The Blackening Rant

We’ve discussed the ethics of pen re-blackening on a previous occasion. Let’s now look at the practicalities. Unless there is a system so secret that we don’t know of its existence, re-blackening doesn’t work. Anyone who believes that a pen painted with Syd Saperstein’s noxious potion looks like black hard rubber did when it was new is suffering from a specially virulent strain of terminal self-delusion. The only difference that I can see between a pen re-blackened with that stuff and with boot polish is that the boot polish looks better. It does tend to smell of boot polish and come off on your fingers, but it looks better.

I would like to say in the liberal airy-fairy vacant-headed way that so many do that your pen is your own and you can do with it as you wish. You’ve got a fine old Waterman 52 that’s a tad brown. If you decide to re-blacken it, it’s nobody’s business but your own, n’est-ce-pas? Well, no. It may come as a shock to you but you’re going to die one day, and that Waterman 52 will go back into the Great Pen Pool and come back around to be a nuisance to someone like me. So I’m not going to be that wishy-washy liberal oh-so-fair-minded person. Indeed, what I would rather say to you is that if you have the least notion of re-blackening a pen, go out your front door, turn sharp right, turn sharp right again and beat your head on the wall until the idea goes away, or the proposition becomes impractical due to your vision being affected by the blood in your eyes and the onset of concussion.

Of course, most pens that are re-blackened aren’t re-blackened by innocents for their own pleasure. They are re-blackened by grasping, avaricious crooks, devoid of morality or ethics, just to make a few bucks more regardless of the damage that is done. I spent an hour tonight removing, as best I could, a heavy application of Syd Saperstein’s gunk from an otherwise excellent Swan Safety Screw Cap No2. It looked unbelievably dreadful, as re-blacked pens always do. It looks a lot better now, but nowhere near as good as it did before the paint-happy cretin went to work on it. The notion that you can completely remove re-blackening is a fallacy. Pens with chasing and with the scratches of a century of use will retain blackening, do what you will, to their detriment. Re-blackening a century-old pen of such a high quality as this is simply vandalism. It’s utterly inexcusable and anyone who would do such a thing is no pen lover.

In conclusion, in case you missed it, don’t re-blacken your pens. You are only their temporary custodian. Most of the pens I’m talking about are already older than you and they will outlive you. Treat them with respect. Polish them carefully, with good, appropriate polish. That will make even the most faded pen look more attractive. Use them. The more they are handled, the more they will darken, and the better they will look.

Old things are meant to look old. It’s one of the places where their charm resides. If you want a new pen, buy one and leave the old ones to those of us who appreciate them.

A 1915 Swan Advertisement

When we think of World War I, we tend to envisage the vast killing fields of France and Belgium where a generation was thrown away in futility, but there were other theatres of war. I stupidly covered up the advertisement’s headline, but it is, “Post to Egypt and Salonica “Swan” pens as Christmas gifts by November 27”. Though the ad is not dated, both the Egyptian campaign, to protect the Suez Canal from the Turks and the expedition to Salonica (now Thessalonika) to help the Serbs against the Bulgarians began in 1915. In 1915, then, you could buy a Swan 1500 for ten shillings and sixpence. Nowadays, good examples can change hands for in excess of £150.

I’m unfamiliar with the pen illustrated on the far left but it appears to be a shorter version of the 1500 with a sterling silver overlay. The two pens depicted on the right are Swan Safety Screw Caps, one with a No2 nib, the other with a No 3.

I’ve included a contemporary box, two versions of the Swan Safety Screw Cap No2 and a 1500.

The Jewel No 44

I could have sworn I wrote about the Jewel Pen Co. Ltd before, but looking through the blog it seems not.

Jewel is one of the oldest British pen companies. It was founded in 1884 by John Calton as an import company for John Holland pens and Mackinnon stylos. As John Holland produced “Jewel” pens in America this is where the name doubtless came from. Within a few years the company was making its own stylos and fountain pens. Neither a great innovator nor a market leader, Jewel nevertheless kept up a steady stream of profitability until 1939, when it was bought by British Pens Ltd. It continued in a semi-autonomous fashion bringing out the occasional new model but declining in market share until 1951, when Jewel closed down.

They were an interesting company that produced a wide range of pens. Probably the biggest outsize pen I’ve had was a Jewel, and I had a tiny, Dinkie-sized pen as well. They covered the whole range of cost, too, from quite rudimentary steel-nibbed school pens like the Ritewell, to very handsome jade and lapis lazuli lever-fillers like the Nos 63 and 83. Like Macniven & Cameron in that respect, Jewel defies the simple-minded classifiers to assign it to a “tier”.



This is a No44, made during the Second World War. Made in black hard rubber with gold-plated trim, it’s not an exceptional pen in any way but it is well made and the plating has survived in excellent condition.



The “Jewel 14ct Super” nib is semi-flexible and somewhat stubbish. In general shape, the pen is quite similar to a pre-war Swan, an impression enhanced by the inserted clip.


Perhaps not the last pen to be made by Jewel, but very close to it, the No 44 shows that the company was capable of turning out a very acceptable pen to the end.

A Conway Stewart 286 Stub

An ordinary, if rather pretty, Conway Stewart 286, you might think, but not quite. This one’s that rare thing, a Conway Stewart stub.

It’s a beauty, rigid, wide and giving easy line variation while it lays down a lot of ink.

Basing it on what passes over my bench, Conway Stewart made far less obliques, stubs and flexes than, say, Swan, but they could make a good one when they chose. The Conway Stewart approach to the stub is almost as if the tines were chopped off and the tipping material applied. Swan, when making a stub, used a high-shouldered nib with comparatively narrow tines, making a somewhat chisel-like shape at the nib-tip. This means that Swan stubs are often flexible whereas Conway Stewart ones are firm, or at least the ones I’ve handled are.

The Wind Of Change

I’ve started doing a couple of things I always avoided. Is that a gnomic enough start for you?

I’ve never used firm-nibbed pens all my adult life. In that distant time when I was a teenager I got hold of an old BCHR Onoto which I couldn’t repair but I could use as an eyedropper-filler. It was very flexible and that was the start of my life-long love-affair with such pens. Of course, I’m aware of how firm-nibbed pens behave. I test a few every week, but I’ve never really used one. It may be that by limiting myself in this way I’m missing out on something. There may be wonders of the consistent line that I have yet to experience.

The other thing, and you may have noticed this, is that I don’t do modern pens, and “modern” for me is anything after about 1965. It’s not that I haven’t tried. A few years ago, when they were the latest thing, I bought a Sheaffer Intrigue. It was a disappointment. The pen was as heavy as a similarly-sized lump of lead. It had a tricky filling system that allowed for the use of cartridges or a fixed converter. In the small size of the pen, this required the best of precision engineering. It didn’t get it; instead it was hacked together and it worked when it liked. At least it had a beautiful nib… which didn’t write on the upstrokes. It was a disgrace to the fine name of Sheaffer.

Some time after that I was foolishly attracted by a picture of a Laban Mento and I bought it. When I took it out of the crate-sized box I couldn’t believe how big it was, and the picture had done no justice to just how lurid the colours were. We called it the Clown Pen. I persisted in trying to write with it but it was like trying to write with a fence-post. It was a horribly bad starter too. Apparently the fix was to seal the inside of the cap with wax, but if you have to apply hacks like that to a new pen, it really is time the manufacturers gave themselves a good shake.

So I’ve stuck with pens that are my age or older, often quite a bit older. Until this week, that is, when I bought two new, firm-nibbed pens. Actually, I tell a lie. One is a Cross and it’s brand new. It was remarkably cheap because it is an advertising pen and it has a Ford logo on it and no-one wants a pen with a Ford logo. I can understand that but I’m not as fussy as some. The other’s a seventies pen, one of those cartridge-filler Sheaffers with the inlaid gold nib, the ones that immediately preceded the Targa, if I remember correctly. That may be an old pen to you but I regard such cartridge-filling cop-outs from a proper filling system as new.

In truth, I like them both. The Cross is purportedly a medium, but it’s a decidedly generous one. It worked straight out of the box, and worked well, something that I believe is pretty much regarded as a bona fide miracle in a new pen. The line it lays is nice and wet and my writing looks pretty bad. Oh well. I will persist. The Sheaffer has the same characteristics – newish and firm – but it feels very different, mostly due to that long inlaid nib changing the angle at which I write. It makes my writing equally atrocious but I avoid looking at it and I admire that beautiful nib instead.

To those of my customers who will be receiving this week’s pens around now and are looking at my covering letter with some worry and consternation: It’s OK. I haven’t had a stroke. I’m just trying out these rather different pens.

The Pitman’s Fono Deluxe

If you’ve come across a Pitman’s Fono pen you may have wondered about its strange name, and whether there is a connection with Sir Isaac Pitman, famous for several things but mostly for his system of shorthand which was adopted worldwide.

Indeed there is a link and it’s pretty direct. Sir Isaac was, for the most part, a publisher, though he took an interest in many matters of language and orthography. The publishing house he built up in the Victorian period, Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd, continued as the family business long after his death and remnants of it remain even today, subsumed within Longman Publishing, itself a part of Pearson Education.

A large part of the firm’s publishing was concerned with Pitman’s shorthand system and around 1930 the company began to make – or have made for them – pens which could be regarded as the best type to use for shorthand. The “fono” part of the name relates to Sir Isaac’s fonotypy, a rationalised method of spelling which he developed.

What of the pen itself? Well, it comes in several models with a very modest increase in trim between one and another. This one is the Deluxe version with a medium cap ring and rather good plating. The nib is warranted and semi-flexible. The pen sits well in the hand and is almost weightless, a feature much appreciated by those who wrote all day at work, though many people unaccountably prefer a heavy pen these days.

Though a very good pen, it isn’t really exceptional in any way. Pens like the Conway Stewart Scribe 330, issued around the same time, or some of the lower-priced Swans would have done the same job in the same way, and they probably claimed a bigger market share. Sales were evidently high enough for the pen to remain in production for a few years though and it is by no means a rare pen these days. In any given year around a dozen will appear in eBay and they’re well worth snapping up, both because they’re great writers and for their unusual history.

Plum Hatched Conway Stewart 28

Judging by the numbers that have survived the 28 and the slightly more expensive 27 were two of Conway Stewart’s most popular pens. Apart from the width of the cap band, they’re pretty near identical and come in the same colour patterns.

This is the burgundy or plum hatched variety of the 28. Plum seems more appropriate to me. The hatch is a beautiful pattern but the red versions are often faded by now. The visible areas look a little dull and there’s a sliver of the original brightness hiding under the cap. This one’s completely unfaded and presents the original glory of the pattern.

The 28 tends toward the long and slender. Perhaps not quite as much as the 85L (I don’t have one to compare at the moment) but more elegant-looking than, say, the stockier 85. It shows in the length of the clip as much as in the combined length of body and cap. To my eye the 85L looks a little stretched. I think the 28 has it just about right.