My re-introduction to fountain pens as an adult (post-distant memories of ink-stained fingers and pockets of school uniforms) was fortuitous. My fatherin-law to-be, appreciating my superior taste, ability in managing to reach for the stars and being successful at both (yes, I am alluding to his precious daughter), assumed that such refined taste spilled over to other aspects of my life; thus he gifted me one of his fountain pens. It was a red Sheaffer, a no-nonsense pen that he had received as part of flying business class in the 1970’s (those were the days, for sure). The pen changed my life in more ways than one. It made me realise how elegant it was to have a nib gently and seamlessly pour one’s thoughts on paper, it forced me to write more slowly, thoughtfully and legibly (lest you feel a scratch and a rough incision cutting though paper), and initiated me into the world of fountain pens.
My first upgrade after that pen was bought for me by my wife in Vienna, at a classy little shop called Mayr & Fessler. We were in our twenties, had saved up for the trip, and she wanted to get me a fountain pen that was affordable, yet nice. What impressed me about the shop was how well they treated us, despite us wanting to buy pens at the bottom of their price range, and that has been a recurring theme with most shops run by fountain pen enthusiasts across the world. The fact that you want to buy a fountain pen often causes a sparkle in the eyes of the shop-owner, prompts a bunch of anecdotes and suggestions and can even make you a friend for life. The shop-owner suggested a Lamy Al-Star, a pen that I would still recommend as a starting model for those wanting to dip their feet in the fountain pen universe.
Fountain pens have been called controlled ink-leaking devices, and the precision of that control and the softness of the nib are what often separates them from each other. Vintage fountain pens, made from higher carats of gold, had nibs so soft that the tines would separate on the down-stroke, creating an almost brush-like experience. Such nibs (called flex nibs) are, to me, the pinnacle of what fountain pens can achieve. I have a few vintage flex nibs (one of them on a Waterman 52), and I often ink them when I need to de-stress – it’s amazing how well they succeed at doing that.
So, what does one need to know before buying a fountain pen? The most important question would be how broad you would like your nib to write, and this is often a personal choice. The broader the nib, the more the ink must flow to match the writing, especially when writing fast, and this could lead to skipping or drying up of the nib feed (capillary action, for science nerds). The finer the nib, the more likely it is that the pen is going to be scratchy, especially for steel nibs. One also needs to know the paper that one plans on writing on, as a broader pen would more likely cause feathering, bleeding and show-through (fountain pen geek terms alert). Japanese nibs tend to be finer, Italian nibs broader, and the rest of Europe and America produce what we know as “standard nibs”.
The next determining factor is one’s budget, as the prices of fountain pens can range from a few dollars to infinity. The entry-level pens that I would recommend are Kaweco Sport, Lamy Safari, Pelikan Pelikano, Pilot Metropolitan or a Sailor Lecoule. The commonly available Sheaffer is also a consistently good pen, and any of the entry-level Sheaffers would be a good buy. These pens are in the $30-40 range, and are a smooth introduction to the pleasure of writing with fountain pens. Once you go past the entry level, I would recommend trying different brands rather than specific pens. My favourite brands (in order of preference) are Nakaya, Omas, Sailor, Pelikan, Delta and Parker. Among vintage pens, I would rate Waterman and Mabie Todd as my two top brands.
Just as Apple likes to use the phrase “Apple environment”, there is a fountain-pen environment that includes inks, fountain pen-friendly paper, pen stands, pen cases and a lot more. It takes a combination of all these to enhance the experience, but the journey is way more fun than aiming for perfection.
So, why jump into the fountain pen universe? There are many reasons. For those with an artistic bent, working with ink and a medium that helps it meet a canvas is akin to painting. As a physician, it makes me more mindful and not reflexive about what goes into my prescriptions. To me, a fountain pen also brings about a certain imagery: the merging of a drop of rain water into parched earth, enriching it and leaving both more complete than before they met is kind of the way I look at ink drying on a sheet of paper. A ball-point just feels like a hail-storm in comparison.
While you can certainly buy fountain pens off the internet, I would recommend that you also experience the joy of meeting and interacting with shop owners (not the chain stores), who share a certain passion that is both infectious and heartwarming. My Parker Duofold Centennial will always be linked to my memories of meeting John at “the smallest but mightiest pen shop in the world”, Hop Cheung, in Hong Kong. Similarly, my wife and I had a lovely time chatting with Mr. Evangelidis, who showed us his personal collection of pens at his lovely shop in Athens. I have similar memories of buying special papers (Papeterie Nota Bene in Montreal comes to mind), and pen stands.
Fountain pens need investments of time and energy. Keeping the pens clean when they are not being used, refilling them often, keeping the written word away from water and spills are all parts of the experience. But in return, you will experience pens that could last you a lifetime, will gradually but surely adapt to your handwriting and will force you to make the mundane an exercise in appreciating the finer things in life. The author is Consultant Respirologist at Mumbai’s Hinduja Hospital.