Broke and Bespoke

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Hamilton Khaki and NATO Strap

Hamilton Khaki and NATO Strap

Luminescence.

Some Thoughts on Fountain Pens

I’ve been meaning to write a post on fountain pens for some time now, but just haven’t gotten around to taking pictures and setting some words down. Well, I have a week ‘off’ from work right now, and I figured there’s no time like the present—or when I’m lounging around in pajamas reading Sherlock Holmes—to write such a post.

I’ve been a regular user and small-time collector of fountain pens for nearly fifteen years now. I began using a fountain pen in college as I was taking lots of hand-written notes for my senior thesis. It made the task a bit more interesting, and color-coding my notes with different inks was at least a marginally pragmatic reason for littering my desk with bottles of ink and various inexpensive fountain pens, much to the detriment of having space for eating or anything else (it was an all-purpose table in a small one room hovel called a ‘hotel’ where there resided, in equal measure, sad students and senior citizens).

I started out with pens in the $10-30 range, and remember liking my Lamy Safari and a Rotring (whose model name escapes me now) quite a bit. In grad school I moved on to the more hardcore stuff—pens with a three-digit price tag. Over the years, I’ve bought, sold, and traded dozens of pens, and have settled on a pretty solid collection that hasn’t changed in quite a few years.

I figured I might share some thoughts on fountain pens that I’ve gathered over those years for readers who may be looking to acquire one (or several) but don’t quite know where to start. What follows are just my rambling thoughts on the topic as they’ll be coming to me in the next thirty minutes or so, and is by no means meant to be exhaustive, encyclopedic (I haven’t the knowledge for this), or the last word on the subject. 

The Status Pen

If you’ve got some money to spend (say, up to $500—this is for ebay/pen fora prices, not retail), and want a statement pen that is simple and classic there’s no better pen in my opinion than a simple large-sized black and gold piston-filler of German manufacture. I find German pens (e.g., Pelikan, Mont Blanc) to be more solidly made and more precisely engineered than their Italian (e.g., Omas, Visconti, Montegrappa, Aurora—the latter two less so than the former two) and English (e.g., Conway Stewart) counterparts. The two pens I own that fit this category are a Mont Blanc 149 from the early 1980s, and a more recent Pelikan M1000. The Pelikan is a more solid feeling pen in my opinion, is a little less ‘status-ey’ than the Mont Blanc (which is a good thing in my book), and is a couple hundred dollars cheaper to boot.

Another popular status pen—though not a piston filler—is S.T. Dupont’s (French made) ‘Orpheo’ model. I’ve never owned one, but have handled them before, and can say that Dupont’s are wonderfully smooth writing fountain pens. In my experience, French pens (e.g., Dupont, Waterman) are extremely solidly constructed and precise writers, but seldom come with filling mechanisms other than the convertor/cartridge, which I find a little boring.

The New Vintage-inspired Pen

This is probably my favorite category of pen. And by ‘new’ here, I mean of relatively recent manufacture (say in the last fifteen years or so). I’m a huge fan of the fountain pens from the golden-era of pen manufacture (the 1930s-1950s), where designs ran from the wild celluloids and Art Deco designs of the 1930s (paradigmatically expressed, in my opinion, in Wahl’s ‘Doric’ pen) to the streamlined shapes of the jet-age (the most classic pen of this era is the wonderfully simple Parker 51).

In this category the field is wide open to you, as a number of manufacturers produce colorful pens evocative of a bygone era. On the higher-end of the spectrum I like American pen companies like Bexley and Edison. Some of the modern Parker pens fit this bill too, but my favorite, the ‘Duofold’ is getting harder to find and more expensive.

Many Italian companies draw on that country’s heritage as a maker of fine fountain pens and turn out some beautiful (though in my experience, sometimes not wholly reliable), but expensive, pens. Companies to check out include Stipula, Montegrappa, Omas, Visconti, and Aurora. Many of the Italian makers use the same materials as the original pens like ebonite (a kind of hard rubber), and celluloid (which has a distinct scent of camphor), whereas Parker, Edison, and Conklin use more stable and robust modern acrylics.

Modern English pens, though notoriously unreliable (I’ve sold and traded all that I owned), are quite handsome. Especially those from Conway Stewart and Yard-o-Led.

The Affordable Everyday Writer

Not everyone wants or needs to carry around an expensive fountain pen. If you’re just looking to get one fountain pen, and want to use it regularly without fear of it breaking, I would recommend looking into the following: 1) Lamy Safari (~$25); 2) Twsbi ‘Diamond 580’ ($55)—this is the best deal in fountain pens right now in my opinion. Designed by and for enthusiasts, the ‘Diamond 580’ is an easy to use piston filler that is solidly made and priced great; 3) Twsbi ‘Vac700’ ($70)—the same goes for the Vac700 as the Diamond 580. It’s a bit more expensive, but has the cooler vacuum filler system, and like the Diamond 580, it’s a pen designed for pen nuts and is easy to disassemble and care for yourself.

If you’re inclined to spend a little more, but are willing to do so in exchange for a pen that is indestructibly crafted and a classic of modern design (there is one in the MoMA), you need look no further than the Lamy 2000. Virtually unchanged since its introduction in 1966, it is a medium sized black piston filler, and can be found regularly on ebay for ~$125. If I am remembering correctly, I believe Neil Gaiman handwrites all his manuscripts with a Lamy 2000. 

There are many affordable vintage fountain pens to be found on ebay and elsewhere, but that’s too large a topic (and a bit far afield of my interests) to go into here. I will say, however, that one of my favorite pens is the vintage Parker ‘Vacumatic’ that I own. 

* Pens in pictures from L to R, top to bottom: Omas MoMA, Mont Blanc 149, Pelikan M1000; Bexley Classique (uncapped), Edison Herald, Hero 100 (a great Chinese-made repro of the Parker 51), Lucky 271 (Chinese Pelikan-inspired pen); 1937 Parker Vacumatic (uncapped), Mont Blanc 147, Omas 360, Stipula Saturno, Visconti Wall Street, Parker Duofold; Twsbi Vac700 (uncapped) and Diamond 530 (the predecessor to the Diamond 580)

Oris XL Day-Pointer

Oris XL Day-Pointer

Seiko SKX-007 with ‘vintage’ MkII Dial and Hands.

Seiko SKX-007 with ‘vintage’ MkII Dial and Hands.

American Made: Blue Claw Co. Schiphol Utility Bag on sale for $200
I was just surfing some of my favorite sites on the web to see what was new, and saw that Blue Claw Co. is clearing out their Schiphol bags for $200, down from $285. This is a great bag for that price (I wrote a review of the bag back in August here). A little web search showed that Gilt had these on sale a while back for $199 but they’re now sold out. Blue Claw Co. still has the black and olive in stock, both of which I find quite handsome.

American Made: Blue Claw Co. Schiphol Utility Bag on sale for $200

I was just surfing some of my favorite sites on the web to see what was new, and saw that Blue Claw Co. is clearing out their Schiphol bags for $200, down from $285. This is a great bag for that price (I wrote a review of the bag back in August here). A little web search showed that Gilt had these on sale a while back for $199 but they’re now sold out. Blue Claw Co. still has the black and olive in stock, both of which I find quite handsome.

Outtake.

Outtake.

The underappreciated tan NATO.

The underappreciated tan NATO.

Old Stuff…

1930s Parker Vacumatic fountain pen and a Samanda old briar pipe.

Packing my Tiebrary.

Review: Blue Claw Co. Schiphol Utility Bag (Made in USA)

As a teacher, I often have to carry a lot of things to work. A laptop, an iPad, several books, a stack of papers, gym shoes (if I weren’t me) and workout clothes (again, if I weren’t me), and a camera (I am the main yearbook photographer at my relatively small school).

While normal briefcases can cut it for most people on a typical work or school day, sometimes I just need to cram more stuff into a bag than can fit in a traditional briefcase, and I don’t particularly feel like bringing two bags to work. It’s both situations like these, and the versatility that allows the Schiphol to speak to them, that makes this an ideal bag for a person with a large workday carry. However, if that’s not you, fear not because it’s also a great bag for an overnight or weekend getaway.

In the bottom pictures above I’ve got a laptop (the older white clamshell MacBook), an iPad (my nod to the technology of the second decade of the twenty-first century), a sizable textbook, 6 academic history books (200-400 pp. each), a notebook and pens, a J. Crew field jacket, a pair of Red Wing Wabashas, a belt, a full sized DSLR with a big 17-55mm zoom lens attached and an additional smaller 50mm prime lens in a separate lens pouch, all in the bag. And, there’s still room to spare!

The Schiphol features a single main interior compartment with a small zippered compartment where you can store pens, keys, and any other thing you don’t want to search too long for. The interior is lined with a nice blue cotton twill that is the company’s hallmark. The exterior of the bag has a single leather flap with brass buckle closures that covers two pockets that are easily large enough to hold a small e-reader and other miscellaneous items like sunglasses, etc.

Though the Schiphol can clearly carry a lot of stuff, it doesn’t look weird or underutilized if all you’re carrying is a laptop, lightweight jacket, and some papers. Who knows, the extra space could come in handy if you’re sidetracked by a trip to the market, or if you come upon a nice sale somewhere. Since I’m on summer break, I’ve mostly been carrying fairly small loads in it.

The Schiphol clearly has more going for it than the fact that it hits that sweet spot between a weekender and briefcase, and can therefore do double duty as both. It’s also a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. The bags are designed and produced in the U.S.A., and made of a tough 15 oz. waxed canvas. They also feature incredibly thick full-grain leather straps and rolled handles, and heavy duty brass hardware and zippers. The Schiphol has a great thick leather bottom that is already starting to get some nice graining and patina from the few weeks I’ve been using it. The sample I received has straight stitching throughout, and solid hand hammered rivets. I looked it over very closely and could find no flaws in the workmanship. If you’re not a fan of the navy colorway I received, the Schiphol also comes in black, grey, British tan, and olive. 

Although the Schiphol isn’t a cheap bag ($285 w/ free shipping), it’s priced lower than comparable offerings from, say, Filson or Mismo. And with regard to the former, you’ll certainly stand out from the crowd a bit with the unique look of a Blue Claw Co. bag. If you’re a fan of the Blue Claw aesthetic, but both want to spend less and don’t need as much space, their Frankfurt Field Brief and McCarren Messenger bags are both great looking and clock in at under $200. And for those of you who already have your work or school bag needs covered, Blue Claw Co. also sells a nice assortment of accessories like dopp kits and iPad cases.

If you love waxed canvas and leather bags and accessories that are made in the USA, and you like to have stuff that doesn’t blend in with the gear everyone around you already has, then I heartily recommend checking out Blue Claw Co.

My friend’s vintage Omega Seamaster on 18K gold beads of rice bracelet draped over an even rarer Oakland A’s Coco Crisp bobblehead doll.  

My friend’s vintage Omega Seamaster on 18K gold beads of rice bracelet draped over an even rarer Oakland A’s Coco Crisp bobblehead doll.