The issue of quality in fountain pens – or anything else – can’t be covered in a single blog post, so I’ll be coming back to this subject again. For the moment, though, I would like to tackle some of the mistaken ideas about quality that I often see, mostly arising from the various coffee-table books that purport to recount the history of the fountain pen.
The worst one, I think, is the confusion of quality with bling. Many of the illustrated fountain pen books show page after page of pens with precious-metal overlays, portrayed as the best exemplars of their kind. I believe that to be wrong-headed. Quality in a pen resides in fitness for purpose. A plain black hard rubber Waterman 52 is a better pen to use than one that has had a filigree or solid metal overlay applied. It has its original weight, balance and thickness and it will handle as it was designed to do. I understand, of course, that for many collectors the overlay pen is more desirable, and due to the inclusion of precious metal and admirable craftsmanship it is a more valuable object. That’s not an issue of quality, though, it’s an issue of opulence. I’m not disparaging anyone’s wish to own an object of great beauty for the beauty’s sake; I’m just making the point that opulence has no bearing on quality.
Another point of confusion is the long-held practice of assigning pens, by manufacturer, to first, second and third-tier quality. It must be clear to anyone who thinks about it for a moment that this has never worked and yet it persists. Almost all manufacturers, present and past, make a range of pens to suit different pockets and purposes. Many manufacturers have suffered declines in quality, only to rise again later. Most manufacturers produced some pretty awful pens when they tried desperately to compete with ballpoints at the same time as cutting costs. It’s easy to produce some amusing paradoxes by following the “tier system” with regard to particular pens. Belmont must have been a better manufacturer than Parker, as the top of the 1930s Belmont range is undoubtedly a more sound and enduring pen than Parker’s Parkette. If the only Waterman you’d ever seen was an economy-model Taperite, would you have any hesitation in consigning the brand to the third tier?
In truth, each model of pen must be taken on its own merits. We can all make the quality evaluation with the pen in our hands, and those of us who buy older pens have the opportunity of adding the final dimension to quality: durability. If it’s still a good-looking pen that works well after seventy or eighty years, its quality is proven. For myself, I’m happy to accept that, for example, Macniven and Cameron produced some of the best and worst pens ever made, as did De La Rue and Parker. There are no tiers.