Is Washington ready for the $360 fountain pen? It's here, and just in time for Christmas, too.

Manufactured by S. T. Dupont of France--the same company that brought you the $600 cigarette lighter--the "Porte-Plume" pen in Chinese lacquer and 18 karat gold is a carriage-trade item deliberately aimed at a rich market.

There are only 60 in the United States, according to Dupont's U.S. manager, Joseph J. Leary Jr., and all of them except his display samples are at Fahrney's, the venerable New York Avenue pen shop that has exclusive U.S. sales rights.

Fahrney's was selected, Leary said, because "it's the finest pen shop in the country. It has a big catalogue business and a unique ability to reach the pen devotees of America." ahrney's proprietor, Jon Sullivan, said he had no doubts about his ability to sell the new Dupont pen. "It's for the Rolex-Mercedes market," he said. "People recognize that quality is on the wane and they appreciate it when they find it." Besides, he said, the Dupont pen "is a fine writing instrument. If you're a carpenter, you don't buy a cheap saw."

Leary, a Bostonian who became Dupont's U.S. representative when the French firm was bought by the Gillette Co., said it was "easy to make fun" of such luxury spending in economic hard times. But, he said, "our business is conspicuous consumption."

Dupont products, he said, are designed for people who have money and are willing to spend it to get the best of whatever they buy. In Japan, he said, customers buy Dupont lighters because they have the most satisfying click, and they set them out in front of their dinner plates to show them to their friends and clients.

In the United States, he said, "the public is willing to spend on these things if convinced of their value, and they're not just pro basketball players or rock stars. The Protestant ethic frowns on frivolous spending," he said, "but there are people who do it."

Buyers of Dupont products, he said, "are not fools. They know Dupont is a superior product. This is the ultimate fountain pen, the best in the world. It's technologically superior merchandise."

For example, he said, the clip that holds the pen to the breast pocket is "molded of nickel. It will never lose its resiliency." upont's promotional literature for the Porte-Plume describes it as if it were a luxury car: it stresses "technical performance," a low center of gravity, "safety and reliability," an "austere beauty." The barrel of the pen is Chinese lacquer, which Leary said is actually collected in the Orient and worked by French craftsmen; the nib and trim are 18 karat gold. Each pen is said to take four months to make.

Dupont's brochure says the pen's performance assumes the use of a special type of ink, namely S. T. Dupont's own brand, which is available in blue, black or blue-black. "Businessmen, in particular, find that a finely crafted fountain pen can impart a personal touch to their signature that the viscous inks and uniform strokes of other writing instruments cannot provide," it says. Unlike the pen, the ink is cheap--75 cents a cartridge.

Dupont is a century-old firm that specializes in luxury personal goods such as lighters, pens and leather billfolds. Worldwide sales last year were about $65 million, Leary said, and U.S. sales about $5 million. For retailers, the Dupont line is lucrative because the price markup is usually 100 percent. CAPTION: Picture, The hand that writes with a "Porte-Plume" must pay $360 for he pleasure of it. Photo by Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post