By Deanna Isaacs
I was leafing through Civil War Times magazine, a million mental miles from our own hypertech times, when I spotted the ad for the Abraham Lincoln pen. It featured a larger-than-life photo of a classic fountain pen with an engraved likeness of Lincoln on its clip and a copy of his signature on a silver band around the cap. The body of the pen was a smooth, wood-grained material that looked inviting to the touch, but it was the blurb next to the picture that grabbed me: "Embedded in the amethyst stone of each Limited Edition pen is the 'genetic essence' of Abraham Lincoln." I could feel my pupils widen.
I looked at the illustration again. At the tip of the pen was a shiny little translucent purple nipple. "Polymerase Chain Reaction, the Nobel Prize winning discovery, has enabled us to exactly replicate Abraham Lincoln's DNA," the blurb continued. The name and address of the pen's manufacturer, the Krone company, appeared at the bottom of the ad. The Great Emancipator's genetic essence, captured in the tip of a fountain pen, was being sold from an industrial park in Buffalo Grove.
According to Dana Piet, Krone's advertising coordinator, the Abraham Lincoln pen and the Krone pen company sprang from the creative mind of her boss, Robert Kronenberger, a businessman and passionate collector of fine writing instruments. Back in 1918, Kronenberger's grandfather started a company called American Needle, a head-wear manufacturer. "He was the first person ever to go to Wrigley Field and try to sell a baseball cap to someone other than a player," Piet said. "Slowly but surely, the company took off. Robert's father took it over and then Robert took it over." The main line for American Needle was the Cooperstown Collection--copies of vintage caps worn by professional teams--but Robert Kronenberger expanded into other areas, including licensing deals with Disney and Warner Brothers. About ten years ago he began making Cooperstown Bears--high-end, limited-edition collectible teddy bears dressed as professional athletes or show-business personalities like George Burns.
So Kronenberger was already thinking about collectibles based on actual people when John Reznikoff, a high-profile relics dealer and friend, bought ten strands of Lincoln's hair at a 1993 auction, and maverick Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis created a company that replicates historic DNA for the commercial market. The Lincoln hair came from a bloody lock that was clipped by physicians attending the fallen president in order to get at his wound. It had been sold twice in the early 20th century and then hidden away in a sealed gold box until Reznikoff purchased part of it. Mullis, the surfer scientist who's been in the news as a scheduled (but never called) witness for the O.J. defense and for his opinion that HIV does not cause AIDS, won the Nobel in '93 for devising a rapid way to make a strand of DNA produce billions of copies of itself, an insight that made it possible to begin mapping the entire human genetic structure and to link Bill Clinton to the blue dress.
When Mullis decided to put his discovery to work at StarGene, a company that puts the DNA of historic figures into jewelry, the stage was set for Kronenberger's own flash of insight. Three years ago he created the Krone company. Mullis's process was applied to the Lincoln hair, yielding enough DNA in the form of porous glass powder to embed, like little mounds of sugar crystals, in a limited edition of 1,008 pens. "The number eight is considered lucky overseas," Piet says, explaining the odd total. "We had no idea what to expect when this Lincoln pen came out," she adds. The pens were packaged in handsome wood boxes with certificates of authenticity and priced at $1,600 each. Stevens Maloney & Co., a Krone dealer in Chicago, says its limited supply rapidly sold out and it hopes to have them back in stock soon.
Krone has followed up with three other relic offerings so far, Piet says: the William Shakespeare Pen, the Sir Edmund Hillary Mount Everest Pen, and the Houdini Pen. The William Shakespeare is embedded with a chip from his own mulberry tree, the Edmund Hillary contains a piece of rock from Everest's summit, and the Houdini is made of metal from the escape artist's keys. Very nice, I'm sure, but our threshold's been raised. There must be a sealed gold box with the Bard's toenail clippings out there somewhere.