It’s been a weird year 2021. The global pandemic still in effect, but with restrictions being relaxed in many places (well until the Omicron variant arrived). In the UK we saw the return of the pen show along with the introduction of various new models, yet at the same time many people still preferred to stay away and be safe.
The Late, Late London Spring Pen Show in July felt like a breath of fresh air (through a mask). 16 months on from the previous one and in a new, larger, airier location. Attendee numbers were apparently higher than expected though many vendors were missing and the pen show organisers probably took a hit as a result, but still decided to push ahead and for that many of us were thankful. As I documented I got to see what it was like from the other side of the table by helping out John Hall of Write Here for the day, something I was to repeat for the afternoon at the October Show. In theory it should have much reduced my spend, but on both occasions I still came away with new pens.
For me I should have been behaving with my pen purchases due to present personal circumstances, however I finally managed to pull my finger out and sell a few I had identified I had not used in a long time and was unlikely to write with again. Not all went of course, however I will probably re-advertise those in the near future (This time I just advertised on the Fountain Pen UK BST Facebook group). This, of course, gave me an excuse to buy more, plus of course there were those pens leant to the United Inkdom group for review.
So what have been the joys and surprises of the years and who have been the bad children who will receive coal. Note on the latter I will not be mentioning any one person or newly started companies as they may be improving or changing direction and I do not want to discourage them, though I’m not expecting to ever receive one Kickstarter pen from one particular US based maker (and no I will not say who it is).
The Good Children:
What a year it has been for Ben Walsh. Having being laid off, rather than sitting and contemplating his naval he instead moved forwards using his skills to start a pen company. Initially testing pens made of concrete he started commercially with his original anodised brass pen. Quite a few makers over recent years have sold multicoloured flame and rainbow pens, but with little fuss or pick up, however Ben introduced the world to the Skittles finish and boy did it seem to take off. After several runs of the original pen, complete with the options for laser engraved patterns, he now has four models and I own two of those, my previously reviewed original Skittle Polished, and more recently a Skittles finished Pocket Pen.
It will be interesting to see how Gravitas Pens move forwards as Ben seems to be full of ideas with body models and finishes. He also has been picked up by a number of the more influential ‘penablers’ from across the Atlantic and so has received exposure from a different market.
Magna Carta Pens
Some at my local pen club seem to think that I am a big fan of Indian pen companies as I always seem to be passing them around, however this could not be further from the truth. I am actually very critical of many of the makers and companies over there for either selling tired 50+ year old designs else for blatantly copying and cloning, with some of the pen makers including newer ones being just as bad as the Chinese. There are, however, a few companies who break the trend and are producing original work. I now have pens from three different companies and there is a fourth I am looking at. The real highlight amongst them for me has been Magna Carta Pens. When Hiren Kanakhara first launched his brand I mistook his company name for pretending to be British and expected the pens to be the same, however this most certainly is not the case. Not only are his designs original but now he also makes his own nibs and ebonite feeds (through another of his family owned businesses) with the latter being available through various retailers around the world.
I bought an Elements and in truth I am really glad I did so. The nib is superb and I enjoy the pen so much that I’m still using it when I’m meant to be concentrating on other pens for review. Certainly it is one of my two favourite fountain pen purchases for the year. I have tried a number of his other pens through a friend and I must admit while I like their looks, the way he has textured the metal grips to retain the patterning does not work for me as I do not like the feel. However, that is a personal preference thing and I still thought the nibs they held were great. I actually almost bought a limited edition Magna Carta Sapphire Grand, which is a clear demonstrator pen that has a cut glass style pattern making it look almost like a thin decanter when eye dropper filled with the right ink (Hiren if you read this and have one spare and want it reviewing … just saying 😉 ).
Pininfarina Segno Pens
This was a recent discovery for me, and I believe their two fountain pen models have not been out that long. To anyone with an interest in the motoring world Pininfarina is a well known name for an Italian styling house and coach builder. Some of the most beautiful cars to have been made were their designs. In recent times the brand, post a take over, have expanded out and one of their companies has been started with the view to designing beautiful and functional writing equipment. Part of this has come about through a link to the old Napkin company. I do not know if they bought them out or are working with them, but what I do know is the two fountain pens are superb.
Now go back a few years and Pininfarina writing implements were collaboration projects with companies such as Visconti and priced well beyond the four figure mark, so when I heard they had started to produce their own under a subsidiary I expected similar costs. What we got instead is a pair of beautifully designed and impeccably made lower end pens in the form of the PF One and PF Two. So impressed was I with the latter than I bought the former without a second thought and I think the PF Two may be my best purchase of the year.
The Bad Children:
The Metropolis has quite possibly been the biggest disaster in the fountain pen world for many years. Derided by many reviewers including myself for poor build quality, cheap materials, and being serious over priced, many retailers also refused to take on this model and some who did reputedly returned the pens. I have criticised Dante del Vecchio in the past for following the typical path of the Italian designer, producing a beautiful looking product, but with questionable quality control and occasionally mechanisms that do not make sense from a reliability perspective, but with this pen I think he has lost the plot entirely. Actually that is not quite true. He has gone out to produce a budget pen, but then forgotten the budget price and still ignored build quality.
Alas it does not end there. Back in April/May we at the United Inkdom review group were leant an Arco Blue Bee by the UK distributor. Now from my review you will note I really did enjoy the looks of the pen, but I just could not get on with the nib. Three different inks and with each of those on three different types of paper I suffered from random bouts of ink starvation and skipping. Now I do get teased for having a light touch which can cause me to suffer hard starting on glossier paper with certain nib types, but once those start to write all is fine. Not so here. Under a loupe it could be seen that the tines were out of line and rather than trying to rectify this the tester had just smoothed the tipping in situ. So much for quality control.
You can’t talk about Italian pens and quality control issues without mentioning Visconti, and before you think I just want to have a go at Dante, we see the same issues with Stipula, Montegrappa, and more. You could say Italian pen makers live up to the stereotypical view of Italian manufacturing except Aurora and Pininfarina Segno prove that this is not the case. Now in some respects I could be accused of cheating here, for while I did review two pens, the only issue with the Homosapiens Evolution was the sheer cost for what you got. Thing is while the 2021 Homosapiens Bronze Age was the only gold nibbed Visconti I used for a reasonable time, I did try pens belonging to a number of owners and they reported the same problems. Inconsistent nibs and manufacturing issues. Here the problem was beyond a quality control joke. Nibs are made in batches of the same size. This had a stub nib, I checked the shape of the tipping under a loupe and even measured it to confirm this, yet the nib was stamped with a B. Does this mean there is an entire run of Visconti 18k gold nibs out there wrongly marked ? Additionally while this pen wrote extremely well and never showed signs of ink starvation (which can be a common issue with large nibs when you write a lot and/or quickly), this did surprise a couple of people I showed pictures of the nib to, for they pointed out the tines were too wide and it was a wonder the pen wrote at all. Quality control and Visconti. Need I say any more.
Now my third entry might surprise some people. Since Wancher emerged from Engeika it has built a solid reputation for its collaborations with Japanese pen makers such as Sailor. Launching their first pen, the Dream, with an urushi option at a low price (for the time) went well and I only sold mine because of a mix of having other urushi pens and the JoWo nib leaving me cold. There was some controversy at the time over how they could produce an urushi pen for the list price and if it was really real urushi or even the work being done by true professionals, however the conspiracy theories were quashed when the pens started to be delivered as included in the packaging was details of the artisanal group who had done the work, including company URL and contact details. So why have I included them here. The Bakelite Seven Treasures fountain pen.
The theory behind the pen was great. Take a material that has not been used in a long time and has character then make a pen out of it. In addition, take a renowned Japanese shippoyaki artist (Japanese style of cloisonne) to create individual cap finials. Finally give the option of the Wancher gold nib, with it’s growing reputation and an ebonite feed. What could go wrong. Well Bakelite, along with being brittle resulting in manufacturing failures, stains. No problem the pen was designed so you remove the section cover before filling the pen. An elegant solution except one that seems to have been decided upon after the measurements had been settled on. The net result was not enough space for the JoWo style nib collar. No problem, a Schmidt collar would fit and they found you could just about squeeze the JoWo steel nib and plastic feed in there and that appeared to work, so production was continued and review pens were sent out. In addition the first Kickstarter batch produced was only for bidders wanting steel nibs.
It is a worrying fact that Wancher obviously never tested their gold nib with and without their ebonite feed in the pen before starting the Kickstarter campagn, never mind before production started. Even more worryingly is Wancher have never done an official recall as many pens, including mine, were sent back as they just would not write and when they did it was poorly. Under a loupe I could clearly see the tines were not just misaligned, they had been pushed out of shape by the collar, and I had this confirmed to me when I shared the pictures with a UK nibmeister for confirmation. Like everyone who sent their gold nib with ebonite feed pen back I was politely informed that the Wancher ebonite feed would not work with the pen. I will repeat, Wancher were informing all of us their own feed would not work in their own pen they were supplying it with. The pen was returned to me, now with a JoWo plastic feed, and it still exhibited odd behaviour. It now writes, but starts scratchy then very quickly becomes smooth. Stop writing, start again, same happens. Under a loupe and you can see the collar is still forcing the tines out of shape, however now with the plastic feed it is just an alignment issue. I fixed the tines, wrote, stopped, restarted and the scratching returned. Under a loupe I could see the tines were misaligned once more as a result of the collar. I could have returned it but once you start writing it is a nice pen to use as well as to look at. A full review with more details of the critical design flaw and company decisions to follow.
To give Wancher their dues, while not the quickest to respond, their customer support very quickly arranged for the pen to be collected at their own cost and kept me informed, though they were spoon fed information by their own engineers/craftsmen which was frustrating when I was questioning why they were not trying to get the ebonite feed to work with the pen. In addition they did offer a full refund if I wished to return the pen.