NOT stay mainly in the plain, as Professor Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle triumphantly rhapsodize, but in fact falls primarily in the lush mountain regions of Northern Spain – Galicia, Asturias, Cantabria and the Basque Country. Predominantly with a maritime climate, these areas are characterized by fog, rainfall and cloudy days, and any one who undertakes the Camino hike at this last stage of the “French” route is likely to have a showery pilgrimage.

Raining On Our Parade – Temperatures of 9-11 C combined with continuous rains and cold winds for days, as we negotiated wet and muddy roads and pathways. Still, Galicia never seemed to run out of luxuriant greenery, and a large part of our route took us through forests teeming with a viridescent foliage of oak and eucalyptus trees. Somehow, the sight of all of nature’s bounty in the most serene of surroundings becalmed our minds despite the less than ideal circumstances.

And so it was that our recent trek along the Camino leading to the Santiago de Compostela (the capital of Galicia) was marked by chilly, biting rain for the most part, turning the 110-kilometer footslog from Sarria to the Cathedral of St. James into a cold and cloudy journey across forest trails, hilly slopes and ancient Roman roads. Drenched by intermittent showers and strong gusts of wind for several days, we finally emerged onto the Plaza de Obraidoro on a surprisingly cool and sunlit day, weary and exhausted, but grateful that we had completed our quest.

Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining – After days of slogging through muddy trails in drenched gear and miserable hiking conditions, we finally reached the Cathedral of St. James in Santiago de Compostela in marvelous weather of 14 C and a lot of sun. Each pilgrim had achieved a personal goal – the fulfillment of a vow, the beholding of a holy place, the surpassing of a test of endurance, or quite simply the surmounting of odds. We celebrated the end of an ordeal with our newly found friends in one moving, gratifying and soul-stirring moment.

And when in Spain, any pilgrim with a predilection for pens always plunges into another pursuit – the search for a grail writing instrument, in this case the rarefied limited edition Inxocrom “Caravel 1920.”

The Calm Before The Storm – Inoxcrom created its “Caravel 1920” in 1992 to coincide with the 500th anniversary of America’s founding. Oblivious to the threat of legal action, it had a Montblanc-looking two-tone nib embossed with the image of a caravel, that 15th-century sailing vessel not unlike those that escorted the “Santa Maria” on Christopher Columbus’s maiden voyage to the New World in 1492. The “1920,” on the other hand, was a tribute to the decade that was considered at the time to be the era when fountain pens were at their most popular.

In 1992, Barcelona-based Inoxcrom (a portmanteau of the Spanish words “inoxidable” and “cromo,” or “stainless steel”) embarked on a new design that, unwittingly or not, evoked the iconic Montblanc “144,” the “145,” the “Classique,” the “Traveller” and other similar models. Founded in Barcelona by Manuel Vaque Ferrandis in 1942, the Spanish pen maker initially only manufactured nibs, until it expanded into branded writing instruments eight years later. Deciding to create a flagship model in the Nineties, Inoxcrom produced the same cigar-shaped form in black resin, an eerily similar clip and two-tone nib, a screw-on cap with three gold-plated rings (the middle ring wider than the other two), and a ring at the turning knob (even if it was not a piston-filler). And before long, a storm was brewing in the horizon. Montblanc, possibly the most counterfeited fountain pen in the world, felt that the design of the “Caravel 1920” was strikingly similar to its “144,” and had overstepped the bounds of mere flattery onto outright infringement of copyright, and therefore proceeded to launch legal action. You might say Inoxcrom was stealing their thunder.

To avoid prosecution, Inoxcrom went through various design innovations, taking out one of the three cap bands, replacing the threaded cap with a slip-on, using a single-tone nib, and reducing the overall girth of the next generation “Caravel II 1920.” In the meantime, the controversial original model disappeared from the market within the same year of its introduction, elevating it to legendary status among Spanish collectors, until its beginnings eventually became shrouded in mystery.

In The Cold Light Of Day – To the trained eye, the short-lived Inoxcrom “Caravel 1920” was eerily similar to the Meisterstuck series, save for the latter’s signature snow cap emblem on the finial. And as it turned out, it wasn’t too far off from the design of two Japanese pens either. From right to left: the Inxocrom “Caravel 1920,” the Montblanc “Meisterstuck 146,” the Sailor “1911,” and the Platinum “3776” fountain pens.

Yet, despite the uncanny resemblance of the Sailor “1911” and Platinum “3776” to the “Meisterstuck,” Montblanc did not similarly denounce these Japanese manufacturers for plagiarism. The German firm was perhaps prepared to be imitated in the Far East, but could not risk a similar-looking European-made pen of equal quality but selling at a much lower price point.

Given the short-lived debut of the “Caravel 1920,” the search for a specimen was like chasing rainbows. Driving in Northern Spain through Ovieda, Santillanes, Comillas, Santander, Bilbao, Donostia-San Sebastian and Pamplona, all pen dealers I sought didn’t have the foggiest idea where to source it, and I was about to accept that my search was dead in the water. I was in a dry spell, until I located Julia Gusano, a vintage pen dealer for the last 40 years who had set up her shop – Trade Art Sociedad Limitada Almoneda – at No. 84 Calle Zurbano in Madrid.

Getting Wind Of Something – After a seemingly fruitless hunt for the elusive pen, an Internet search of vintage shops in Madrid led me to the Cronicas Estilograficas site, and an address of the proprietress who “speaks English.” Inside an obscure and unremarkable apartment building along Calle Zurbano that a casual tourist would have found impossible to locate, I entered a small, gray door with a casually taped paper sign, and stepped into an extraordinary, almost preternatural, pen shop. I had to momentarily hold my breath at the sight of an Old World establishment literally crammed and overflowing to the seams with vintage writing instruments, ancient ink wells, glass pen rests, tin signage and so many other related impedimenta. I had reached fountain pen nirvana.

The amiable Espanola regaled me with tales of the enigmatic Spanish pen maker, and then produced a boxed and magnificently preserved specimen of the object of my pursuit – the now-obscure Inxocrom “Caravel 1920.” Dip-testing the pen produced a smooth and flowing script from a nib that was actually more substantial than the Montblanc’s, and with an overall feel that was just as hefty. Absent the transparent ink window and the finial’s insignia, it was difficult to tell the two pens apart, and the Inoxcrom’s acquiescence to withdraw its flagship brand from the market only served to create a demanding, if not delightful, challenge to the collecting community at large.

Two weeks before that day, I had completed my pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela despite the rough terrain, constant rains and cloudy skies. But on this fateful day, I had also finished my quest for a truly collectible pen, and I was on Cloud Nine.

When It Rains, It Pours – Julia’s shop was a treasure trove of Inoxcrom pens, both dated and more recent, but all difficult to find and collect, given that the founder had died in 2009, and efforts by his feuding sons to revive the brand had not been a ringing success. From bottom to top: The “77” (with a profile uncannily like the Parker 45’s), the “Paris,” the “Sirocco,” the “Andreas” (valued more highly as its nib is embossed with the “Caravel 1920” instead of the usual “World” emblem, due to the overproduction of the latter for the otherwise short-lived flagship pen), the “Mistral” and the “Vista.”

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