Why Nothing Writes Like a Fountain Pen
October 7, 2017
By TIM REDMOND
Thirty-two years ago, when I was a young writer struggling to pay the rent and eat, I walked into an art supply store in San Francisco and put down $120 for a pen.
My friends thought I was nuts: that was, literally, half a month’s rent, a month’s groceries. A pack of ten ballpoint pens went for a buck; what on Earth was I thinking?
But since 1985, that dark red Mont Blanc with the 14-karat gold nib has filled at least 3,000 reporter’s notebooks, 1,000 or so legal pads, and written more than 1,900 checks. It has helped me interview hundreds of politicians and community leaders. It’s taken the notes for this story.
If my math is correct, my favorite fountain pen has cost me $3.75 a year — and it writes better today than it ever did. Unlike the 1.6 billion plastic ballpoints that wind up getting tossed in the trash every year in the US, this pen will never wind up in a landfill. (The throw-away pens that do, I might add, create roughly 16 million pounds of plastic, most of which never degrade in a landfill. And that’s just in the United States.)
If I wanted to, I could easily sell my old pen for $1,000. It’s the best deal I ever made.
Nothing writes like a fountain pen. Not fancy new liquid-ink rollerballs or expensive ballpoints, not Flair or marker pens. When it comes to the hand-written word, the old technology (very old — some accounts say there were fountain pens in the early middle ages, and Leonardo Da Vinci’s drawings show a design for a fountain pen) is far superior to anything the modern world has given us.
In the world of the rich, which I do not inhabit, expensive fountain pens can become almost a type of jewelry, to be worn and seen more than used. Some ads even refer to brand-name pens as “writing instruments,” the same way that a BMW is not a car but a “driving machine. ” Mont Blanc, for example, is now marketed as more of a lifestyle company, selling $3,500 watches and $1,600 briefcases.
But for those of us who use fountain pens every day, and collect them for their beauty as well as their usefulness, a pen is a tool: It takes ink from a reservoir and transfers it to paper — but it does so in a way that makes the most ordinary actions, like taking notes, a lot more fun . A good fountain pen requires virtually no pressure—it just glides across the page. And the ink, which now comes in myriad colors, goes beyond creating letters. It seems to almost decorate a piece of paper.
Starting off to find a fountain pen can be confusing. There are so many, with such a huge variation in price. I’ve got one perfectly workable pen I bought for $20, but you can easily spend $500 or more on a garden-variety brand-name pen these days, and some pens go for much, much more. I’ve seen an Aurora pen with 200 diamonds on the market for $1.47 million.
These prices are largely dictated by the materials used for a pen’s body. Most are made of resin or plastic; some are laced with precious metals, typically gold or silver, and studded with jewels; and some, such as today’s high-end pens from Japan, are covered in intricate hand-lacquered designs. As alluring as these aesthetics might be, they are essentially costumes. When it comes to performance, a serious pen user ignores a pen’s fancy body and focuses on the quality and style of its tip, or “nib.” For this tiny part, the variety and complexities that have developed over the centuries are almost endless—and a subject of equally endless fascination and debate among pen lovers.
In simple terms, fountain pens fall into two broad categories: new and “vintage” pens. By most aficionados’ standards, anything made after 1960 is considered modern. As sleek and highly designed as many modern fountain pens are, pen experts largely agree that the highest performance pens ever made are the older ones. Mauricio Aguilar—a serious pen collector who also restores vintage pens and teaches people how to write with them—told me that he has seen very few pens manufactured in the past 50 years that interest him.
I know a claim like that smacks of nostalgia, but there is a reason that Aguilar feels this way. With a great many age-old tools, the makers’ craft peaked at the end of their product’s reign as king of its class. For pens, this occurred in the mid-20th century, when fountain pens still faced no competition from cheap ball-points and roller-balls, to say nothing of computers and iPhones. Protected by their market dominance, pen makers could thus afford to invest in all kinds of experiments, tools, materials, machinery, manufacturing stages, training, and subtle improvements. That’s why no modern pen maker has ever equaled what a vintage fountain pen can do to a piece of paper.
In Craftsmanship’s Fall issue, which launches in mid-October, I will expand on this argument more fully. I’ll explore what different vintage pens can do, and why; and offer guides to buying and properly caring for a good fountain pen.
In the meantime, I hope you’ll enjoy Craftsmanship’s short documentary, below, on Michael Masuyama, an expert at fountain pen restoration.
As it happens, Masuyama got his start decades ago at Sailor, a top-notch Japanese pen and ink manufacturer that makes one of my favorite pens. (The company got its name from its start, in 1911, when a British sailor in Hiroshima met a Japanese engineer and gave him a fountain pen.) My Sailor was made with what the company calls its “music” nib, because the two tines that form its nib are wide but sharp. While a true music nib contains three tines, even this pen, when manipulated by a skilled writer, will easily form those little flags that turn into music (quarter notes, halves, full notes, etc.).
As you will see from the other Sailor pens Masuyama works on in this documentary, and those in the accompanying photos, there is a whole new world in store for those with curious fingers.
All photos courtesy of Mauricio Aguilar © www.VintagePen.net