Saturday, 27 February 2016

A pen heroine - Francine Gomez

I get so cross when catalogues arrive towards Christmas, with fountain pens firmly pushed to the "for him" category. It's not always easy being a woman who collects fountain pens.

That's one reason Francine Gomez is a bit of a heroine for me - a woman who ran one of the biggest pen companies in the world, Waterman. Not only that, she  took over a company that was - like many others at the time - really failing to compete with competition from cheap disposable ballpoints, and forged a new and stronger company with strikingly new designs.

The Waterman brand wasn't even under single ownership when she took over in 1969: Bic owned the US rights, Stephen the UK and Commonwealth.

Gomez presided over the launch of really classic designs: the Waterman Concorde (1972), which is an underrated pen but striking in its lines, then the Gentleman (1974), Watermina (1975), Master (1980) and Man 100 (1983). In 1987, after the sale of the company to Gillette but while Gomez was still in charge, the Lady Elsa and Lady Patricia were launched - delightful pens with a nod to 1930s Waterman designs. (Lady Elsa was even made with galalith, from old stock that Waterman had managed to acquire.)

She didn't design the pens herself. But she unerringly found great designers. Alain Carre, who was designing tableware for Puiforcat, was hired in 1970, and came out with the DG - taking off from the already well known Waterman C/F but with a redesigned swing-clip. He carried on working for Waterman after Gomez retired, and was responsible for the overall design of the Serenite, launched in 1999. (Continuity was also provided by the fact that Jean Veillon, who took over as President of Waterman after her retirement, was her protege.)

I love the old vintage Watermans - the Patrician, the Hundred Year Pen, and all those pens with mysterious numbering systems - 42, 94, 58, 3V and the humungous 20. After that, apart from the glorious C/F, Waterman seems to have gone through a bad patch. But then it had a second golden age - and I think a lot of that can be put down to Francine Gomez's drive and innate eye for good design.

She also introduced Waterman's lacquering facility, and I think that became key to the success of the 1980s and 1990s Waterman models. Waterman lacquers are incredibly beautiful, particularly the variegated lacquers found on, for example, the Laureat - even though it was not a particularly upmarket pen.

I know that my pen collection would be much poorer without Mme Gomez. In fact, because the Laureat was my first serious fountain pen, and I fell in love with the fountain pen through buying a new Laureat every year or so, I probably wouldn't even have a pen collection if it weren't for her.

Thank you, Francine Gomez. Thank you very, very much.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

More eastern "Duofolds" - Jinhao and Kaigelu

I've written about my Ranga 'Big(ger) Red', and I also have a couple of Chinese pens that take their inspiration from the Parker Duofold. I present: the Kaigelu 316 and Jinhao Century.

(There should be a photo here. Bear with me, my camera is playing up today.)

The Kaigelu is a bit fatter and slightly longer: 139 cm when the pen is capped, against 132 for the Jinhao. It's also a lot heavier.  Both are cartridge/converter pens and came with converters - if I recollect correctly I bought both of them direct from China, via ebay.

Both share a family resemblance. Both are slightly streamlined, both are served up within black parentheses, both have a double cap ring (which I suspect is actually a single metal cap ring with a painted black hollow in the centre: I haven't scratched it to find out), both have a barrel end ring, and a flared section with a metal ring at both ends. Both are in quite colourful and slightly pearlescent marbled acrylic. In both cases, judging by the weight, the cap ends and barrel ends are painted brass, rather than acrylic (which leads me to worry that they may need repainting at some point.)

Both have the company logo on the top tassie. The Kaigelu has a slightly more de luxe approach, with the eponymous kangaroo in a sort of laurel wreath under a 'crystal' dome, while the Jinhao has a 'silver' inset with a horse chariot in low relief.

I do think these two logos are pretty lame. The chariot, like the Faber Castell knights, is really too busy to be an effective logo, and on the tassie here it looks rather like a squid that's drunk too much and got amorous with a discarded hub-cap. The kangaroo... well, that's just silly. (Mind you, you could say the same about pelicans, but nobody ever does.)

Anyway... the nibs. The Jinhao has a fairly small gold plated nib. Well, it says '18KGP'. It doesn't really look like it any more. It's a nail, and rather dry.

The Kaigelu's nib is ... blimey, twice the size! Nearly two and half centimetres of length outside the section, with a two-tone decoration. It looks cute, but the plating hasn't been particularly well applied, so that it doesn't quite tally with the engraved lines. And lke the Jinhao's, while it's an effective nib, and works, and isn't scratchy, it's a nail. No bounce, no spring, and absolutely definitely certainly no flex. Don't even think about flex.

The Kaigelu is also top-heavy. I don't write with it posted, and it's still top-heavy, as well as just heavy. If I had larger hands, it might not be such a problem for me, but I do find a bit wearing for continuous writing. And it blobs a little, occasionally, though that's a vice that an awful lot of my pens have had. (Silicone grease sorted it out, but it turns out it reflects a basic engineering fault and can be remedied either by replacing the nib unit with a Bock, or by a bit of nail polish:

So I hate these pens, right? - Well, actually, no. The acrylic is just gorgeous, pearlescent and deeply coloured. While the nibs are not the best in the world (hey, I haven't tinkered with them - they might make great medium cursive italics) the pens write fairly reliably and have no vices apart from that little blotting by the Kaigelu (only when I used it with Waterman's violette).

Plus, the price when I got mine was incredibly cheap - I think I paid £14 for the Kaigelu and rather less than that for the Jinhao. And that's one heck of a lot less than the going price of a Parker Duofold, which is, at the moment, about £250 from most UK retailers. If you can still get these pens at a good price, they represent really good value.

Friday, 19 February 2016

My Merlins so far

I have just made a box for my Merlins, repurposing a rather nice humidor. These charming little pens had outgrown their previous accommodation, because they've been multiplying. So they now occupy a box with three separate levels of pen tray and room for an ink pot or two.

I'm fascinated by these pens. They are bright, without being gaudy. They are slim, without being stupidly tiny. They are really nicely put together. And apparently they are German parts assembled in Holland for the Dutch market. I've been told the parts may be by Osmia, but I don't have evidence for that.

Most of these are Merlin 33s. Single cap band, black cap tassie and blind cap; the clips vary. In the top tray, somce of the gorgeous marbled celluloid colours. This appears to be spiral wrapped celluloid.
In the second tray, more 33s including one of the pinstripes. These seem to be much less common than the marbled pens. Also two flowing streaky celluloids, which remind me of Esterbrooks in the slightly pearlescent material.
 In the bottom tray I have some real rarities. I paid up for the little cracked pearl Merlina. I've never seen another one. Then there are the green ones which remind me of the Parker 'toothbrush' Geometric, though the shape is not so strongly defined, and another one-off which I'm very glad to have, a herringbone.

And at the bottom, something completely different. It's a Merlin Osmi piston-filler. All the other pens here are button fillers, but this charming little pen I picked up on ebay has a piston, which works! The only difficulty was that, when I acquired it, the blind cap was firmly stuck on and couldn't be budged. On went the latex gloves and on went the hair dryer; what a nice moment when I finally felt the slightest give in the pen, and heard a little creak of threads grating against each other. Two minutes later, I was flushing the pen, and to my delight, the apparently dark blue ink window turned out - less the remnants of the pen's last fill - to be a light green. I'll certainly be buying more Osmis if I see them!

Birds of a feather

'Merlin' might possibly remind you of King Arthur's wizard. But I think that's not what the name is all about.

Quite a few pens are named after birds. Famously, there is Pelikan. There are the Swan family (Swan, Blackbird and Jackdaw) and the Merle Blanc (Blackbird in French). There's a Dutch pen called 'Heron' (Reiger, in Dutch) of which I have one. And of course the merlin is a bird of prey. So... here is one.
Courtesy of 'Just a prairie boy' on flickr, via Wikipedia - a Canadian Merlin feasting.
Collecting these little pens has given me a great deal of enjoyment over the past few years. One or two still need repairs: one needs a nib. I'm still looking for the 'coconut macaroon' that I once saw a photo of on Richard Binder's website and can't now find any evidence of... and I don't have enough blue. And there are two spaces left in the box.

Thursday, 11 February 2016

ASA Nauka - the Black Beauty

I'm not really a paid up member of the Black Pen Society. Usually I find black a bit boring. But when I saw the design for the ASA Nauka, I was in no doubt; this was one pen I wanted in black.
You can see black isn't my usual colour. Pilot V-pen in purple, Jinhao in blue, Nauka, Airmail in orange, Pelikan m600 pretty in pink.
It's a very simple, streamlined design, influenced by the Mora stylos produced 'Oldwin' pen (but costing significantly less than the EUR 600 or so that the Oldwin costs). The threads are right at the end of the section, forming the 'flare', so that the body of the pen is without any step - a completely smooth curve.  Mine being in black you can see where the section and barrel join - about half way up the barrel - but if I'd chosen the bakul (brushed) finish or a patterned ebonite I bet you wouldn't be able to see the join at all.

 I was excited when it finally arrived, and taking it out of its little black velvet bag (which you can just see on the right of the picture) I immediately fell for its gleaming beauty.

Another very streamlined design I love. Not a fountain pen.

But... why isn't life straightforward? I opened it, filled it, wrote with it. And then I fell out of love.
  • First of all, the threads were just a tad sharp, and my fingers kept sliding down on to them. Bleugh.
  • And secondly, when I tried to recap the pen, I couldn't get the threads to engage. And because they're so deeply hidden inside the cap, I couldn't see what the problem was.
This is where buying from ASA Pens is worthwhile. I contacted Mr Subramaniam via Fountain Pen Network... and after we had exchanged a few messages, I managed to find the 'knack'. It was just a matter of slightly angling the pen when I inserted it. Now, I always give a little twist in the wrong direction to locate the start of the thread, and then screw the cap on. And I have to say that over a couple of weeks of capping and uncapping, the threads seemed to become much smoother. I haven't heard of other Nauka users having this problem so maybe just a bit of ebonite swarf had got trapped in mine (and I'm assured by Subbu that all the pens are tested before going out, so it looks as if I managed to dislodge a bit that was lying flat originally).

Still, the issue with the threads being just a little prominent for comfort remained... and another little niggle, that the curve of the pen just seems to have a bit of a 'flat' on the barrel before tapering more sharply towards the tail. I keep hankering for it to be even smoother...

And of course, I find out too late that black ebonite is an absolute fingerprint magnet. I'm reaching for the microfibre cloth five or six times a day.

So, if this pen is niggling at me in all these ways, and I had such a poor initial experience, why am I planning to order another Nauka?

Because this pen has stayed on my desk for two months. Other pens have come and gone in rotation. The Pelikan m600 vibrant green is back in its box. The Kaigelu 316 is back in the pen box. The Platinum 3776 briar wood and the Edison Collier limited edition have been put away. But the Nauka is still here. Out of all the pens I was using when I got the Nauka, only the Pelikan M600 pink has stayed in rotation - it's in pretty good company!

It's light. It's just got the right size of grip for me. It caps and uncaps quickly (unlike most Indian pens) now that I've got the hang of it. It just seems to want to be in my hands.

And now I want one in that red-and-green ebonite. Unless a really showy acrylic comes along first.

Where to get one

Order online from ASA Pens.  There are a number of options in terms of material (different ebonites), clip or clipless, filling system, and nib. Prices for non-Indian customers from EUR 22 to EUR 39, depending on the filling/nib options chosen.

That's three for the price of an M200, which I think is a steal.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Things I love in a pen

Having published 'things I hate in a pen' I thought I'd better put on the record what I love.
  • Colour. I can cope with black. Nothing at all wrong with black. (Come on, I mean, I collect Lamy 2000s. And they come in one colour, which I think you can guess.) But I love colour. Mandarin. Big Red. Jade. Koi celluloid. Blueberry, capuccino, lemon meringue.... I love it. Even pink has its place. Best pen? Edison Collier Persimmon Swirl.
  • Pattern attracts me strongly, whether it's the brickwork effect of a Vacumatic, the stripes of a Pelikan Souveraen pen, or the marbling of 1930s and 1940s Waterman pens. I have a Bexley Corona in the 'blueberry' acrylic, which is wonderful - stripes that are just delicate smears of colour on a creamy background. Best pen? A Punto Rosso 'Vacumatic' celluloid with gold filled cap.
  • Wood. Handled right this is a gorgeous material and I've a number of wooden pens. The Japanese seem particularly good at producing really stunning pieces, and of course Faber Castell and GvFC have a huge number of lovely wooden pens. The one I'm really looking at right now is a lovely Gimena - just beautiful dark wood and nothing to spoil its glimmer and wonderful feel but a simple leaf clip.  Best pen? So far, the Platinum 3776 Briarwood.
  • Which gets me on to something else I love in a pen: feel. A pen has to feel right. It has to be something I want to hold, to caress, to play with, to weigh in my hands, to turn end over end, to fidget with. Wood always does it for me. Brushed makrolon, and the bakul effect on ebonite, are nearly as good as wood... Celluloid and ebonite feel good, and the less furniture there is to get in the way, the better. Cheap plastic? Nope. Metal? No, really not. Pens that are stupidly heavily or ridiculously light, nope. Rubber sections like the Rotring Core? Run away! I want a pen I can recognise with my eyes closed. Best pen? Lamy 2000.
  • Keep it simple. I love pens with simple design. Parker 51 and 45, Lamy 2000, my little Merlins, the original Waterman Patrician - they're all simple and strong designs. There's a reason that two of them have become "icon" pens. That design has to be consistent with itself; one of the nicest little touches, for instance, to the Croxley pen is the use of the chevron motif on both clip and lever (and the same goes for several models of Bayard). Best pen? Lamy 2000, Faber Castell Ondoro, ASA Nauka.
  • I'm not a flex queen. I tend to like cursive italics. But what I really love in a pen is a good generous nib; one that gives a little, that bounces a little, that's wet, and smooth, and willing to bend the rules for me. There's a feeling of amplitude and springiness in some nibs that you just don't get with others, and if a nib gives me that special feeling, I will love it for ever. Best pen? Lamy 2000, Pelikan M600.
  • Good fit and finish. Clip caps that  clip snugly. Sections that don't start working loose while I'm using the pen. Cap rings that don't come loose. No wiggle if you post a pen. Converters that don't come loose or only fill half way. If you're going to live with a pen it needs to do the basics properly, or however pretty it is you'll end up hating it.
  • And there's one other thing I love. I don't mind cartridge/converter pens (though I don't like it when the cartridge doesn't come as standard, unless the pen is very cheap), but I really love a good piston filler,. And Vacumatics, and vac-fillers, and aerometrics. Lever fillers don't really do it for me.

On entirely another track - Canetas e coisas has just put up a great photo-essay on the Waterman Phileas and 'Harley Davison' pens. Fascinating comparison, and I think it's also a good reference case for a redesign that was properly done, rather than just sticking a corporate logo on an existing pen.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Waterman Exclusive: true love that I nearly passed over

I came across this Waterman Exclusive at a car boot sale. It's suffered: there's corrosion on the gold plated ring around the end of the section, the lacquer is not spotless (not missing anywhere, but dinged a bit), there was crud stuck to it that I wasn't sure would come off without damaging the pen, and it was a bit expensive.

I was just about to walk away when I took a look at the nib. Blimey. This pen was coming with me!

It's a 'large', the little L stamped on the underside of the feed informs me. Yes, a nice fat broad nib. 18k gold, as always in France. It writes like a dream. Bags of tipping and a nice smooth grind.

The Exclusive's not one of my favourite modern Waterman pens. It's one of the series of tubular styles that came out in the 1980s to 1990s, like the Laureat, Man 100, Gentleman, Executive, the Lady Elsa/Agathe/Patricia/Anastasia versions, and at the cheap end of the range, the Forum. I find the Exclusive slightly too slim, with a section only 7mm across; it feels a bit anorexic. And I don't like the hand-grenade finish of the section, because it looks as if it should be uncomfortable, though in fact it's not at all uncomfortable to write with.

But I have to admit that with those caveats out of the way, it's a good looking pen. Black lacquer and yellow metal; metal end caps, totally plain, and three metal rings each end ofthe tubular cap, and a simple split clip (similar to the one on the Laureat) with the 'looped W' Waterman logo. There's no other branding, just a tiny 'Made in France' between the two outside rings at the base of the cap. It is elegant, striking, and just elegant enough not to seem austere. There are no distractions.

Open up the pen and there's a quite wide ring at the nib end of the section - unfortunately this is the weak spot on so many Watermans of the period, as it seems to corrode at the least provocation (just like the 'wings' on the Waterman CF). And there's a rounded clutch ring, where (invisible from the outside) we find the words 'Waterman France'. I particularly like the clutch ring, as it is the only rounded element on the pen and gives it a properly finished feeling.

The lacquer, on polishing up, turns out not to be quite a solid black, but slightly dappled. Waterman really, really knows how to do lacquer and that's one of the great appeal of modern Watermans like the 'marine amber' Carene and the Laureat series. 

And that nib! I've been loving it ever since.

I have tried quite a few modern Parkers, but most of the nibs have been 'meh'. Waterman on the other hand really has great nibs, from the cheapie Kultur all the way to the Man 100. Even so, occasionally a Waterman nib will surprise me further on the upside. I tried a Carene with a stub nib in Selfridge's once; that was a really wicked little bugger. And this Exclusive has provided me with very great delight.

So I'm glad it joined my collection, even if it was a bit more than I'd usually pay for a car boot find.

I even managed to beat the seller down a few euros, in the end.

The Exclusive. Cleaned up.

Recognising the Exclusive
  • Thin tubular pen - tubular cap and slightly tapered barrel
  • Metal disks at both ends of the pen
  • Two sets of triple cap rings
  • Flat split clip
  • Hand-grenade textured section

Monday, 1 February 2016

Personalised pens, and why collectors are human

Some people loath personalised pens. Others find it fascinating when they find a name on a pen or pencil, and stop at nothing to find out who the pen belonged to, and when, and where.

Richard Binder is one of the latter. The stories behind some of his pens are intriguing, and I find the article really moving - so go and read it yourself: Personalised pens

Sometimes our pens are the occasion for deadly sins - greed, envy, pride. And sometimes, our pens remind us of our common humanity.