Of bad arguments, apologetics and precious resin…

So Dr. Jonathon Deans is at it again. His latest post is about Montblancs use of the term “precious resin”, and it is a trainwreck. To explain the point I’m coming from I would like to preface this post by telling you that I am a native German speaker (this will be quite useful later on), I have a background in journalism and I am a scientifically minded rationalist and skeptic. Here’s my response:

One of the more perplexing things about our community is the lengths that some members will go to in order to support the firms which provide for us and sustain the hobby – the manufacturers, distributors, and retailers – but some of those very same members will dig the boot into one particular brand, Montblanc, without hesitation.

Well, thats almost as perplexing as Deans making unwarranted claims about Lamy and attacking the people that enjoy their pens on Twitter earlier this year. It seems to me that we have a bad case of a pot calling a kettle black here.

It’s quite common to see the claim made that Montblanc pens aren’t really made from ‘precious resin’ but from plastic. Often, it’s followed with the argument that Montblanc have chosen a fancy name for a common material and somehow use this terminology to convince stupid customers to pay huge amounts for low-cost pens.

The use of “It’s quite common…” without giving examples or sources reeks of a hidden “I feel like this is how it is”. But is that really the argument that we see when we talk about Montblanc and their use of the term “precious resin”? I never got that impression.

Deans makes a case that the term is made out to be “marketing magic” that “enables them to dupe their customers” if it works. It obviously isn’t as Deans rightfully points out. He also truthfully points out that “precious resin” is not used in sales pitches. But does the criticism he is trying to dismantle here ring true? It doesn’t, at least to me…

He than points fingers at Pelikan and Faber Castel and , buhu, shouldn’t we criticize them in the same way?

I think Deans is fundamentally misunderstanding (or is suspect misrepresenting) the criticism that people aim at Montblanc and their use of the term “precious resin”. I have never seen claims that their use of the term is a reason for people to buy MB pens and that they are being conned. My impression and a much more reasonable point is that people are ridiculing Montblanc for using the term to hide the mundane origins of their materials because they sell exclusively to the premium market segment, at what people perceive to be even higher prices. And I think that is justified. A flagship Montblanc compared to a flagship Pelikan in Germany is a 200€ step up.

Enthusiasts like us see right through it of course. We know that “precious resin” is not a naturally occurring material but a man made artificial substance. And we wouldn’t mind. We just ridicule the slight of hand that is used to hide it while charging premium prices. Montblanc does have a big customer base of non-enthusiasts though, just because they are known as the luxury pen brand. And I don’t think it is a stretch to say that these people are not aware of what “precious resin” actually means. An there lies a problem, a potentially unethical sales tactic.

The third problem is that the resin isn’t equivalent to plastic – especially not the ABS plastic that most of us think when we hear the term.

Is it not? It is all just processed petroleum, isn’t it? Is Montblancs plastic manufactured differently than other plastics? Probably. Is that process more difficult and labor intensive? Maybe. Does that make the material better or of higher quality? Well, that’s your personal and subjective judgment.

Can you really argue that the term “precious resin” has been coined to disguise the mundane origin of the materials?

Yes, apparently Deans can. In his apologetics for a pen brand he enjoys he is arguing for a simple error in translation.

The German term Montblanc uses for the material is “Edelharz” (please mind the capital “E” Jonathon, all nouns start with a capital letter in German).

“Harz” is resin, no argument here. So the issue apparently is with the term “edel”.

I can see why the confusion exists, I can’t come up with a straight translation either. The word is defined by the Duden (the German standard dictionary) as:

  1. of noble birth (outdated), pure or high breed
  2. well mannered, well intended
  3. harmonic, of pleasant shape, exquisite, high quality

All things that you would like to have in a material for a premium pen, no question, and Montblanc probably uses a very high quality plastic as their “precious resin”.

That’s not enough for Deans though. He goes through a made up train of thought of someone translating the term, comes up with “exclusive” which would be fine with me because it changes little from “precious”. “Exclusive” is just as ambiguous as “precious”, it expresses scarcity and higher quality and would deserve the same ridicule if it were used by Montblanc.

Deans goes a step further by proposing “proprietary” for being synonymous with “exclusive”. I don’t think these are synonymous at all, but even worse, “proprietary” is completely removed from the German origin. When a native speaker reads the word “Edelharz” in Montblancs materials, she would never arrive at a meaning that means “proprietary”. “Edelharz” does not express that the material is proprietary to Montblanc. It actually expresses a high quality naturally occurring tree sap. Which it is not.

So what do we have here? I would say that Montblanc very deliberately uses both “Edelharz” and “precious resin” to obscure the fact that it is in fact a plastic (of high quality, no argument there) to support their image of luxury goods and premium prices.

Deans post irks me, like so many of his posts. I get the impression that he is not very self aware, engages in behavior that he has criticized in others, is apologetic about a brand that is close to his heart. He talks with confidence about things that he later on freely admits to having no facts to base his arguments on (“precious resin” not being an ordinary plastic but stating that he has no knowledge of the actual chemistry and I assume the manufacturing process). He makes false analogies by talking about vintage celluloids and how they are perceived differently by the community. Yes, but for being vintage (so, nostalgia…) and aesthetically pleasing, mostly. I don’t think anybody would object to the fact that celluloid is plastic, albeit a nice one.

I wish Deans would be more careful with his opinion pieces. Or stick to his area of expertise. He has a tendency extrapolate wildly, to make up strawmen just to knock them down. Being so aware of his sloppy arguments and thinking in his writing on issues I have some expertise in has made it impossible for me to trust his views on economics, where I have little. It’s a shame, really.

One thought on “Of bad arguments, apologetics and precious resin…”

  1. Couple of years ago, when I was digging into the fountain pen industry, someone recommended his blog to me. Back then, the majority of his arguments were at the level “I see it this way” without any intention to look for factual information or to check his speculations. Apparently, it’s still the same.

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