I’ve been struck a few times recently by a kind of pen-related existentialist vertigo. Looking at a turned pen in a fancy resin, I couldn’t shake the thought it’s just a stick of plastic with a nib screwed in the end.
Sure, this is an oversimplification. I know there’s a lot of work involved in making any pen. I know that an apparently simple pen can hide complexity. I understand that the blank was turned, drilled, polished and a dozen other processes.
But the thought kept nagging at me. A lot of the pens I see on Instagram… they’re just sticks of plastic.
What was really bothering me?
There was nothing about the pen that was distinctive to the maker, for a start. Show me the pen in a lineup and I could have told you the maker of the blank, but not of the pen.
That was partly it. I do expect a certain visual identity to leap out from the pen as much from the blank. Take the John Garnham pens I just reviewed, for example: the proportions and length of section make a very simple pen quite distinctive.
But that wasn’t everything. I realised that in this crowded market, and my crowded pen tray, I just don’t think a barrel plus section plus cap cuts it any more, no matter how fancy the resin. I’m excited by turners that step up and do something more.
It might be engineering and functional complexity, like filling mechanisms, ink windows, sprung clips or capping mechanisms, or special thread arrangements. Pierre Miller of Desiderata is a perfect example, or Clavijo. In the old days, it was Romillo making nibs.
It might be aesthetic complexity, like guilloche, facets, cap bands or cap coins, the blending of multiple materials, or unique silhouettes and proportions. I look at what Newton does here for example, or Atelier Lusso, or Kilk from Turkey. Or again in the old days Gimena’s leaf clips. Or Tesori inserting Murano glass in its converters.
Or it might be ergonomics and finishing, like the shaping of a section or cap to fit the hand, or polishing of edges and corners and inner surfaces, or lining up complex patterns across cap, section and barrel. One of the reasons I liked the Rockster I reviewed so much was that attention to detail.
And this to me is the downside of all those wonderful resins by folks like Jonathon Brooks (and no offence meant to folks like Jonathon — you guys are artists). When the resin is gorgeous, and rare, it means you’re buying the pen for the blank, not for the pen. A pen in Primary Manipulation doesn’t even need to be well polished to look good, and it doesn’t need to be sophisticated. Someone will buy it in five minutes anyway. I can’t help but think that this encourages turners to do the bare minimum… making pretty sticks with nibs on the ends.
It’s great fun getting a sparkly pen in the mail to unbox. But I at least find this ultimately unfulfilling, like eating candy for dinner. Once the rush of “PRETTY!” has worn off, what’s left? I don’t want a tray of near-identical colourful plastic sticks with the same nibs and converters inside. This is not a box of crayons. Pens can and should be better than that: they should be engineering marvels, coherent wholes that are comfortable, write amazingly, and show craftsmanship that is more than skin deep. It’s why I keep buying Desideratas, it’s why I’m in the queue for another Kasama, why I own six Schons. None of those guys make their own nibs, but their vision goes way beyond turning a pretty blank into a polished pen.
Every pen turner has to start somewhere. Not every turner has an elaborate workshop or jeweller skills. Equally, it’s easy to be a critic, and I know I couldn’t make a pen to save my life. But as a community I hope we move beyond our fascination with pretty plastic, and admire more those makers that forge their own paths in designs and materials and techniques.