Before I begin, let me say this first: I believe any attempt at objectively scoring reviews of aesthetic objects like fountain pens is doomed to failure. After all, everyone’s opinions are different (see my post about pen compatibility for why).
But I think there is value, and interest, in comparing a bunch of reviews against the same yardstick — and of converting long-winded qualitative opinions into the cold hard light of numbers. It exposes your assumptions.
So on a quiet early jetlagged morning in Washington I sat down with a sheet of A3 Tomoe River. I listed out all my current pens (hurrah for keeping a spreadsheet in Dropbox…). I wrote out a list of factors along the top. And I started scoring each pen, from memory, on a scale of 0–3 (I was somewhat inspired by the scoring principles on http://www.everydaycommentary.com). It took me a while, but I got there in the end.
The first factor is RARITY. This is essentially a measure of future regret. I asked myself: if I sold this pen today, would I be able to buy it back? My one-off Oldwin and edition-of-27 Montegrappa score 3; this pushes their overall score up, and reflects that I partly keep pens for the excitement and exclusivity. My new Karas Ink and Starliner score zero — if I lost them tomorrow I could rebuy them immediately without too much of a financial premium.
The second is PRACTICALITY. This encompasses a range of boring but important factors: how easily does it uncap? How much ink does it hold? Is it easy to clean? Does it feel robust? Does the clip work? Is it too heavy to put in a pocket? Does the nib dry out? The Conid Kingsize scores a full 3, naturally. The Montblanc Geometry scores a zero because it’s an ultra-heavy mystery-filler that you can’t disassemble. The Desiderata Soubriquet scores a zero too, due to its fragile materials, weak clip, stiff threads and complex filling mechanism. This is a pen for the heart, not the head.
And hence to SENTIMENTAL VALUE: a truly subjective viewpoint based on my perception of the pen’s artistry, my personal history with the pen, the allure of the brand, the ethos of the maker, and other intangibles. The Montblanc 1912 scores a 3 here — it may not be practical, but the engineering, call to history, and its role in my jump into Montblancs all factor in. The Pineider La Grande Bellezza scores a zero — while I appreciate it, I have no personal attachment to it. And that’s despite the Italian personality and fancy packaging.
WRITING EXPERIENCE comes next. Is the nib something special? Is the grind and ink flow just right? Does it have a bit of bounce and personality? How’s the feedback? Again the 1912 scores a perfect 3, as does the stellar EF on the Montblanc Rouge et Noir, the juicy OMAS-style Scribo, and the delicate Montegrappa. Most pens, if I’ve kept them at all, score a 2 here, but I have a few 1s where the nib is lacking personality or has unresolved issues.
Next up: COMFORT. Here I’m thinking about sharp threads, small sections, big steps, unbalanced weight, slippery finishes. Big pens like the 149, Kingsize, Oldwin and Montegrappa score well (hey, I’m entitled to my biases); others like the M805, Karas Ink and Montblanc Shaw lose points for irritating my fingers.
And last but not least, VISUAL APPEAL. This is incredibly subjective, I know, but does it look great? I’m thinking here of size, shape, proportions, colour, finishing, materials, brand language. The wood and platinum on the Graf Classic? An instant 3. The unique lava of the Homo Sapiens? 3. The delicate lacquer of the faceted Nakaya Decapod? 3. Nagging flaws do count here — the uneven lacquer on my Oldwin knocks it down to a 2. And there are a few 1s, which doesn’t mean the pen is outright ugly — only that it doesn’t make you say ‘wow’. For example, the small, grey Aurora Optima. The budget Karas Starliner in raw aluminium. The Visconti Dr Gachet with its muddy colours and fingerprint-magnet shiny section.
27 pens sit on my ranked list. Scores of 1s and 2s are typical. On my rating scheme, 1 is fine or unremarkable, 2 is strong, and 3 is simply perfect or sublime. So I would expect a decent, well-liked pen to score around 9 of 18. And indeed the average score I’ve awarded is 10.3, without any fiddling. A lot of pens that I consider solid, daily users score 11. I’m happy with the balance of my method. This is not like video game reviews where a mediocre game scores 85% and only a complete dog gets 50%. Half marks is just fine.
On these scales my top-scoring pens earned 15 of 18 points. The bottom got 4 of 18.
Let me tell you about the top 5.
Tied for top are the Montblanc 1912 and Visconti London Fog, with 15 points. They’re very different pens, but both are lasting favourites, and hard to get hold of. The 1912 only drops points for practicality (slow uncapping, mystery filler, no disassembly) and a little for comfort. The London Fog is fussy to clean and not quite perfect for writing performance or comfort, but honestly that’s nit-picking.
In third is the Montegrappa Extra ‘The Sea’, with a score of 14. This actually really surprised me. I scored it zero for practicality. It’s a mystery filler, with sterling silver to polish, a tight clip, and a tendency to dry out a little — but this is a pen that sits amazingly in the hand and writes a lovely soft line. It also scores 3 for scarcity.
In fourth, the Conid Kingsize. Truth be told, this is a near-perfect pen for functionality. I docked it a point for writing experience, but it scores just 1 for rarity (if you’re happy to wait 12 weeks you can get one), and 1 for sentimental value.
Rounding out the top 5 is the Desiderata Soubriquet. As discussed above, it scores zero for practicality, but it’s big on personality.
A fairer ranking?
All this I think is fair and balanced for my purposes, but I did decide that two of the ratings should be excluded from the overall public rankings. The sentimental value score, since it isn’t transferable to you, dear reader, and the rarity score, since, well, either you can get hold of the pen or you can’t, and it’s hardly the pen’s fault either way…
And that gives you a list like this. All scores out of 12
- Conid Kingsize — 11
- Montblanc 149 platinum — 10
- Montblanc 1912 — 9
- Visconti London Fog — 9
- Montegrappa Extra — 9
- Pelikan M805 Ocean Swirl — 9
- Sheaffer Legacy gold — 9
- Sheaffer Legacy palladium — 9
- Lamy 2000 — 9
- Scribo — 8
- Visconti Homo Sapiens Steel Age — 8
- Desiderata Soubriquet — 8
- Montblanc Petit Prince — 8
- Nakaya Decapod — 8
- Graf von Faber-Castell Classic — 8
- Montblanc 146 BMW — 8
- Oldwin Art Deco — 7
- Leonardo Momento Zero — 7
- Pineider La Grande Bellezza — 7
- Karas Ink — 7
- Montblanc Geometry — 6
- Kaweco Art Sport Alabaster — 6
- Montblanc Shaw — 6
- Montblanc Rouge et Noir — 6
- Visconti Van Gogh — 5
- Karas Starliner XL — 5
- Aurora Optima flex — 4
Some oddities in there. My pen of the year, the Leonardo, down at number 18? The amazing EF Rouge et Noir down at 23? My beloved Soubriquet down at number 12? Thing is, this is a list of fabulous pens. I would happily recommend to you, depending on budget and need, pretty much every pen there, and certainly the top 15 or so are straight-up fabulous pens, no compromises. So it’s maybe not such a bad thing to be down at number 12 in an all-star list.
What do you think?
I may try to use this methodology in my reviews going forward. On the other hand, I feel the rating worked so well because I was re-reviewing familiar pens, all at the same time, and from memory (I only had six pens with me). I had literal and figurative distance from which to observe. Would it work so well with new pens?
What do you think? Are scores helpful to you when you’re reading reviews? Do you think I’ve included or excluded any important factors?