Pen packaging should be…?

I tend not to bother talking about pen boxes when I write a review, unless it’s exceptional in one way or another.

After all, you’re interested in the pen, not the box it comes in. The box is just to get the pen safely to you, right? Not quite.

When you buy a pen, its packaging can actually have a big effect on your first impressions, whether you want it to or not.

We’re primed as consumers to look for indicators of value. We expect that impressive box equals impressive pen (or any other product), but that’s not all we take away from our perceptions.

We sense that a solid box shows the manufacturer felt their product worthy of good protection — in other words, we are encouraged to see it as precious, or maybe that the pen itself is solid.

A beautiful box suggests that the manufacturer really cares about the appearance and design of all aspects of the customer experience.

A simple box keys us to expect a budget pen.

And when any of these expectations aren’t met — for example, a super limited edition turns up in a simple paper box — it causes confusion, anxiety. We may suspect a counterfeit, even.

Yet for all the obviousness of these associations, it’s amazing just how varied packaging can be.

Some, like Desiderata, wrap your £300 pen in a bit of bubble wrap or newspaper and call it a day. (I confess to feeling a bit underwhelmed by that).

Others use a generic clamshell or sliding paperboard box, often unbranded and empty but for the pen (this mistake befalls many small makers, but also expensive and established brands like Oldwin; both ST Dupont and Pelikan also use super-simple boxes that feel too basic for the price of the pen). Pilot and Sailor and Platinum happily pack £300-£700 pens, like the Capless LS or Cross Concord, in horrid creaky plastic boxes, the same as their most budget pens.

At the other end of the spectrum, some brands try to make the box as big and multilayered as possible to make the pen seem expensive, like Aurora. Montblanc is guilty of this too: buy a Geometry or Martele and the box is three times the size of the usual Montblanc 146 box. There’s nothing extra in the box, just a bigger expanse of foam cushion. But clearly the expectation is that if you spend three times as much on the pen, you get a box three times the size too.

Some pens are so packed with extras they feel like a Christmas present: Onoto’s beautiful branded box with a wooden chest inside, filled with cloths and certificates and historical souvenirs.

Some show off their heritage, like the Paulownia wood boxes used by Nakaya and Namiki, with the pen kimonos inside. Others show off their modernity and innovation, like the metal cylinders and trays that Karas uses, or the clever sliding cardboard with the Otto Hutt design07.

Some boxes are designed to show the product off at its best, like the windowed, colour-coded boxes used by Visconti.

And still others design with daily life and reuse in mind, like the flip-top wooden boxes from Graf that are meant to hold three pens, or Franklin-Christoph and its little zip pouches, or Scribo’s two-pen pen rolls.

I have dozens of pen boxes stored in my loft, and I’ve developed some pretty clear views on what I like to see during an unboxing. To me, good packaging is:

Compact

At least, as compact as possible. A bigger box costs more to ship (including when I sell it), takes up more space, and is wasteful of materials. A pen is a small object; large packaging just looks like vanity. Aurora’s boxes are particularly bad here. (But horology lovers will know that no pen box is as ridiculous as the Moonwatch box from Omega). TWSBI’s little Eco case is the perfect example of good practice. So is Kaweco’s tins for the Sport.

Complete

If your pen is a C/C filler, include both a cartridge and converter. If it’s metal or polished, include a cloth. Give me at least a leaflet and warranty card. If it’s a pricey piston filler, a small bottle of ink never hurts. Include a writing test card to show the nib works. If the pen is designed to be serviced, include the tool.

Useful and reusable

A boatload of cardboard and faux-velvet does nothing for me apart from get in the way. Give me a pen sleeve, roll or display box and there’s a chance I’ll use it beyond unboxing day. As well as those I mentioned above, John Garnham includes tweed slips with his pens. Shawn Newton includes branded fabric sleeves too. These guys have the right idea.

Sturdy and protective

It’s amazing how many shoebox-sized boxes I’ve opened only to find the £500 pen rattling around inside, because for all that volume, only a single elastic loop was holding the pen in place. Above all else, a pen box should protect against bumps and scrapes. And it should be designed to last itself for the lifetime of the pen… ten, twenty years, without falling apart even in sub-optimal conditions.

Distinctively designed

I’m afraid I do judge manufacturers that stick their pens in generic boxes. The box is part of the experience, and it should say something about the vision for the brand and the pen model. Is it historic, modern, minimal, luxurious? A good example of this (in fact, of all my requirements) is Conid’s ammo box designs, which are clearly custom-fitted and speak to the brand’s ruthless pursuit of engineering efficiency. Esterbrook’s simple fold-out box in bright red fabric isn’t expensive, but it’s so distinctive.

Sustainable

If you’re not going to give me something durable and reusable, at least make it easy to recycle, and ideally use recycled or sustainable materials in its construction. I am under no illusion that I’m saving the planet with my pen and ink addiction, but I still want to minimise my impact on the world.

Overall, I think there’s plenty of room for improvement in our industry for smarter packaging that’s premium, protective, but also sustainable, compact and reusable.

Which brands’ packaging do you think does a good job? Did I miss anything?

20 thoughts on “Pen packaging should be…?

  1. I so agree. I find it irritating to get a pen shipped in an elaborate box that was likely a significant part of the cost of the pen and yet promptly gets sent to the desert island of discarded pen boxes. I often wonder if the mfr thinks I am going to store their precious pen in the box rather than use it, like it is some museum piece. So much better if they were sent in something reusable, like a pen stand or protective sleeve, and simple. This is a great opportunity for creative packaging that few care to consider.

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  2. Hi Anthony, I think the packaging of Kanilea (I have their Nui Nalo) to be fitting most if not all of your criteria, especially the cotton pen sleeve in the slender, not-to-big-yet-not-to-small, very nice walnut wooden box. Their website gives a good impression of the overall offering.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Agreed. It starts with the conceptual continuity in their designs – all colours and combinations stem from natural Hawaiian sceneries. Then it is on to the marketing where all Ps work together and are thought through thoroughly – a nice alliteration if I say so myself. The pen itself is of high (production) quality, and finally, last but actually first, their basic steel #6 jowo nibs are tuned in-house to absolute perfection. It always surprises me to realise my Nui Nalo writes with steel, not with gold. On top of that are Karol and Hugh, the proprietary couple, very nice people to communicate with. Kanilea is a very nice addition to the overall pen industry offering, and the pen community at large.

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  3. For me there is something simplistic, natural and almost back to basics with the paulownia boxes used by Nakaya, Namiki and Wancher.

    Most usable to me was the ScriBo roll, as I actually did use that for work for a few months.

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  4. I think Lamy does this very well. All made of paper but with sufficient thought and skill that even at the top end (not that stratospheric, admittedly) you feel like you’re opening something that rises to the occasion – especially since they switched to Gmund paper. I picked up up a CP1 recently and the box was simple but inventive – a very good encapsulation of the brand.

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    • I agree that paper doesn’t have to seem cheap. It can be practical, strong and attractive. The only Lamy box that takes up a lot of space is the Bauhaus with its enormous notebook!

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  5. Unpacking my Santini Libra was an event in itself with multiple layers of wrapping and a solid wooden box. But the box had a heap of dead space under the tray and was enormous. As such we broke the glue seal of the tray and the box is now full of my wife’s buttons for her sewing.

    Did your Toscana come in similar packaging Anthony?

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  6. I have reused 2 gorgeous Onoto boxes for (a) watch straps and (b) small pen accessories. A tall wooden Aurora box holds my fave luxury pocket knives. I may reuse a sturdy machined metal Karas box for transport. My wooden Graf box is indeed close to my desk with 3 pens inside.
    Most other boxes are in storage.

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  7. I loved the look of my Aurora Duocart box (vintage graphics, textured paper) though, if I’m honest, it felt like a lot for a $150 pen. I can be a sucker for nice packaging but would it have been $10 less in a simpler box?

    On the other end of things, I just got a TWSBI Go and I think they hit a nice note with that package, particularly on a $20 pen. Simple but sturdy plastic box that’s just big enough, and could be reused for something else, with a contrasting minimally branded cardboard sleeve around it.

    About Pilot: I think the sheer number of pens they produce make it harder to have several different styles or make large scale changes on packaging. Just as Ford has a parts bin for car radio knobs, I figure Pilot has the same for pen boxes. Not to say their standard FP box couldn’t be nicer, but I can understand why it isn’t.

    A nice package means nothing if the pen doesn’t do its job as a writing instrument and a plain flimsy box will likely be forgotten if the pen writes like a dream. We’re ultimately in the market for pens, not boxes.

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  8. Pingback: Fountain Pen Quest Trail Log – September 6, 2020 | Fountain Pen Quest

  9. I rencently bought a Pelikan M600 Vibrant Orange at a super price from Amazon and I was shocked to see it come in a minimal cardboard box, Although from a rational point of view this is the most logical packaging, it just did not feel right. It influenced my perception of the pen, which was rather disappointing. But maybe there were other options with a different packaging at a different price.
    To continue with the same illogical logic, I prefer to get my Kaweco Sports with the metal tin, although I do not use the tins for anything and they just sit stored in a cardboard box. Then I use a cookies tin to store and showcase all the Sports!
    On the other side, the Delta The Journal’s packaging annoyed me for being too big and “slow”, with a cardboard sleeve over a cardboard box over a clamshell box. However, the pens came in with a bottle of ink.
    Contrarily to the opinions here above, I also have two Sailor maki-e and I do not like the pawlonia box at all.
    I do not own any high end pen, but I have some second hand Pelikan M1000 and MB 146 from the 80’s or 90’s and I find their packaging logical: a decent quality rectangular box, a little bigger than Platinum or Sailor boxes, but not ridiculously so. A Parker Duofold from the same era came in a wooden box, but also the same size. That size feels right to me.

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