Fountain Pens

What I learned from the fountain pens I disliked

These are the pens I love

One of the best things about any hobby is finding things you love, adding items to your life that bring you immense pleasure. Even better is when your hobby provides you with items that you can use in your everyday life; in my case these would be knitted garments that become part of my regular wardrobe and fountain pens that I can use every time I want to write down some words. Alas, every hobby will inevitably also uncover things you don’t like, such as garments that didn’t suit you, or fountain pens you simply didn’t enjoy. In her book “The Happiness Project”, Gretchen Rubin taks about the benefits of cultivating an atmosphere of growth, and hobbies provide that in abundance. The thing about growth, though, is that it walks hand in hand with such things as pruning, culling, and gluts; in our hobbies it is useful to learn lessons about which items we want to grow and which we are happy to leave for others.

I’ve chosen a photo today of six fountain pens that I have come to love and that I always enjoy using. There are three others in my collection at present:

  • a second Parker 51 which I tend not to use a lot because I just prefer the one in my photo
  • my Waterman Allure which is a nice pen, just a bit of an also-ran
  • my Cross Apogee “Frosty Steel” which is out of action needing a new nib/feed section due to misuse

What I am interested in, however, are the pens which I bought and disliked so much I disposed of them. Each of these was a good pen in its own way, they just weren’t the best pens for me and I know a lot of the fountain pen community would adore at least some of these pens. Because of that, because these aren’t in any way negative reviews but personal preferences, I’m not going to mention the manufacturers or models although some of them may be easy to deduce.

I still have very complicated feelings about the first pen on my dislike pile because it only missed out on being a love of my life by a very small margin. This was an instance where the old saying “a miss is as good as a mile” really holds true. There was so much to like about this pen. It was from a brand that I’d been reading about for quite a while, a brand that a lot of fountain pen users rate very highly indeed, and it was stocked in my local department store which is the closest I can get to a local pen shop. It was easy to make plenty of visits to gaze at the pens and be taken in with their beauty, and when it came time to buy I could hold the pen in my hand and try it out dipped into ink. Buying online just can’t provide that kind of experience. Perversely, buying the pen in this way also led me to an element that left a slightly sour tang from the very start.

The manufacturer of this pen makes some heart-droppingly beautiful models at some heart-stoppingly high prices; the one I bought was very much at their entry level, but even so it displayed many of the characteristics of the higher price pens. This particular pen was available in a variety of colours and the acrylic resin of the body and cap had beautiful marbling effects. The cap opened and closed with an ingenious magnetic mechanism that was an absolute pleasure to use, the pen wrote well with the nib gliding on the paper, it could be used with Standard International Ink Cartridges which is always a better option than cartridges that only fit one particular brand of pen. What’s not to like?

I think one of the biggest lessons I take away from owning this pen is that I need to pay attention to the colour I’m buying. Despite being available in much nicer colours, for some reason on the day I chose the black one. I think almost any other colour would have been preferable and I have no idea why I made the choice I did; perhaps the marbling on that one pen attracted me more than the others? Whatever the reason, over time the fact it was black meant it never made it into my preferred pens category. Worse than that, though, the big downside of buying from my local department store, marvellous though they are, is that they only carried the pens fitted with medium nibs. Now, I’ve bought other brands of fountain pens from this store before and they have happily sent the pen off to have my choice of nib put on. It has delayed my gratification by a couple of weeks, but I have always been happy with the service. In this instance, however, they were at pains to make it clear that getting my choice of a fine nib fitted would be too much of a hassle. They cited a recent example where a customer’s pen sent off to the manufacturer for a new nib had taken months to be returned and so I walked away with a pen I knew from the start had a nib that I wasn’t entirely happy with.

I thought I could learn to love the medium nib, but I never did. Now, this particular brand are known for making pens that are very wet writers, which is to say they lay down a lot of ink. This is, again, not my preference and, combined with the medium nib, made this a pen I didn’t much enjoy using. This wasn’t a massive problem, though, I found an online supplier from whom I purchased a new nib unit with a fine nib and I thought I was all set. I did like the new nib more than the old one, I did use the pen a fair amount, but in my heart I knew that the fine nib was still too wet for my liking. I took to using the pen at work which is what happens to pens that I don’t really care much about, and then I stopped using it entirely. In the end I sold it on and I didn’t miss it at all.

So now I know that I need to trust my instincts, really listen to what is being said in reviews, and to buy the pens that best suit my taste, even if others are superficially more attractive and have elements (like that cap closure) that are so ingenious they blind me to any faults.

I think that was the only pen I felt truly sorry that I couldn’t love. The others, probably because they were more reasonably priced and I didn’t put in a lengthy consideration before purchasing, came and went but caused less anguish.

Of these, the most important was the pen that proved to me that you can never recapture “les temps perdu”. I had been pining for the fountain pen I owned and loved back in my late teens and through my twenties and I thought I would buy a newer design from the same brand to see if I could rekindle my affection. Nothing doing. I had no feelings at all for the pen, although at least I managed to order this one in a colour I liked. I would classify this particular brand as one of the “big box” ones; turns up in office supply stores, even people who don’t use fountain pens would probably recognise the name. It’s one that doesn’t really feature much in the blogs of enthusiasts, although I’ve come across one or two honourable mentions. I don’t think I had any issues with how my pen wrote, although it needed its own brand of ink cartridges and at the time I was wanting to use a selection from J Herbin which are the Standard International design. I have a feeling, although I can’t entirely recall, that this pen was only available with a medium nib, but it wasn’t a wet writer so the medium didn’t feel too gushy to me. It was relatively cheap, I bought it, I tried it out, I rarely used it, I think it was one of the pens I sent to the charity shop. I was searching for an object for my affection, but I found I had none to give to this pen. I do wonder whether I would feel equally underwhelmed by my original pen from this brand if I bought it new today; perhaps my memories of it being a lovely pen are tinted with the rose-coloured veil of memory.

Then there were the two cheap pens from a brand which I expected more of. Both were very much at the entry-level end of the market, but there were a lot of positive reviews of the first one which led me to think it might be a good everyday, take to work type of pen. I quite liked the styling: it had a coloured cap with a slightly curvacious design, and a plain aluminium barrel. This time the Standard International cartridges would fit which is a boon when you’re using a pen in the workplace and probably don’t want to be fussing with bottles of ink. It was available with a fine nib and that’s what I bought, but this is the element I most disliked about this pen. With a nicer nib, I might have found a use for it in the office, but as it was I never really wanted to write with it. However, I continued to see glowing reviews by fountain pen enthusiasts who I respect of the nibs from this brand, so a few years later I bought another, even cheaper entry-level pen from them. This time it was made of plastic and was very hard indeed to like. Its fate was sealed by the nib which was just as nasty as I remembered the other one being. I’m glad that the majority of the designs from this manufacturer don’t appeal to me because I fear I might be tempted again if I saw something I liked and I’d be disappointed all over again.

The last pen I’ll mention was from one of the big names in the pen industry, one everyone has heard of and one that, at the time of buying this particular pen, I had very little experience of. At the time, one of my friends had bought a rollerball and I was really taken with the design and finish of it, so I looked at the fountain pens on offer and chose one that appealed to me. Now, to prove that I never take my own advice, I will confess straight away that the one I bought was black. Apparently knowing that I don’t enjoy black pens doesn’t prevent me going out and buying them. Again, it was a purchase from my local department store, but this time I was able to buy it with the fine nib; even that, though, failed to make an impression. It wasn’t by any means a bad pen and I don’t think I’d have felt any differently if I had chosen a better colour, I simply had no desire to use it and it languished, unloved, a sad and lonely pen. Now I have two pens from this brand, both very dear to my heart for different reasons, and one of which I use and enjoy on a regular basis. They are both vintage models and this resurrects in me some small hope about my “temps perdu” pen – if I could find a vintage model of the type that I originally owned, then perhaps that might live up to my memories.

I’m sure we can all learn a variety of lessons from our hobbies and that these endeavours which we undertake mainly for the pleasure they bring into our lives help us to grow a better understanding of our tastes and our foibles.

3 thoughts on “What I learned from the fountain pens I disliked

  1. Awesome post. I myself have learned that I tend to cycle between broad and extra-fine nibs, and that just because I’m going through a phase doesn’t mean I need to sell off the pens with nibs I’m not interested in anymore (I’ll end up returning to them someday).

    Thanks for sharing!

  2. That’s a really good point, Stuart. When I was visiting Helsinki earlier this year, we went to the Lamy Concept Store and I really enjoyed playing with the italic nibs. I frequently think about getting a ‘play’ pen with one of those for when the urge hits to do something more decorative, then I think that I wouldn’t use it very often so it’s unnecessary. Perhaps “Because I would enjoy using it occasionally” should be sufficient reason.
    Your use of the concept of cycling between broad and fine nibs reminded me of my lovely friend who died this summer. We always laughed (affectionately) about him because he had several hobbies – photography, astronomy, computers, cycling – and he would be deeply engaged in one and just as you were coming to terms with that being his big passion he’d gradually do it less and less and pick up on one of the others. Though he would buy a crazy amount of stuff, this cyclical enthusiasm meant everything got used over the course of time.
    Thanks so much for taking the time to tell me about your pen preferences. I really appreciate it.

  3. Wow this was such an awesome reply. Thanks for taking the time to craft such a thoughtful comment. I had a great time reading this too.

    Sorry to hear about your friend 😦 And yeah, I guess going wide instead of deep does have its strengths too. Thanks again and do keep writing!

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