Moscow-based BENU pen makers bring Russian history to contemporary design

January 29, 2020

 BENU's "Royal Purple" Minima fountain pen

 

In this day of all things digital, there’s still a sizable and growing market for fans of the antiquated fountain pen.

 

Enter BENU a young and growing pen company based in Moscow and named for the Egyptian sunbird identified with the sun god Ra, creator of the universe and giver of life.

 

“Periodically renewing itself like the sun, BENU is a symbol of constant changes, recurrence, renovations,” says Kate Dmitrieva, who launched BENU with Alex Semanin in January, 2016.

 

 BENU's Kate Dmetrieva and Alex Semanin

 

“The name reflects our feelings about the history of writing instruments,” Dmitrieva explains. “Changing throughout centuries, in today’s digital world handwriting has become more of an art than a communication tool. Pens are much less needed nowadays, as we have computers, tablets and smartphones. Yet interest in stylish writing instruments among trendsetters remains high. Moreover, an expensive and stylish pen becomes not only a tool, but also an important accessory. A beautiful pen is a status symbol that reflects the personal taste of its owner. The art of writing is reinvented and redefined again.”

 

At BENU this reinventing and redefining is manifest in a line of fountain pens marked by beautiful and elegant design as well as functionality.

 

“Our collections are inspired by different things, and we try to convey the feeling behind the inspiration with the collections’ name,” says Dmitrieva. “For example, the shape of the pens from the Briolette collection was inspired by the beautiful and elegant type of gemstone cut. Minima pens were initially designed to be pocket pens, so the name transfers the idea perfectly. The Supreme collection was the first collection of BENU pens that had large nibs and relatively large body size. They were initially intended to be more sophisticated and massive than our other models.”

 

BENU’s Hexagon collection was obviously named after the main pattern used in the pen’s design, says Dmitrieva, with the name of each pen representing one side of the hexagon--as it is usually symbolized in geometry by a single letter.

 

“The design of the pens from the Tessera collection was inspired by mosaic art,” she says, noting that its key design element is a tessera--an individual cube-shaped tile used to create a mosaic.

 

“The Tattoo collection was created as a tribute to the most unconventional forms of modern art—tattooing,” she continues. “The main feature of the pens from the Chameleon collection is that they are made from incredible chameleon-like material allowing pens to change colors depending on the angle.”

 

Dmitrieva partially credits her pens’ “pronounced character and distinguishing design” for their uniqueness.

 

“You won’t mistake our pens for any other from the first time you look at them,” she notes. “They also have a strong emotional context: You either love the design or hate it, but you’ll rarely feel indifferent. Our pens create a strong visual statement that is sometimes bold, sometimes a bit whimsical or kitschy, but never ordinary or dull. And we love that despite our off-beat design, there are so many people who appreciate our product. It is such a joy to share your vision and creativity with those who have the same passion and taste for bright, colorful, and sometimes provocative design.”

 

She further cites “the indecipherability” of each BENU pen.

 

“Handmade production, and our proprietary methodologies and processes, ensure that every single pen has unique patterns and color combinations that can never be repeated. Such one-of-a-kind characteristics are usually attributes of luxury high-end products often made in limited editions, while with BENU pens, even with the models that retail for $70, you can be absolutely sure they are truly unique.”

 

Additionally, Dmitrieva hails BENU’s exclusive material, produced in-house and created from scratch: “We neither sell our acrylic material nor buy it from third parties--as many pen manufactures do. This means that you won’t find such finish and material in any other brand except BENU.”

 

She and Semanin introduced BENU in 2016 with its first Minima pen collection.

 

“Alex was creating pens. I was trying my best to handle the rest--sales, marketing, logistics, finance, etc.,” she says. “We began to work with our first retailers and hired more people to join our small team at the end of 2017.”

 

They had originally worked together in the fine watch industry, where both started up several projects over the last decade.

 

“Alex graduated from the Saint Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts in 1996 and then spent over 10 years in the decorative arts and jewelry design and production,” says Dmitrieva. “In 2007 he joined Nika--the largest Russian manufacturer of jewelry, watches and accessories--as a designer, and in two years became the director of product development and innovation.”

 

Under Semanin’s supervision, says Dmitrieva, Nika successfully debuted several collections of gold and silver writing instruments, accessories and watches.

 

“Besides creating jewelry, watches, and accessories, he restored antiques and old paintings. But he particularly enjoyed his involvement in pen design and production, and decided to create his own line of writing instruments.”

 

Dmitrieva at that time was a general manager for Konstantin Chaykin--a Russian company producing and marketing high-end mechanical watches and clocks. Sharing Semanin’s zeal for writing instruments, they launched BENU as a new brand of pens and accessories.

 

“Both of us are also big fans of Russian decorative and applied art of the 19th century,” says Dmitrieva, citing inspiration from masters such as Faberge, Lorie, Khlebnikov, Ovchinnikov, and Sazikov: “These masters managed to elevate ordinary things for everyday use to masterpieces: desks and writing accessories, small cases and boxes, table clocks, cigarette tins, tableware, and various home décor items. They were arty, bright, sparkly, creative and very trendy back then.”

 

While most collectors and fountain pen enthusiasts have only heard about pens produced in the Soviet Era, the history of writing instruments and desk accessories in Russia, as Dmitrieva notes, actually goes much further back.

 

“The reason not much is known about those who produced writing instruments in Russia lies in the Russian Revolution of 1917,” she explains. “First and foremost, many local businesses and manufactures ceased to exist after the mass immigration of their owners. Moreover, all the records, documents, and artifacts were deliberately destroyed by Bolsheviks to ensure there would be no succession. In Soviet schools, we all were taught that ‘illiterate, uneducated, and hindward Czarist Russia’ didn’t have any manufacturers and imported almost everything. Because of all this, we know so little about the producers of pens and desk accessories prior to 1917, and compile information from antique auctions and remaining artifacts. Of course, we had prominent manufacturers in Russia back then!”

 

In 18th and 19th century Russia, she continues, “literacy and writing skills were the attributes of well-bred and well-educated people that had respect in the society and an ability to earn good money. So people always tried to flourish lavish, luscious writing and desk accessories, displaying them front and center so that others would have no doubts that this was a desk of a literate man.”

 

She salutes “respected manufacturers and masters like Faberge, Sazikov, Kurlykov, and Agafonov” for producing beautiful inkstands, dip pens, pen wipers, ink blotters, and various desk accessories of superb quality in large quantities.

 

“Exquisite porcelain inkwells, figurine paperweights, and fancy pen holders made by the Imperial Porcelain Factory and Gardner Porcelain Factory were arrayed in the houses of wealthy families. Enameled and bejeweled paper knives, boxes for nibs, and business card trays by Ovchinnikov, Khlebnikov, and Klingert were valuable art pieces and status symbols of the privileged.”

 

Besides silver, porcelain, and crystal desk accessories, Russian factories once produced high quality steel nibs for pens, according to Dmitrieva.

 

“The bulk production of nibs in Russia started in the mid-1880s with three major factories: the first Russian manufacturer of steel nibs of A.E Krutovsky in Moscow--that later became A.A. Gryazev and then G.M. Kreutzer--the steel nibs manufacturer К. Vasilevsky and Co. in Warsaw, and the steel nibs Russian Production Company in Riga. At the beginning of the 20th century, only one of the three major factories survived—the former first Russian manufacturer of steel nibs of G.M. Kreutzer. The factory was nationalized and substantially downsized, and under the new regime, the factory went bankrupt very fast.”

 

During the Soviet Era, there were several factories that produced pens and stationery, notes Dmitrieva, namely Soyuz LPO in Leningrad, the Sacco & Vanzetti Moscow Pencil Factory, the Kharkiv factory Orgtehnika, the plastic products factory Ausma in Riga, and the Yaroslavl factory Orgtehnika, among them.

 

“The most prominent and successful among these was probably the Yaroslavl factory Orgtehnika. Collectors still have many beautiful fountain pens produced by it.”

 

But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, “history repeated itself,” says Dmitrieva.

 

“The entire industry of writing instruments collapsed again as it did hundreds of years ago in Czarist Russia. The only difference is that it did not leave as many artifacts and valued collectible items as the factories in Czarist Russia did. On the other hand, we know about the industrial history of the Soviet Union a bit more than we know about that of Russia of the Czarist era, simply because there was not so much evidence destruction after the demise of the Soviet Union.”

 

Cutting to the present, Dmitrieva notes that “in our technological era, we are used to paying more attention to the functionality and efficiency of things rather than the artistry and creativity of its design. It is definitely not a bad thing but sometimes I feel that we are just missing the pleasure that comes from the visually creative and authentically pleasing look of everyday items. You can write down anything you want with an ordinary plastic pen or even type anything on your gadget but for me, there is a special joy in being able to write the same thing down with a beautiful and artful writing instrument. Such small things can brighten one’s day and keep you amused. So, in our concept of the product, visual appeal and distinction play a crucial role.”

 

But the main reason for BENU’s success (“our product very quickly became available in almost every world region, acquiring international recognition among users of fine writing instruments within a very short period of time”) is the founders’ love for writing instruments.

 

“It is much easier to produce and market the product you are passionate about,” says Dmitrieva, “so we started our business with what we both love and know. At the same time, fountain pens are not the only subject of our interest and admiration, although one of the major ones. We have a few more things up our sleeves and look forward to expanding our product line with more products in the future.”

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