Weighty Matters

I’m returning to quality today, specifically the common modern equation of weight with quality.

First, to get it out of the way, I prefer a light pen. It seems to me that a pen should be as light as is reasonably possible, and that weight confers no benefit to the writer. That pen manufacturers agree is borne out by the fact that all pens made when they were the primary writing instrument were light, and the default writing instrument today, the Bic pen, weighs next to nothing. That said, many people today prefer a heavy pen. That’s fine. Why shouldn’t they? It’s not the preference for heavy pens I’m arguing with, it’s rather the assumption that a high quality pen will weigh more than a low quality one. Clearly, the reverse is often true, and in fact weight is an irrelevance in the assessment of quality.

To go straight to the extreme, some of the heaviest pens around are cheaply made in China, Dukes, for instance. Not all Dukes are heavy but many are, and in those, the weight comes from a brass barrel and sometimes a brass cap, too. These are just bits of tubing, not unlike the tubing used in a domestic heating system. They’re not expressive of high quality manufacturing, nor are they high quality materials. In fact, these are very poor quality materials used in a (at best) so-so pen.

Taking a less extreme example, which is better, a 1930s Sheaffer Balance or a Sheaffer Intrigue? I don’t have an Intrigue to hand, so I can’t give you their respective weights, but the Intrigue is very much heavier. Taken purely from the point of view of utility, the Intrigue was hardly an unalloyed success. From the outset, many buyers complained of the weight. Many were hard starters or did not write at all without work being done on the nib. The parts did not fit together very well, and the end button which opened the pen to put in a cartridge and doubled as a filling button when the captive converter was used was often offset to a noticeable degree. The weight came from the (mostly) metal construction and the complexity of the filling system. By contrast, the lever-fill Balance was feather-light, extremely well made and remains very popular and useful today. I would suggest that the old Balance is an immeasurably better pen than the Intrigue. Weight may confer the idea of quality in the minds of some, but the reality is a little different!

Quality lies in elegance of design, excellence of manufacture and usefulness. In a primary writing instrument, good design will aim to reduce weight, not increase it. However, fountain pens are no longer primary writing instruments. Most data entry is by computer these days, and letters and memos are written in word processing programs. No-one has a pen in their hand for the duration of a working day, as they once did. For some, at least, the modern fountain pen is an indicator of status, and once it has been noticed it has done its job. It doesn’t even need to be uncapped! For others, it’s an occasional note-taker. In these circumstances weight (though by no means an indication of quality) is an irrelevance.


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