My relationship to the Visconti Homo Sapiens has always felt quite… personal. It was a grail pen for a long time, and arguably my first high-end purchase: when I bought a Steel Age for £350 from the London pen show I remember feeling sick and giddy from spending so much money, and just incredibly excited to have such an exotic pen in my hands.
Although that original Steel Age pen, with its beautifully smooth and expressive Fine nib, is long gone from my collection, I have owned many other Viscontis since. A Wall Street, three Van Goghs, an Opera Master, a Medici, and two other Homo Sapiens, the London Fog and Midnight in Florence.
It’s no coincidence that of all those pens, the two Homo Sapiens stay in my tiny collection. I remain just as enthralled with this design as I was at that first purchase in 2017. On a good day, I believe it’s one of the best pens in the world, and brings together so many unusual features — sprung bridge clip, Hooksafe cap, vac filler, sterling trim, magnetic personalisable cap finial, etc — into a coherent whole. And, of course, the headline feature for most people: the body made with lava from Mount Etna. This material choice remains a genius decision, not just from a marketing perspective: the lava finish is cool, tactile and robust. I miss having one in my collection.
But the Homo Sapiens, and Viscontis in general, are not perfect. Many readers have written to me with complaints about all kinds of Visconti problems, but mostly with the brand’s nibs. Whenever I posted anything about QC, someone would pipe up about Visconti, way more than any other brand. I personally had been lucky enough with Visconti over the years — they were all good writers — but my purchase of the Midnight in Florence left a sour taste and I couldn’t ignore Visconti’s poor reputation for nib QC any longer.
So, I contacted Visconti and asked to review its new Homo Sapiens Lava Color, which as well as being a kind of ‘v2.0’ for the venerable Homo Sapiens range, now features Visconti’s in-house 14k gold nibs in place of the Bock 23k Palladium ‘Dreamtouch’. I figured reviewing this pen would give me a data point to either save or damn my view of the brand.
Well, it took a few months of emailing back and forth, but finally the pen came through. Let me tell you about what I found inside the gorgeous packaging.
The first thing you’ll notice is the material. This pen is still made from a lava mix, and still feels cold and textured like a worn stone from the beach (especially when you unwrap it after it’s sat in a courier’s van in winter all day). But it’s white, or at least speckled mostly white.
This version is appropriately called Ash White. It’s also available in a dark red (“Terra di Siena”) or mustard yellow sandy colour (“Tuff”), but all three have black nibs and trims and I rather liked the Stormtrooper effect of the black and white.
I was concerned about staining the white finish, but actually it seems remarkably resilient, and ink wipes off with a wet paper towel.
The second innovation is the cap. Gone is the familiar Hooksafe bayonet mechanism; instead, the cap snaps on with magnets. It’s the simplest possible user experience, and it really works: the cap feels secure, the nib seems to be sealed well and doesn’t dry out, and yet the cap is also easy enough to remove. The magnets are embedded so they’re totally invisible, but you can feel their effects…
…and their weight in the cap, which is suddenly much more substantial than I’m used to from a Homo Sapiens.
Gone too is Visconti’s trademark Dreamtouch nib. The new nib is 14k and has a very different look, not only because it’s black, but the engraving is new too.
At least the gorgeous moon-shaped breather hole remains, although it’s not quite so sharp-ended as I’m used to.
Inside is Visconti’s power filler, a vac-filling mechanism with a single chamber and no seal at the nib end — you can write indefinitely without having to unscrew the filling knob.
The pen filled well with a nice smooth action, although there’s no ink window so you’re flying blind about how much ink you actually take up, or how much you have left. I found that out today when I came to write my final notes for this review after a few days and discovered the pen bone dry. Although I’ve not had the kind of regular hard-starting that would lead me to believe this pen suffers from a big evaporation problem, the last time I used it it was writing fine, and yet today, zip, zilch, nada. So something is going on.
Anyway. Moving on.
The Lava Color’s trim is not quite what I expected, and it’s different to the three Homo Sapiens I’ve owned. I don’t know what the underlying metal is, but it’s all black-coated so they probably didn’t bother with sterling silver like on the special editions!
The coating looks very even and shiny, more PVD than paint, and right now it’s perfect. I don’t know how well it’ll wear. The black coating is truly black, while the nib itself by comparison looks more like ruthenium, a gun-metal dark grey. It’s definitely not a match. If that’s the kind of thing that bothers you…
The branding on the side of the clip and around the body band is not engraved or cast then filled, but laser-etched. The body band, which reads HOMO SAPIENS, uses a very stately serif font that clashes horribly with the new-style extralight sans serif Visconti wordmark on the clip, and also happens to be different from the Courier-style typewriter font used on my Florence and London.
All this is fine; I’m nitpicking. The engraving is perfectly aligned, and from what I remember it’s not really any different than on the Homo Sapiens Dark Age. But it’s not as ‘premium’ as a filled engraving.
In all other respects the Lava Color looks and feels very much like a Homo Sapiens. The weight and balance are good and the section, while not huge, is plenty, and in fact is nicer to hold because it lacks the indentations of the Hooksafe mechanism. The material also makes for an excellent grip. The overall dimensions seem pretty much exactly the same, apart from the little black collar at the end of the nib.
And all the usual Visconti features remain, including the magnetic finial.
So what about the nib, which was my reason for reviewing this pen? Did Visconti win back my good opinion? Not quite. Under a loupe, this nib, or specifically its tipping, are mad.
There is a prominent double bubble on the tip, like two scoops of ice cream on a cone. If the second scoop also had visible baby’s bottom. But now I’m mixing my metaphors.
And for what is supposed to be a Fine grade nib, there is a lot of tipping. Check out the shots above compared to my other two Viscontis, one of which is M, one is F.
It also burped hugely after first filling despite being towelled dry, so watch out for that.
So far, so not good. QC failed here.
But: it actually writes quite nicely. The Lava Color writes fairly true to a European fine. There’s a bit of tooth. No flex as such.
Good flow but not the usual Visconti wetness, and sometimes a bit of hesitation to start on the first word. As a fan of the old Dreamtouch nibs with their smooth, wet and slightly bouncy personality, this doesn’t wow me, but it’s OK. I’ve done a fair bit of writing with this nib now and I enjoyed it.
Looking at the big picture, the Lava Color feels like a freshened up Homo Sapiens for the younger generation. Edgy colours, cool black trim, fancy magnets, no fussy engraving, no fleur-de-lys on the nib. Modernised, just like the new Visconti wordmark with its serifs chopped off.
When I think of a young, fresh pen design, I assume it’ll be accessibly priced. But this ain’t. There doesn’t appear to be a UK dealer yet but Iguanasell has the Lava Color fountain pen listed at just over £600. This is actually higher than the usual Bronze Age tends to go for — although still a couple of hundred quid less than Visconti’s limited editions like the Midnight in Florence or Blue Lagoon, which have a (ludicrous) list price of as high as £900.
At £600 I would be thinking twice about recommending this pen, for one valid reason and one churlish one.
The valid reason is the poor nib QC: tipping this barmy should not have got past the factory’s loupe, and while it writes fairly well, that feels more like luck rather than design. I’m simply past the point where I’ll put up with that kind of shit. And think on this: it took Visconti nearly two months and a handful of chasing emails to go from saying “yes, we’ll send you a review pen” to it actually turning up. That’s a record in my experience. If I had a problem with the nib, I have no confidence that it would get sorted quickly.
The churlish reason is the laser-engraved clip and band with their mismatched fonts and mismatched colour across the trim and nib. For this price I expect consistency. I expect deep and luxurious machine engraving, like on a Dupont, a Graf or Yard o Led. Laser is naff.
But Visconti pens are often heavily discounted, and at £450 (the kind of price I saw on FPDay and Black Friday) I feel the Lava Color is a much stronger value proposition. The body material is genuinely cool in both literal and metaphorical senses. It has an excellent magnetic cap, sprung clip, vac filler, gold nib and generous weight and proportions. Lots of ticks in boxes. This is a proper pen that stands up to other high-end Italian models like the Scribo and Cuspide, and brings something genuinely different.
The writing experience won’t set the world on fire, judging by the sample I received (ironic perhaps for a pen made from lava and named after ashes), but there’s plenty else going for this pen. It’s a welcome addition to the Homo Sapiens range.