Paper Swoon

In the age of e-mail, fine stationery has become the ultimate signifier.

As a striving free-lancer, I believe in the three note theory of success: i.e., send three flattering missives to the right people each day, and you’ll be at the top in no time. It doesn’t really matter what you write–but what you write on does matter. Stationery has always been important, but paper’s cachet as a cultural signifier has increased dramatically in the age of e-mail. While friends don’t care if you send them letters on recycled grocery bags, those who don’t know you will scrutinize the note–the paper, the letterhead–and judge you.

Cognizant of the perils of purchasing stationery, I start at the top, Cartier–arguably the snootiest stationer around. At the desk of the 52nd Street store in Manhattan, I find a stern saleswoman at the desk taking an order from “Mr. Ambassador” on the phone. She hangs up, looks at her watch, and says she can give me about 10 minutes–until the next ambassador, I guess. The first stationery she shows me is 32 pound (meaning that 500 stacked sheets of it will weigh that much). The sheet is thick enough to choke a Hewlett-Packard, which is the point, of course. It’s the preferred weight for writing paper, the maximum recommended for laser printers is 28 pound.

Before we discuss paper price, she informs me that the name and address die to engrave the stationery will cost $130. A little steep, I suggest. A die that includes a family crest is closer to $1,000, she says crisply, “and people enjoy leaving their address dies to others in their wills.”

We whip through some options–envelopes lined with tissue, beveling or indenting the sheet around the edge to create a border, stamping the family crest in gold–before we return to paper prices: Fifty ecru, note-sized sheets and matching envelopes go for $254, engraving included. (That’s about $5 a note.) The price for 50 business-sized sheets and envelopes is $259.50, and 50 6 inch by 4 inch note cards and envelopes cost $256.

My fingers glide across the soft paper like skates on a pond. And then the saleswoman lets it slip: Cartier’s paper is actually Crane’s 32 pound paper.

Stephen Crane made the paper for the first colonial bank notes back in 1776; Paul Revere did the engraving. Those new 20s in your wallet with the Andrew Jackson watermark are Crane & Co.’s handiwork. In addition to the U.S. Mint and the treasuries of 40 other countries, Crane supplies paper for about 3,000 retail stationers in the United States. The locations of Crane & Co.’s 13 outlets can be found on the firm’s Web site, and another page lets you search by ZIP code or international region for other retailers. (A Greenwich, Conn., calligrapher tells me that Tiffany & Co. also repackages Crane’s paper.)

“Most of our social stationery is 32 pound, 100 percent cotton rag,” says Leslie Reed, Crane’s manager of personal products. Cotton’s long fibers are what make paper soft. In the old days, all paper was made of cotton rags, hence the name. Today, most writing paper is made of 25 percent cotton and 75 percent wood pulp. The problem with wood pulp is that paper makers have to use acid to break it down–and the chemical never quits working. This explains why recently printed, cheaply made books are self-immolating in the Library of Congress, while 500-year-old Gutenberg Bibles are OK.

Some paperphiles buy foreign stationery made by Smythson of Bond Street, London, or by Pineider of Florence, Italy. Smythsons outlets can be traced via a toll-free number, (800) 345-6839. The saleswoman at Blacker and Kooby, on 87th and Madison, shows me some Smythson sheets and envelopes, offering that it is the paper of choice of the British royal family. Beautiful and very “U,” as Nancy Mitford would say, but almost U in that hounds and blood sausage way. A little rumply–the cards don’t quite match the envelopes.

Then she opens a green leather case, revealing Pineider samples. It made me believe, as some scientists contend, that the beauty response is hard-wired. The paper is both languid and luminous, and it feels denser than Crane’s. But the 225-year-old Italian stationers don’t bother with weight standards, used for currency and book paper, because this stuff is strictly for letter writing. It is, they say, the smoothest possible writing surface you can find. It would be a crime to use anything other than a good fountain pen on it. But which pen? That’s a research project unto itself.

T he sheets are creamy white and the tissue lining in the envelope a bluer white. The saleswoman didn’t have to drop names (the pope and Stevie Wonder) to justify the price of 75 note-sized sheets and envelopes. At $144 ($1.92 per note), this stationery is a steal. But the engraving cost is a steep $175 and $42 for the die plate. You can find Pineider outlets by calling (800) 616-9111.

I stop by Kanter’s Printers on 23rd Street, an address generated by the Crane Web site. Kanter’s price for 100 note-sized sheets and envelopes on Crane’s paper is $166 ($1.66 a note!), about $100 if I use Strathmore, a competing paper, which is only 25 percent cotton rag.

To get the stationery engraved, the die plate will cost $56, about average. It is a onetime charge, and Kanter’s–and most other stores–let you keep the plates. But if I forego the luxury of engraving, the clerk will sell me 500 24 pound Strathmore sheets and envelopes, flat printed, for $167. (That’s 33 cents a note. Now we’re really talking.) Turnaround time for printing is 10 days, about a month faster than either Smythson or Pineider.

If you’re not going Europaper, the mom and pop operations are definitely the best value. Is engraved paper really worth it? I ask the printer. “Some people want a Caddy and others want a Chevy,” he shrugs. “Does anyone use colored paper?” “Hairdressers and discos.”

After choosing paper, you must pick a size. Business-sized sheets are a mistake for two reasons: 1) it’s difficult to write enough to fill that much space; and 2) that much flattery might be misinterpreted as stalking. The note-sized sheets look insubstantial and girlie. The 6 by 4 cards are best because they make a few scribbles look weighty and dignified.

Luckily, there are only three sizes of fine stationery, because there are hundreds of typefaces from which to compose your letterhead. At stationery shops you see people agonizing over whether they’re really more Helvetica than Old Roman. The sample books don’t help much because you want to see how it looks in your name on the size sheet you’ve chosen. Some Crane & Co. outlets let you test drive a sample of typefaces on a computer. The Levenger Web site, which sells Crane’s, limits you to four sensible choices, so you can’t go too far wrong. Most professional printers will do a proof of your letterhead for $12-$25.

Let me offer one piece of advice: Avoid monograms. Those three initials may look aristocratic, but that’s because they were first used by drunken, illiterate royals who couldn’t write their whole names. I wonder if Tom Wolfe knows that? His writing paper has a large blue, diamond shaped monogram at the top. But then, he doesn’t need to observe the three note theory anymore.