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Sethu Das | October 2010

The Queen, Gandhi and Limited Editions

The 'Political Design' edition of popular European design magazine 'Springerin' publishes the not-so discussed history of Montblanc International GmbH by Sethu Das and the Indian Creative Resistance against the usage of historic icons by Mont Blanc and Swisscom in order to generate more wealth.

'Springerin' (October 2010)

Original article in German published by European design magazine 'Springerin' (October 2010)

CHAIRMAN Mao Zedong believed and preached that "Together we could even move mountains".

And some people in the remotest corner of the Southern Indian state of Kerala literally moved Europe's most beautiful mountain range — Mont Blanc. A Public Interests Litigation (PIL) filed by the Centre for Consumer Education, a little-known organisation based at Kottayam, Kerala forced Montblanc International GmbH, Germany's most powerful luxury pen makers for the rich and the elite to give an undertaking before the court that it will neither market nor sell the most controversial pen — Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 241. The representatives of the company apologised to the nation for hurting the sentiments of the people and regretted the most expensive Indian controversy in the corporate history.

Four months after the ban of Gandhi Series pens in India, Montblanc International started the damage control. Lutz Bethge, the Mont Blanc CEO who launched "Gandhi as a global icon to communicate to the world the values of the company" now turned to the monarchy of England for rescue. The setback it had to suffer for insulting the father of the Indian nation had to be neutralised by featuring one of the most powerful personalities that represented an empire Gandhi once fought — Queen Elizabeth I.

When Design & People enquired with Montblanc International about the possibilities of 'owning' a Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 241, we were informed: "Dear customer, Please note we don't have the Gandhi series pen in our stock. Kindly inform us your direct contact number so that we can contact you once we have it in stock." To us the pen manufacturer seems to be confident of coming back to India to sell its Gandhi brand to the limited fortunate Indian buyers who would soon sign the fat cheques with the newly-owned Monntblanc. Considered to be the most expensive pen in the world, Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 241 in the name of a man who lived with the poor and like poor cost about one million Euros.

The Mont Blanc which has been featuring some of the greatest personalities like Ingrid Bergman, Earnest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Thomas Mann, Virginia Woolf and Oscar Wilde faced opposition only when it featured Gandhi. When the Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 241 was to pay homage to Gandhi and the 241 dusty miles he travelled during the historic Salt March to fight the British, the "Limited Edition Patron of Art Elizabeth I" was launched one of the most powerful and famous female monarch of Great Britain. When the Limited Edition cap carried a golden thread inspired by Gandhi's 'charka' and its white appearance to symbolise truth, the golden ornaments recalled the binding of the book "The Miroir or Glasse of the Synneful Soul". When the 18k golden nib engraved Royal Crown motif, the rhodium-plated 18 carat golden nib carried an engraved image of 'Bapu' — the father of a nation — through which the specially-formulated Mont Blanc ink could run through. The genius designers of Mont Blanc creatively and cautiously packaged every Limited Edition with deeper meanings to every design element used. But very few designers understand that meanings and interpretations are meaningless if the sole purpose of design is only to empower the elite and the powerful section of a society.

Mahatma Gandhi Limited Edition 241

When telecom giant Swisscom used images of Mahatma Gandhi to sell the newly launched BlackBerry handsets, Indians living in Switzerland protested the usage of Gandhi's image to sell a mobile devise. Design & People too protested by writing to the telecom giant to withdraw from the cheap campaign to lure customers. Many of us felt that neither the BlackBerry, one of the innovators of Mobile Technology nor Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led a very simple life need no publicity from a telecom firm. It is interesting to learn how Gandhi, a frail man with a low voice managed to speak to the millions of Indian during his mass campaigns and agitations. Gandhi also lived at a time when three hundred million Indians had only five thousand radio sets. In fact, he communicated with the people and the adversaries through his fasts. The news of his fast was published in newspapers and every newspaper reader communicated with other to listen for more news.

While alive, Gandhi used to advise money-minded photographers after photo sessions to contribute a part of their profit to the National Movement for Freedom. Swisscom can consider donating a portion of its profit to charity organisations in Switzerland after withdrawing from a substandard campaign using an icon of humanity and non-violence for their commercial returns.

Mahatma Gandhi and August Eberstein

Both Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led India to freedom and August Eberstein, founder of Montblanc International GmbH led revolutions in their own ways — one among ordinary masses, other among world leaders. There seem to be few things in common with both the personalities. It was in 1909 Mahatma Gandhi wrote 'Hind Swaraj', a root text that sparked off the Indian Nationalist Movement and it was also in 1909 August Eberstein fled to the United States after stealing the fortunes of Mont Blanc. With the formation of the Hitler's Nazi Party two decades later, the company started manufacturing luxury designer products for the Party members. Probably while Gandhi was busy writing to Herr Hitler to 'prevent a war that could reduce humanity to a savage state', Eberstein was busy manufacturing writing instruments for Adolf Hitler.

Like the American corporation IBM that once empowered the Nazis with the card punching equipment, Mont Blanc too empowered the Nazis with their luxury writing pens. The International Business Machines (IBM) computer is no more a hated product instead it empowers millions of people worldwide today even after the takeover by the Chinese computer giant Lenovo. And Mont Blanc continues to be the most favourite luxury writing pens for the rich and famous even in Third world countries like India. Former Indian Prime Ministers Jawaharlal Nehru and Rajiv Gandhi and many other nationalist congressmen were all enthusiastic Mont Blanc pen lovers. Empowering dirty military regimes and conveniently taking the side of democratic societies later is a usual tactic most corporate firms adapt. IBM and Mont Blanc are few among them.

Every time we hold a luxury Montblanc pen in our hand or use a Think Pad to communicate, we must remember that we are once again empowering the corporate firms that once collaborated with a brutal regime somewhere in the world and crushed civilian movements.

Design & People poster on Gandhi

Design & People post card that was sent to both Swisscom and Mont Blanc asking them to stop using historic icons to create history for profits.

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