What’s the fountain pen equivalent of the quartz watch?

If you follow me on Instagram you’ll have seen that I’m spending as much time thinking about watches as about pens at the moment.

My newest acquisition is a Grand Seiko, quartz. This is a bit of a radical move for me.

I always felt the same way about quartz watches as many fountain pen people feel about ballpoints: they’re a mass-produced, high-precision, modern invention that may have democratised access to a technology, but killed craft and quality along the way.

In the watch industry there was even a ‘quartz crisis’, where in an influx of new quartz brands, dozens of illustrious makers of traditional watches went bust, and even big names like Rolex and Omega suddenly had to start offering their own quartz models to compete with fashion.

But just like fountain pens, mechanical watches had a renaissance and survive or even thrive today, albeit in a more niche position. Quartz watches, with a few exceptions, occupy the low end of the market in terms of price and perceived quality. And even just like a pen nerd will keep a ballpoint around for functional necessity, many watch nerds like me keep a G-shock around for the rough stuff.

I bring up quartz and my Grand Seiko because it turns out, what I didn’t like about quartz watches was actually that I didn’t like cheap quartz watches. I didn’t like a loud tick that echoed through a cheap case. I didn’t like a second hand that backlashed and vibrated after each tick. I didn’t like cheap plastic movements that kept poor time and were impossible to service, even if they were housed in a pretty case.

Perhaps above all, I didn’t like what cheap quartz watches said about me: that I didn’t care about craft, heritage, innovation, materials, care, sustainability, artistry. This is snobbery, but it’s more than that. It’s expertise, and taste.

A Grand Seiko quartz has none of the failings of a cheap quartz movement and brings none of the baggage. The second hand ticks twice per second to avoid backlash. The thing is dead silent. The movement is finished with the same pride as GS’s automatics or Spring Drives. It is accurate to within +/- 10 seconds per year. The 9F quartz movement is easily worthy of Grand Seiko’s amazing cases and dial finishes.

I love mine. I feared that I would hate seeing the second hand ticking once per second instead of sweeping like a high-beat auto. I don’t, because it is the perfect execution of what it is. In this instance, quartz is not an exercise in economy. It is just as premium, in its own way.

So what about pens? Leaving aside the most obvious equivalent that I’ve already discussed, which is the ballpoint or rollerball, what I think makes sense as a parallel is the advent of the cartridge/converter, often paired with a steel nib.

Now the cartridge converter, like the battery-powered quartz, promised to bring mess-free reliability to your ownership experience. Easy refilling, no leaks, and just swap in a replacement if it breaks. It promised ease of use, consistency, and indeed affordability.

And there’s the same air of snobbery around CC fillers, particularly with steel nibs, as there is around quartz watches. The pen itself can be a £500 Montegrappa with amazing materials and finishing, but I probably won’t buy it if it’s not gold and a piston filler.

Today, gold nibs and piston fillers are the luxury, authentic option, just like automatic watches. Sticking a commodity converter inside feels like a fraud. It’s the same reason Montblanc no longer offers a steel nib (and hardly any CCs) and why Rolex doesn’t offer quartz any longer. It’s just not compatible with a premium brand.

In my most considered moments I fully appreciate that a CC pen can be full of craft, and that just like a quartz movement, a CC pen is practical. Like quartz, a CC is perceived as being more accessible for the newbie who ‘just wants to write / tell the time’ but also even offers advantages for enthusiasts. A quartz runs for years without winding, meaning you can rotate around a large collection without worrying about resetting dates; a CC with generic steel nib unit is easy to flush shimmer inks from, cheap to grind into architects.

Furthermore, I understand that not all converters, just like quartz movements, are created equal: some have agitators (Graf), screw in to their sections (Cross), are serviceable (Platinum), or feature unique mechanisms (Con-70). Some have fancy metal knobs (Maiora) or decoration (Nakaya).

Similarly, a steel nib can be beautifully finished, write amazingly, and even have bounce like the stereotypical gold nib. If performance is your objective, both quartz watches and CC/steel pens are not automatically inferior.

Put all this together, and just like a Grand Seiko quartz, a good steel-nibbed converter filler can be a work of art, an amazing performer — and theoretically cost thousands of pounds.

But I still, most of the time, want a gold nib, and a self-filler. This is part snobbery, but this is where it’s time to introduce another concept: “in-house”. Both quartz movements and CC/steel pens are partly derided because they’re off-the-shelf components. It’s not so much inferiority that’s the problem, but that their inauthentic. I want my pens to be made in-house from soup to nuts, like Aurora, Sailor and Montblanc. But just as few companies make their own cartridges or converters or nibs, so too in the watch world, very few manufacturers make their own movements — and that’s true on the mechanical world just as on the quartz. They fit a Sellita or a Seiko NH35 and focus on the case and dial. In that instance, is the snobbery around a mechanical movement justified? Incidentally, Seiko even grows its own quartz crystals, meaning it truly makes its quartz movements in house.

I’m not sure I have this topic fully worked out, but I think it’s interesting — and important — to examine and challenge our assumptions. Can a quartz watch be high-end and compete with mechanicals? Absolutely. Does it have to be all in-house to do so? Perhaps. Do people look down on quartzes despite the achievements of Seiko and Citizen? You bet. Can a fountain pen be true to its nature and deliver a high-end luxury experience if it’s a CC and steel nib? I’m not sure. What do you think ?

7 thoughts on “What’s the fountain pen equivalent of the quartz watch?

  1. Very interesting topic. And you’re right, there is an element of snobbery involved, but it has to do with valuing quality and craftsmanship…so is it even possible to separate the two? I don’t think so, because it’s not two discrete opposites, it’s a many shades of grey sort of thing.

    I do prefer companies that manufacture their own nibs, whether steel or gold, and it does make a difference in their performance. Why? Because of quality control, something that is valued more as its frequency declines in our contemporary world. A well-made piston filler adds cost, but it also adds an esthetic quality as well. But as you rightly point out, some converters are much better than others as well.

    Like you I do prefer manual and automatic watch movements to quartz movements. It’s an appreciation of skill and workmanship – and quality.

    Because we’ve been flooded with so many mediocre mass produced products, it’s easy to look down on them. But as you rightly point out with your Seiko quartz, quality can still exist in modern materials and technology.. Quality always makes a difference. It comes with a price of course, but quality always did in the past and it does today too. It is only kept alive by those who cherish it.

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  2. I have the original ST Dupont Defi in perforated brown leather. It has a great integrated steel nib with a CC, and a very unique cap and nib/clip orientation. The pen is certainly a luxury item.

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  3. Most of my pens are sub £200, so I cannot speak to the likes of Montblancs, etc, but I do see the pleasure gained from a piston fill over a CC and a gold nib over a steel one; my Lamy 2000 fits the bill perfectly. However, I have plenty steel and CC pens that look beautiful and write exceedingly well and sometimes a cheap pen can offer surprising quality.

    Then you have your handcrafted pens that offer style and elegance but come with a Bock or Jowo steel nib and a schmidt converter. and together they make for a stunning pen.

    There are key elements that are essential to a great writing experience – the nib, the feel of the pen in the hand, i.e. is it heavy, imbalanced, poor threads that I feel under my thumb or fingers as I write.

    Personally, I wouldn’t want to limit my choice to specific requirements, as I might miss out on a pen that brings me joy.

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  4. Coming from a watch collector turned fountain pen nut, this piece was amazing! I switched to pens because I can get the level of craftsmanship and quality of a $20,000 watch with closer to $1,000 when you’re collecting/appreciating fountain pens. I wanted the equivalent of in-house, hand finished components without spending the better part of a hundred grand, and that’s 100% possible in the world of fountain pens. The closest thing to that might be something like an Ophion, or from your side of the pond, Harold Pinchbeck, but you still get an out of box movement on those even with the fancy guilloche dial and hand finished front-end.

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  5. am not sure I am the right person to answer, because I don’t have the money nor the inclination to pursue true luxury. However, I own a fair bunch of pens with different nibs and filling systems, including Montblanc, Visconti, Graf and Montegrappa. In my opinion, gold nibs are superior (more enjoyable) than steel nibs d *and* (I mean “and”, not “but”) the c/c is by far the best filling system, especially considering that nobody needs a big ink capacity nowadays. On the contrary, many FP geeks seem to cumulate inks that need to be tested and rotated in our pens.

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  6. that was an interesting post at an interesting time. i am very much not a watch person that has just reconciled with themselves that with more outdoors endeavours, there are more situations where i am not close enough to a clock and also need more accurate timetelling than the sun in the sky. and so i begrudgingly started listening more to the details the watch nuts in my circle talk about and do enough reading to make an informed decision.

    so here i am, still very much not-a-watch-person, but awaiting delivery of one with some degree of eagerness. and while i did spring for what is a dirt cheap quartz watch for watch people, and is more of a reasonable investment level quartz watch for me (<100EUR, but not the cheapest cheap), i now know enough to know that if i were a regular wearer of a wristwatch, i’d want a no-frills automatic for the neat symbiosis in the wearing being what keeps it going. for my use case – watch clipped to the backpack, stretches of days or even weeks with no outings when the weather is bad – anything but a quartz would be impractical, though.

    long story short: i agree with you that the fountain pen equivalent of the quartz watch is the c/c, moreso than nib material, even. if for nothing else than how well the concept of wasteful convenience maps: the battery and the cartridge promise frictionless practicality at the expense of producing more waste.

    both the internal fillers and spring-powered watches carry their ‘power’ directly, without a prepackaged intermediate. but they force you to engage more deeply with the item, be that regular winding, wearing, or performing the whole ritual of flushing your pen, filling it from a bottle, wiping some excess off the nib…

    with a bit of good will, the analogy might even be stretched enough to make converters into rechargeable batteries.

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  7. Interesting topic!
    As a watch collector myself, I was always of the opinion that quartz watches and ballpoint pens were the same sort of species, a logical evolution that made accurate timekeeping and ease of writing available to the masses for very little money. Both are now becoming obsolete by new waves of technological innovation in the form of smartwatches and e-pens for tablets. But a quartz watch can be well made, beautiful, and provide a discrete efficient service for many years to come. I have some old analog quartz watches from the 1990s that have kept working and only require a change of battery every 2-3 years. No service costs or other troublesome expenses. Seiko has always been famed for their technical innovation in the quartz world, as they basically invented the technology in a practical sense, releasing the first quartz watch, the Astron in 1969. I am sure you will enjoy the timepiece, which might be silently there while the mechanicals come and go from our collector boxes following the latest fashions.
    Regarding the C/C , my analogy here would be with the workhouse movement like the ETA 2824, Valjoux 7750, Seiko NH35 or Miyota 9 series.. These models provided a standard of accuracy and ease of maintenance that made the complex world of multiple pre quartz movements archaic and inefficient.
    Finally, on the topic of the in-house calibres, as recent scandals have highlighted (Panerai comes to mind) there is a lot of murky waters surrounding what is and what is not an in-house movement. Few companies have the technological muscle to make full in-house movements, and even those have outsourced some of the materials or components. On the other hand, in-house does not mean expensive. Look at the Vostoks and their quirky designs powered by their soviet era calibres, all in house technology for less than 70 £. Seiko, being a huge company, is well placed to offer a completely integrated experience which not many others in the industry can equal, with the exception of Swatch.
    Thank you for this excellent blog.

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