Art and alchemy: The Onoto Great Court Vitreous Enamel

Rather than words comes the thought of high windows:   
The sun-comprehending glass,
And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows
Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless.

Philip Larkin, High Windows

Few pens make me want to quote poetry (especially by my favourite poet). The Onoto Great Court Vitreous Enamel Sterling Silver is one.

But let’s get something out of the way before I start to wax lyrical. This a four thousand pound pen (that’s over $5,000 for you folks in the States). It is comfortably the most expensive pen I’ve yet reviewed, coming in at around three times the price of a Montblanc Martele or Geometry. That puts a certain responsibility on me to do this review right.

I did not buy this pen, nor could I easily afford to do so. I was loaned this prototype sample by the nice folks at Onoto. I’ve used it extensively at my desk and around my home for three full days of meeting notes, drafting work projects, journalling and personal writing, and writing the handwritten first draft of this post itself. I’ve studied every inch of it under a loupe, and spent the days before its arrival reading and planning my approach. And with that mileage under my belt, I feel confident to share my thoughts on this rare and precious model.

So let’s get started.

Rules of engagement

As any reviewer of luxury goods would tell you, to review a pen of this price from a purely functional perspective would be pointless and impossible.

And yet that’s what most reviews do. They essentially try to help you decide whether a pen does the job of being a pen, and whether it is “better” than other pens, and therefore worth spending your money on. But past a certain point, the diminishing returns make any objective idea of “better” almost meaningless.

Wherever you or I draw our line in the sand about where exactly that point is, I think we can all agree that this Onoto is way past it. There is no conceivable way that the Great Court functions 57 times “better” than the John Garnham JG6 I reviewed in my last review, or 40 times better than a Benu Hexagon.

Indeed, if we’re talking about pure writing experience, the workings of this pen are identical to that of a standard Onoto Magna priced a factor of ten lower, at around £400. Both share a #7 18k gold nib, plastic feed and plastic international standard converter.

The truth is, you don’t buy a pen like this (or any luxury item) for what it does. You buy it for what it is, what it looks like, what it represents, what it’s made from, where it’s made, who made it, and perhaps most of all, how it came to be.

Objects like the Great Court, and like other high-end writing instruments, such as Graf’s Pen of the Year or Montblanc’s Patron of Arts, are often tributes to a cultural touchstone, as well as demonstrations of unusual materials and artisan skills often more familiar from the world of jewellery than in conventional pen manufacture.

Their measure of value is not in their utility as writing instruments, but in their artistry and craftsmanship. So that’s what this review will focus on.

Aiming high — literally

In the case of the Great Court, the cultural tribute is to Lord Foster’s magnificent roof to the British Museum’s circular courtyard, which I have failed to capture many times over the years.

And the canvas for the tribute is a large cap and barrel, both made from thick-walled, solid hallmarked Sterling silver.

The result is a pen of true flagship stature, weighing in at 99 grams. You really notice the imposing size and weight every time you pick it up. It’s longer than the Namiki Urushi 20, and dwarfs a TWSBI Eco or its own cousin the Onoto Magna.

The huge silver barrel and cap are engraved, by machine it seems, with a pattern evoking the roof of the Great Court, with its thousands of panes of glass, as a background for the artistry: vitreous enamel.

The geometric pattern looks modern, yet is not a million miles from traditional chasing and guilloche patterns used on pens for a century.

The architecture of the museum carries through to the cap of the pen where you’ll find more intricate silverwork representing the ceiling of the Museum’s reading room. If this looks like jewellery, that’s no coincidence: the metalwork on these pens is created by British master goldsmiths who normally spend their time on fine pieces for state gifts and ceremonial events.

Look and feel

The patterned silverwork is one thing, but of course it’s the vitreous enamel that catches the eye. Essentially, the enamel is glass, powdered then fired to melt and fuse together, adhering to the silver as a seamless coating.

The result is a uniquely tactile experience. The enamel is smooth — glassy smooth, if you will. But it undulates just a fraction, matching the pattern of the barrel it lays on.

I expected glass over a dense and conductive metal like silver to feel cold and hard, but the enamel feels just pleasantly cool and soft to me, and a little slippery!

To the eye, the enamel has the glow and translucence of a shallow tropical pool — it has depth and clarity. From the Onoto press photos I expected the barrel to have a saturated, almost electric blue colour, but in reality, under most lights, it’s a series of softer, almost powder blues, less saturated, with the colour showing darker where the pattern is cut deeper. Once I adjusted my expectations, this paler colour to me fits the vision of the pen better; after all, the blue is meant to be the sky seen through the glass roof of the Court.

But then, appropriately, hit it with bright sunlight and it comes alive:

And when the evening light catches it in late summer, oh my. No Photoshop needed:

From what I understand of vitreous enamel, mainly gained by reading the blog of Scottish enamel watchmakers anOrdain, it is a tough material to work with if you have high standards. Colour inconsistency, cracking and other issues plague efforts to achieve perfection. And the dial of a watch is much smaller, much more uniform, than a pen cap and barrel. I have no doubt that the regularity and smoothness Onoto have achieved on this pen took incredible skill and experience, though it may superficially look simplistic.

Look closely, under a loupe, and you see the evidence of the processing required to create this finish. The pattern engraved in the silver barrel has the slightest of machining marks; and thousands of miniscule bubbles (if that is what they are; they might be motes of pigment) cling to the metalwork under the enamel, providing texture and depth. Open the next photo up full size and zoom right in to see what I mean.

Silver and gold

Beyond the barrel and cap enamelling, most of the rest of the pen is pure silver, polished to perfection. You can see your face in it.

The silver is paired with lavish gold trim in the form of the gold-plated standard Onoto solid silver clip…

…and the broad cap band. This is deeply and crisply engraved with ‘The British Museum’. I am not a fan of large text inscriptions on pens, and with a type size so gargantuan as here, the effect is particularly Marmite. You love it or hate it.

Gold carries over to the nib, which is Onoto’s standard two-tone, 18k #7. I would perhaps have liked a different engraving to match the patterning of the pen itself — much as Montblanc does for its special editions.

My prototype carries a broad tip, which befits such a large pen.

So on the desk, this pen stands out for sure. It’s large, it’s colourful, it shines.

Its evocation of the roof of the Museum’s Great Court (of which I am very fond) is superb. And the use of silverwork and enamelling exemplifies historic crafts. So to return to the criteria I set out at the start of this review: for what it represents, its pedigree, its intricacy, the Great Court scores highly.

But after all that, what is this £4,000 pen like to use as an actual writing instrument?

Writing with art

Well, the size and weight are inescapable, and reminded me of the Graf Pen of the Year 2008 I used to own. Such a long pen, with a solid metal barrel and 99g of heft, makes for potentially a tiring experience. The barrel is long enough to make the pen feel a little back-weighted and, naturally, it does not post at all!

As you would expect of a pen of this price, the fit and finish are without fault. Run your hand over the pen and everything is even, polished, flush, rounded, smooth, comfortable — except the cap threads.

Uncapping takes a little more than two turns, which is actually less than the familiar Onoto Magna’s 3.5 turns. I was surprised to find that the cap threads revealed are prominent, triangular, and rather sharp. This is very unlike my experience of the Magna, so I investigated.

Side by side, the section of the Great Court is the same size and shape as that of the Magna. But while the Magna’s cap threads are pushed far up the barrel, the Great Court’s are not. My usual grip sits naturally on the threads, and I feel the sharp step of the barrel too. Furthermore, while I rarely find silver sections slippery, the weight of this pen made it move around in my grip a little more than I would have liked.

The grip is perhaps my biggest gripe with the pen.

As I mentioned, filling is via a converter — I don’t think it’s necessarily fair to criticise the principle of using a converter on a pen this price, since you’ll find them on the fanciest Nakayas and urushi Sailor King of Pen. But, a little embarrassingly, it’s a bog-standard, unbranded, black plastic, push-to-fit converter, probably from Schmidt. When Leonardo and Nettuno can supply beautiful screw-in, metal-knobbed, laser-branded converters in pens priced at £150, I’m a little disappointed that Onoto missed that opportunity to take the design further.

The nib that this converter feeds is, as on all Onotos I’ve used, an absolute joy. This broad is perhaps the glassiest (pun intended) nib I can ever remember using. It’s totally smooth and skates across the page even under the burden of such a heavy pen. The ink in the photo below is Montblanc Homer Greek Blue.

The tipping is a true broad, with a medium wet flow that, under pressure, blooms to a full wet with a wider line as the tines spread.

So to judge as a pen? A little heavy, a little uncomfortable at times, but a fantastic writer.

Final thoughts of high windows

This is an undeniably beautiful pen, a true statement piece, a fitting tribute to the glorious architecture of the British Museum, and a great example of the alchemical wonder of enamel.

Under the skin, this pen is the same as an Onoto Magna a tenth the price: same nib, feed, filler, section shape, clip, even identical box and packaging. This may disappoint — particularly the generic converter and lack of custom nib stamping — but it’s understandable. The other nine-tenths of the price are spent not on mechanics, but on the artistry and alchemy in that oh so special skin: that fusion of glass and silver, the delicate translucent sky blue.

As a writer, the Great Court ironically is a lesser pen than its entry-level brethren: while the Magna is comfortable and perfectly balanced, the Great Court is somewhat sharp and heavy.

But as a piece of art? This pen is a triumph. I will feel very sad to say goodbye to it — and I’ll think of it every time I pass beneath the glass atrium of the Great Court.

The Onoto Great Court Vitreous Enamel is available now for £3950 in an edition of 100.

11 thoughts on “Art and alchemy: The Onoto Great Court Vitreous Enamel

  1. A great piece (the blog post I mean) and the pen looks splendid too. I have not owned an Onoto but if you can get substantially the same writing experience for £400 then that does now seem pretty good value! Pens such as these are presumably trophies for collectors or very special gifts and I doubt that they would be subject to the kind of regular use that would make the sharp threads or step bother their owner much. I can happily sit this one out but thank you for such a beautifully written and informative review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think you’re right. While I would expect to get regular use from any pen I purchased, most buyers of models like these would probably use them for special occasions if at all (which would be a crying shame). And I fully accept that others may not find the grip in any way uncomfortable. I did consider writing in the review something like this: rather than complaining that a £4k pen has the same internals as a £400, should we not be overjoyed that we can get the same writing experience as a £4k pen for only £400?!

      I can highly recommend an Onoto Magna with 18k nib as a beautiful, durable, great-writing pen, and having recently done a price comparison against comparable pens from Graf etc, they’re fairly priced. The only thing that puts me off the Magna — and caused me to sell my last one — was the 3.5 turns to uncap. But chatting to Onoto today it might be possible to get that down to 2 turns… and that in my opinion would be a game-changer!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Looks more like a pen you’ll keep store somewhere as it is not practical at all…which it’s ok, but by the way, it weights a ton? I think luxury should be closer to 1000…
    By the way do you eat your nails??
    Cheers,

    Like

    • It’s 99g capped, which is the same weight as the bronze Karas Ink. I wouldn’t say it’s “not practical at all”. It fits into my pen case, the nib is suitable for writing quickly, it uncaps quite quickly, it’s easy to clean, etc. If you’re referring to the weight and value, well, I use a fairly heavy solid silver pen valued at £1300 nearly every day, and aside from the price being higher, this is not much different. Enamel is actually fairly robust. Sure, you would take extra care with this pen but if I owned it I would happily take it to the office and use it in meetings.

      Like

  3. My daily writer is a Martelé. It is wonderful to use, but I also have an Onoto BM pen (#003) which is also excellent. I am fortunate to have the choice.

    Regarding the Great Court pen – what a lovely thing to own, though I suspect I might go for the ‘Rosetta’, instead.

    If you’ve found yourself with too many pens over the years and want to downsize, then something like this may become a little more attainable (for those who don’t consider £4K “chump change’ – and let’s face it, there are some who do).

    Liked by 1 person

    • The Rosetta is a curious thing… I find it a little gimmicky, but it is probably the kind of pen that’s better in person.

      You’re quite right actually about the attainability. Sell a few Montblancs and Nakayas and suddenly you have £4k in your PayPal account. The question then becomes whether this is what you’d choose to spend your money on, or whether your partner would prefer you put it towards a new bathroom 😝.

      I think however that the intended audience for this pen (and equivalent models from other brands) is people for whom 4k is, as you put it, chump change. There is a very good argument that you shouldn’t be spending 4k on a pen, watch or any other argument *unless* it’s from your ‘play money’…

      Like

  4. The new bathroom will become old and be replaced yet again as time goes by. The pen can be with you on your deathbed, and beyond.

    I had the Martelé inscribed, so that’s staying with me (or at least that’s the plan). 🙂

    I have all the pens I wish (a number of Yard-O-Leds and Onoto). I desire no new ones anymore. It’s a nice place to be.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Spoiled for choice | UK fountain pens

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