A Hakase pen

Pen pusher

My fascination with fountain pens

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My fascination with fountain pens began a long time ago.  I remember very well the first occasion I came across one. As a little boy I was rummaging about in my grandmother’s sideboard (doubtless without permission) when I found a small cigar-shaped tube of emerald green Bakelite. I pulled and its cap came off revealing a gleaming gold nib. I was enthralled.

Of course it was old and broken and would not write. This enthralled me all the more so I proceeded, inexpertly, to disassemble my discovery and play with its parts until the remains were scattered across the floor. That was the end of that particular pen. But it was the beginning of my interest in beautiful writing objects. 

By the time I arrived at university, I had amassed a small collection. And as I had not much money, I made it my business to work out how to maintain them. This time, I took much greater care when taking my pens to pieces and slowly but surely I worked out how to reassemble them once they were clean. It seemed all that I needed was a pair of tweezers, a razorblade, warm water and shellac.

Soon I started scouring junk shops in search of discarded pens. I was very proud of myself when, one day in Tewkesbury 20 years ago, I found a Conway Stewart 60 blue hatched. It was sitting at the bottom of a jar in a tiny bric-a-brac emporium. It was filthy, it was unloved and it was priced £2. I bought it, restored it (its nib needed some gentle teasing and the ink sac had to be replaced) and was pleased to carry around a classic which could easily be sold for £200.

Unsurprisingly, I was not so pleased with myself when shortly after I dropped my prize on the only hard floor surface in the room and the damn thing shattered. But over the years I have unearthed many others, including some lovely English marques which have long since been lost to history. An unusual olive green Burnham from the early 1950s and a lovely jade Mentmore spring to mind.

My English favourites remain the ever-young black and gold Parker 51

Of course, elegant penmanship is not the preserve of domestic makers. As well as Waterman and Cross, America can boast Sheaffer pens founded by Walter Sheaffer on the eve of the First World War. He patented the barrel lever refill mechanism which remained the industry staple for 30 years. The Nostalgia, Art Deco elegance in filigreed silver, is possibly their most handsome creation.

Italy too is home to exquisite pen design. Visconti, a relative newcomer to the market in writing instruments, has made more than an ink-splash with its stylish Voyager and Pompei-blue Pontevecchio which perform wonderfully.

For those who admire the artistry of handwriting, Japanese pens ought to form part of any collection. Hakase is probably the most exclusive Japanese maker with a range of handmade objects of stunning beauty. Many were designed in their Totorri workshop by legendary master craftsman Harumi Tanaka, including the gorgeous Tortoiseshell tooled from living material.

Personally, my English favourites remain the ever-young black and gold Parker 51, sleek simplicity with its hooded nib, and my coral-coloured Conway Stewart 388 in a cracked ice casing. Conway Stewart and Parker are undoubtedly the king and queen of English pencraft, not least because Parker was the preferred instrument of the late Elizabeth II. Their shape, design and writing reliability are as timeless as was the old Queen herself.

Now, I should say a word about nibs, for they matter enormously. Most pens are fitted with a standard nib. But if you take pride in your handwriting and want it to match the beauty of the instrument you are using, take the time to ask for an italic or an oblique nib to be fitted. These are chiselled at an angle to grip the paper more strongly and allow for thick downward but thinner crossing strokes. They also slow the hand with the result that your handwriting, if not calligraphic, is more likely to be smoothly legible.

That assumes, of course, that you want your signature to be deciphered by curious eyes when signing a large cheque, or a hotel register …

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