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:
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.
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.
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.
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?