Are Modern High Quality Fountain Pens Worth the Cost?

Up until, say, 1950, fountain pens were essential for all sorts of purposes, whether you had the expensive Onoto or top-of-the-range Swan, or the cheapest Burnham or Platignum which would do the job but didn’t confer any prestige on the owner.

I don’t know of any situation now where the fountain pen is needed.  My husband was registrar of births, deaths and marriages in Helmsdale and he was provided with a cheap Parker to write the entries in the ledgers.  He set the Parker aside and used a flexible stub Onoto which made a better job.  In 2003 they computerized the process and, instead of a beautiful hand-written certificate you got a printed one thereafter.  That was the end of about 140 years of careful handwriting.

The consequence is that the fountain pen has been reduced to a hobbyist item.  Some modern pens are a huge investment from which you get nothing back.  Are they worth it?  The very expensive Urushi Japanese pens are all unique and can be regarded as works of art.  Like any work of art the price reflects the skill and creativity.  I’m sure they are really worth every penny.  There are a couple of things that seem over-expensive to me.  Most pens these days have steel nibs.  When a gold nib is fitted the price increases hugely.  Really, that isn’t justified.  The small amount of gold in a nib doesn’t cost that much.  I think the manufacturers are taking a big margin of profit there.

Limited editions seem to me to be pretty close to being a scam.  They are produced purely to hit the pockets of enthusiasts.  An edition of one thousand pens, say, is hardly limited.  It’s probably the case that many production pens sell less than one thousand pens anyway.

Many manufacturers, particularly some of the Germans and many Japanese manufacturers, produce good solid pens in the £400.00 or less range.  I’m thinking of Pelikan, Platinum, Pilot and a few others.  That may seem like a lot of money but it’s probably the equivalent of the outlay our forebears laid out for a good Swan, Onoto, Parker or Sheaffer.

I can’t really afford to buy a pen that costs that much, but I’m writing this with a Vanishing Point.  I paid around £140.00 for it which I think was a tremendous bargain for such a wonderful modern pen.

Mostly, I’m not really about modern pens.  As you will know from my sales site, I’m much more about old, mid-range pens that most of my customers write with.   I read some of the fountain pen boards, though, and it is impossible not to take an interest in todays pens.

I’m certainly not criticising people who spend many hundreds or even thousands on fountain pens.  If you have the money and are fascinated by those extremely expensive pens, why not buy them?  They will doubtless confer pleasure for years to come and that big profit margin may help to keep some of those pen manufacturers alive.  So many makers of splendid pens have fallen by the wayside.  We don’t want that to happen to any more.


The Fate of the Old Pens

I’m just going to ramble here so if you have something better to do just ignore this.

I often wonder what happened to all the old pens. I know that there are many around but it’s just a fraction of what once existed. The very oldest ones, from 1880 to 1915, were replaced by more convenient pens with a lever on the side. No doubt those who had a high quality eyedropper, the Parkers and Sheaffers, Swans and Conway Stewarts, carefully placed them in a drawer rather than just throwing them away. A proportion of those pens survived the intervening century and those are the ones that have come down to us today.

In those years when the fountain pen dominated permanent writing, pens may have been replaced when the latest shiny object came along, but in reality there were few improvements in fountain pens. Feeds improved a little, but they were already pretty good by 1920. During that period we can see that interesting phenomenon: the utterly worn out fountain pen. I had a Waterman that I wrote about some time ago which was so worn that the chased pattern had completely disappeared where the owner’s fingers gripped. The tipping material was on its last thousandth of an inch and it was completely flat-spotted into the writer’s angle of writing. Clearly, the owner had seen no advantage in changing this useful tool for a new one despite all the pretty celluloid and new, exciting shapes. That pen was an unusual survivor. There must have been many pens that were used to death and they would have been thrown away.

It’s true, of course, that the various innovations that came along – the Vax, the Touchdowns, the Leverlesses and so on didn’t write any better. They were all about how to get ink into the pen, an act that takes seconds while even a fill for a lever filler will last for days for most people. The importance of these innovations was overestimated as is shown by the survival of the lever filler right to the end of the mass production of fountain pens.

The huge abandonment of fountain pens was in the nineteen fifties when the ballpoint became king. It was so convenient that it replaced not only the fountain pen but also, to a great extent, the pencil, whether mechanical or wooden.

Fountain pens were set aside and many of the of lesser brands appear to have been just junked. There was quite a long period, perhaps up to the advent of eBay, were the value of fountain pens was not recognised and when houses were cleared they were thrown away.

There was – and is – the pernicious practice of pulling out nibs for their scrap value. Usually the rest of the pen is thrown away but there have been sellers in eBay who consistently offered pens for sale with no nibs. Hanging is too good for them.

The old pens that have escaped all that and have come down to us in repairable condition are precious objects even if they are only Platignums or Novas. I had a battered black New Bond Easiflow, Woolworths best, but made by Langs and a sound pen. Cleaned up and polished, with a new sac and a tuned nib it was an excellent writer and a pen that would give good service for another generation. There are not many other seventy-year-old objects that retain such value with so little effort.

Pilot Capless

I’m using my Pilot Capless or Vanishing Point once again.  I’ve had it for a couple of years and loved it when I first tried it.  Then I set it aside for quite a while so that I could try other pens.  Its time has come again!  The idea of a capless pen has been around for a long time.  Caps get lost or broken and it’s a nuisance pulling them off or unscrewing them every time you want to jot down a note.  A pen that you could operate with one hand was something to aim for.  Among others, the British company W.J. May & Co. Ltd. produced the Pento Capless in the 1920s.  It seems that they may have had some success in doing so but the development had been so expensive that the company failed.

Pilot succeeded where others had failed and have been producing their Vanishing Points for many years.  Considering how convenient the Capless is, it’s surprising how little it has disturbed the fountain pen market.  Though Capless pens sell well and are highly regarded, fountain pen buyers still go for pens with caps, whether push-on or screw-on to the same extent as they did before.

There may be a number of explanations for that.  The negative one is that the design of the Vanishing Point may not be to everyone’s taste.  Some have adversely commented on the placing of the clip, which they find uncomfortable.  Also because of the mechanism inside, it’s quite a thick pen.

On the more positive side, buyers continue to appreciate the benefits of the traditionally-shaped pen.  After all, the cap is where much of the decoration of a pen is located – the decorative clip, the cap rings and often nowadays, engraving on the cap ring.  Use of the clutch mechanism obviated the need for unscrewing the cap – just a quick pull and you were ready to write!

Another point is that the fountain pen doesn’t really need to be a convenient writing instrument.  For most people, there are other writing instruments for that.  Those rather odd people, like me, who insist on using a fountain pen, are prepared to put up with a little inconvenience in pursuit of their hobby.

When all that’s said and done, I love my Capless!  It has the finest point of any pen that I use which means there’s a lot of writing between changing cartridges.  The position of the clip ensures that I am holding the pen the right way.  The clip fits neatly between my thumb and forefinger.  I like a fat pen but most of them are also quite long.  I feel that the length of the Capless is just right for me.  My one is burgundy with silver-coloured trim and I like its style.  I believe that if the obnoxious ballpoint had not come along, this would have been the future of the pen.

A final reason for my love of the Capless:  my husband, who is on haemodialysis, writes a blog during his haemo sessions.  His left hand is immobilised by the needles and lines that connect him to the haemo machine so he’s effectively one-handed.  No other pen is as convenient as the Capless in that situation.

RMS Empress of Britain Pencil

This pencil commemorates the Empress of Britain and may well have been made to cash in on its launch in 1930. The ship was built in John Brown’s Shipyard on Clydeside and was made for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company. At the time it was the largest, fastest and most luxurious ship carrying passengers between Britain and Canada.

The representation of the ship in the pencil is not notable for its accuracy. It’s pretty good all the same on its tiny scale. One of the buildings shown is probably the Canadian Parliament Building. I don’t know what the other one is. The pencil itself is in remarkably good condition. It contains lead and is in full working order.

I’m not sure why the ship is called the SS Empress of Britain on the pencil. So far as I can tell the ship was actually the RMS Empress of Britain. I don’t suppose it matters much except to those who have a particular interest in these things. The way that the clip is attached to the cap reminds me of the construction of some of Conway Stewart’s pens and pencils, but I remind myself that resemblance is not always a good guide to the manufacturer.

Sadly, the Empress of Britain came to a bad end. She was used as a troopship during World War II and was torpedoed off the West Coast of Ireland in 1940. Luckily there was no great loss of life. In fact it was believed at the time that everyone was saved. Apparently, the ship was carrying gold bullion – I don’t know why.

In the 1980s someone planned to carry out a salvage expedition, doubtless in the hope of finding the gold. However, the Department of Transport informed them that the gold had been removed, probably while the ship was being evacuated. Some years later, divers explored the wreck and found that the ship had almost entirely burned-out, leaving only a shell upside down on the seabed. The only part that had survived was the bullion room, probably because it had been reinforced for security. When the divers entered it they found no gold but there was a skeleton, probably one of the men who had been salvaging the gold.

This pencil was never intended to be a reminder of that sad story but that’s what it inevitably is.

Sales Site Update

A Fractured Rhyme*:

I’ve spent some time on this here rhyme
About these pens, so very fine;
They’re on my site
For your delight,
Please make them yours, no longer mine.

Don’t be pensive; they’re not expensive!

*This is one of the worst poems I’ve ever produced, and I am very proud of it!


Fun Quiz

What do you think this is?  Clue: It’s not about pens though it came to me in a batch of pens.  The lucky winner will get a Pilot Parallel Calligraphy Pen.



***Edited to add*** We have a winner!  This is a universal watch winder, circa 1840.  I have enjoyed all of your guesses!

The Jock Pen Photographs

I wrote about the rather rare The Jock Pen back on 26th June. I said I would add pictures when I had them and here they are. Not unlike a Blackbird of the same period but that’s a beautifully sculpted section!