This question rears its head now and then, in some version or another. Dr. Deans’ recent posts over at Fountain Pen Economics on the perceived bubble in the market for Field Notes Colors editions, and the difficulties faced by boutique Japanese retailer Bung Box in satisfying demand for their Special Edition Sailor Inks, got me thinking. (From a consumer’s perspective, of course, not an economist’s.)
Why do we continue to chase these “limited edition” lines of ink? Montblanc started the trend of regularly issuing "limited" or "special" editions several years ago. In late 2011-early 2012, Alfred Hitchcock Red came onto my radar, and I was smitten. This particular color—a dusky, “blood” red that didn’t feather and bleed all over everything—was exactly what I’d been looking for in a red ink but had been unable to find elsewhere. I purchased three bottles. Over three years later, I’ve not yet finished one. I fell hard for the “buy-as-much-as-you-can-afford-of-this-ink-now-because-you’ll-never-see-it-again” marketing strategy, and ironically, even though I had a healthy supply of Hitchcock, I reluctantly used it because, in the back of my mind, I felt that I should save "rare" ink for something special rather than the mundane everyday writing tasks for which I use most of my pens.
Montblanc has continued to issue “limited edition” inks in its “Writers,” “Great Characters,” and “Meisterstuck” series. Among the most popular have been the Hitchcock Red, Dandy Turquoise (Honore de Balzac), Winter Glow (a seasonal red ink), and, more recently, the JFK Navy Blue and “Blue Hour” inks. Pelikan entered the game, with its Edelstein “Ink of the Year” series. Anecdotes of “ink hoarding” now litter the pen blogs and forums, with readers talking of purchasing as many as seven or eight bottles of a special or limited edition ink, terrified that they will run out (at some point in their life). Users and collectors pay as much as $100 per (30ml!?!) bottle on the secondhand market for discontinued editions. It begs the question: is this rational behavior?
At some point, it probably was, but now, I’m not so sure, and suspect that it's now based on a false perception of scarcity. I periodically search the internet for comparisons of Hitchcock ink to the other red inks on the market, dreading the day when my supply dries up. At the time I bought my Hitchcock, there wasn’t much in the way of alternatives (or, I didn’t know of much). But the market has changed. More companies have begun making and selling ink. Some stick around; some don't. Just five or six years ago, when I re-entered this hobby, Iroshizuku and Edelstein weren’t around, and Diamine wasn't readily available in the U.S. If you wanted a wide range of colors, Noodler's and Private Reserve were the main options. Far fewer online shopping options existed, much less tools such as the Goulet Swab Shop where you could pull up ink samples and easily compare colors. (Goulet Pens launched a month or two after I picked up my pens following a long hiatus.) In short, alternatives to these limited editions exist, and they’re easier to find than ever. Today, if my Hitchcock ran out, Diamine Oxblood could probably serve as a "close enough" substitute, and there are enough inks out there to make the hunt for a new favorite enjoyable.
Others have commented that the recent trend/fad has shifted from pursuing “Limited Edition” inks to seeking out hard to find, rare lines of ink exclusive to small boutique shops. First it was Akkerman in the Hague, Netherlands; the latest darling is Bung Box in Hamamatsu, Japan. Both inks carry a steep $35 per bottle price tag. While this pricing likely reflects the cost born by these smaller retailers in having the ink made as opposed to the effect of supply and demand for the product, it remains to be seen whether these inks can remain as popular as they are in light of an increasing number of competitors offering cheaper and near-equivalent alternatives. For example, at last month's D.C. Pen Show, I considered purchasing three bottles of ink directly from Bung Box (who was at the show), but ended up with a few bottles of Kobe-Nagasawa Ink from Vanness instead after realizing that the price for 3 bottles from Bung Box would be $100. Both inks are made by Sailor exclusively for these retailers, but the price difference is fairly stark: ($35 per bottle for Bung Box vs. $19--regular Sailor pricing--for the Kobe). Kobe is a larger operation that has 50 colors available, either from Vanness or via eBay. Since Sailor makes both lines of ink, what's the chance that you can't find that Bung Box color you've been coveting (or a close equivalent) somewhere in the Kobe line, and have money left over to buy something else? I finally got to the point where I personally couldn't justify the extra expense, no matter how cool the old Bung Box bottle is.
Anyway, these are just my observations. There's no "problem" in need of a solution here, but I do wonder where the market for "limited edition" or "rare" inks is going in the near future. Now, excuse me while I go pick up that second bottle of JFK Blue.
**You’ll note that I have “limited edition” in quotation marks at various points in this post. Recently, it seems that these “limited” inks have been sticking around longer. For example, JFK Navy Blue has been out for a while now, and it’s still relatively easy to find. I personally would be interested to know whether this is a function of declining consumer demand for limited edition product, or whether it’s the result of Montblanc making more ink.**