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)