A little bit of history Around in 1136, or thereabouts, Geoffrey of Monmouth – who couldn’t use a fountain pen due to the woeful misfortune of being born eight centuries too early – picked up a quill and wrote a wildly imaginative ‘history’ of the kings of Britain. This slightly rambling narrative included much detail about the headquarters of King Arthur “located in a delightful spot in Glamorgan, on the River Usk, not far from the Severn Sea. Abounding in wealth more than other cities, it was suited for such a ceremony. For the noble river I have named flows along it on one side, upon which the kings and princes who would be coming from overseas could be carried by ship. But on the other side, protected by meadow and woods, it was remarkable for royal palaces, so that it imitated Rome in the golden roofs of its buildings…” So from golden roofs to golden nibs now, for a couple of miles down the river stands the new headquarters not of Arthur and his court, but Ross and his colleagues at Pure Pens (incorporating the fiefdoms of Niche Pens and Pelikan Pens UK). We caught up with Ross by telephone before he escaped for some ski therapy…
So how did you get started in the fountain pen retail world? Well, that’s a bit of a tale, it’s true! When I was still at school I saw a well-known fountain pen shown-off in an episode of an American sit-com and liked the look of it, so I was given one for doing well in my exams, but it really wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be. So I and my family did some research on-line and found that another German fountain pen brand, Pelikan, came far more highly recommended by the experts. But it was so hard to get hold of Pelikans in those days that when we got in touch with the company and suggested we become their UK retailer, they were up for it – we’ve owned the pelikanpens.co.uk URL ever since. This was before ready-to-roll retail sites were available, so we were using email and cheques at first, but we soon evolved.
What really grabs you about Pelikans? Well the Pelikan quality control is much better than average, for a start, and the adaptability of the screw-in nib units is great. We offer nib exchanges on all the higher-spec Pelikan fountain pens we sell and, because we can keep all the spare nibs in stock, customers do make use of the option too. It’s one of the things which makes the brand so popular; using our advice writers can be sure of getting a fountain pen which they can really live with. The other really nice thing is that Pelikan do listen to the customer feedback we’re able to take to them; for instance, so many people wanted a silver version of their Toledo special edition that they starting making them!
What led you to start grinding your own Pelikan italic nibs? People asked for them. Pelikan didn’t want to start providing them directly, so we started experimenting with grinding them ourselves. My father was a toolmaker and metal-turner, which helped a lot, and we learnt by trial and error at first – although we took a bit of time to get really fluent at it with steel nibs before letting loose on the gold! Our customers seem to love them.
Desirable Pelikan fountain pens, cunningly guarded by untouchable ballpoints.
What are the other ‘brand successes’ for you? Diamine has a really great British brand story and is always popular. We enjoyed visiting the factory in Merseyside, and timed it just right to see the Shimmertastic range in development – and it has to be said those inks have been flying off the shelves ever since.
So what are you writing with at the moment, Ross? My guilty pleasure is an M800 Grand Place – which Pelikan actually declined to sell in the UK, but I just couldn’t resist. My TWSBIs are looking great with Blue Lightning in the barrel, and the Pelikan-made Porsche fountain pen is still doing heavy duty too. I love my Visconti Homo Sapiens as well, and if it isn’t getting so much use just yet that’s probably because it’s got a bit more flex than I’m used to…
There we had to leave it, as Ross needed to escape to the slopes – but we’ll be reviewing some of the more intriguing products that Pure Pens stock over the next few weeks!
What’s all this about, then? Well, when you have notes strewn hickledy-pickledy all over different parts of a notebook and you want to re-arrange them, generally speaking you can’t – unless, that is, you have a flexible binding system which allows you to pop pages in and out as you jolly well please. The trouble is, most of the binding systems commonly available destroy the paper quite quickly and make a fearful mess, and that wretched two-hole system which is almost ubiquitous on the high street is the worst offender of the lot. Surely previous, pre-computer generations must have wrestled with this problem too? Well of course they did, and they came up with an ingenious solution too, using a row of little holes shaped like mushrooms and simple discs to hold them all together.
Hang about, when did all this happen? About a century ago, or thereabouts. The exact moment of inspiration is hard to pin down, but the main claimants to fame are André Thomas and Andre Martin, who devised the concept for Papeteries Georges Mottart some time between when the company formed in 1923, and when the patent changed hands in 1948. The names of the inventors supposedly formed the handy brand Atoma, and the company of the same name still sells about a million notebooks a year in its native Belgium – with the rest of the world getting a modest 20% of its output.
So, that patent must have expired by now? It certainly has, whatever date you start counting from. That hasn’t prevented a little flurry of claims, counter-claims and litigation in the US (check out Levenger vs. Feldman if you want the grisly details), but these days it’s open season. Atoma itself is still going strong, and also produces the Adoc presentation-binding system; Atoma notebooks are available in the UK via Cult Pens and the occasional Adoc product reaches Amazon. Clairefontaine in neighbouring France (known to us all for Rhodia paper) makes the Clairing notebooks, which are also sporadically available in Britain. A kibbutz in Israel made Flic notebooks using the system until the mid-1990s but threw in the towel, citing far eastern competition and the reluctance of German customers to accept non-biodegradable plastics – but not before significantly muddying the waters for US disc-binding suppliers Rollabind and Levenger (see court case above), who both still seem to do thriving business selling the system to the north American market. Staples have exploited the patent expiry to produce a budget disc-binding system in China, and Filofax has recently started marketing a similar system employing less robust wire loops rather than solid discs (as also produced by Miraclebind, who rather unnecessarily miss one of the holes in the row). Finally, this open season has sparked some serious custom loveliness right here in Blighty, but we’ll save the best for last.
Enough already! How do I try this out? Essentially there are two choices; go DIY or buy a ready-made disc-bound notebook. In practice, you’ll probably find yourself buying a ready-bound notebook and then tinkering with it, like all of us have – but then again, that’s part of the fun. By ‘fun’, we mean rigorously efficient and productive use of the stationery budget, obviously. We’ll tell you a little about each of the main options available in the UK as we go…
Atoma notebooks are available in the popular A5 and A4 sizes as well as a fairly handy pocket A6 version (NB for quite large pockets!). Although their basic offering uses plastic discs in a pleasing range of colours, it doesn’t cost much to trade up to tough and shiny aluminium alternatives, available in three rising sizes to accommodate the ever-bulging fruits of one’s feverish scribblings. As Ian discovered, there is nothing to prevent the cheeky insertion of Atoma’s nice metal discs into disc-punched paper provided by competitors, so there is ample room for customisation. We find the standard cream paper (which is a bit wider than standard A5/A4 sizes) to be fairly good, albeit with a bit more texture than is perhaps ideal; not the most hostile to fountain pens, but not actually the most FP-friendly either.
Clairefontaine’s Clairing notebooks do much the same thing as Atoma’s cheaper plastic-disc notebooks, albeit with Clairefontaine paper, which by popular consensus is for most purposes is about the best there is. They come with handy subject dividers as standard, too. There are a few flies in the ointment, however; the plastic rings could do with a polish so that they turn easily, the enormous margins rather get in the way, and the peculiar decision to go much wider than standard A5 size means that the paper would have to be trimmed-down to fit other disc-bound notebooks. Bizarrely, the rear of the package proclaims a Patent Pending number (not a chance, sorry) – but hopefully Clairefontaine will read the material above and let that go. Thanks to the quality of the paper and the nice subject dividers, it has potential.
Staples’ Arc notebooks are made in China, but on this occasion that shouldn’t necessarily put you off as a customer. The rings are cheap plastic, but available in enormous radii which make for affordable archiving at least – and the big surprise is the Arc paper, which is remarkably good quality; inexpensive, a good weight and non-feathering when attacked with a big wet nib.
William Hannah notebooks are made right here in Britain – well we did say we’d save the best for last! Their guiding genius felt the same frustration with notebooks which don’t come apart and go back together and, after a few kitchen experiments, realised the disc-binding system was the answer. Then he rebuilt the concept from scratch to make a notebook that justifiably claims to be ‘luxury’.
Italian leathers sewn in Leicestershire, stainless steel discs engineered in Nottinghamshire (with a retaining pin to keep the whole thing together even without paper in it), and marketing from the centre of the country by a fountain pen enthusiast who has found a secret stash of good paper and will even print lines, dots or grids in a colour of your choice. Now, this sort of combination is never going to be cheap – it’s the other end of the price scale from a cheap basic Arc, obviously – but it looks and feels the part, and if you want to turn up to a meeting with a notebook which makes a fitting accompaniment to your posh new fountain pen, why not have one that’s properly British?
Hang on, you missed the DIY option! Big, cripplingly expensive and seemingly impregnable, it was never going to be any match for a moment’s onslaught from precision German engineering. But enough about the Maginot Line. Atoma also make a big Belgian punch for home use, which enables one to make up A4/5/6 binders with any paper that suits; Clairefontaine writing pads work very well, for instance. The twin catches of this arrangement are that it can only handle a few sheets at once (even thick card will flummox it), and it costs an eye-watering £139 at UK retail prices. On balance, the compatible Arc punch at £34 is probably a safer bet for now, although we think there is room for some competition at a better price than Atoma and greater sturdiness than Arc.
It works for A4 too, with Optik paper in the bottom example here, and Clairefontaine on top.
So your recommendation is? Check your piggy bank, see which of the above options fits, and go for it. It’s a great system and will put you satisfyingly in control of something, however daft the rest of the day may be.
A little bit ofhistoryWe’ve covered the affordable-but-quite-nice end of Indian fountain pen production in our previous Fountain Pen Revolution article, but Fosfor is quite a different proposition; the brand is essentially one man, Manoj, hand-making pens from scratch in Pune.How it looksLike a work of art, which is what it is – or, at the very least, the product of expert craftsmanship and painstaking care. The material (polyester, in this case) supports some wildly contrasting colours, and every one is essentially unique.How it feelsWarm, light… and large. This isn’t one for grabbing in a hurry to jot notes; for one thing, it takes a while to unscrew (somewhat to Ruth’s frustration!), and that big #6 nib lends itself to calm composed writing rather than hasty scribbles. Despite the generous proportions, it doesn’t feel overbalanced, and those who like their pens on the big side will find it handles very well.
How it fillsThis is a straightforward cartridge/converter model, and none the worse for that.
Crucially, how it writes…Of course that depends upon the nib, but the #6 JoWo steel nib which this test unit was fitted with was impressively smooth.
Pen! What is it good for?There’s no clip, and the vivid colour-schemes perhaps don’t naturally lend themselves to the office, so this is perhaps ideal for journalling, note-taking or doodling at home.
VFMIt’s not cheap, but it’s far from exorbitant either; prices compare well with hand-made pens from John Twiss or Edison, for example – and so does the quality, we think.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…Well, Manoj takes on personal commissions, if your budget will stretch to bespoke design. His triangular pen, for example, is quite something to behold.
Our overall recommendationIf large pens in vibrant hues are your thing, Fosfor pens are worth checking out.
Where to get hold of oneNow that’s a little tougher, but you could try Fosfor’s own site of course.
Give-away To enter, we asked readers for their ideas for what Manoj should consider having a crack at next – whether that was new colours, new shapes, or a return of something old but good. There’s more on that in the comments below…