A few months ago I was browsing through a linen-covered wooden folio of engraved paper in the Rome branch of Pineider, Italy's most elegant stationer. I was revisiting a youthful fascination with lettering and paper—one that extended from my childhood, when I exploited my older brother's interest in letterpress printing to obtain my first personalized stationery, through early trips abroad, when I visited engravers and wished I could afford to place an order. Twenty years ago, when the dollar was strong against the lire, I spent whole afternoons poring over the choices at Pineider's flagship store, in Florence, finally settling on a typeface and paper. The design I chose—simple but peculiarly Italian block capitals, printed in gray ink on gray-bordered paper and heavy cards—became as fixed a part of my identity as gray flannels during the week, khakis on weekends, and stopping at every pastry shop.
My taste in typefaces may have shifted slightly over two decades, but not my belief in the primacy of the letter—the noblest and certainly the pleasantest form of communication. A handwritten note remains the only real acknowledgment of a gift or a kindness, and I disapprove of another person's delay in sending one nearly as strongly as I do of my own. I never discard handwritten cards and letters, luxuriating in their look and feel on receipt and again during infrequent and usually unsuccessful attempts to store them in an orderly way. And nothing is as handsome, or as serious in intent, as engraved paper.
Recently my sister and brother-in-law found the house they'd been looking for, the one in which they plan to see their young children into adulthood. To mark the occasion my family gave them engraved house stationery, with the address as letterhead. We ordered it from Crane, the U.S. equivalent of Pineider in history and reputation. As I looked through Crane's books of stationery, I thought again about matching typeface and paper to a sense of self. Learning that Crane produces its paper and personalized stationery in my state, Massachusetts, prompted me to visit the company to see firsthand a process that had helped define me. And knowing I would be in Italy made me decide to compare what I saw at Crane with the way things are done nowadays at Pineider.
Things had changed in Italy: not the beauty of the displays or the correctness of the tailored salespeople but the vast choice of typefaces I remembered being both bewildered and enchanted by. Now there were just seven, a salesman told me, as he opened a large binder of cardboard pages—the most popular and classic styles. I glanced at the shaded and cursive and unornamented faces, both comforted and vaguely disappointed that they included a version of my plain block capitals. Wasn't anything else available? I asked.
Eventually the folio containing stationery ordered over several decades appeared, accompanied by the man who had served most of the customers whose paper it contained. Carlo Bertolaccini has sold Pineider stationery in Rome for forty-four years. He looks something like John Gielgud and speaks with a reserve that seems to cloak wit and a deep understanding of human desires. The factory in Florence might or might not be able to reproduce any style that caught my eye, Bertolaccini told me; young people willing to apprentice themselves to a skilled engraver are rare, and the lifetime artisans are retiring or gone. The seven styles in the new book are typeset by computer, and the dies are created by acid bath rather than incised by hand start to finish—as every die was until five or so years ago. Hand-etched "classico" dies are still offered as a higher-priced alternative to typeset dies. But he couldn't guarantee that any of the remaining artisans would be willing or able to etch a typeface long out of use.
As I turned over sheet after sheet, Bertolaccini pointed out letterheads and colors he found particularly successful, occasionally seizing one as if it were an old friend and holding it up to the light. Then I saw a very familiar gray-bordered sheet, and my own name.
Unlike Pineider, Crane uses only computers to create the lettering for its dies, having decided decades ago to digitize the typefaces it offers and to keep a wide range in active use. Despite the abandonment of hand-incised typefaces, a remarkable amount of the work that goes into Crane's stationery is still done by hand, I discovered when I drove last winter to its factory in North Adams, a scrappy former mill town in the northwest corner of Massachusetts. Long economically depressed, though proud of its history and its commanding position high in the Berkshires, North Adams has recently seen a revival with the opening of Mass MOCA, a contemporary-arts center in a renovated textile-factory complex.
The plant where Crane, a family firm marking its 200th anniversary this year, produces its engraved stationery is a few miles down the road from Mass MOCA, in a bland modern building the company has occupied since 1988. "We thought we'd be playing soccer in here," Ed Czarnecki, the director of product development, told me as he gestured toward a large factory floor covered with a haphazard assortment of presses and work tables. "Instead we've grown by leaps and bounds." The continued activity on the printing floor as afternoon turned to evening testified to the solid three to five percent annual rise in engraved-stationery sales in the 1990s—years when e-mail was theoretically replacing posted letters, and when PCs and laser printers put graphic design and stationery production within reach of anyone. The desire for something palpable, handsome, and handmade (or at least partially handmade) apparently endures.
The second floor has been fortified to bear the weight of the die archive, which is housed in an appealing jumble of wooden-drawered file cabinets and steel shelves. The small, heavy dies are wrapped in white paper and string; some are filed by name, others by number. The many-ton library represents only ten years' worth of names. Every year, Czarnecki told me, the factory ships off dies that have remained dormant for ten years. I had imagined that a die would be kept forever. Melting one down seems akin to trying to recycle someone's soul.
The first aisle we walked through was devoted, surprisingly, to Tiffany: Crane has produced all of the store's stationery since 1977, and also makes most of Cartier's personalized stationery and Christmas cards. It produces a separate line of watermarked paper and boxes and a specially designed typeface for each company. (Later, above a work station, I saw a large robin's-egg-blue Tiffany box marked BIG RUBBER BANDS.) Almost no one else produces engraved stationery in the United States: Dempsey & Carroll, a Baltimore company with stores in Washington and New York, may be the only other company with a national presence.
"When it comes to the social-stationery game, there are not many players," Czarnecki said. "It's a tough business. There's a high volume of small orders, all of them custom. You can't just lock up the press and run it. Every day we get hundreds of calls asking to step up an order or pull it in the middle of production to make a change. We go through every order sheet by sheet, doing cleaning and eraser work. We tie the ribbons on each birth announcement and count and band every box." Czarnecki, a carefully dressed man, joined the company forty-four years ago.