The menswear space loves to wrangle over the finer points of suits, shirts and shoes, but often rejects discourse about jewelry in favour of a more muted approach—reducing men to wearing only a watch, a wedding band and cufflinks! Yet we have seen a small revival among gentlemen lately for items such as tie pins, tie clips and tacks, lapel pins, bracelets and other accessories.
Writing instruments should have their place in the gentlemen’s requisites as objects of utmost craftsmanship that are perfectly capable of complementing an outfit. Because writing instruments come in various colours, textures and sizes, classic or contemporary designs, they are the natural allies of the elegant gentleman.
Today we set our sights on this seminal art form not to be overlooked in the realm of male elegance : the writing instrument.
Technical innovation used to be the driving force behind the development of writing instruments, with companies competing to create new writing systems (ball point, roller ball), new filling mechanisms (lever, piston, cartridge, eye-dropper, snorkel pen, etc.), new chemical formulas (ink thickness, flow, drying time, etc.) or new practical devices (clips, closing systems, posting of the cap, etc.).
Yet, aesthetics have always been part of the subject (you may remember images of splendid early gold or silver filigree pens or the inventive designs and colours prominent at the beginning of their 20th century).
Since most technical challenges have been solved (leaks, decay of colours, etc.), the topics of style and luxury have become more important than ever in a slowly awakening domain, recovering from the assault of digitalisation (people now write digitally more than manually).
It is a paradox that after centuries spent refining the art of writing — one of the most precious human inventions for communication but also for cognitive development and motor skills — some consider doing away with writing altogether! In Finland, script writing may no longer be taught at all. Indeed we are far from the days when children were offered a fountain pen that would last a lifetime. The responsibility may soon rest with parents to require that children master handwriting as a practical skill.
As a consequence of the above, the pen is oft-seen as an aesthetic accessory, a status symbol or a collectors’ item. Yet, the gap is closing between producers selling pens as luxury gifts compared to utility-objects, and both functional and aesthetic merits are finally addressed in most catalogues.
Some pen collections can price a single writing instrument at thousands or tens of thousands of euros. Such collections produce limited editions with prestigious themes (Montegrappa’s dragons and pirates, Visconti’s celebratory editions, etc.). These delicate pens are not likely to leave your desk given their bulk, price and materials, making them jewelry pieces more than writing tools. Other special pens are even made individually and the cost for such an instrument can reach a million euros (Montblanc).
Let us not forget about the “everyday pen”. Certain houses specialize in reasonably priced pens (Parker, Lamy, Pilot, Cross, Waterman), disposable pens, school pens (Pilot) or have even developed ergonomic pens for learning (Lamy).
This full-blown guide reviews brands and their flagship pens, presenting a global view of the market.
We’ve chosen to review pens which are affordable and significant, but remember, companies also offer limited editions (like Graf von Faber-Castell’s pen of the year), and the market keeps evolving with changing availability. Even famous and flagship models tend to be presented in new versions (with wood, leather, etc.).
Aesthetically, apart from the sheer extravagance of diamond pens, there are two main trends for contemporary fountain pens–including variants like ballpoints, roller balls and mechanical pencils : (1) formal classics which focus on sober elegance, e.g., Pelikan and (2) adventurous contemporary designs trying to use modern materials, e.g., TWSBI’s demonstrators, S.T. Dupont’s streamlined steel Défi.
More often than not, both of the above approaches can be found within the same catalogue. For example, Montblanc’s classic Meisterstück 149 sits alongside the StarWalker which comes in ceramics or carbon with a star in a glass bubble. Parker’s new versions of the Duofold are sober whereas the Parker Premier Black Edition comes in monochrome black metal or titanium (see below).
We’ve chosen to review historical brands which have contributed to the refinement of writing instruments over the centuries.
Most of these houses entered the market in the 19th or early 20th century but some of the emblematic names didn’t make it to the 21st century. Fortunately, those rare relics may be found in the very dynamic second-hand market which will delight connoisseurs in their quest to find vanished models or older versions of contemporary pens–even if older pieces prove to be brittle and not the best travelers.
Vintage-loving gentlemen will adore browsing bygone writing instruments such as Mabie Todd, De la Rue Onoto, Easterbrook, Burnham, Le Boeuf…
Although most companies have a distinctive aesthetic proposition, even if you don’t appreciate their global design, you’re still likely to find something you love.
As with clothing, no one should be limited to just one pen—pairing colours and textures with one’s outfit unveils infinite possibilities. For example, if you love Neapolitan style, you may want to tone down the sprezzatura with a rigorously sober pen (think Pilot or Graf von Faber-Castell) while the British connoisseur may want to balance his sobriety with a dash of colourful orange in the spirit of Montegrappa or Visconti…
As with timepieces, collections of high-end writing instruments offer a major bonus: the quality of the craft is faultless–with prestigious brands managing quality control and handmade operations in order to produce instruments that are irreproachable.
The flexible firmness of a clip made by S.T. Dupont, Visconti or Graf von Faber Castell, the quiet perfection of a Caran d’Ache, the piston of a Montblanc provide a reliability that entry level pens cannot approach. A slightly more expensive pen is actually an excellent investment, as it will last you a lifetime.
One should note that some vanished brands have resurfaced like Conklin, Wahl-Eversharp and Conway-Stewart and that new brands are trying to refer themselves to historical models, sometimes with a certain ambition, like Edison.
Pens can be found on websites presenting a variety of brands (Goulet Pen Company, Andy’s Pens, I Sell Pens, Mr Pen…). But the best approach remains to visit a retailer and test the nibs, the weight, the finish and the general feel of the fountain pen.
In Paris, one should go to Mora (7 Rue de Tournon, 75006 Paris), Syll (56 boulevard St Michel), Stylo Bac (68 Rue du Bac, 75007 Paris), Le Palais du Stylo (9 rue Auber, 75009), Opéra Stylos (26 boulevard des Italiens, 75009) or the department stores like Le Bon Marché and the BHV who have specialists from each brand to help the customer.
We’ve found several brands to be particularly remarkable: S.T. Dupont, Visconti, Montegrappa, Graf von Faber Castell, Montblanc, Caran d’Ache. These pens are at the top of the range, both on a technical and an aesthetic level, including high reliability of material and make.
Some brands try to imitate famous models or early styles with success. But low-priced imitations are often based on nibs with no personality and a less-than-perfect quality of production (let’s not even mention counterfeits produced in far away places).
For pen lovers, Japanese lacquers are truly beautiful but come at a cost. There are lovely maki-e pens to be found with Platinum, Namiki, Edison, and magnificent lacquers in the S.T. Dupont catalogue. Maki-e lacquers from urushi are so complex that they transform the pen into a work of art.
Connoisseurs may feel frustrated because not all the brands are represented in this selection. It is not our aim to provide a census, and not all the brands responded to our call. Moreover, some companies are in a dubious state and it’s not easy to know if they still exist, if they are independent or are part of a group (as their own websites are sometimes closed or not working efficiently, e.g., Conway-Stewart, Stipula, Delta…).
We have not specified prices, as cost can vary greatly from one model to another within the same brand. The price can also be greatly affected depending on how the writing instrument is acquired (i.e., through retailing, internet, second-hand, old stocks…).
A star (or two) next to the name of the brand indicates that we particularly appreciate the beauty, ergonomics, and manufacture of the pens.
Although sometimes prone to exaggerated taste, Aurora is a historical brand (1919) whose productions are technically perfect but sometimes too flashy and colourful. The many special editions feature sculptures that may prevent using the pen itself easily. Their bold attempts sometimes overdo it in a gaudy way (the Ipsilon Quadra Gold with its gold cap is slightly over the top!).
There are also excellent models such as the Talentum Rubber (see above) and the TU, an impressive pen in a modern-classic vein. The 365 in colored resin (see below) is in the fine spirit of the 1930s’.
A brand focusing on luxury collection.
The venerable Swiss make Caran d’Ache (1924), who invented the mechanical « fix pencil » in 1931, presents an impeccable collection.
The luxurious materials and the precision of the manufacturing are truly magisterial even if the overall style is somewhat low-key. Those pens are fundamentally sober as they have a silver base with various guilloché-work. It is not actually silver, mind you, but platinum coating (12 microns, a truly exceptional level).
But their style seems to be evolving thanks to coloured lacquers, manually polished, with the RNX.316 PVD, a ‘technological’ pen with a black nib (PVD coating, an innovating closing and filling system and an excellent steel nib). The initials above the cap have been changed to a nut-shape logo with a dot.
The octagonal Ecridor is a fine starting point but the most beautiful model is undoubtedly the new version of the Léman, the Big Blue, whose blue guilloché body is covered with a transparent lacquer and has just been elected pen of the year by the renowned Le Stylographe magazine. Massive and translucent, its flow is phenomenal, like the superbly fluid Madison and Varius models (the Varius is a very comfortable pen even with an extra-fine nib).
Each model has its own original nib, each with an impressive flow, which immensely enhances the writing pleasure.
The technical quality of Caran d’Ache is akin to a watchmaker’s exacting approach—a Leman ballpoint requires five persons working on it full time for a week to be completed. Golden finishing is always gold. The closing mechanisms are also remarkably efficient.
An extremely reliable brand.
A formerly famous brand, Conklin (1898) invented the crescent filler (the crescent was the back of a coin that pressed on the internal sack to suck in the ink), but folded in 1955 before its rebirth in 2000.
The brand now belongs to the Yafa group and produces instruments in the vintage spirit (flat top, marbled celluloid), but the nibs resemble an entry level piece.
Some visually satisfying models.
A technological pioneer since 1846, Cross has lately been focusing on design rather than craftsmanship.
Their collection seems a bit heterogeneous with Star Wars or Spiderman patterns alongside the Peerless in gold or platinum coating–or the Cherry Blossom in platinum and precious crystals.
Classic models such as the Townsend or the ATX remain affordable and interesting.
The cap may be a bit on the heavy side for the Townsend or the Peerless whose flow is truly remarkable in fine nib, with a nice flex. I have used the excellent and flawless mechanical pencil ATX for some time and have found the Radial Chrome ballpoint very light and aesthetically pleasing.
There is also a ‘pacifist’ Peerless model made of bits of AK-47…
A recent company by pen brand standards (1982), Delta follows the lineage of 1930s’ celluloid with impressive and slightly massive models—the orange is particularly striking.
The website seems dormant.
The young American make Edison (founded in 2007) has been developing original models in the spirit of colourful celluloid pens and traditional mechanisms (pump or pneumatic filling, etc.) with either steel or gold nibs. Colours and shapes are quite arresting and outstanding.
A growing brand with aesthetic creativity. We were not able to test the nibs.
Graf von Faber-Castell*
Wood is at the foundation of the Graf von Faber-Castell company which started in 1761 as an innovator in the field of pencils, and later adapted models to craft fountain pens. There’s tremendous continuity and quality there, even more so since the pencils are still superbly sharp.
Their pen of the year is a limited edition in precious stones whose historical and cultural themes are always beautiful (as you can see below) :
Otherwise, the reassuring austerity of the Graf von Faber-Castell regular collection is ever so dependable. Wood and fine resins set off ample nibs, which are always very smooth and mellow—and very accurate despite their rather wide writing line.
The extra-fine nib of the Classic model has a pleasant and easy flow. Both sturdy and light, virile and refined, it is a pen that manages to be subdued and eminent at the same time. The alliance of ebony and platinum is a nice modern renewal of the classic black and silver colour combination.
The Intuition model is slimmer (each person will choose according to their favourite hand). There are various types of wood available (snake wood, ebony, brazilwood…) for each model. The Anello (platinum coating and a lovely creamy shade of ivory) is also a remarkable piece with a quietly original and resounding presence.
The clips are particularly elegant and efficient, bringing a distinctive touch to the designs. The cap is unique as well as it enables to stand the pen upside down. Desk accessories are also sold in leather, wood and metal—and complement the pens to a T).
Luxurious craftsmanship with a strong identity and a fine balance between distinction and serenity.
The excellent German brand (1930) is based on an industrial aesthetic with a certain fondness for a metallic look. The Safari is on the heavy side of style but is a reliable gateway pen for the young generation.
Gold nibs are to be found higher in the catalogue range with the Lamy 2000 or the Accent. The Lamy Studio (steel nib) is a fine and quiet pen.
The association of modernity and efficiency is not always subtle but Lamy has plenty of meritorious pens at a mid-level price.
It has been said that Montblanc is great at making jewels… that happen to be good at writing.
Even if some series of the German brand resemble jewelry more than a writing instrument, their crafted pieces remain a major-standout. Some models have become so iconic that they have been copied, which make them seem somewhat common. But the reality is that a giant Meisterstück 149 is like no other: with its jumbo nib and lustrous cigar shape it is, paradoxically enough, extremely simple and assertively superior, not to mention the utter smoothness of the writing experience.
Montblanc pens are precisely made (hand operations, quality control for each step of the making) and pleasantly varied.
The Great Writers series (see above the Shakespeare and Tolstoi models) displays collection pens with original designs. The classic models are always elegant while new pens are trying to find a modern way of asserting themselves (the copper-coloured Starwalker or the flowers on the Andy Wahrol may not be to everybody’s taste).
The neat modernistic designs (as for the Marc Newson) or the vintage-leaning ones (the red and black or orange snake) are finely balanced innovations, uncluttered yet assertive, modern and yet classic.
I particularly liked the Marc Newson, an uncomplicated and light pen with a magnetic cap and an original grip section (nice flow for a fine nib). The Snake is equally interesting: the medium nib is smooth, the style intriguing and in line with historical models, and the piston works like a charm. The design is slightly-slim and may be more adapted to smaller hands.
Montblanc has a ‘bespoke service’ which tests and analyzes your writing in order to help you select the best fitting nib. They also have a dynamic approach to technology with the Augmented Paper, a notebook whose Starwalker pen is digitally connected and is able to convert your handwriting into pdf / Word documents–a true feat in graphic recognition and an innovation that may reestablish friendly relations between handwriting and the digital world.
If you’re looking for something truly exceptional, then Montegrappa will bring the dose of flamboyancy and confidence you’re seeking.
Our Italian friends are always able to mix wild inventions with classical dignity.
Montegrappa’s collection presents some imposing pens tempered with a certain stylistic lightness verging on a mix of irony and delicacy. The company born in Bassano del Grappa in 1912 is back in the original Aquila family and boasts a strong identity. With its bold colours and energetic designs, Montegrappa is an outstanding stylistic beacon.
There are many special editions—the Frank Sinatra with its microphone-shaped clip (see above); the sensuous Sophia Loren (see above), the Chagall with a lacquered painting of the author, and the black carbon Quincy Jones (!).
Montegrappa has a bespoke service to choose the materials and adornments of your pen. They also sell a variety of neckties and cufflinks.
I have tested the Extra 1930, a legendary pen whose celluloid and silver is simply astonishing, as is the 18 carat gold nib. The fine nib is extremely precise and effective, starting with impeccable flow right out of the box. Its flow is perfectly controlled and the nib yields a slight scraping feel which I find enjoyable. The piston filling system is faultless, as are the obvious robustness and finishing (cap thread, clip, etc.). Despite its bulk, it is a well balanced pen.
The turtle-brown version with the Greek meander pattern in silver (to be found on the two-coloured nib as well) is a visual splendour with orange, caramel, greenish and golden shades. This combination of classicism and modernity, wild colours and rigorous shape is an emblemic example of the brand style.
Montegrappa is among the stars of our selection for its sheer invention and boldness.
We’ve included this legendary maker (1915) specializing in the art of maki-e, or urushi lacquering, whose craft is so fine and complex that those pens are less writing instruments than works of art. With dozens of layers of lacquering, the virtuosity of the craft entails prices that make the pens more appropriate as collection pieces rather than for everyday usage.
A historical and innovative brand since 1892, Parker seems to be resting on its laurels, with a few exceptions.
The entry level pens are average (Urban, IM) but the historical models are still part of the catalogue. The Sonnet is the epitome of the classic pen and now presents very inventive versions. It is an excellent way of approaching affordable quality pens with a very accurate gold nib.
There is a higher level of writing pleasure though, with the impressive Parker Premier whose smoothness is remarkable. The contemporary Duofold seems slimmer than the original version but boasts true classic elegance (especially the pinstripe model!), whether in ‘classic’ or ‘prestige’ versions.
The brand remains at some distance from the variety and innovative invention that once made its fame but Parker still offers a convincing catalogue of reliable pens.
Pelikan is among the historical brands (1842) whose style hasn’t changed. The signature design is based on dark colours and stripes, a small ink window, the pelican symbol and awesome nibs. Some version are plain, others have more colours (the beautiful turtle brown). The simplicity is quite seducing but can be repetitive at times.
The true renown of Pelikan comes from its nibs which embody accuracy and snugness. The M800 and M1000 have an imposing presence and their slightly firm nibs yield an impressive flow.
Pilot is a revered Japanese brand (1918), whose range is all-encompassing, from disposable pens to luxury ones such as the Silver pen (solid silver body with engravings).
The Capless (see above) is among my favourite pens, whatever the version (wood, carbon, coloured…), and has a more-than-earned position among the contemporary icons. It is a rare fountain pen with a retractable and slightly hooded nib, with an inverted clip feature that sits on the grip section. The gold nib is truly a pleasure to write with (especially the fine one).
Both subtle and unfussy, the Falcon (see below) has a beak-shaped nib of incredible precision that delivers a truly fine line.
The great Japanese tradition of craftsmanship–straightforward style combined with contemporary relevance.
Like Pilot-Namiki and Sailor, Platinum is a great Japanese maker (born in 1919) who is famous for the sophisticated accuracy of its nibs. The aesthetics are varied with the 3776 (specifically, its rough rings as well as models using leather, wood, ebonite and maki-e).
The depth of the lacquer on the Izumo-Tamenuri is stunning. We have not been able to test the nibs.
Founded in 1911, Sailor is a very prestigious brand offering a great writing experience.
The maki-e pens (hand-painted urushi lacquer) are hallmarks of Japanese crafts and reach prices in line with their nature of exotic jewels. Wooden models are equally beautiful (ebony, cedar, persimmon…).
The King of Pens, in black and silver or gold, is the most classic model with the 1911. For connoisseurs.
An old brand (1913) whose innovations have been at the forefront of writing instrument history (i.e., lever filler, snorkel pen, Pen for Men…). Sheaffer was bought by Cross in 2014 and has yet to divulge a definitive path for the future. The catalogue appears to be based on a historical model with a gold nib, the Legacy (see above).
The entry level is convincing (Prelude, Intensity, Sagaris) but a far cry from the innovative dynamics that used to be at the heart of the brand’s identity.
Sheaffer’s signature style is based on a singular white dot on the clip and the splendid inlaid nib.
The German brand Staedler (1835) is especially known for its range designed for children. And yet, they also have an impressive range of luxury writing instruments. There are precious materials, cultural themes (Wagner, Verdi, Louis XIV) and limited editions like the multi-coloured Bavaria, and imposing models such as the Princeps (hazelnut wood and metal).
The Initium line is more affordable and continues to present stylistic distinction (steel and leather, wood). We were not able to test the nibs.
ST Dupont’s history has marked the French brand as a specialist of leather goods, luggage-making and jewelry (think lacquered lighters…), with a penchant for luxury and precious materials, an acumen which is perfectly compatible with the crafting of writing instruments.
S.T. Dupont has a wide and balanced range. Special editions are for collectors only. Extremely dear and rare, they are excessively excessive (football team colours, Star Wars themes, etc.) and are really about showing off the jeweler’s skills and the mastery of precious materials. More than writing instruments, they are extravagant conversation pieces that sit in a cabinet.
For more classic tastes, S.T. Dupont has a lot in store. I have tested the Ligne D and the Défi, which represent two sides of contemporary men’s style— the first is a traditional bulky pen with black lacquer and gold adornments and gold nib; the latter is a modern streamlined pen with various carbon, palladium or steel versions. They are balanced and pleasant with very different personalities but with the same quality of closing systems, overall sturdiness (o-ring seal between the thread and the nib section) and sophistication. The black lacquer of the Ligne D is incredibly deep–see below).
The Défi’s nib is not flexible since it is made of steel but it has an easy flow, a pleasant touch and a very distinctive streamlined look. The Liberté (gold nib) has the opposite qualities— smooth variations in the writing lines, a broader line and a slight scratching feel. The nib of the Ligne D is somewhere between the firmness of the first and the smoothness of the latter–a good synthesis between precision and smoothness (the three were tested with a medium nib). Liberté and Ligne D have the same type of glorious click that is reminiscent of the brand’s famous lighter.
The Liberté may not be appropriate for men with large hands, as it can look feminine. On the other hand, it must be offered to your darling wife.
The brand from Florence, Stipula, was founded in 1973 and seems to be part of the Yafa group. On the down side, distribution and communication can be iffy. On the upside, these are precious writing instruments, often using celluloid or ebonite for a great visual effect. The signature clip (representing the straw that the Romans would symbolically break when committing to a contract) may be considered strange and not especially stylish. Colours are varied and original as on the Etruria model, one of the most renowned.
A new brand on the market, the Taiwanese TWSBI has specialized in demonstrator pens, i.e., transparent pens where you can see the inside mechanism.
These pens have a very modern and industrial flavour. The originality factor is based on the fact that TWSBI provides inexpensive models with a piston filling system which comes with a wrench and oil. and can be completely disassembled.
These are not luxury items (plastic body, steel nib) but the nibs are still excellent, as is the after-sale service, with these pieces being a true alternative to classic pens.
An original way of approaching pistons…
As a recent brand (1988), Visconti straddles the line between classicism and modernity as is shown by the Watermark (elected ‘design of the year’ by Le Stylographe magazine in 2016), a demonstrator with a sterling silver filigree.
Their pens often refer to art and architecture with many special editions (e.g., Erotic Art, Jacques de Molay), commemorative editions (e.g., the wedding of Prince of Monaco, 1776 Declaration of Independence) or models for collectors with a debatable taste despite the quality of the materials (e.g., Mexican or Far-West models, car race themes).
Visconti is still an inescapable brand whose extravagance is best highlighted in the regular editions with unusual materials (lava stone from Etna, aluminium), extremely refined colours (celluloid and resins with a unique sheen) and technical prowess (spiralled pen with alignment of the cap).
The craft is exacting and the make brings a truly pleasurable experience: the bridge-shaped clip has a great spring and the magnetic caps are extremely reliable.
High-end nibs are always in palladium, a metal as flexible as gold. I tested the spiralled Divina (see below) whose iridescent colours shine with unsurpassed depth. It seems bulky, enabling a perfect grip, but is actually very light. As for the nib, its feel is fantastic and the flex allows effortless downstrokes and upstrokes.
The Van Goghs (fluted barrel) and the Rembrandts (plain circular barrel) have a less expressive steel nib but still give a fat flowing line. They exist in various colours that refer to the palette of the painters. The revolving mechanical pencil is reliable, as is the roller, and both come in the same various shades available for fountain pens. Visconti also has a very nice collection of cufflinks and leather goods.
Wahl-Eversharp claimed the invention of the mechanical pencil in 1915, and then developed fountain pens of particular distinction.
The company folded in the 1950s at a time when other makers were debuting the ballpoint pen–likely causing the brand to become economically crippled by the competition . However, the brand was revived 50 years after its demise and has been producing new versions of its famous models, such as the Skyline with its recognizable round top or the Decoband, a solid ebonite flat top. We were not able to test the nibs.
Waterman is a solid, durable and classic brand. Lewis Edson Waterman is credited for inventing the fountain pen (1883), the safety system with retractable nib, and the lever system (1913).
Since then, Waterman has produced legendary pens (the Patrician, the 100 Years Pen, the Man 100, the Carène). Back when Waterman was a French brand (it is now owned by Newell Rubbermaid), French president François Mitterrand used to give his foreign visitors a Man 100 with his own seal on the cap, an oak and an olive tree intertwined.
The Sérénité (1999) is probably the last marking pen by Waterman, along with its current flagship, the massive Edson (see above)–with the deep blue and gold barrel and cap.
Waterman is famous for its entry level pens and also for mid-range pens known for classic sophistication.
I love the Carène (see above), adorned with an inlaid gold nib–presenting a balanced, well-made and classy pen with subtle yet original taste.
The brand has not been very inventive of late, but the many versions of the Carène, including models such as the square-bodied Exception, as well as the very classic Charleston are reliable, serious and elegant options.
Since 1822, the British firm has been producing writing instruments in Birmingham. The signature style is unbeatable: sterling silver, sober adornments and tapered shapes are at the root of the catalogue. Extremely well-made, the pens have a harmonious and sharp design.
We were not able to test the nibs but it shouldn’t be long before we can do so, as the brand should be distributed in France in 2017.