How much did you spend on your last pen?
The last pen I bought was the most expensive pen I’ve ever bought. The pen before that was, at the time, the most expensive pen I’d ever bought. I’m sure I’m not alone in gradually moving from cheap pens to pricier ones.
That got me thinking. How does that gradual progression, that journey from cheap to expensive, change your relationship with your “old faithful“, the cheap pens that you may have used and loved for years? To me, there are five possible — and I think I’ve been through them all.
- You change your views. Handling expensive pens means you start to notice the shortcomings of your old buddies: the cast lines, cheap steel nibs, flimsy barrels. You actively start to avoid them and consciously rationalise your collection. Like the newly minted pop star, you’ve changed, man.
- You just lose interest. It’s not deliberate, and you say you still love them, but for some reason your old friends gather dust on your shelf while the “new and shiny” get all the attention. Eventually, you’ll get around to selling them or giving them away.
- You find a new use for them. You recognise that, while they’re inferior to more expensive pens, cheap stationery is enjoyable in its own collective way. For instance, you may feel comfortable using cheap pens to experiment with nib tuning, try out glittery or iron gall inks, take with you on rough-and-tumble trips, or lend to your kids or co-workers… all things that you’d avoid doing with a Pelikan M1000.
- You rise above the issue of price and enjoy each pen for its own merits. You’ll happily have a Jinhao inked next to a Pilot 823 and Sailor King of Pen in your pen case, and you’ll get just as excited about the new colour of TWSBI Eco as about the new Visconti limited edition.
- You rebel. You decide that, actually, cheap pens give you more enjoyment and the best bang for the buck. Why spend $500 on some overpriced gold-nibbed Italian jobbie when you get exactly the same result on paper, and often better quality control, from a $30 Lamy?
Like I said, I think I’ve been through almost all of these reactions, often at the same time. I love getting Kaweco and TWSBI nibs ground by FPnibs — cheap pens are my playground. I keep my budget-ish 3776s inked, because I love the nibs, cast-lines be damned. I’m excited about the turquoise TWSBI and the new Ixion from Namisu, even though they’re sub-£50. And yet I’ve sold off a lot of my pens — and it was the cheaper end of the spectrum that bore the brunt.
You’ve got issues, man
There are a few deep psychological problems, even existential issues, associated with the ladder of spending more and more on each purchase. It feels almost cathartic to get these out in the open:
- The definition of what’s “cheap” keeps changing! I remember agonising over whether to spend £50 on a pen, only a couple of years ago. At that point, I’d have said that “cheap” was £10. Now, I think of £50 as being a pretty cheap pen.
- That’s because “cheap” is relative to “expensive” — and we’re always dissatisfied, always pursuing the next and better thing. So we get ourselves acclimatised to higher and higher price tags (regardless of how our salaries keep pace).
- Sure, there may have been inadequacies with the cheaper pens that prompted us to look for better in the first place — but that way madness lies. There are pens that cost $10,000 or more. How much better are they? And do they actually function as pens since you can’t leave the house with them for fear of losing them? Where do you stop
- In reality, part of the reason we push the boundaries with all of our purchases, whether it’s a pen or a designer bag, is the excitement of transgression, and in today’s Instagram world, the anticipation of showing off. Anyone can post a picture of a TWSBI. Not everyone can post a picture of a Mont Blanc, Conid or Nakaya. It confers status. And with some of the more obscure brands — like Conid or Nakaya — you know that your choice also demonstrates your elevated taste. Are we in reality spending our hard-earned money not for enjoyment but for pure status?
Is there a better way? Erm, probably not
One option is just to stick with cheap pens. Yep, that could work. Some people who are truly serious about pens stick to their Pilot Metropolitans and Kaweco Sports and are perfectly happy, and more power to them. Some people are living well within their budgets — and by god I wish I could do that. But for those of us who recognise that yep, we’re going to spend some money on pens, what can we do with our new self-knowledge from our navel-gazing?
People (including me) often say things like “buy cheap, buy twice” and suggest that you should just skip the cheap phases of the journey and jump straight to buying the “best” or at least “best value” option. In the world of knives, that would be the Chris Reeve Sebenza, at about $400; in flashlights it would be an HDS or Haiku for about the same price (check out my blog on EDC for what the hell I’m talking about).
But in reality that’s a dumb recommendation, for all kinds of reasons:
- People need to test the water first. If you’re recommending that a beginner buys a high-end product, they’re taking a risk that this hobby might not be for them at all. It’s a lot of commitment to make. Best to spend $30 on a pen to see whether you get the bug first.
- You’re assuming that there’s a “right” product for everyone. The Sebenza might be a great knife, and a Pelikan M1000 might be a great pen. But they don’t suit all tastes, or all uses. Buying cheaper products of the same ilk help you work out what your likes and dislikes are and identify what your “grail” object actually is.
- Newbies have no basis for comparison. When you’ve written with fifty different fountain pens, with a hundred different inks, you know damned well when you’ve experienced greatness. But put the best pen in the world in the hands of a beginner and they won’t appreciate it — or they might actively damage it, for instance by springing the nib. Let them try out those cheap pens and they’ll build a deeper, more meaningful opinion on their own.
- Buying cheap isn’t a completely sunk cost. There are always people with lower budgets or who are earlier in the journey than you are. You can sell your TWSBI or Kaweco to recoup some of that investment. And if you bought them used in the first place, you might not even lose any money.
So here’s my conclusion.
There’s a great, wide, wonderful world of stationery out there. More pens than we could ever try. And naturally, we start our journey through that wide wonderful world with baby steps: cheap pens. They’re great fun. And even as we grow and our tastes evolve, even as we push our boundaries into the rarefied air of artisan pens, we should accept and embrace the value they’ve given us. You can’t, and shouldn’t, try to shortcut this journey. Take the time to learn what you like. Sell or give away what you don’t. Move at your own pace. There’s no right answer, there’s no perfect product — so above all, enjoy the experience along the way.