Clickbait headline? Especially coming from a dedicated fountain pen user, who at one point would regularly lament how the ballpoint and the gel pen contributed to the downfall of polite civilization by driving the fountain pen to the brink of extinction? But from a sheer numbers and longevity perspective, you can easily make the case. Bic has sold over 100 billion of these pens since they were first launched in 1950. The pen sits in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art. And it’s become the gold standard for how a basic ballpoint pen should look and write.
Though Europe gets the awesome orange barrels, in the States we’re “stuck” with what to me is the "classic" Bic Cristal, featuring a clear plastic hexagonal barrel and a plastic cap that matches the ink color. The design hasn’t changed much in the nearly 70 years this pen has been in existence, and the history of the Bic Cristal makes for fascinating reading.
People tend to hate cheap ballpoint pens for one of two reasons: they require too much pressure to write, and/or the ink won’t leave a solid line. The oil-based ink in really cheap ballpoints can also blob and smear all over the page (or in your pocket), making a serious mess. Of all the pure ballpoints out there on the market, however, I consider Bic Cristal and the Schmidt Easyflow 9000 to be the best options, because you don’t usually see any of these issues. (As with any mass-produced product at a lower price point, there are exceptions.)
Though it certainly doesn’t write the same dark line as a gel or hybrid-gel pen, the Bic Cristal performs pretty well for a ballpoint. Bic’s shade of blue ink is much more vibrant than what you’ll find in a Papermate Write Bros., or the various store-brand generics. The 1.0mm “medium” tip can even show some line variation, depending on the pressure you use. For this reason, many artists use Bic pens to draw insanely detailed portraits. While I find gel pens pretty much unusable in tip sizes above .7mm, I have no trouble writing relatively small with the 1.0mm Bic Cristal, since oil-based ink doesn't feather and bleed.
Takeaways and Where to Buy
In a world where pen companies and big box stores are starting to charge $15 for a dozen mediocre gel pens, there’s something to be said for taking the opposite approach by picking up a pack of Bic Cristals. Sure, you'll probably lose the pen, give it away, or the plastic barrel may crack long before you use up the ink, but like the most basic woodcase pencils, sometimes you just want to get some work done with a reliable tool that presents the least amount of distraction. Moreover, with the concept of handwriting generally under attack, we should be doing all we can to preserve it by promoting the entire range of writing tools available. The Bic Cristal offers a low-cost, zero-barrier-to-entry option. Anyone can jump online or run down to the corner store, and get started handwriting.
If you’re interested in trying out some Bic Cristals, I’ve collected a few different options (including the cool European orange-barrel versions) on my Amazon page. As I mentioned, the 1.0mm medium point will probably give you the smoothest writing experience, and is generally my recommended starting point. For editing and annotation (or if you just write really small), the “Xtra Precision” needle-tip pens are fantastic. If you write large, there's even an "Xtra Bold" 1.6mm version, though I've not tried them.
Finally, if the Bic Cristal interests you from a design or historical perspective, both Philip Hensher's The Missing Ink and James Ward's The Perfection of the Paper Clip discuss the history and development of the Bic ballpoint pen in some detail (as well as diving deep into other aspects of stationery minutiae). I highly recommend both books.
Disclaimer: While I purchased the pens featured in this review with my own funds, for my own use, this post does contain affiliate links. Pricing and availability is current as of the date of publication of this review.