Yesterday I was talking to one of my work colleagues, and this hobby of mine came up. He is not a fountain pen user, and he, like most normal people, thinks it’s crazy how much I’ll merrily spend on a single pen. His favourite and most luxurious rollerballs are £4. I was waving around a £2,000 Onoto Spitfire, and had just published an interview with a designer who said (with a straight face) that a €2,500 pen is ‘democratic luxury’ and ‘not expensive’ if you only buy one. It’s truly a different world.
It got me thinking about a lot of the ‘recommend me a pen’ emails I get from readers, the stuff I see being bought and sold on Facebook, even the comments you’ve been leaving on my Fountain Pen Day giveaway survey.
The truth is this: of course ‘normal’ people won’t spend hundreds of pounds on a single pen. But even most pen addicts (the kind who read blogs about fountain pens) can’t or won’t do so either.
When Instagram is filled with jaw-dropping arco, it’s easy to forget that most people naturally hesitate about clicking ‘buy’ on a £90 pen. They’re afraid that it’s a crazy thing to do.
It is, of course.
Bloggers like me might casually describe a £100 or £150 pen as affordable, entry-level or being good value. Our sense of price has been so skewed by buying and handling pens priced ten times that. But for a lot of people — quite possibly you included — £150 is likely the absolute upper price limit, and any purchase at that level needs serious consideration. It’s birthday or Christmas territory. I was in this mindset myself just a few years ago.
That’s not to say folks in this position don’t want to build a collection or selection of pens over time. Having that variety of pens to meet different needs and moods, to carry different inks, is one of the joys of the hobby. But each pen in that collection will be under that price limit, and has to pull its weight.
So my mind naturally turned to what I’d do myself were I to be in that situation again. What pens would I carefully hand-pick?
I know there are bargains to be had in the world of vintage and used pens, or ordering from abroad. But when you’re making a big purchase, it’s a horrible feeling to have a problem with the pen and have extra cost and inconvenience to sort it out. So I’d stick to mainstream UK and EU stores and new product, at regular street price. That knocks out some of my usual recommended pens like the Lamy 2000, which now retails around £175 unless in a big sale.
I’d also be itching for something a little off the beaten path. When you’re investing in a small collection, every space counts, and to me at least I’d think twice before looking at ‘boring’ department-store brands like Cross, Parker, Waterman and Sheaffer.
Pen 1: Something bulletproof
Funnily enough I’d probably start with the ystudio Portable Copper, a pen that I originally reviewed in 2017 and recently rebought. At the time I bemoaned its lack of gold nib for the price, but now that seems unfair criticism, and actually I love the steel Schmidt nib on mine.
What you get with the ystudio is a truly unique aesthetic, timeless materials and a very premium experience: it comes with a wooden case and leather strap, beautifully packaged. When I’m making a big purchase one of my big fears is that I’ll be underwhelmed when I open the box. No worries here. It’s such a great feeling to have a truly premium experience like this one. And the pen itself is a stalwart of a collection: robust and practical.
So that’s a metal pen ticked off the list. If the ystudio is not your cup of tea, I’d point you next to the Karas Ink v2 or a Namisu. Both are solid, both are tested before shipping, and both take real care over their design.
Pen 2: Something with everyday comfort
Every collection needs a general plastic pen that is comfortable to write with day after day. So with a #6 nib and pretty design, I’d next look to the Esterbrook Estie. It is really well finished, has an excellent JoWo nib that you can later swap out for a vintage Esterbrook nib, custom grind or gold JoWo, and comes in several attractive colours. And it has a cap that seals. The pen that really charmed me from the Esterbrook range though is the diminutive JR. So you’re getting a photo of that instead!
I know there’s a lot of good competition in this category, for instance the lovely Maioras, Leonardos, Edisons, Tibaldis, Visconti Van Gogh, Franklin-Christophs… but they all push past the £150 mark that the Estie just squeaks under. One maverick alternative is Benu. If the Esterbrook is a bit dull for you, take a look at the Euphoria or Supreme.
Pen 3: Something fancy and shiny
How about something a bit fancier, the pen equivalent of the dress wristwatch? Like I said, the Lamy 2000 is now too expensive for this list. But the Studio is well within budget, and for many folks raised on Lamy Safaris it will be a familiar presence. The Studio has a premium feel and really solid construction, and some very pretty shades to choose from too. If your budget grows, it takes seconds to swap in a gold nib, and Lamy’s Z55 gold nib is definitely a noticeable upgrade over steel.
If the snap cap of the Studio isn’t for you, the Otto Hutt design06 is a great alternative. OH’s steel nibs have a lot of personality and they’re really well built, with some interesting colour options.
So that’s three solid pens on the list. But we’ve got a few categories still missing: a piston filler, a gold nib, and a pocket pen.
Pen 4: A piston filler
The obvious and affordable choice for the piston filler is the TWSBI Eco (I’d choose the Rose Gold or Cement Grey), but pushing the budget a bit you also get to TWSBI’s excellent 580 AL. I like the Prussian Blue very much.
If TWSBI’s demonstrator designs don’t float your boat, maybe the Narwhal will do the trick — priced around the £50 mark. I’d honestly skip the Pelikan M200, even at around the £100 mark.
But might I also suggest the Penlux Masterpiece? For £150 on the nose it gives you a pen as big as the Montblanc 149, with a piston filler. If you like large grips, there aren’t many pens out there at this price.
Pen 5: A gold nib
A gold nib is getting harder and harder to find in the UK under £150. The Lamy 2000 and Pilot Capless are now out, but Cult Pens still has the Platinum 3776 starting at around £120, and Sailor’s Pro Gear Slim or Shikiori too. They’ll inject a little Japanese feel into this collection, although they’re both on the small side. I no longer have any of these pens though, so my Sailor Pro Gear Ocean will have to stand in for the photos!
Pen 6: A pocket pen
For a pocket pen, many people would naturally look at the Kaweco Sport, maybe brass or aluminium. It won’t be any surprise to regular readers that I’d advise blowing the budget on a Schon Pocket Six instead. Although not all the amazing colours are available from UK retailers, it really is the best pocket pen out there. But if you don’t want another metal pen in your collection, I’d probably point you at the Gazing Far tmX, in wood for under £100.
So there you go: a six-pen collection with a lot of variety for around the price of a single Montblanc 149.
Every time I do a selection post like this, I know I’ve missed a load of good pens out. But I’m pretty happy with this one. What do you think? Are any of these pens on your radar?