It’s April, and you know what that means: it’s time for the annual update to my “Best Pens” Recommendations list. There may be a few surprises on here, particularly in the “beginners” category, the $100-200 price point, and my list of personal favorites. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!
The current fountain pen market can be driven to a large degree by hype, with new or “limited edition” pens selling quickly, only to have sales peter out as the novelty wears off and users figure out that maybe those “next big thing” pens aren’t the best for actual daily use. I’ve been as guilty of this as anyone, as some of what I consider to be the best fountain pens in my collection have unfortunately fallen by the wayside. Today I’ll take a look at three pens that have been around for a while, but don’t necessarily get a lot of attention on pen blogs and websites and social media. That’s unfortunate because all three are exceptional, well-balanced writing instruments that are generally reliable “out of the box” and available at most pen retailers. I’m talking about the Pilot Custom 74, the Pilot Custom Heritage 92, and, yes, the Lamy 2000.
Pilot Custom 74. At the top of my list of pens that deserve more attention is the Pilot Custom 74. We did end up selling a handful of these pens in Baltimore, and these colorful demonstrators are what I consider to be one of the better bargains on the market. For $160, which is rapidly becoming the price point for many steel-nib pens, you get a sweet 14k Pilot rhodium-plated nib, paired with Pilot’s high-capacity pump converter, the CON-70. You can also use Pilot’s cartridges if you prefer the convenience, and they hold a ton of ink and last forever. The rhodium trim on this pen nicely complements the jewel-like acrylics. I own the blue version, and Violet, Orange, Smoke, and Clear versions are also available, along with two limited editions arriving in the coming months. Stay tuned!
Pilot Custom Heritage 92. Sitting at a slightly higher price point than the Custom 74 is the Custom Heritage 92, which runs $220 and pairs the same 14k nib from the Custom 74 with an integrated piston filler. One of the main reasons that I love Pilot pens is the mix of quality and price - with the exception of the Lamy 2000 (discussed below), it’s rare that you will find a quality piston-filling fountain pen with a gold nib for under $300. The main drawback to the Custom Heritage is the fact that it’s only available in a single color. At one point Pilot made this pen for the Japanese market in orange, blue, and smoke as well, with the different colors being readily available online, but those appear to be phased out and are not as readily available as they once were. I recently saw someone trying to sell the orange version for close to $1,000, which is silly.
Lamy 2000. And finally, we get to an old standby that rarely sits uninked and out of my rotation for long. Talk about a pen that’s not “sexy” in the traditional sense: the minimalist, somewhat brutal, fiberglass design of this pen hasn’t changed at all since the 1960s, and it certainly isn’t going to win you any “likes” (or generate much blog traffic, for that matter), but if I were to open a pen store, you can bet that I’d stock these in all available nib sizes and try to push them on everyone who walked through the door looking for a durable, bottle-filling daily writer. Especially for an office professional, the Lamy 2000 gives you an understated, reliable pen with a large ink capacity that can get you through long meetings, hearings, depositions, or whatever your need may be. It’s first on my list of “workhorse pens.”
So what prompted this post? At last week’s Baltimore Pen Show, a handful of people came by the Vanness Pens table and described to me what they were looking for. In a few instances, the Pilots would have made a perfect match but didn’t get any consideration at all. I sensed a real hesitation to give these pens a chance, whether because they were slightly more expensive than steel-nib options that customers ended up purchasing, or simply because some people hadn’t heard of these pens before or hadn’t seen them online. Don’t get me wrong - if a pen doesn’t speak to you, then don’t spend your money on it. But one of my resolutions for this year was to shift the focus of the blog from merely following market trends back to highlighting those products that I love and believe will serve readers well over the long term. Sometimes the best option isn’t the newer, shinier release - it’s the old standard that’s been around for many years, for good reason, and you owe it to yourself as a user and enthusiast to give these pens a chance.
Disclaimer: This post contains links to paid sponsors and affiliates. I purchased the pens featured in this review with my own funds, for review purposes.
I’ve never been a really bit “resolutions” guy in my personal life, but professionally I’ve found it helpful to take some time at the end of the year, reorient, and make sure your business is on target with where you want it to go for the next twelve months. I do that with my day job (a legal practice), and I try to do it here, though last year I fell off the wagon a bit and by the end of the year felt like I was drifting. After taking some time off during the week between Christmas and New Years, I came up with a few thoughts on where I want the site to go this year:
Work Through the Backlog. As you might have guessed from the massive pen sale and giveaway I held a few months ago, I accumulated far too much stuff throughout the year, both my own purchases and review samples. I overcommitted and found myself scrambling during the last few months to meet my review commitments, with little time left to explore the things that interest me, which is why I started my blog in the first place. My top priority for the year is to work my way through my personal collection and make sure that I’ve written about all of the pens, inks, and stationery that form my personal collection and shape my own preferences. (You’ve seen the results of this already, with my recent reviews of the Conway Stewart 100 and the Pilot Decimo.)
Buy Nicer Pens. Or maybe it’s better to say “Buy the pens that I want, rather than what I think I’m expected to review.” There are so many pen blogs and websites out there right now, that I shouldn’t feel like I have an obligation to chase and cover every major release. If it doesn’t interest me, someone else will pick it up. (Example: I suspected that I might dislike the Lamy Aion, but felt like I was “duty bound” to give it a shot. I should have passed.) The time and money saved already has funded some absolutely awesome acquisitions that I’m truly excited about, and I can’t wait to get reviews up on the site.
Take a Step Back. I’ve pushed myself pretty hard over the past two years, and I ended 2018 really, really tired. I need to take more time off if I feel that I need it, and while I plan to stick with a regular posting schedule, I won’t let it kill me if I need to skip a week or push a post by a couple days. I actually think the content will be the better for it. Relatedly…
Attend Different Pen Shows. The past couple of years, I feel like I’ve been in a bit of a Pen Show rut. I used to get really excited about attending the same group of shows, but in terms of pens (not people) it’s begun to feel like more of the same. The truly exciting releases are becoming a bit sparse, the price of decent vintage (not to mention near-vintage, past limited editions, and discontinued brands like Omas) is starting to approach what I consider absurdly overpriced, and my interests are shifting a bit towards pens and brands that aren’t very well-represented at most pen shows. I still plan to attend a few, but I’m going to target shows I haven’t visited before, maybe something on the West Coast, or even internationally.
Acquire WAY Less. As I mentioned above, I’m moving towards less stuff, not more, and even though I’ve gone a bit wild with my pen purchases over the last month or so, new pens coming in are vastly outnumbered (and funded) by pens that I’ve gotten rid of. It feels great to be able to see the surface of my desk again, and once I finish shipping the last load of giveaway items (today, hopefully), my office floor will even be clean. I plan to continue holding more sales and giveaways throughout the year, as I fine tune my personal collection and try to avoid holding on to anything that passes through for review purposes.
So goodbye 2018, and I’m looking forward to what the new year has to offer! If you have any suggestions about content you’d like to see on the blog (particularly something you may have enjoyed in the past but haven’t seen in a while) drop me a line through the “Contact Me” link at the top, or e-mail me at Joe (at) gentlemanstationer.com.
Earlier this week I briefly recapped some things I liked and didn’t like in the pen world from 2018, and talked about a few developments that I’d like to see in 2019. One area that I didn’t touch on is writing accessories, a sector of the stationery industry that has been growing rapidly in light of the resurgent interest in pens and ink. I decided to devote a separate post to the topic highlighting five of my favorite new accessory-type things introduced in 2018. Without further ado, here they are:
Bellroy Workfolio A5. This particular folio ended up being a touch too small for my own everyday use (hence its appearance in the year-end giveaway), but I continue to be a huge Bellroy fan and loved watching them expand outside of wallets and pocket notebook covers in 2018. In addition to the Workfolios (which also come in a larger A4 size), Bellroy has released a line of bags, as well as…
Bellroy Classic Pouch. I guess I should mention that this list is not in any particular order, because the Bellroy Classic Pouch is my most-used non-pen gear item of the year. It’s not even purely a pen accessory - I also use it to carry cables, Mac dongles, USB thumbdrives, and SD cards in addition to a few pens, post-its, and paper clips.
Atelier Musubi Pen Case. One item that I haven’t been able to review yet, but love, is the Atelier Musubi two-pen case that I picked up from Daryl at the Big Apple Pen Club meeting. I’m working on carrying fewer pens with me at any given time (and generally having fewer pens inked at once) so this gorgeous, handmade fabric case fits right into my “own/carry fewer things, but carry nicer” mentality that I want to bring into 2019. (Since I haven't reviewed the pen case yet, I linked to an excellent review by the team at Hand Over That Pen, a blog you should be reading!)
Leather Goods from Baron Fig: The Guardian and the Sheath. While Baron Fig as a brand certainly isn’t new to the scene, I’ve enjoyed seeing them expand their line, which they have continued to do despite moving away from their perhaps-too-ambitious limited edition subscription service/monthly release plan. One particular area where the company has been particularly active is leather goods, including not only notebook covers in every size, but pen sleeves and even wallets. Baron Fig manages to maintain their clean, minimal aesthetic while offering a range of color options. I’ve been carrying one of their slim bifold wallets for the past six months or so and have been impressed with the durability and quality.
Toffee Lincoln Briefcase. Again, not a new brand, but definitely new to me. I’ve continued to use this slimline leather bag as a computer case or a minimal briefcase when I just want to take a few pens, a pad of paper, and maybe an iPad Pro for some quick work in a coffee shop.
Other brands that continued to kill it in 2018 include Good Made Better (makers of the Penwell), who released their new Penwell “Traveler” via Kickstarter. I’ve done much gushing over the Penwell recently, but I left it off this “Top 5” list because I kept that concept in the “2017” bucket. I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed this Italian leather notebook cover from The British Belt Company, and it’s been fun to watch new fountain-pen friendly notebook brands such as Stifflexible and Dingbats* continually improve their paper and bring fun new designs to market. I’m sure these trends will continue into 2019!
Things That Didn’t Stick
A couple items that I mentioned earlier in the year (or even in 2017) fell out of use as the year went on. One is the Roterfaden Taschenbegleiter, which is an awesome product if you enjoy using multiple slim, single-subject A5 notebooks. (Yes, I know you can put larger notebooks into the Roterfaden too, but it makes it fairly bulky and a bit hard for me to write with.) At the end of the day, I couldn’t justify hanging onto what is a relatively expensive accessory so I sold it off after admitting that it doesn’t fit my workflow. Other cases that didn’t find a permanent home in my workflow included folios such as the Bellroy A5 (mentioned above) and Nock Co Seed A5, as well as the Nock Co. Lanier briefcase. All of these are excellent products - I’ve simply come to terms with the fact that I need to move on from those products that I’m definitely not going to use every day, otherwise I’ll end up drowning in bags and pen cases. Without exception, the reason these items didn’t work out for me is my personal preference with respect to size and format. I prefer to use hardbound A5 notebooks in leather covers, and if I carry a portfolio, I need it to be A4 or American legal size.
So this is it for the year! I’m signing off until after the New Year, and wish everyone a happy end to 2018!
Disclaimer: I received several of the items featured in this post for review purposes, free of charge (you can find details through the linked reviews). As always, everything in this post is solely my own personal opinion, and should be taken as such.
Every year at the end of December I take some time off to recap the year, and talk a little about trends: what I like, what I don’t like, and what I want to see in the future. All of these observations are, of course, my own personal opinion, and shouldn’t be taken as anything more.
Favorite Acquisitions of 2018
Conway Stewart Model 100. Technically, I purchased this pen in late 2017 but it didn’t get any use until 2018. As I discussed in my recent review, this pen hits every high point in terms of what I look for in a high-end fountain pen: classic, vintage-inspired design, quality construction, a well-tuned nib out of the box, and a fair price point.
Pelikan M800 Stone Garden. Pelikan’s more modern turn in recent years to styles like the Ocean Swirl and Vibrant Blue had me a bit concerned, because while those were beautiful pens in their own way, it seems like Pelikan was moving towards a trendier look that I was glad to see balanced by 2017’s Renaissance Brown and this year’s Stone Garden, which I couldn’t pass up.
Montblanc Petite Prince Classique Rollerball. I surprised myself over the past year with how much I used rollerballs - a big shift from years past. Montblanc makes my favorite rollerball refill, striking what’s (to me) the perfect combination of smoothness, wetness, and line width, even in their medium tips. The Petit Prince theme also has special meaning to me.
Platinum 3776 Oshino. I’ve really come to appreciate Platinum over the past year, especially how they manage to innovate in design and materials without sacrificing their heritage and quality. The Oshino is one of the clearest demonstrator’s I’ve used, and this year saw Platinum continue to experiment with texture on the 3776, with the Kumpoo (“Balmy Breeze”) edition that wasn’t a “must buy” for me personally, but which I know many people enjoy.
Pelikan M120 and M120 Iconic Blue. Yes, back to Pelikan again! I took an initial pass on the M120 when the standard Green/Black version was released, but I had the opportunity to try out the “Iconic Blue” version during a pen club meet-up, and realized that this pen ticks a lot of the same boxes as the Conway Stewart discussed above. The stainless steel EF nib is an exceptional writer, and unlike most Pelikan nibs, writes true to size.
Trends from 2018 That I’d Like To See Continue
Well-Conceptualized Brands. At various points last year I talked about Kanilea Pen Company and how they impressed me with the coherence of their brand identity. They picked a theme (their love for Hawaii) and stuck with it, releasing a small number of well-executed pens that all adhered to the same level of quality and consistency. This year’s addition, the Hanauma Bay, was a no-brainer acquisition at the D.C. Pen Show. On the ink side of things, Colorverse has done something similar, releasing three “seasons” of space-themed inks that blew everyone away with the level of attention paid to detail. As the year went on, however, I feel like Colorverse has drifted off target a bit. I’m not sure I understand how their latest “Wisdom of Trees” fits into the overall scheme of the brand.
Innovation at the Mid-tier Price Point. Here I’m primarily thinking about Opus 88 and their line of Japanese-style eyedroppers. Opus 88 targeted a somewhat neglected price point (the $50-100 range) and positioned itself as a legitimate go-to option for a reasonably priced workhorse pen. The high-capacity Japanese-style eyedropper mechanism is something previously only available in the ultra high-end market segment, from manufacturers such as Danitrio. From what I’ve seen teased online, Opus 88 has some new designs in the works.
Return to Classic, Vintage-Inspired Design. I won’t say too much more about this one, but in addition to some great special and limited editions of classic pens from established brands (discussed above), 2018 saw the relaunch of Esterbrook in a new format that paid better homage to the brand’s heritage. The M1 adapter allows Esterbrook enthusiasts to use their collections of vintage Esterbrook nibs in the new pen bodies.
Continued Creativity with Materials. Jonathan Brooks continues to do what he does best - working with companies and retailers on custom acrylics and other materials. Just take a look at what he’s been able to do in collaboration with Kanilea Pen Company and stores like Vanness Pens and their 80th Anniversary Special Edition.
Emerging Nibmeisters and Penmakers. A new generation of fountain pen enthusiasts also sparks a new generation of retailers, nib workers/specialists, repair people, and other service providers. Dan Smith (The Nibsmith) and Mark Bacas both continue to gain solid followings with their nib work, with Dan expanding his retail services as well. Ralph Reyes of Regalia Writing Labs also has something special going with his absolutely crazy nib modifications.
What I Want To See Next Year
Originality Beyond Different Colors. I want to see more than companies putting out the same model of pen in every color imaginable. I can be a fan of special editions, but it needs to be “special.” I’m getting a little bored with the rotation of Lamy AL-Stars and Safaris in various shades of neon, and even the Pelikan M205 “Gemstone” releases feel a little tired (though I did love this year’s Olivine). Aurora has done a decent job of mixing things up with their limited edition 88s, such as this year’s “Minerali” demonstrators and the “Sigaro Blu” edition, two pens I finally picked up during year-end clearance sales. Sure, it’s the same base model of pen, but Aurora manages to do just enough to keep things interesting with unique design schemes and materials.
Moving On From the “Minimalist Pen”. Please, no more “minimalist pen/pencil” Kickstarter projects. This “thing” has been done. I plan to pass on reviewing these types of projects from here on out because I want to refocus on things that are new and exciting.
Consolidation in Ink Lines. Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely love the newfound variety of ink on the market, but has it swung too far in the other direction? With the proliferation of ink companies, it sometimes seems that they are racing to outdo each other through volume, including by introducing “new” colors that really aren’t that different than other inks in their current lineup. One of the reasons that I’ve basically stopped buying ink is because I’ve purchased so many bottles that ended up being identical to inks I already owned - including some made by the same manufacturer!
Fewer Acquisitions. Building on the themes of “less grab ‘em all” and “consolidation” that I talked about above, one of my personal goals for this upcoming year is to acquire fewer things. I’ve been on a downward trend in recent years - my personal collection is much smaller than it has been in the past (it almost fits in two pen cases), and I can’t recall a year that I’ve purchased less ink. I sometimes feel that I let myself get caught up in the “collect every color of everything” mentality that manufacturers have encouraged, and I want to work against that by focusing a bit less on rushing to review/preview every new release, and providing more in-depth content on what I find interesting and really enjoy using day-to-day.
More Paying-It-Forward and More Giveaways! This one’s much more of a “personal resolution” than something I’d like to see from others. As a “first step”, I’m holding a massive 2018 year-end giveaway. Details on prizes and how to enter here. You definitely don’t want to miss this one!
Thanks for a great 2018, and I’m looking forward to what 2019 has in store. Things might be a little quiet around here until after the first of the year, but I’ll hit the ground running in January!
Disclaimer: This post contains links to paid sponsors and affiliates.