Elvis Impersonators

There have been several companies which have resuscitated the names of former fountain pen manufacturers.   I’m not talking about companies which took over active pen makers like Parker or Sheaffer.  I mean companies which began using the names of long-defunct brands.  I’ll probably miss some but there are (or were) Onoto, Conway Stewart, Mentmore, Swan and Conklin.  Forgive me any omissions.

Onoto and Swan are in a category of their own, in that their original companies were not known by those names.  Those are model names.  I haven’t handled an example of the pens recently made under the name Swan but I’ve seen the photos and read owners’ comments.  It isn’t a good pen and it traduces the name of Swan.  To avoid confusion, I’m not referring to the Swan pens historically made in Japan, probably with some connection to the Mabie Todd company.  I mean pens produced in the last few years, maybe still in production.

The Onoto is a different case.  Though their website does refer to the pens made by De La Rue, they don’t pretend that they are a continuation of the same company.  It is to their credit that they have resuscitated the wonderful Onoto plunger filling system.  Of course their pens are extremely expensive, putting them beyond the range of most people, but that was true of many of the historical Onotos.

I don’t know what the legal grounds were for the producer of the recent pens to call them Mentmores.  I assume the company bought rights to the name.  I bought one of the pens out of curiosity some years ago.  It was the worst sort of cheap Chinese rubbish, much worse than most of what is produced in China today, being made of plumbing-grade brass tubing, ill-fitting and with a bad nib.  It would have been infinitely better to leave the honourable name of Mentmore alone.

The most recent version of Conway Stewart pretended, for a very long time, that it was a continuation of the historical company.  Mary Whateverhernamewas who was an admin in FPN as well as an officer of the company, eventually gave in and changed that, but only as a result of constant pressure from those who cared about the reputation of the original Conway Stewart company.  To this day Fountain Pen Network lacks people with experience in British pens because they were all kicked out for daring to suggest that there were problems with the Conway Stewart revival and its products.  Those products were, for the most part, poorly made, judging by the number of complaints fielded about their performance.  Many were in appallingly poor taste, glitzy, solid gold vulgarities.  The original Conway Stewart company priced its products in the middle ground, so that there was something in its product line for everyone.  The revived company was not run in the spirit of the original whose name it used.  They even re-used model numbers for pens that bore little or no resemblance to the original models, causing confusion that remains today among newcomers to the fountain pen hobby.

Conklin also falsely lays claim to being a continuation of the original company, even to impriting their pens ‘Conklin est. 1898’.  That to my mind is an irritating dishonesty.  I bought one of their pens, a Conklin Duragraph.  It’s not a bad pen, somewhat similar to my Monteverde Prima.  The crescent-shaped breather hole in the nib is a reminder of the historical pen but there the resemblance ends.  I don’t want to be hyper-critical about this revival.  It could be said that this is the kind of pen that Conklin would be producing if it had not failed years ago.  That may be so, but history tells us that the company was liquidated in 1948 and for that reason alone, I have difficulty in accepting that this worthy but unexceptional pen is a Conklin, like my Crescent filler and my Endura.  Putting that lie on the top of the cap annoys me to the point where I struggle to like the pen.

I know that historical re-badging goes on in other areas.  There’s a car out there with a Ford engine called a Jaguar.  Back in the 80s someone shoved a bunch of German and Japanese motorcycle bits together and called it a Matchless.  Have I got it wrong?  Is my dislike of this practice just a prejudice?

14 thoughts on “Elvis Impersonators

  1. I’m with you. The one (new) Conklin I have is pretty but badly conceived, and the nib says “Toledo” even though it was certainly not made there. For beginners, the re-use of old names is a source of confusion, particularly on eBay where things from the 90s are sometimes described as “vintage”.

    One you didn’t mention is Wahl-Eversharp. I have not tried any of the modern ones, but they have been well received. The revived Esterbrook, however, has not.

    1. That’s a good point about “Toledo”! My Duragraph is saved by a nice stub nib, otherwise it would be unremarkable.

      I had forgotten about Wahl-Eversharp. I knew I was missing something. I’d heard vague murmurings about the Esterbrook but I have yet to see it.

  2. I’m a big fan of Mentmore – at the last count I had almost fifty – so sad to hear the name has been brought out of retirement, only to be attached to poor quality modern pens. I do scan the bay for any models of this brand that I might want, but have to say I’ve yet to see a modern production item of this pen, so perhaps they’re either scarce or simply not now being sold. No doubt they would be easy to spot (forgive the pun:-))

    As you say, it’s not just pens that suffer from this sort of plagiarism – if there is something of value and it’s collectible, then you can be sure that somewhere along the line there will be copies made by people trying to cash in on someone else’s integrity.
    Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery so they say – what they don’t say is that quality suffers, usually.

    1. You’ll be pleased to hear that it was several years ago that those travesties appeared on the market. I haven’t seen one in a long time. I seem to remember that I once knew something more about the person responsible. It was a simple rebadging of the cheapest rubbish he could find.

      The good thing is that most of these revivals don’t last long, but as you say, they confuse the market.

  3. I share the irritation and annoyance. Trademarks and trade-names are an asset to be used as their owner sees fit. The assumption is that the owner will have an incentive to produce good quality so as to avoid losing the reputation associated with the brand/name. However where the original owner leaves the market and the trademark/name is sold as part of the liquidation, it may end up with a new owner who did not necessarily pay much for it and does not (yet) have to lose a reputation. What happened to the Conklin and Conway Stewart brands also happened to IBM (for PC’s and laptops), MG (for cars) and many others of course. Sadly consumers cannot require the owner of a brand to offer products that comply with past quality. They can only vote with their wallet (stop buying the inferior products). Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. In some of these revivals there were people involved who were genuinely well-intentioned, but the market has changed so much in the intervening years that it was impossible to avoid damaging the reputation of the company name. Taking Conway Stewart as an example, if the company had survived into the 21st-century, it would not have been producing the type of pens that the revival did. In every instance, it would have been better never to try.

  4. Modern Conway Stewarts are vastly overpriced, blingy rubbish. Funny you mention Monteverde and Conklin in the same thought, as they’re both made or distributed by Yafa, and made in China.

    The less said about the modern “Esterbrook”, the better. Boy, did that one produce some animosity, not least due to the boorish behaviour of the “owner”.

    Kaweco seems to be one of the only ones doing it right: the current owner raised the name again with respect, and with love for the heritage of the name.

  5. I basically agree with the other commentators here. Continuing or resuscitating a brand can be fine as long as it is done with respect for the old brand. In many cases however, the new owners just seem to capitalise on the brand value, without delivering anything near the quality of the original brand.

    With respect to Onoto, I’m rather disappointed. I was browsing though their pens lately and all their pens were cartridge/converter types. To me at least, a proper Onoto is a pen with a plunger system. However you say they have revived the plunger filling system in their pens. Is that for a new range of pens or have I just missed these while visiting their site?

    1. I must admit I don’t keep abreast of goings-on at modern pen companies. All I can say is that when the new Onoto began, they were producing cartridge/converter pens. Then they went to work and produced a new version of the plunger filler. That was some years ago and it seems that they stopped doing it, perhaps because it was prohibitively expensive. I’m disappointed to hear that they have become just another very expensive metal cartridge pen.

  6. Back in the ’80’s Harris produced a ‘bin parts’ Matchless G80. His license to build ‘Meriden’ Triumphs was not being renewed, as the Hinckley Triumphs were just about to be launched, and he was seeking ways to maintain his manufacturing base.

    It was very similar to the BSA (Regal) Gold SR. Unfortunately neither could produce enough to make them economic and they soon faded.

    Incidentally there is now a Chinese AJS 125 which is accepted by the Matchless OC and BSA have been bought by an Indian conglomerate. Hope they do as well as TATA have with Jaguar/ Land Rover.

    Had Conway Stewart remained a middle market producer they would have gone bankrupt trying to compete with the larger producers. Come to think of it, they did!

    1. You’re not telling me anything I don’t know, Peter. And that Rotax engine didn’t have the power to pull the skin off a rice pudding.

      There are some middle market producers of pens doing well and they all had to start somewhere. One of the reasons CS went down the pan was putting all their eggs in one basket. The one labelled *well-to-do but tasteless.*

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