Coming to town - the pen worth $1.7 million

This time-honoured practice is regaining favour as people aspire to correspondence with the personal touch.

It is studded with 850 diamonds set in 18-carat white gold. It travels with a security guard and, when it arrives in Sydney in November, a handful of eye-poppingly wealthy people will make private appointments to see it.

The $1.7 million object is not a princess's coronet, nor a celebrity's red-carpet bling. It is, er, a pen.

About six people have expressed interest in buying the Swiss-made fountain pen when it arrives at Barbara Nichol's Sydney store, Pen-Ultimate. She won't say who they are but her clients have included Bette Midler ("she bought a $1200 fountain pen for herself and one for her husband"), John Laws ("he collects pens") and Barry Humphries ("he likes colourful pens - never goes anywhere without one tucked in his pocket").

For those looking for a budget option, there is a brass-and-platinum version with a gold nib and a ruby at its tip. It costs $15,000. Nichol also stocks a $395 pencil, which comes with a brass-and-platinum pencil extender to lengthen its grip. She sells ball pens and roller balls, too, but in recent years fountain pens have dominated her sales. Demand is so high that in 10 years, her business has expanded from two stores to six.

"Cursive writing is rarely done by the younger generation," she says. "But, more and more, people want to perfect their writing style and they want to use a nib and ink."

Since the advent of the computer, handwriting has become a dying skill. Now, like knitting and antique jewellery, it has vintage appeal.

"I think ballpoint pens destroyed people's handwriting before the computer did," the president of the Australian Society of Calligraphers, Susan Tyler, says. "The computer made it worse but now people are realising how much nicer it is to receive a handwritten letter or a card."

There are only a few professional calligraphers in Sydney but they get plenty of work. Heather Courtis works five days a week, inscribing careful letters on wedding invitations, certificates and restaurant menus. She also teaches three-hour classes with boutique short-course company The Mulberry Institute.

At a recent class, Kate Fredriksen, a 30-year-old graphic designer, looked longingly at Courtis's even copperplate. Fredriksen, who creates stationery through The Couture Correspondence Company, has long been embarrassed by her "chicken scratch" handwriting.

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"If you study graphic design, it's all by computer," she says.

"If you're lucky, you get to use a scanner so you can do things by hand. It's such a pity ... I love combining the old with the new. Calligraphy is so beautiful and rare.

"I've never come across anyone who doesn't like it."

Calligraphy takes years to master. Even after decades of experience, Courtis writes slowly and precisely, taking time to shape each letter.

At Pen-Ultimate, Nichol offers an alternative to years of study. A former high school teacher, she promises to improve anyone's handwriting with a five-minute tutorial. Her pupils have included schoolchildren, university students, lawyers and doctors. Often, she helps business people develop signatures to be scanned and printed on all their correspondence.

"Sometimes they're embarrassed by their handwriting but often they just want to enjoy making lines on a page," she says. "People are yearning for refinement and quality. The computer does all the grunt work but handwritten lines should be beautiful."

The Mulberry Institute will host calligraphy classes at Restaurant Balzac, Randwick, Sydney on October 20 and November 17. See mulberryinstitute.com.au.

Add an elegant flourish

Arriving for Barbara Nichol's handwriting tutorial with a red plastic felt-tip is akin to taking a stroll with Manolo Blahnik in a pair of rubber thongs. Nichol, a handwriting expert and pen specialist, is too tactful to react. Surrounded by gold-tipped fountain pens and cut-glass ink pots in her Sydney store, Pen-Ultimate, she asks me to write my name.

I scribble my usual looping L, a collection of smaller vowels and consonants and a last name that goes on and on.

"Well," Nichol says. "You're writing is actually quite nice but look at the way you're holding the pen."

My grip — two fingers squashed together on top, thumb squeezing hard enough to bend a flimsy biro — is a long-standing problem. At high school and university, 15 minutes of essay writing would send spasms through my wrist to my shoulder. Still, it feels unnatural to write any other way.

"Probably your hand was undeveloped when you were taught to write," Nichol says, placing the pen between my fore and middle fingertips, thumb resting lightly on the side. "If you were a lady in the court of Louis XIV everyone would say: 'How unfortunate.' A lady must hold her pen as elegantly as she holds her fan."

This lady has never held a fan — elegantly or otherwise. Nor do I spend much time holding a pen. Apart from shorthand scrawled in a notebook, most of my writing is tapped on to a screen. Why bother to improve my style?

"Because you want to experience a connection to the divine mind," Nichol says. "Making these lines is like a prayer." Oh. Right. And for those less spiritually minded? "Well, you'd be able to fly across the page. You could do flourishes and you wouldn't have any of that stress in your hand."

At Nichol's instruction, I ink a string of u's across the page, flicking an upward stroke from each to attach the next. The trick, she says, is narrow letters with wide spaces in between.

U's mastered, we move on to a's and then return to my name. Nichol writes my initials in undulating curves; an elongated L and an S as curly as a treble clef. After a few wobbly attempts, I've got it.

"Yes!" she says. "Look at that! You'll mesmerise people with that S." I will?

"Yes, you will," she says.

"That's what you need to do — fascinate people.

"But, let me tell you, you don't do yourself any favours with that red pen."

Five-minute handwriting tutorials, Pen-Ultimate, Queen Victoria Building, city, 9264 4992, free.

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