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Style File

Stationery, writing implements offer a stylish personal touch

Write on

Botanical Notecards
Botanical Notecards from the Botanical Gardens Collection by Bumblebee Press.  

By Gail O'Neill

(CNN) -- In 1845, a reclusive English spinster who was living under her tyrannical father's roof began corresponding with an admirer. She was a poet and the man, a fellow poet who was six years her junior, was a fan.

In time, admiration turned to love and the two exchanged 574 letters over the next 20 months.

Elizabeth Barrett eventually eloped with Robert Browning, sharing 15 years as husband and wife before she died in his arms.

Their time together was limited by mortality, but the letters they left behind are an enduring testament to a profound connection -- and one of the greatest gifts to modern literature.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight

These days, whether or not they read like Barrett Browning's "Sonnets From the Portuguese," sentiments like these can be transmitted from Tokyo to Texarkana with the click of a mouse.

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But Melanie Nerenberg, marketing director at Kate's Paperie in Manhattan, would argue that such convenience has come at a substantial price.

"Internet communication is appealing because it is affordable and convenient ... and initially such perks appear to be consequence-free. But just as our society once regarded fast foods and frozen TV dinners as wonderful innovations, in time we understood that they lacked substance," she says.

Not to mention style. After all, when was the last time you received an e-mail that began with a salutation, reflected any regard for the rules of punctuation and ended with a bona fide signature?

And let's not forget the unique charm that only the mailman can deliver.

"A handwritten letter, whatever the content is poetic and enduring by nature," says Julie Franklin, creator of a stationery line called Bumblebee Press.

"There is something about holding a letter in your hand," seconds Nerenberg. "The sender and receiver both benefit from the exchange. It is sensual. Tactile. You can see the impression of hand on the page and you can determine how forceful the pen strokes were."

Sadly, as more users log on to the electronic bandwagon, fewer young people will ever know the pleasures of corresponding the way their parents did -- and there is no discernable movement to reverse the trend.

note cards
Cartier Bull & Bear notecard with handlined envelope.  

Lorraine Littles, the stationery consultant for Cartier's flagship store on Madison Avenue in New York, observes that "letter writing is a dying art."

However, Littles acknowledges that she still serves two camps of clients who steadfastly refuse to relinquish the finer things in life. "My Upper East Side clients and Southerners ... I don't know what it is, but Southern ladies love their fine stationery! They represent, to me, the last bastion of sophistication, with their deep appreciation for tradition."

The rest of us would do well to follow the lead of these aficionados, says Littles. In a world where poor form has become the norm, something as small as a handwritten letter on a beautiful sheet of paper can elevate the writer's status in the mind of the receiver.

"When you want to impress upon a recipient a 'thank you' ... for a lovely dinner, an invitation to a bar mitzvah, an introduction to a business contact ... nothing expresses sincerity of emotion like a handwritten note. They relay a genuine expression from the heart, and provide a view of one's soul," she says.

Littles is an avid chronicler of her family's history, and some of her most prized possessions are letters, penned by ancestors, which have been passed on to her. She is determined to contribute her link to that chain for the sake of her twin boys, Charlie and James.

"When I write a letter today, it will still exist 50 years from now and my loved ones will be able to share it with their loved ones," she says. "It's a family documentation ... an heirloom."

"Rhodium" fountain pen from the Ogiva Collection by Omas.  

Not far from Littles' lair at Cartier is Michael Giannattasio of Omas Pens. He's come to the same conclusion. "People need instruments that link them to the past," stresses the brand director, "and a fountain pen is a beautiful reminder of communication with stylish execution."

Established in 1918, Omas is the only company that produces all pens by hand -- a process that takes 100 days per pen. But Giannattasio is quick to acknowledge that with each purchase his customers walk away with more than just a writing instrument.

"As a representative of Omas I sell not only fountain pens, but deceleration," he says. "The act of using a fountain pen requires forethought and patience on the user's part. The process is ritualistic ... almost luxurious ... and it cannot be rushed. One must select one's ink color, open the cap of the inkwell, submerge the nib of the pen, and extract ink. Fountain pens encourage us to take our time."

That sensibility is never lost on Giannattasio.

"I recently interviewed three candidates for a job opening at Omas, and received three thank-you notes immediately after. One was typed, one was written in ball point and one was scripted with a fountain pen. Which candidate do you think stood apart from his peers in my mind and got the job?"

Point taken!

The "Atlantide" is one of 30 pens in a limited edition.

"Atlantide" by Omas  

It was designed by Gianluca Malaguti Simoni, grandson of Omas founder Armando Simoni, and tells the story of the city of Atlantis. Each pen retails for $30,000.

"Using e-mail to extend an invitation and/or as a note of thanks is appropriate only when you cannot reach the recipient any other way," advises Nerenberg.

Letterpress by Bumblebee Press  

"In which case, you should only use it as a tool to request the recipient's contact information."

And don't even think of saying "Happy Mother's Day" or "Happy Father's Day" electronically, unless you don't mind being referred to by mom and dad as "that thoughtless, insensitive, ungrateful wretch we should have disowned long ago!"

While working on window and floor displays for Barnes & Noble bookstore in New York's Union Square, Clymenza Hawkins found "there was a dearth of uplifting images of women of color."

"Lisa" by Clymenza Hawkins  

So the fine arts photographer created a series of winged heroines using a collage-photomontage technique -- and the Chrysalis Collection of greeting cards took flight. "I wanted to make an impact," she says, "but it wasn't until women came up to me -- some crying! -- saying, 'Your card came to me just when I needed it most,' did I realize how powerful those images could be."

Selecting stationery can be a daunting task for the uninitiated, but Crane's (which manufactures the paper that U.S. currency is printed on) is a great place to start. Just keep the following guidelines in mind:

Notecards by Kate's Paperie
Notecards by Kate's Paperie  

  • Less is more: When choosing stationery always err on the side of quiet conservatism
  • Invest in fine writing paper: Cotton or linen half sheets and hand-lined envelopes in white or ecru
  • Folded, monogrammed note cards are fine for social correspondence -- but inappropriate for business
  • "Cute" is not attractive when it comes to doing business: Say goodbye to Hello Kitty stationery if you want to be taken seriously
  • Skip the sealing wax: "[It is] silly, affected and make[s] you appear pretentious," cautions Nerenberg




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