The question "What do I get when I spend more on a pen?" is one often heard in chat rooms all over cyberspace and it is one where we've sometimes seen the answers confusing and dividing the readers. The world of writing instruments begins with disposable pens and pencils sold dozens to a box for pennies a piece and ends with elaborate, bejeweled, one-of-a-kind works of art where cost is of little to no concern.
Disposable ballpoints like these can cost as little as 9 cents each:
Largely recognized as the most expensive pen in the world, this genuine one-of-a-kind Fulgor Nocturnus by Tibaldi was crafted with rare black diamonds. It sold at a Shanghai charity auction for over $8 million USD. A diamond encrusted Mont Blanc Boheme Royale can set you back almost $1.5 million.
Most of you reading this fall somewhere between these two extremes. You want to know what you're getting for your money to ensure you're spending wisely. Let's look at some of the factors that go into making one pen more expensive than another.
In a majority of cases you'll find a superior quality of materials and construction the higher you go in cost. This is true across the board, whether it be a ball pen or fountain pen. Disposable ballpoints and fountain pens, as well as beginner fountain pens the likes of Lamy Safari,
or Kaweco Sport,
typically made for German students are constructed of simple plastics. They're pretty durable in order to resist dropping, crushing, and snapping apart in book bags and backpacks, but they lack in terms of "fine pen" refinement. They're form-follows-function first and foremost. The plastic surfaces may nick and mar and the pens just keep writing, which is exactly what you want for the student user. They do their jobs extremely well, and the popular designs have led to these being offered in models with aluminum bodies: Lamy AL Star
and Kaweco AL Sport.
For cost comparison, the Lamy Safari fountain pen has an MSRP of $37.00, while their AL Star lists at $47.00.
Kaweco's Classic, Frosted, and Skyline Sport fountain pen models list at $25-27.00, while their AL Sport fountain pen models list at $80.00 For the additional cost of both the Lamy and Kaweco the user benefits from bodies with more high-end aesthetic appeal. Kaweco has also definitely constructed the AL Sport to resist more abuse. It is all metal. That all metal construction also gives the AL Sport some additional weight which many users find they prefer over the extreme lightweight plastic versions in the Sport series. Kaweco has taken it even further with an even weightier Brass Sport model, listing at $100.00,
and a Steel Sport, listing at $120.00.
The Brass Sport and Steel Sport pens are heavy, rough and tumble pens capable of heavy duty use.
The heart and soul (nib and feed) of both the Lamy Safari and AL Star are identical. So are the nibs and feeds throughout all the variants of the Kaweco Sport series fountain pens. In the case of body materials, the material does not impact how the pen writes, but its weight can impact how the pen feels in the user's hand, resulting in a better experience for those whose hand prefers a weightier pen. Most people seem to prefer the weightier pens too; as the Brass Sport has been far away the best selling of the Sport series models here at Appointments.
2. Steel vs. gold nibs.
Whether this is relevant or not depends upon the user. Long-time fountain pen users are those most able to appreciate the difference a gold nib can make. Whether a gold nib is worthwhile to you depends upon a variety of factors and preferences as there is no longer a definite one-is-better-than-the-other argument to be made thanks to the improvements in manufacturing technology. The difference between steel and gold nibs was once stark - like choosing between a steel folding chair or an overstuffed recliner as to what one was most comfortable in which to sit.
Now the writing experience between steel and gold nibs can be extremely subtle. The relative softness of the gold nib material can best be appreciated by most seasoned users who have been writing with fountain pens for a good 5+ years or so. This is because after a number of years away from the habit of applying pressure to get ballpoint pens to write, a fountain pen user develops a lighter touch when writing. Once this touch and appreciation has been developed, the real joy of writing with a gold nib can be realized, but that depends on how one writes. Those who write slowly, with attention to their penmanship can most appreciate gold nibs. Quick note takers tend to find steel nibs superior as the stiffer metal is better suited for the hurried strokes and resultant increased pressure applied to the nib - a writing scenario that can sometimes damage or splay the tines of the softer gold material.
A primary instance where gold is vastly superior to steel is in the case of nibs designed to flex to create variation in line width as one writes. There are many steel "flex nib" pens on the market vying for consumer's cash, but every one of them comes up short in terms of performance compared to their gold nib competitors costing many times more. Just like a hammer and a sledgehammer are technically both hammers, you wouldn't bring a hammer to do the sledgehammer's job. For nice subtle line variation we cannot recommend highly enough the Pilot Falcon.
In short, both steel and gold nibs are great. Steel nib fountain pens can start at $3.35 for the single-use (a.k.a. disposable) Pilot Varsity
where gold nib fountain pens typically begin at around the $150 price point, and has been known to jump whenever there's a rise in the cost of gold. One of the best values in gold nib fountain pens has consistently been the Pilot Decimo
and its larger precursor, the Pilot Vanishing Point.
Plastics have been used from the very beginning of pen construction. Ebonite, celluloid, ABS, and many more types have been key to the design of pens for over a century. Some of these materials can be quite inexpensive to produce (ABS) while others (celluloid) are quite costly. The quality of the plastic material and how it is formed can mean quite a lot in terms of how long a pen remains looking new. Softer material like ABS plastic used in the Lamy Safari or Kaweco Sport and Perkeo are wonderfully durable, though do mar easily. Higher quality resins are incredibly durable plastics shipped to pen manufacturers in the form of rods. The manufacturers then put the material to a lathe and form the pen barrels and caps through a subtractive process as opposed to ABS plastics that in liquid form fill in a mold, then harden to form pen parts. The high quality resins are very strong, and can be etched with patterns, as Faber-Castell does with their best-selling Ambition series pens.
Pineider's beautiful and innovative Ultra Resin material is so strong it is almost unbreakable. Combined with the company's intelligently designed clip, advanced magnetic cap lock system, superior nib design on the fountain pen, and twist mechanism on the ballpoint makes the Pineider Avatar UR series pens great values for the money.
4. Design artistry.
Once the nib of a pen has gone from steel to gold, the body from economic plastics to more costly materials, the next step in determining a fine pen from the rest is the artistry and detail work. This is when a pen begins to enter the realm of jewelry. Applied over brass bodies, the fine lacquerwork that can be found beginning on models by Cross
reach their ultimate height in the world-class refinement of the hand applied Chinese lacquers of S.T. Dupont.
The exquisite Pilot Maki-e
and Ishime pens
are adorned with the finest centuries old artistry of Japanese masters of their craft.
Not only the bodies, but the intricately patterned engraving work of Yard-o-Led Sterling Silver writing instruments are crafted entirely by hand, just as they have been for almost two centuries, ensuring no two pens are ever exactly alike.
The materials, artistry, and additional steps in manufacturing the above pens all contribute to extra time to produce, and resultant price to be paid for these pens which have become as much jewelry as writing instrument.
5. Fountain pen filling systems.
The majority of fountain pens manufactured today use ink cartridges which can be substituted for an ink converter to fill the pen with ink from a bottle. This provides the user with a variety of benefits. First: the majority of fountain pen users (especially new or occasional users) use ink cartridges to fill their pens. Ink cartridges are perfect for children, people who travel, busy people who would otherwise forget to check if their ink level was too low, and people for whom the process of filling ink from a bottle is too difficult to manage. Ink cartridges are relatively inexpensive, pop in easily, and extras can be carried with relative ease. Most pens using the standard ink cartridge are designed to fit an extra cartridge in the end of the pen behind the cartridge currently in use for maximum convenience, ensuring the user will not run out of ink on that day! On the other hand, the optional ink converters are easy to use and dependable. Should one get lost or damaged, most can be replaced for minimal cost (usually $5-12). This cartridge/converter system keeps the cost of manufacturing low, so the pens are available to a wider range of consumers; and users do not need to return their pens to the manufacturer for service should the ink filling mechanism of the converter wear out or fail.
That brings us to the internal filling mechanisms which can be found on new pens typically found in the $40 price point on up. In this category, the Scrikss 419 is extraordinarily popular.
The mechanism of the 419 operates like that of a cartridge/converter pen - simply turn the end of the pen counter clockwise to set the piston in place, then turn clockwise to draw the ink into the pen. The benefit to having the mechanism built into the pen is that the pen has a greater ink capacity than does an ink converter; something very important for those who are copious note-takers.
More complicated filling systems can be found on pens such as this Visconti Divina .
The Divina uses a piston system, but it is a pull and turn procedure. The added maneuver is there to create one of the largest ink capacities available in a fountain pen.
Pineider has given these limited production pens this name because the piston of the fill mechanism disappears once the draw is complete. On other clear barrel pens with an internal piston fill mechanism the piston is always visible. Add to this their incredible magnetic cap lock mechanism, iperflex quill nib, and inclusion of a traveling Pen Filler and there's a lot to like here. All of these custom metal parts for relatively limited production pens does add to the cost of manufacturing.
All of the above mentioned are what takes a pen from being merely an inexpensive rudimentary mark maker on paper to a valuable work of art or functional jewelry. All have their place, and most pen aficionados will have some from a mix of all price points in their collections. So don't be surprised if a fellow pen lover who is often seen carrying limited edition pieces worth hundreds or thousands of dollars also has a $25 Kaweco Sport in their pocket on occasion!
Oh, and always remember: no matter the price of your pen, if keeping it in mint condition is important, be sure to carry/store it in a pen case! You'll enjoy it for years more!
Thanks for reading!