Love and money: the great fountain pen survey, part 2

For those of you stumbling on this post without context, this is the third post in a series. The first introduced the goals for a large-scale survey of fountain pen enthusiasts. The second introduced the findings. And this post continues the story, looking at the community’s preferences and habits for the pens they buy. Let’s get started.

Attitudes to the icons

Question 10 was controversial, but important to ask, I felt. My goal with this question was to examine how people feel about some of the true icons of the fountain pen world. These pens often crop up in forum threads as favourite pens, grails, and must-try experiences — but also are the target of a lot of hate. You see people saying that Montblancs are overpriced and boring, that the 2000 is slippery and uncomfortable, and that the Capless has an annoying clip.

So I asked: have you owned one? Did you like it? If you haven’t owned one, would you like to?

Some folks took the time to comment that they didn’t like the question because, for example, there was no way to comment on affordability, and what about vintage pens? Well, I stand by the question, it’s simple enough. Would you like to own a Montblanc? Get off the fence!

So let’s look at the pens in turn. Only 22% of respondents had owned a Montblanc 146 or 149. Perhaps not surprising, since they are more expensive than most people are comfortable spending. 88% of those that own or owned one liked it — that’s a pretty good score. What about those 970 people that haven’t owned one? 56% of those said they didn’t want one.

The Lamy 2000 is much more accessible in price, and indeed 38% of respondents had owned one, with 85% liking it. Of those that haven’t owned a 2000, the sentiment was split about half and half.

The Capless is also more accessible than the Montblancs. 36% had owned one, with 82% liking the experience. Of those that haven’t owned one, 54% didn’t want one.

So a few takeaways: more people own/owned the Lamy than the other two brands. The Montblanc proved most popular with its owners. With potential buyers, the Montblancs were least popular.

What’s your grail?

I asked another question that’s a bit cheeky: If you had to pick one pen, what would you say is your ‘grail pen’? Almost 90% of respondents filled it in, although a fair few answered along the lines of ‘I don’t have one’. Given how many different pen models there are in the world, I left this as an open text field, and sure enough the answers are filled with typos, abbreviations, etc that make it difficult for me to analyse the data (for example, there were people saying just ‘Hemingway’, which won’t be caught by me counting occurrences of ‘Montblanc’ — nor would I catch ‘MB’, Mont Blanc’, etc). But anyway, I did a count of the most popular brands that people picked.

Some surprises in there perhaps — I wouldn’t have thought Pelikan would rank so high, despite its radens and Toledos — but this is really a ‘who’s who’ of big premium brands. Remember I just speculated about people hating Montblanc? Well, it’s a clear winner in the grail stakes, with people picking the Einstein, Gandhi, Hemingway, Agatha, and yes, the good old 149. People also waxed lyrical in their answers about the various chinkin, maki-e, urushi and raden beauties they’d pick from brands like Namiki, Pilot and Nakaya.

Surprises? Some of the most well-regarded and hyped brands scored lower on the list, like Conid and Omas. And some of the brands that clearly position themselves as themselves as grails also scored low: Montegrappa and Graf, for example. And the British brands, Onoto and Yard o Led, got barely a mention — a shame.

Grails in reach?

Of course, many of these grails are on the pricey side. How much do people really spend on their pens? I asked: what’s the most you’ve ever spent on a pen?

And wow, the results are all over the map. 15% of people have never spent more than £50. A quarter have spent over £500. There’s a noticeable peak in the middle though, around that £251-£500 bracket and the one just below, and an equally noticeable cliff just after that.

This resonates with me personally: I have spent over £1,000 on a pen a few times, but always with a lump in my throat, and I still have a psychological barrier at around the £500 mark. It seems a lot of people do (and maybe they’ve had the discipline not to cross it like I have).

I’ve written before about my own personal ‘escalation’, from feeling in around 2015 that £50 is a lot to spend on a pen, to feeling quite comfortable by about 2018 to drop £300 on a pen on a whim. Naturally, other folks might dip their toes in the water before making bigger purchases too, so we need to look at the max spend by time in the hobby. This chart does just that.

There are seven impulsive folks who have been in the hobby for less than a year and already dropped a grand on a pen, but most newbies sit under £50 or £100. After a couple of years in the hobby, there’s a bit of a spread, but already a lot of people are spending up to £500. But then look what happens: sure, more people move up the ladder to £1,000+ pens, but there’s a bunching effect where a lot of people (97 of the 378) just don’t get past that £500 threshold, no matter how long they’ve been in the hobby.

Even of those who are in the hobby for more than seven years, only a third have spent more than £500.

Well, that gives you something to benchmark your worst excesses against, but I hope it also gives pen manufacturers a lesson. Price your new pen over £500 and a lot of even long-term enthusiasts will keep their wallets shut.

Less is more?

So we’ve looked at the number of pens people own. We’ve looked at the most they would be willing to spend on an individual pen. What about the interplay of those factors? I asked whether people would rather have fewer, better pens, or lots of cheaper pens. In a fit of whimsy I phrased the most extreme answer as “I want to swim in a lake of pens!” In the chart below, the left two options are ‘less’, the right two options are ‘more’, and the middle is ‘no strong preference’. As you can see, over 700 people prefer a smaller collection; fewer than 200 prefer a larger collection.

But, as usual I’m going to cut the data. Let’s see how people with different sized collections answer.

Well, people with collections of all sizes tend to vote for fewer pens, ‘less but better’. But as you move to the right, to larger collections, the heat map skews down. For those who have 6-10 pens, only 12% say they like ‘more’ or a ‘lake of’ pens. For those who have more than 50 pens, that stat doubles to 24%. In short, people seem to be pretty consistent between their behaviours and desires. Well done, guys.

So we all want smaller collections, but we also buy pens. Which force wins out? I asked “Do you expect you’ll acquire more pens in the next 12 months than you did in the last 12 months?” I wondered whether Covid would have rekindled the fire of acquisition, or fear of job losses dampened it. As it turns out, the results were stark.

This is a simple scale where ‘1’ is ‘many fewer’ and ‘5’ is ‘many more’. It’s not even worth me reporting the numbers: hardly anyone planned to accelerate their spending in the next year, and plenty plan to stop buying. I wonder if there’s been a Covid splurge and we’re all feeling a little ashamed of our excesses?

Now let’s leave part two of the survey here. Next time, I’ll bring us home with detailed analysis of your preferences about pen features and design, your likes and dislikes, and what you value in a pen retailer.

As always, if you value the effort involved in writing this blog, please consider supporting me with a donation.

2 thoughts on “Love and money: the great fountain pen survey, part 2

  1. Thanks for doing all this work Anthony. The information from this and the 1st report is really interesting and I hope it will inform decisions made by pen makers and retailers. I particularly hope pen makers look to improve the quality assurance regarding their nibs. I can’t think of anything more annoying than buying a pen that does not write. I realise having a nib tuned to your preference makes a good pen great but all pens should write to a minimum standard. I have certainly bought pens that cost over £120 that did not write properly. I am lucky to have some nice pens from makers such as Visconti, Conid and montegrappa and although I like them a lot I find myself reaching for other models more frequently. Possibly I feel more comfortable taking less expensive pens to work but I also think a number of makers are turning out fun pens that look and write well for between £50 and £120 which is clearly not cheap but feels better than spending £400 on a pen that you don’t want to run the risk of loosing or that doesn’t write particularly well.
    I would like to see some retailers selling the rarer inks from Japan so we can try new interesting things without having to spend a lot.
    Thanks again Anthony and I look forward to seeing what others have to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Fantastic insights here, many thanks for this super in depth review of the inner workings of a pen collectors mind! Can’t wait for further findings and thoughts on your data.


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