Entry-level luxury: the ST Dupont D Initial

The S T Dupont D Initial is a fascinating pen for me as a blogger and pen user. Not because of what the pen is, but because of the insight it gives you into the pen market and what goes on behind closed doors during product development and marketing in different price categories.

The brief for this pen is simple, but doesn’t come along every day: how can we, S T Dupont, a storied French atelier that makes luxury lacquered pens, bring out an accessible entry-level pen while still retaining everything that makes our brand attractive?

It’s a completely different problem to the one that most brands face, which is how to elevate their price point and get customers to take them seriously as a luxury brand when they’re used to seeing the brand as an everyday choice. Look at Lamy’s Urushi stunt, for example, or how Leonardo started with a £135 steel-nibbed Momento Zero before ratcheting up to the £500-£800 bracket with gold-nibbed, ebonite-feed piston-fillers in fancy materials.

Other brands, of course, like Pelikan, have always maintained lower-priced pens alongside the Souveran range.

Dupont’s situation is different. It only makes premium products like cigarette lighters and pens. It’s a little like wondering what modern-era Montblanc would do if we challenged it to bring out a Meisterstuck at £200. What would it keep as non-negotiable, essence-of-the-brand stuff, and what would it compromise on to hit the price point?

Of course, Montblanc have chosen a very different strategy: it used to have entry-level pens but have decided to concentrate on higher price points and instead grow by differentiating across more categories, such as fragrances and headphones.

But you can imagine how Dupont’s product leaders looked at their ageing market, noticed that young people are interested in pens but that 90% of pen buyers never spend over €200, and wondered how they could tap into that market to drive growth using the brand equity they’ve already built.

The answer is to create a new budget pen with an RRP of £195 and a street price of £175, and call it a “D Initial”, and clearly market it as a starter or gateway to the brand to set expectations appropriately and protect the reputation of the rest of the portfolio.

Of course, when you’re used to kicking out £350+ pens, a lot of spec and process changes have to happen to get the wholesale price down below £100 to make this happen. And this is where we get to see what choices the leadership made.

For Dupont, the main compromises that came out in the D Initial boil down to this:

  • Move manufacturing from France to China.
  • Swap the gold nib out for an unplated steel one.
  • Move from palladium plate to chrome.
  • Swap the lacquered metal barrel and cap for a plastic barrel and plated cap.

You’ve still got the outline of what makes a Dupont a Dupont: a black pen with shiny trim, clicky cap, metal section and broad barrel band, and a smooth, inflexible nib filled by a converter. But is that enough?

Success for the D Initial comes down to three things:

  1. Does it look like a Dupont specifically and a ‘fancy pen’ generally, so other people know you own a luxury product? (Leaving aside that Dupont has next to no brand recognition). This will be important for casual browsers and for gifting, eg graduation presents that are normally Parkers and Crosses.
  2. Does it have an addictive feel that will encourage users to want “more but better” from the brand? This will be vital for winning the loyalty of more enthusiast buyers, who know and care about pens and maybe have always wanted a Dupont, but can’t yet afford its traditional ranges.
  3. Does it present a better value proposition than the alternatives? (This is less of an issue in the luxury segment where design and brand are bigger considerations).

Competition at the sub-£200 price point is intense, and you can get some amazing pens at this price — that’s because really it’s not actually an ‘entry-level’ price point, even though it may feel like a titanic drop for Dupont.

At this level buyers can choose a Lamy 2000, with a piston filler and gold nib, machined clip, made in Germany. They could choose a Pilot Capless, again with a gold nib and a metal body. Pelikan M400, with piston filler and gold nib and interesting iconic finishes. Or a Waterman Carene, made in France with a lacquer body, push cap and unique inlaid 18k nib. Or a Swiss-made Caran d’Ache Ecridor, with engraved solid brass body and palladium plate. And that’s before you get into brands like Leonardo, Maiora, Diplomat, Cleo and Otto Hutt, which I’ve been reviewing recently.

And many of these brands are made (even handmade) entirely in Europe — which still has more cachet than ‘made in China’.

So: Dupont has a real challenge here. Is the Initial up to the task? Let’s get into it.

Starting with the overall look and feel: this is a handsome pen.

While the Line D has curves — the bulging cap, the tapered barrel — the Initial is ruthlessly straight, with only the clip showing a curve and a slight dome to the finial. It looks quite… severe, almost.

While the Line D has curves, the D Initial is all straight lines

The barrel is deep black, the cap shiny chrome. Classic combo for sure. The D Initial is also available in beige and blue with matte lacquer, red, and black with gold trim. In rollerball and ballpoint it’s also available in fresh orange, indicating Dupont’s desire to appeal to a more contemporary audience.

I believe the barrel is plastic, judging by the threads inside and the price point. On the product page, Dupont never claims that it’s lacquer, although it does mention lacquer on some of the other coloured variants.

Clear information about this model is hard to find online (eg nowhere online will you find that this pen is made in China, but it’s there on the clip if you look close enough) and some coverage says that the pen uses natural lacquer like other Dupont pens, but I can’t see how that’s true. Frankly though, it’s actually quite hard to tell the two barrels apart from appearance alone.

On the plus side, the clip is solid, not folded, and it’s sprung. Although it does have a really cheap-looking plastic shield inserted.

At 41g capped (25g ready to write), there’s enough substance in the D Initial to feel like quality — remember that from headphones to wine bottles, people equate weight to quality. And everything feels well screwed together.

Look closely and there’s some dodgy plating around the side of the clip, but inside edges like the cap lip are well finished.

Note the slightly crinkly plating at the base of the clip

The Initial is quite a small pen compared to its more expensive brother.

Although it’s probably in keeping with traditional competitors from Cross and Parker, which tend to be quite slim. Here against the small Otto Hutt design04 and Lamy 2000. Note that the Initial doesn’t post to make it longer.

In the hand the Initial does feel small, and that’s accentuated by the nib.

The nib is very small, stubby and flat, and largely undecorated. It’s unplated steel and looks dull next to the shiny plated section.

I think some consumers will be disappointed by this: it looks plain even compared to a JoWo #6, let alone a pretty bi-colour nib like the Otto Hutt 04.

On the reverse side is a flat and squarish feed, which lacks the visual grace of the one on the D Line.

The trademark Dupont capping mechanism is here, and the uncapping motion is nice and smooth, but pushing to cap is a bit stiff and mushy. It doesn’t have the same sense of finality that you get on the Line D. However, the seal is good and the pen does not dry out when capped.

The section and barrel band are nicely done, with no sharp edges, and the Initial suits many different grips.

The engraving on the band lacks the precision of that on the Line D: it looks either like it was cast, or like thick plating was applied after engraving, rounding out some of the definition.

The section unscrews to reveal the cartridge mount in plated metal, and inside the barrel the threads are plastic, either cut or cast straight into the barrel material.

A metal disc finishes the barrel, undecorated, and the Dupont ‘D’ logo is raised from the end of the fluted cap.

And what about writing? Dupont have done a good job here. The steel nib is very nicely tuned. It lays down a slightly narrow medium line, medium wet, with no hesitation or skipping. I’ve been using it for quick notes, journalling and more and it hasn’t let me down. Shown here with Pure Pens’s Buckingham Blue.

Like its bigger brothers, the Initial’s nib has no flexibility. In fact, the overall writing experience is very like the Line D. It will be a really practical pen for everyday use. I don’t think many buyers will want or need to deviate from the medium nib size.

So: time to draw some conclusions.

Is the Initial as good as its bigger brother the Line D? Of course not. There have been a lot of compromises in terms of materials and aesthetics to reach this price point.

However, the family resemblance is definitely there in the thick belly band and the proportions of cap versus barrel.

Does it have the addictive feel that will make it a ‘gateway pen’? The overall level of refinement you get from the Line D isn’t there. The capping motion isn’t the same. But perhaps close enough. It has the family feel in terms of nib, sprung clip, and so on, and it’s good enough that it won’t put buyers off. Just don’t compare them side by side or you’ll be disappointed.

Is it good value, and the best choice for the price? This is where I’m less confident. For £200 you can get a hand-turned Italian beauty from Maiora, a precision German icon from Lamy, a Japanese gold nib from Pilot, Platinum or Sailor, or one of dozens of other options, including the Waterman if you want a French brand. All of these options are made in the same country as the brand is based, almost all of them have gold nibs, and some of them have piston fillers, too.

Here is where Dupont is betting on its status and its aesthetic to justify the price premium. To be honest, I don’t think Dupont has the known brand with most non-enthusiast buyers to capture their preference, and while I like the look and performance of the Initial, it lacks the grace of the Line D that would catch the eye unprompted when browsing in a store.

You can find D Initial here at Pure Pens — thanks to Pure for supplying the pen for review. If I were spending my own money at Pure on a European brand, I’d recommend a Pelikan M400 or Waterman Carene over the Initial, unless you’re a particular fan of Dupont. At £140, instead of £175, the Initial would be a much better deal.

Luckily, you can save 15% on all ST Dupont pens at Pure Pens from now until the end of September. Just use code UKFP15 at checkout.

9 thoughts on “Entry-level luxury: the ST Dupont D Initial

  1. I would have to try one but my concern would be quality. As you’ve said, they are not exactly a well known brand, more selling as a high end luxury product. With the possible exception of their nibs they are known for build quality and tolerances which are second to none, yet from your photos and what you’ve said I’m more reminded of a mid range Cross pen, including with looks, and these go for under half the price. I would like to hope the D Initial (II keep thinking of Initial D – as an anime fan and petrol head) does work for them however I also hope they’re not betting the company on it – at it’s price point there are an awful lot of good pens.
    My 2p until I get to try one.

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  2. So, essentially, it is a £175 Moonman?

    If this is their attempt to lure in a younger demographic, it is quixotic one.

    A thoughtful and thorough review, though. Thank you.

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    • It’s a fascinating problem, isn’t it? How do you make a cheaper version of a luxury product and have it still feel special? Dupont did a radically different pen in the Defi, but this is clearly meant to look classic.

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  3. Now the few things, made in europe or japan, that we can buy are fountain pens. So why would anyone buy thif FP, at this price, when there are many other better options (as you mentioned)?! If bought, this will always remind the owner that he could have made a better choice and that he couldn’t afford a made in France Dupont.

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    • Sometimes it’s aesthetics or function. If you don’t like screw threads under your fingers, that’s the Pelikan out. Some people really don’t get on with the taper of the 2000. The Waterman is a very close match but some people might not like its styling. In that situation, maybe the Initial is the right fit. But I agree that it’s a real shame it’s not made in France.

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  4. Thanks for this exhaustive review.
    The product page of the red one (I followed the link in the review) does say the pen is made in China.
    I cannot afford Dupont pens new, but I have four second hand (Orphéo, Olympio medium and small). For me, the second hand is a better option than a lower quality product new. It has however the risk of buying a fake pen, which I also did (that is the fifth one…)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah, good spot on the red product page! I think it’s clear that they’re not shouting about it though 😂. I tend to avoid talking about used pens in my reviews because availability, pricing and condition vary wildly. I stick to what you can get at retail. Sucks that you got a fake, though 😦

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  5. Pingback: Spoiled for choice | UK fountain pens

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