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 ?