United Inkdom has been going for just over a year, and now we’ve got through our initial publication schedule we’re having a little pause for breath, taking stock and figuring out what to do next. Which is where you come in, dear reader – we’d like your thoughts and ideas!
The right stuff Are we featuring or reviewing the products, companies or events which interest you, as well as us? Is there anything ‘stellar’ that we’re missing?
Join our club Obviously we welcome all readers, but perhaps we should be welcoming more contributors too! We’ve got this far with a core of three, plus some friendly ‘guest stars’ who we’re hoping will stay on board for longer. But real life intervenes, so we need to expand the team. Who should we recruit? Is it you?
A bit of history Private Reserve suggests a fine wine, rather than an ink, but it’s a brand that has had a loyal following in its native North America for many years. Here in Blighty, it’s a little harder to find, but several of our reviewers were kindly provided with samples by The Writing Desk following our recent couple of articles about their ways. The three reviewers all got different samples, so a meta-review has been a bit more challenging than usual – but Ian had reviewed many Private Reserve inks in the past and Scribble had tested all the purples, so we have quite a range covered! Between us, there are five Private Reserve inks that at least two of us have tried, comprising two greens, a greenish blue and a pair of purples. Are you inking comfortably? Then I’ll begin…
Don’t step on my blue suede shoes Blue Suede is a good place to start because it’s a tricky colour to pin down. It IS blue, but then again it’s really rather green. Our newest reviewer, Daniel, points out that this is actually a teal, if anything – and a jolly decent one too. It’s so saturated that there is no shading to speak of, but it’s not going to look insipid either. Ian was a big fan too, adding that drying times may not be the fastest but they were also far from terrible.
Ebony and burgundy go together in perfect harmony Those of us who like to sneak a purple to work are often in search of a purple-black ink, and this certainly fits the bill – plus, it has quite a noticeable sheen if you lay it on thick. Ruth got a sample of this as part of her trial assortment and was suitably impressed.
Scribble has been busy trying to review every purple there is, and still liked Ebony Purple so much that he’s got on to The Writing Desk and bought a big bottle of the stuff.
You say avacado, I say avocoda, oh let’s call the whole thing off Now, the good people at Private Reserve may not be able to spell avocado, but they certainly know how to make an ink that looks like the flesh of said fruit. Ian found the colour impressively rich, and Ruth was quite taken with it too.
Down-there-in-the-ink, sha-la-la-la-laa, it looks like the inkling of a plum Plum is a fruity shade which seems to do different things in different pens, unless of course we got some labels mixed-up!
Yes, we have no rhinoceros Spearmint was quite a bit darker than the mention of mint appeared to suggest.
Rob found that there was more shading with this colour, but that the saturated nature of the ink could pose clogging challenges with some pens – albeit nothing that good rinse of the feed wouldn’t sort out. Ian enjoyed the shading that showed-up in his ‘inkling’ illustration too.
It’s the End of The World As We Know It But you’ll at least feel fine in the ink department with some of these – ‘well worth checking-out, in our assessment, and the simplest way of getting hold of them in the UK is to head to The Writing Desk. Let us know about the colours we missed!
A little bit ofhistoryThe disc-binding concept has been around for so long that the copyright lapsed long ago, as we covered in our previous article about the system. But, despite the binder design being out there for all to use for quite a while, until recently there were few really smart-looking notebooks which employed it. Then we discovered that a new brand had been born, right in the heart of little Britain – and in a trice, our band of hardened critics had all bought one! So, what makes this disc-binder so thoroughly irresistible?
How it looksWell, how it looks is certainly part of the magic, coming as it does in a very tasteful array of colours. The outer leather is tough enough to knock about in most bags and come up looking handsome, whereas the inner suede-style leather can be selected in a range of rather groovier shades like purple and turquoise. It looks seriously classy. For a little extra, you can also specify the colour of threads and get a monogram embossed onto the front as well.
How it feelsIt feels pretty classy too. The outer leather is nicely tactile, and the inners are hard to resist stroking. The pages turn easily, and of course they pop in and out quite easily when you need to re-arrange them, too. Writing in one of these feels rather luxurious, which may sound an odd thing to claim from the humble act of putting nib to paper – but everyone who has tried finds themselves reporting the same experience. It also feels pretty good pitching up to a meeting knowing that you have the coolest notebook in the room, honestly.How it fillsNow this is where life can get quite interesting for those who wish to have something very custom-made. The first thing that has to be mentioned is the impressive refill service available from William Hannah directly; the brand’s own paper (recently upgraded) came out very favourably in our tests, and as well as coming pre-punched for the disc-binder (naturally enough), it can be printed with dots, lines or grids in an ink which complements or contrasts with the colour of your notebook. There are also rather neat subject dividers available from the manufacturer now, so it’s perfectly possible to keep the whole thing ‘in house’ and have it working very well indeed.
Come on now, that’s not the only way to fill it Well, naturally enough we were also tempted to try out the alternatives, which anyone with a guillotine and a punch can do (the Atoma punch works perfectly but is shockingly overpriced, whereas the Arc punch just about works but is much more affordable). Our testing panel came up with some surprising conclusions, as well as one or two entirely predictable ones! For fountain pen obsessives, it’s perhaps no great shock that Clairefontaine Triomphe still rocks many scribbler’s worlds. Slightly more surprisingly, competitor Atoma’s paper, while not notably fountain pen friendly, fares much better in tests with a pencil carried out by Matthias. Rob introduced us to the splendidly-smooth British Advocate Xtreme, and the impressively multi-purpose German Gmund Tactile paper. Fabriano’s Italian offering seemed one of the most effective for dot-grid paper, while despite the impressive range of colours available, even apricot could not convince our contributing classical musician that Swiss Artoz1001 was quite the best thing since sliced bread when it comes to finding a surface which you can actually write on! For anyone wanting a good wallow in the dizzying range of options (and pointers on a few to avoid), Rob has a very detailed blog post and Scribble has set up a complete new blog on the subject.
Crucially, how it works…You open it up, slide a pen out of the optional pen-holder, and write! Of course, the really handy thing is that you can re-arrange the pages to your heart’s content without the annoying clicking and grinding of ‘traditional’ ring binders. When you have filled it up, you can decant your notes into one of the excellent archive packs which William Hannah has just started selling, featuring some of the largest aluminium discs available (they have holes in them, so technically they’re rings, but let’s go with standard nomenclature for now). The whole system has clearly been properly thought-through and does just what it should do.
Book! What is it good for?Plenty of owners take one to work, and in most professions that’s probably a great idea; it looks the part, and you can smuggle in some personal notes without embarrassment. But it’s also great for journal-writing or, as Ruth often demonstrates, reviewing fountain pens!
VFMValue is a subjective thing with this as with all products, of course. £95 sounds like quite a lot of money – until you pick one of these up and see what you’re getting. This is a seriously high-quality product which will last for years and years, and apart from the Italian leather the whole thing comes from Britain; the metalwork is custom-made in Leicester, and the covers are sewn in Melton Mowbray. Bear in mind the development and production costs, and it becomes more of a surprise that this is available for anything less than a three-figure sum. To put it in context, a rather prominent international stationery brand (yes, you know who) makes a boring black A5 leather organiser which retails for more than four times as much, and that doesn’t even feature the disc-binding system – so isn’t half as useful. The William Hannah notebook is perhaps something of a luxury, but it’s one that really works for its living.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…We respectfully invite you to reconsider! Seriously, this is lovely, it works brilliantly and there’s not much out there to compare with it. Atoma and Arc both sell leather covers for their versions of the disc-binding system, and in the US Discbound Marketplace offer custom-made binders using Arc-style plastic discs, although it’s probably fair to say that many of these would struggle to compete with William Hannah’s form and function. If you like the look of the notebook but would just like it in different size, there may be hope on the horizon; an A6 version is in the pipeline (probably as a custom offer initially) and there may even be an A4 version to follow one day.
Our overall recommendationYou have probably guessed by now; we recommend saving up for one of these and treating yourself, if you can.
Where to get hold of oneThis is only sold ‘direct’, and the customer service is so good that we really don’t think that’s a bad thing. You can catch the maker himself at numerous pen shows, or just head straight to the user-friendly website. Be prepared to be tempted if you do. By the way, if you do give in to that temptation any time in the next couple of months, mention United Inkdom in the comments/requests box and you’ll get an extra pack of paper included in the deal.
As well as the hyperlinks above (thanks to ‘James’ and Matthias for you contributions too), this meta-reviews references:
So, rumour has it that the search for the perfect purple ink was behind the birth of The Writing Desk (which got Scribble rather excited) – is that true?
Well, almost! For a while it was difficult to get hold of Waterman purple, for reasons which were never explained, then we were on holiday in France and came across some lovely alternatives by J.Herbin. They had no UK retailers at that point, so we stepped into the breach. We already had some experience of trading a few vintage pens online, and when Anna decided not to return to work as a solicitor after we had a daughter, one thing led to another. Soon we were selling Pelikan too, then Conway Stewart. The rest, as they say, is history. We soon took on Private Reserve as the sole UK suppliers too, then Martin stepped back from his old job as an audio engineer and The Writing Desk became a full-time occupation. We do sell quite a lot of purple ink, as it happens, but one or two other shades too…
How has life as a pen ‘etailer’ developed?
Pretty fast. When we launched our first website in 2001 there were few competitors, but also not so much in the way of ready-made platforms – we had to do our own technology development as well as sourcing the merchandise. The web element has become a little more straightforward since, and we now find we have a healthy combination of appearances at pen shows and links with customers all over the world, from Keynsham to Kazakhstan. Many of our customers, and suppliers, are in the EU so there could be further developments around the corner.
What works best for you in staying in touch with customers, new and old?
We do contribute to some ‘hard copy’ publications, like the WES journal, but of course a lot of our contacts are formed and developed online too. Answering questions on forums like FPN has been mutually helpful in the past.
So, tell us about TWD’s favourite pen brands…
Yard-o-Led, to follow on from United Inkdom’s recent articles, has been a big success; we were the first online retailers, and people really love the pens. Edison remains unique to The Writing Desk in the UK, after John Serowka recommended us to Brian Gray; they’re a lovely company to work with and they’ve benefitted from working directly with customers via social media too. We loved selling Conway Stewart and were sorry to see the brand go, but Sailor is still going splendidly; their pens may look fancy, but those nibs are excellent – the ‘King Eagle’, in particular, is really something special. As one of the few TWSBI dealers in the UK we find their special editions fly off the shelves rather rapidly, too. Finally, we have to mention Kaweco; we’re big fans of the Sport and the new Supra is so well put-together, too.
Of course! Private Reserve, and Rohrer and Klingner, remain exclusive to us in the UK, and they both have sterling reputations. Naturally we’re Diamine fans too, and our big 100ml refills have been popular ever since we started selling them – indeed, we’re thinking of refreshing the range soon, so ideas for inks which you writers need in high volumes are welcome!
How’s the workshop coming on?
That side of the operation is something we’ve always done but not really advertised previously, but we do quite a bit of pen servicing and repairs now, and are getting into nib tuning. Italic regrinds and even nib width reductions are quite popular, along with the occasional TWSBI repair – those are user-serviceable but not everyone finds it a walk in the park. It’s a part of the business we quite enjoy and, while it’s maybe not a big money-spinner, a lot of customers find it makes a big difference to their enjoyment too.
So, the big question – what are you both writing with today?
Martin is using a vintage Pelikan M730/D730 set and a venerable Lamy 2000, while Anna is sporting a black Kaweco Sport and a TWSBI 530 – the first TWSBI the company acquired, and it’s still going strong.
Keep watching for meta-reviews of a pen, and an ink range, that only The Writing Desk stock in the UK…
A little bit ofhistoryBack in the early Twentieth Century, there were all sorts of experimental designs for mechanical pencils. Eversharp, as the name suggests, started with a perennially-pointed design (or so the adverts would have you believe), and the Japanese spin-off even became an electronics company in the end – that’s how Sharp got its name. After a few mergers (including the assimilation of Edward Baker, one of whose pencils Matthias reviewed), and a few factories either being re-purposed for war production or flattened by someone else’s materiel, there was just the one brand left – the masters of the propelling pencil, Yard-o-Led.
How it looks The Yard-o-Led pencil has a variety of finishes, all of them looking carefully hand-engineered, and very shiny. Sometimes, as in the example below, that has been achieved with interesting alloys (in this case ‘platinine’, probably an copper/nickel/zinc mix), but these days only Sterling silver makes the grade.
How it feelsObviously that depends upon the size and shape to some extent – the new Diplomat below has a square barrel! But generally, these are lighter than they look, and nicely balanced, so really rather pleasant to write or draw with.
How it fillsWith twelve three-inch graphite sections, which if placed end-to-end would constitute a Yard of Lead (geddit?). One is in the chamber and ready to fire, while eleven spares lie in wait spaced around the sides of the barrel. It’s a clever system and you’re highly unlikely to run out of lead while out on a job with one of these. The only downside to the now rather unusual gauge (1.18mm) of lead is that it’s now rather hard to find refills in any hardness other than HB or B – which is a pity, as with a softer lead these would make excellent sketching tools.
How it writes…Tolerably well, although the lead may be a bit thick to write with if you’re used to the now more familiar 0.5mm standard width.
What is the propelling pencil good for?It’s good for drawing and doodling, and looking like a vintage hipster while you’re doing it. Because of the limited range of lead types available in 1.18mm, it’s perhaps not brilliant as a sketching tool, but it definitely wins points for being cool.
VFMToday’s Yard-o-Led pencil is a silver item made by the same specialist jewellers who make the excellent pens which we reviewed last week, and they are similarly priced at the ‘luxury’ end of the price scale. They are real works of art, and worth saving up for as an heirloom if you like the thought of passing on something both very beautiful and somewhat practical. If you just want one to doodle with and don’t mind a few dings, there’s about a century’s worth of second-hand stock out there on the auction sites and the like, and they can sell for a lot less. A bit of research is certainly worthwhile.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…There’s not much direct competition these days! Your main choice here is between new and ‘pre-loved’ propelling pencils.
Our overall recommendationIf your cherished descendants can’t be trusted with a fountain pen but might just get some mileage from a pencil, this is as good as it gets. The mechanism is very robust, so if you just fancy one to play with then a second-hand (or possibly third-hand) one will probably also still be working when the time comes to kick the shiny, hallmarked, delicately hand-tooled bucket.
Where to get hold of oneThe Writing Desk (coming up soon!) were YoL’s first online retailers, although the Yard-o-Led website now sell directly too, and you could also do a lot worse than check out Pure Pens or The Pen Shop. Alternatively, if you happen to be strolling through St.James’s and fancy popping into Fortnum’s, their pen desk offers ample hands-on testing opportunities, albeit at prices which make the posh scones look relatively affordable.
Once upon a time, Birmingham was the engineering design capital of the world. Products imagined by nineteenth-century draughtsmen in Brum can still be seen all over the planet, from tea-packing machines in the Azores to boats on Lake Titicaca. With the gradual demise of heavy engineering, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s all in the past, but a part of that heritage lives on in the city’s Jewellery Quarter, which has been making pens and pencils since the days when they kept the bureaucracy of the British Empire running. There dip-pen enthusiasts can visit the pen museum and try for themselves the hand-pulled stamps that made steel nibs by the thousands to ship all over the world – and just up the road, there’s something even more fascinating going on…
Victorian and Edwardian machine-tooling was evidently built to last, and Yard-o-Led are still using it to impressive effect. The name comes, of course from the pre-metric measuring system that all the machinery and designs still employ; each of their original propelling pencils still comes with twelve three-inch leads, which when lined up constitute a while imperial yard of lead. It’s for that reason that the company responsible is now called Imperial Yard, reasonably enough!
There have been a few experiments with different alloys over the years, but these days each pen or pencil is made from scratch of silver. ‘Scratch’ in this case means silver tubes, which head over to the Assay Office for those mystical hallmarks, and then return for a range of fascinating time-honoured processes. Stretched and squeezed to form points, the resulting blanks are than patterned either by hand, or by hand-powered machinery. The hand-powered machinery is the number-controlled mill which you can see two examples of in the background of the photograph below – they are not CNC because, of course, in the days these were built a computer was a human being with a slide-rule (and, quite probably, a pencil).
The number-control mill makes the lovely barley-corn patterns, whereas the distinctive comma-and-apostrophe patterns are hammered-out by hand. One of two current experts, Alex, is doing just that in the picture above. The red cable serves as a clamp, to hold the blank in place without marking the surface. Other than that, and a soft cloth, the equipment consists of a range of vintage specialist chisels, a light hammer, and one very patient operator; each pen takes hours to complete. The harmonious result of these ministrations is a remarkably organic-looking surface (in some lights, more vegetable than mineral), and each pen or pencil produced this way is inherently unique. Naturally, we’ll be reviewing examples of both processes in the next couple of articles.
Yard-o-Led as a brand, and as a team, has inevitably been through some ups and downs. The brand has recently been released from ownership by Filofax – another great British name, of course, but in retrospect perhaps not the most obvious combination (a Filofax you take to work and bash around, but you probably wouldn’t want to do that to an all-silver YoL). The workshop, too, has moved, but given the irreplaceable nature of many of the vintage tools and machines in use, that’s unlikely to happen again in a hurry. These days, it’s a hive of activity which is a real treat to visit if you get the chance – a place where proper craftsmen still produce labours of love which also happen to work as tools themselves. When you see the fountain pen and propelling pencil the company has lent us to review over the next few weeks, we’re pretty sure you’ll fall in love too.
To complete our series of articles about The Pen Shop and its wares, we really needed to foray into the world of Montblanc at least briefly. This presented a bit of a challenge as, for various reasons, none of us have their pens and there was no way to borrow one either. But the canny folk at Pen Shop HQ found a Montblanc product that we could put through its paces and is perhaps of wider interest too – the MB ink range. It’s a bigger range than many fountain European pen manufacturers promote, so the big set of cartridges (and one or two bottles) which turned up presented us all with a few challenges – and Ruth gets the prize for being the only one of us who has tested every single colour so far, as you can see on the illustration below.Trying to be all things to all people is a hard trick to pull off, and on balance our collective assessment was that Montblanc only partially succeeded – but with a few modest gems in the mix. Perhaps the biggest achievement is to put out something under the Montblanc brand which is both good-quality and quite reasonably priced. The black, like that famed ‘precious resin’ is consistent (if nothing to write home about), and only the grey seemed to be a real disappointment. The standard blue divided opinion, but more because it reminded some of us of school days than the ink’s own properties – and to be fair, it’s safe in almost any pen you can find.
Three inks seemed to stand out as winning a fair share of approval. Lavender Purple, firstly, isn’t the lightly pinkish-blue that most of us expect from an ink of that name, but is a rather pleasing dark purple which works well in fat nibs. Scribble had a bottle already, which will surprise no-one – speaking of which, the bottle is quite impressively over-engineered and eye-catching, in a look-at-me-in-my-BMW sort of way.
Ian likes a bit of green, and this one went down rather well; not too bright to be usable, and not so dark as to be dingy, it’s a good balance.
While none of the inks have quite caused uproar and outrage of Lamy Dark Lilac proportions, the overall pick of the bunch for us was probably Corn-Poppy Red, which both Rob and Scribble find themselves using in ‘regular rotation’ pens now. So there you are – there is a Montblanc product we can recommend.For more on the range, see:
A little bit ofhistoryThe Pen Shop have been going since 1858 or thereabouts, but it didn’t quite take that long to produce this meta-review. In fact, we’ve already reviewed the younger sibling of the Dex and it passed with flying colours, so to follow-up the Pen Shop profile from last week it was the natural place to go next.
How it looksNicely rounded. It’s a straightforward, simple and pretty classic shape. So it immediately competes with the styling of many popular pens, and that’s a good thing – it looks like a fountain pen ought to. The body is made by Helit, who own the Diplomat brand – so they know their stuff.
How it feelsWarm and nicely textured; it’s light plastic, and not especially squishy but it does indeed feel fairly ‘soft’.
How it fillsThis is one of those designs which takes two small ‘international’ cartridges, and indeed two are provided with each pen – but it will also thandle a converter quite comfortably. NB long Waterman cartridges have a bit of a habit of getting stuck.
Crucially, how it writes…Tucked-away into that plain black section is a Bock nib, and the standard M is a real treat, as you’d expect from the same stable as Diplomat really. It readily competes with any other similarly-priced starter pen, and at least two of our reviewing team have had one ‘borrowed’ by our better halves because it wrote so nicely. F, B italic and left-handed nibs are also available, but at the moment only in person at Pen Shop branches – a bit less convenient, but it does make it easier to make sure you get a nice smooth one again. A prototype purple nib also came our way; there’s no word yet on whether that’s joining the range, but it’s getting lots of attention already. There’s also a left-handed nib (presumably known as the Sin).
Pen! What is it good for? We’re often asked (particularly via the Fountain Pens UK Facebook group) for starter pen recommendations, and usually the same two stand-by solutions come up; the Lamy Safari and the Pilot MR (or Metropolitan, in some markets). But this as Rob pointed out in his comprehensive review (link below), that’s a hotly-contested niche, and to it we now need to add the Dex. The standard Dex M nib is impressively smooth, it looks good and is uncomplicated to use, it’s cheaper by far than the MR, and unlike the Safari uses cartridges which are available everywhere. That’s not to say that the other two are bad pens – far from it – but this is arguably a safer, and more interesting, place to start. The Dex is robust enough to put up with some demanding professional purposes, too – and has been seen marking huge piles of homework, for instance.
VFMThe big Dex is extremely good value for money at £12, and exceeds in quality anything you’re likely to find in a high street stationery shop for that sort of money. It’s not a luxury pen, of course, and you may find the odd bit of extruded plastic which needs smoothing-off or even, very occasionally, a less than perfect nib, but the key strength is that despite being a budget pen it’s backed up by strong customer service; if you’re unlucky and a duffer gets through, The Pen Shop just whizz into action and replace it without further ado. The range of colours has something for all tastes, and to get a good Bock nib at this price is definitely not to be sneezed at.
If this isn’t quite your cup of tea, but almost…Well, if the medium-sized proportions of the Dex by Kingsley Plum Smooth Soft Fountain Pen don’t appeal – even if it takes the best part of a week to say the name out loud – you could try the shorter Dex by Kingsley Purple Compact Soft Fountain Pen. The names could perhaps do with some shortening too, but essentially it’s the same proposition in a slightly more compact body. If you like either size of Dex but fancy a different nib, work is under way to make that possible, we’re told; it’s a pity that swaps can only be carried-out at Pen Shop shops at the moment, but on the plus side at least there’s no extra charge for the service.
Our overall recommendationFor this money, you can’t go wrong really. For the person in your life who finds your interest in fountain pens hard to understand, this is a simple way to reel them in.
Where to get hold of oneFrom a branch of The Pen Shop, their website or the new Penwrite project, where there’s an introductory 10% discount offer at the moment.
Thanks to Hannah and Louise at The Pen Shop for getting some Dex samples out to us.
If you’d like to win one then Ian put together a tempting ‘starter kit’ including both sizes of Dex, with double the chance of winning by leaving comments before here and there. That competition has now closed, but Ruth is also giving one away via her Instagram channel!
The Pen Shop is, well, a chain of shops which sell pens. We caught up with Hannah, who handles awkward questions from fountain pen obsessives with great aplomb – as you’ll see:
So what’s the Pen Shop story? How did one or two shops become the ‘chain’ of outlets The Pen Shop has today?
Believe it or not we have been around since the mid nineteenth century! The company started as T & G Allan in 1858 when the first store was set up on Collingwood Street in Newcastle by local brothers Thomas and George Allan. They then started opening stores around the North East’s high streets: the stores had numerous different departments including stationery, books, gifts, pens, toys and greeting cards. People in the North East tend to have very fond memories of the T & G Allan branches and we still actually have a popular T & G Allan store up in Morpeth. Due to the stationery departments doing so well in these shops the company first opened a dedicated Pen Shop in Newcastle in 1946 which was the first specialist writing instrument shop in Britain. Since then we have opened stores all across the UK, our latest addition being at St.Pancras station in London.
There aren’t so many proper fountain pen specialists based in North East England. Is having an HQ within smiting distance of the Angel of the North a help or hindrance?
For the most part I don’t think people always realise we are a North East company. Our directors do some travelling to and from London for meetings but with the power of email, conference calls and the occasional Skype everywhere’s pretty well connected – as we have stores all over the UK for people to visit I don’t think it matters too much if our Head Office is a little out of the way (although Tyneside is the centre of the universe, of course). As we were founded in Newcastle I think it is lovely that over 150 years later we are still based here. We like the human touch though, so we always encourage enthusiasts nearby to arrange a visit.
A lot of competitors have moved online-only, but you’re gradually growing the bricks-and-mortar business. What makes that work for you?
We are very proud of our physical stores as it gives customers the chance to go in, pick up a pen and try it for themselves. There is something special about that which you can’t always experience on-line. In our shops you can try the various pens on offer, test the nibs to see which one is best for your own individual style of writing, and bend the ear of our staff too. Our staff are an enthusiastic bunch, and making sure they can get out to see the pens being made too seems to pay off; the majority of our managers have been here for 10+ years, our Manchester King Street manager has been here 30+ years – the one to beat however is our office manager at HQ who is on 38 years with the company. Once people come into The Pen Shop ‘family’ they don’t tend to leave, and that feel seems to get reflected when customers visit our stores. Running in parallel with our bricks-and-mortar business, though, is our on-line presence, an area of the business that we are investing heavily in – so expect to see more on the way!
Us fountain pen enthusiasts can be a demanding crowd. What brands sell best to the cognoscenti – and what are they sometimes missing out on at the moment?
Montblanc is actually our best-selling brand, both on-line and in our stores. They seem to appeal to quite a wide cross-section of people. On the other end of the pricing scale our Dex pens are becoming a big hit with people starting out with fountain pens, which we’re always pleased to see. We do also find there’s a loyal fan-base for Yard-O-Led; they are one of the few British ‘big brands’ still going and with genuinely beautiful products we’re very proud to stock them.
Finally the key question – and be honest now – what pen is in your pocket today?
A bright purple Dex with a left-handed nib, which is surprisingly comfortable to use – and I’ve certainly tried my best to break it with my dreadful handwriting! I have even used purple ink and started using my special flowery Ted Baker notebook this week. Our Managing Director reckons the pen and ink you use is an extension of your own personality – so bright purple floral probably sums me up quite well…
United Inkdom counts as a media channel these days (about which a modest degree of smugness is hopefully forgiveable), and that hallowed status gets us into trade fairs too, when we ask nicely. So your dutiful correspondent popped up from the subterranean railway at the Angel, and sauntered in for a browse…
Now, this was a general stationery show rather than a nib-fest, as is reflected in the line-up of best-in show winners – none of which were fountain pens, horrifyingly. But there were diamonds in the rough, nevertheless. Stationery in the wider sense does matter to us pen-wielders, after all, and it was good to catch up with the team from Exaclair (i.e. Rhodia and Clairefontaine), who weren’t yet aware of the recent growth in fountain pen owners moving over to the disc-binder system and needing good A5 FP-friendly paper. Well, they are now, and we look forward to seeing what develops.
Within the high-street emphasis were some other nice surprises, too. Zebra, for instance, contributed a surprisingly nice extra-cheap fountain pen, disappointing only in the sense that it is disposable; it turns out to be good enough to want to keep. Caran d’Ache, while not making much of their fountain pen range, sadly, at least had the kindness to give everyone one of their rather nice water-soluble colouring pencils.
Looking at what’s on the high street rather than the focus of specialist fountain pen retailers highlighted some different emphases, as you might expect. Lamy presented rack after rack of endless Safaris, rolling on into the savannah until even the mildest-mannered visitor would reach for the elephant gun. A certain brand who shall remain nameless invested in flying executives out from Japan rather than attending to their dubious UK pricing structure, but the least said about that the better. Then again, a high-quality German pen manufacturer you’ve never heard of was around the next corner – largely unknown in fountain pen circles because they sell mostly through jewellers rather than stationers at present – and of course, we’re going to see if we can help them with that profile in future. Also spotted was a potential new ink source, and a rather interesting fountain pen brand you have heard of who we’d love to review too – but those will have to stay unidentified for a little longer while we parley with them!
Pen people are lovely, as you know, and one of the highlights of the day was talking to some of them in person. Louise from The Pen Shop, aka the ‘Queen of Dex’, handed over some interesting material for a United Inkdom meta-review coming up very soon indeed. Tony from Pocket Notebooks was a mine of information (as you get a flavour of in Ian’s interview with him a few weeks ago) and we’ve passed-on a few ideas in return – plus he donated some Tomoe River paper which we have all sorts of ideas for!
Getting back to the exhibitors for a moment, there was one outstanding triumph, and that of course was the historic yet bang-up-to-date Federhalter-Fabrik Kock, Weber & Co – OK, that’s Kaweco to you and me. While they massively flattered a certain scribbler’s ego by confirming that this was the very first Supra sold, they also had the coolest hands-on exhibit in the whole place: the build-your-own-Sport assembly line! Putting the components together and operating the machinery under the watchful eye of Sebastian Gutberlet himself (son of the CEO, so no pressure there) was far more convincing than any glossy sales brochure can be, and the results aren’t bad either.
We offered readers the chance to win this hand-made unique creation – plus a selection of purple cartridges, of course – by dropping us a line below telling us what sport you think this Sport is most fitted to accompany. The results make for quite entertaining reading, starting with Quidditch and getting more creative from there on!