Forget the ‘grail’ pen… what’s your ‘exit’ pen?

The idea of the grail pen should be very familiar to anyone in the pen community by now, although of course there’s still room for disagreement about what exactly the term means.

To me, it’s the pen you’re (currently) obsessed with, that’s tantalisingly close but just out of reach, whether due to reasons of price or availability, so you have to work and even sacrifice to attain it.

Invariably the grail will be rarer, more precious and better than your current pens, enough to make everything in your current tray seem a bit boring, while you gaze out of the window and do mental sums about your bank balance, or repeat the same eBay search for the umpteenth time.

I’ve found the idea of a grail pen to be a useful tool in my pen hobby journey. Used casually, it’s a valueless term that says little more than ‘what has taken my fancy on Instagram today’. Used thoughtfully, it brings a long-term perspective and helps me focus on what I really want from a pen, what I’m lacking in my collection today, what gets my heart going as much as my head, and perhaps most importantly it frees me from the limitation of only looking at pens within my current price comfort zone — it lets me dream a little. In other words, it’s a thought experiment: if you could walk into Harrods (or wherever) with X-hundred (or thousand) pounds, what would you pick?

Surprisingly, in this thought experiment some pens that I think are utterly gorgeous works of art just don’t make the grade. Maki-e masterpieces, for example, I appreciate but can’t picture them in my pen tray.

But that’s not what I want to talk about today.

The term ‘grail watch’ floats around in the watch community, just like in the pen community. But watch geeks also sometimes use the term ‘exit watch’, which can really mean two things: on one level it means the watch that completes their collection, however they’ve structured it, to the point at which they no longer have the compulsion to look at buying another watch again. On another level, it can mean the watch that renders all other watches in their watch box obsolete, to the point that they can sell off most or all of their collection and be happy as a ‘one watch guy’ (which let’s face it, describes 90% of the population anyway, both for pens and watches).

To me the idea of an ‘exit pen’ is a fantastic concept to think about, because it fixes everything that’s disputed about the idea of a ‘grail pen’, and it leverages much more powerful consequences to test your imagination.

To the first point: it’s become a complete cliche that as soon as you’ve bought your grail pen, you immediately find another one to lust after. This, of course, is not what happens with the real Holy Grail, and that makes a mockery of the term; but in reality the thrill of the chase is over and you’re left with another plastic and metal stick that makes marks on paper — how special and transformative can it be? So you start the hunt anew. It cheapens and takes all of the import out of a grail: it doesn’t have to be that good because at the back of our minds we know there will always be another one. That’s not the case with an ‘exit’ pen.

To the second point, we tend to talk about grails based on what they add to our lives and to our collections. We may sell off pens to enable us to buy our grails, but generally it’s a cumulative effort of acquisition: we hunt them down like Pokemon and add them to ever-larger trays and boxes, like more decorations on a Christmas tree or layers on a cake.

But the idea of an ‘exit pen’… well, that raises the stakes. If you can only buy one more pen that kills all further acquisitive urges, what would it be? If you can only buy one more pen that kills all interest in your current collection, what would it be? Suddenly we don’t have that fallback plan.

For me, I’m not sure I have an answer to either option, although I have tried the ‘exit pen’ strategy unofficially a couple of times, first with my Montblanc Martele and more recently with the Otto Hutt designC. Both are exceptionally good pens, but in much the same way as watch geeks have dress watches, divers, fliegers, field watches and so on, I’m not sure heavy German silver meets all my needs from a pen.

Funnily enough, I think if I had to go back to being a ‘one watch guy’, but for pens, I’d probably pick a Lamy 2000 with F or EF nib, or perhaps a Montblanc 149 with an F or EF nib. Those are practical and versatile pens, but for many enthusiasts they’d hardly be flamboyant enough to count as ‘grails’.

And if I instead had to pick just one more pen to add to my current collection, the star on the Christmas tree, the jewel in the crown, I really feel put on the spot. I’d feel pressure to make it something very special and personal, like a Montblanc with bespoke nib, or a Hakase, or a bespoke Leonardo. But is that just posturing?

What do you think? Does the term ‘exit pen’ change your thinking compared to ‘grail pen’? What would yours be?

40 thoughts on “Forget the ‘grail’ pen… what’s your ‘exit’ pen?

  1. For me, grail and exit pen are synonymous. I haven’t bought a pen for a few years now, and can’t see myself doing so *unless* I find a sumguy bargain that is too good to pass up, but I don’t think those sort of rare opportunistic purchases are included…

    The one pen that may tempt me in future is a Kingsize Ebonite, should Conid ever begin making pens again. Francis has assured us that they intend to, but with current demands on high-end medical equipment, that may be some time off.

    So, for the time being, I’m content with what I have and, who knows, if Conid do start taking orders again, the urge may have dissipated in which case I guess I will have missed my exit!

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  2. I’ve thought about this before. A Nakaya Decapod is my current grail pen in the traditional sense. I’ll probably never be able to afford it. But even if I could, I don’t know if I would buy it because what if it ISN’T enough. I’ve had a few purchases where I thought I’d never want another pen again – my Pilot Falcon and then my Edison Menlo (especially since I can put so many different nibs in it). But since I’ve bought two Kaco Edges, I’ve lost interest in browsing pen stores. Close to Lamy 2000 in design…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh god, that feeling of horror… I’ve just spent so much money that I feel sick, now am I going to be let down? Been there, done that.

      If you can be happy with the Kacos, that’s a much more sensible way to spend your money!

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  3. Love the concept of “the exit” pen.

    You have probably seen my passion for delta on my instsgram (ellz_penz), and other sociaI media sites, and I do have a couple of ideas of “grail” Delta’s… but you are completly right… when I get that Rediscover Pompeii, I know i’ll be after an Indigenous Peoples Adivasi, or a Citta Realé, and then the next limited edition and so on.

    Now an “exit” pen … the one pen to finish it all. The one pen that completes your journey… is actually something I have been thinking about…. and i have an answer.

    Yard-O-Led Viceroy Grand Victorian…the pinnacle of British pen craftmanship..

    what do you think about that?

    Love the blog
    Take care
    Elliott

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    • I was going to say the Victorian too! Lovely pen, I must pick one up soon.
      Since I brought my Mont Blanc petit price doue I haven’t inked up many other pens except when it’s gone for a clean.

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      • To me it’s little things like that that you watch out for. The pen you’re always happy to pick up. The pen that surprises you (pleasantly!) every time you put it to paper. The pen you realise you reach for every time. They may not be the flashiest or brightest, but they’re the ones you like the most. Enjoy the MB!

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    • Thanks for commenting Elliott, and yes I know your Instagram well! See, I had the Grand YoL (not the Victorian, but the pinstripe). It’s one of the best pens I’ve ever used for proportions, comfort and balance. I found the cap a little stiff, the clip a little clunky, and eventually I fancied a nib that was just a little wetter and smoother. Also, the nib is a German-made JoWo with plastic feed, and standard Schmidt converter. In other words, I totally appreciate what you say about it being the pinnacle of British pen craft, but I still fell out of love and moved on. Proof that every one of us is different!

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  4. I love this vernacular. The term exit pen makes way more sense for what “grail” pen means (or at least what it meant when I joined the community in 2013). However, this means we also need a new term for grail pen, since as you pointed out it doesn’t really make sense given many people acquire their grail, and the next, and the next. You suggested grails are additive like Pokémon, so I may start calling them Pokémon Pens!

    Thanks for the post Anthony, I appreciate your perspective, and great writing as always!

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Looking back through my pen collection/accumulation, there have been many that I could use exclusively for the rest of my days: a Waterman Expert, Waterman Carene, Diplomat Excellence, Parker Duofold, TWSBI Vac700, Pelikan M800, Kaweco Dia2 to name just a few. But we don’t, do we? I still enjoy having all of these, inking them up occasionally and enjoying the variety of writing experiences and inks.
    I am also finding more enjoyment in using the “cheapest tool for the job” now such as a Cross Bailey Light, or Moonman S5. Expensive pens carry a greater risk of disappointment and Buyer’s remorse.
    I like to ink up a different pen each month for journalling.
    As for an exit pen, I am sure that most of us must have found ours by now but not recognised it yet!
    Finding pens is easy. Finding contentment in what you have is surprisingly so much harder.
    Now, off to the pen show…I will see you there.:)

    Liked by 3 people

  6. I have a few pens which could be my only, “exit” pen”
    – 1970s MB 149 with 14C stamped nib
    – 1970s MB 146 with 14C stamped nib
    – MB Homer
    – Omas Grand Paragon
    – Onoto Magna
    – Pilot 845
    – Conid Regular Bulkfiller
    All of these could easily play the role of single exit pen for me

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was talking to my OH yesterday about motorbikes (he rides them, I don’t) and what bike would be the one that would fit the bill for all his needs and he said there isn’t that one bike. My grail/exit pen would be a custom made urushi fountain pen in memory of my mum. But if I were being honest with myself, I’m not sure if that would stop me from getting other pens.

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    • Having been a motorcyclist myself, the limiting factor is the size of the garage! :P. But it’s a good analogy. Sport bike, cruiser, tourer, town bike, commuter, winter hack, pillion comfort, dirt bike… depending on how you ride, you can’t have a ‘do it all’, even if you leave aside the softer factors of wanting variety and different looks or personality. Same with pens.

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  8. I do enjoy these thoughtful posts.

    I’m newly returned to fountain pens which I believe puts me in the trial phase: trying things out in an attempt to understand what appeals to me the most. I already have several pens that could be an only pen, but they won’t be because there are new experiences to sample out there.

    This being the case I think that an Exit Pen is beyond the bounds of my knowledge for the moment. As I understand your definition it would be a pen that would meet my needs so perfectly that none of the other wonderful instruments in my possession would ever be used, or even given a passing thought, so besotted would I be with this one pen for all time.

    As mentioned above in the comments and your post, it’s hard to believe that such a thing could exist. A true Grail, and a great foil against which to measure each of your acquisitions. I shall bear this thought experiment in mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, actually I’m not sure it has to be perfect to the point of besotted. It depends how emotionally driven you are. I find it easier to conceive with watches, so let me go there for a moment. My Tudor GMT is solidly handsome, very accurate, reliable, 200m waterproof, GMT function, date window, lume, very comfortable bracelet, long power reserve, good warranty, sapphire crystal, can wear it with a suit or jeans, magnetic resistant, etc. Pretty much every time I take it off the winder and put it on, I think to myself “you know what, this could realistically be my one watch”. It’s a superlative all-rounder. If I got bored of watches, or took an extended trip, or just didn’t have the headspace to think about watches any more, this would probably be the one I keep on my wrist. It’s not perfect, godlike, insanely beautiful, wonderful…. it’s just a great watch, one that if I’m honest obviates the need for any of my other watches. It’s not about being besotted, it’s about being content. The same thing could be said for a Lamy 2000.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Anthony great article, again.
        The watch for me would be my Rolex GMT-Master Circa late 1988/89 but much as I love wearing it time has taken its toll, the lume isn’t anymore and I do need that but it is a watch that I love to wear. Unfortunately I have been made increasingly aware of its value and therefore its lack of “safe” practicality for every day use.
        Turning to pens the “Grail” as you say seems to become a never ending search for the next best pen so good that I won’t want any more…………..Haven’t got there yet! The ‘exit’ pen could and should be either of my Lamy 2000s, Leonardo Mementos Zeros or the Diplomat Excellence A Plus which is fantastic to write with. But it hasn’t been so far…….!

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      • Honestly I think I already have my exit pen, the Pelican M605 White Transparent. I still have bought other pens, but this one has a great F nib, smooth piston filler, and the stylish white body matches with every ink! Cleaning it can be a pain, however, which doesn’t make it perfect. But if I had to choose only one pen to keep from my collection, it would be that one.

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  9. My “grail” pen was also my “exit” pen, the Montblanc Martelé – co-existing with the YOL Viceroy Grand Victorian; between the two pens I was “done”, after selling my other pens from over the decades to acquire them.

    That led onto stationery and I settled on Smythson paper with a Mara A4 document folder using Atoma discs. Now I just maintain with refills and have no desire for anything more on those fronts.

    What I should have done in retrospect was start with a very modest pen and then jumped to the grail/exit – but hindsight is 20/20. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Supplemental: a “co-exit” on the stationery front (yes, I know “co-exit” is a cheat based on the definition in the blog post ;-)) would be the YOL Bureau, a wonderful portable leather writing bureau that I use for letter writing (again Smythson paper/envelopes/notecards) when at home and travelling – superb.

      For a long time I enjoyed Rhodia paper but that waned after trying out Smythson. Birthday and Christmas presents from family are now a lot easier (refills).

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    • Aha, good point to identify the importance of paper (and ink!) to go with the pen. I too have settled on my preferred paper. I have owned both the Grand YoL and the Martele, so I understand and appreciate your choices. I too have had your hindsight, but let’s be honest… the journey has been fun, if expensive!

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  10. Thanks, Anthony! I’ve always been somewhat uneasy at the term “grail” anything, as long experience has taught me that there’s always another ideal item just over the horizon. I’m not sure I’m any happier with the term “exit” either, although I suspect that has more to do with my having achieved my three score years and ten – exit now seems to imply something else entirely! I’ve changed my collecting habits over those years, having gone a decade or more with the same half dozen (vintage) pens, before beginning to expand my modest collection into something more modern and – let’s not beat about the bush – expensive, as time has gone by. I have the MB149, an Onoto, an Aurora, an Izods Paradigm. As Tom suggests, these (or similar others) could probably be “exit” pens. But no, not yet. In either sense. 😊

    Liked by 2 people

    • Well apologies for using the word ‘exit’! 😛

      149, Onoto, Aurora, Paradigm… quite the selection. It’s joyful to change your habits and find you enjoy something new and different. Who knows what awaits you in the next 10, 20, 30 years? 🙂

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  11. To consider one fountain pen to exit me from future purchases forces me to become the precision maintainer of such a fine instrument. I am not yet practiced in tuning a nib or specifying a ready-made or bespoke replacement nib.

    Like you, I appreciate most the F and EF, yet suspect there is an artistic calligrapher within me that merely needs an unfettering to then have want of the wider array of nibs — for the sake of art.

    Currently, I am too ignorant to choose my final choice. Envisioning an “Exit Pen” requires me to greatly deepen my experiences, skills, and exploration before the naming and acquiring of such a masterfully created device. Your wisdom and that of your cadre of experts ushers me along from my ignorant state to understanding with whimsy and exactitude.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Interesting musings about pens and watches, as always.
    Personally I have my “exit” pen since 1997, as it was my only pen (ok, and a Cross Verve to take to work) for years until 2013. It is a Montblanc le Grand Solitaire Ramses II. This pen will never be surpassed in my collection, so it is probably the last that I will keep once the rot sets in and the need to lose ballast (pens, watches, books) comes to me. it will exit life with me. Regarding Grial pens, they come and go. I was looking for an Omas Paragon Arco Celulloid as one of the great pens to own but when I tried one( in Arco Verde) it was disappointing , I liked my Deltas and Montegrappas more!. Same with the Namiki Emperor, I prefer my Nakaya Cigar Shu, much more agreeable to my hand size. I lusted for years after a MB Patron of the Arts Gaius Mecenas, but it would never take the place of the Ramses II in my collection so why bother? So now I am just playing with cheaper pens that have an interesting feature, like strange filling systems, unusual materials or peculiar nibs, in the knowledge that they will have their time under the Sun and then will go to other hands.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is a pretty special pen, I have to say. Gosh. You have done well to find it and keep it in use for so many years.

      What I take from your comment is very positive — you know what you like, you know what works for you, and you’ve learned to let go of the herd mentality and FOMO. It’s a beautiful thing when you find peace!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. This describes my inadvertent strategy!

    I have my exit watch: Omega Aqua Terra. Bought, what, 14 years ago and worn every day since. I don’t really look at watches.

    I have my exit pen(s): a 149 at home, and a 146 that I travel with. Oh, and a TiNi space pen in my wallet. I love my other MB and enjoy some other pens, but honestly other than some rareties I’m unlikely to find any other pen that holds a lot of ink, with no trouble, is comfortable and light in hand, never runs dry, and has a better nib. Just ain’t going to happen.

    I occasionally look at other pens, but I’m never motivated to buy, because mostly what’s the point? All of my other pens sit dry.

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  14. Cool post, I keep returning to it.
    I think “exit pen” would mean an end of desire for new experiences with pens specifically. It might mean that you found your one true pen, or lost interest in the hobby, or moved on to some other intense interest. But what if one finds joy specifically in the journey, not the destination? What if desire for experiences is the main goal?
    For me, the hobby is both a process (I love to explore the world of fountain pens and it brings me joy), and a search for tools to enhance and support my main endeavor (writing for publication both as an academic and an author). From a process perspective, I don’t think I want to have an exit experience. From the perspective of tools, I am almost there, and could stop at any time with just the Montblanc 146. If I want to be elaborate, I need four types of pens to get the best out of my process, and this could be served in perpetuity by the combo of MB 146, Visconti HS Bronze Age, MB Bohème, and a TWSBI with an architect grind.

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  15. If the Pilot Prera could be had with

    – Leonardo or Montegrappa-esque ebonite for all parts
    – vacuum filling system
    – gold cursive italic nib in a removable unit to facilitate cleaning

    that would do it for me.

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  16. Hmm. Maybe I’m odd. I do not really have a must have budget be damned grail pen. And my exit pen is always the next one I’m going to buy. Yes there are pens I would very much like to have but it is not a holy must. And sometimes they’re just beyond budget. So be it. OK. A nice red emperor. I might want to try that some time.

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  17. I wasn’t expecting it at the time, but I found my exit pen – a 2018 Pelikan M205 Olivine, which I bought off the Nibsmith 2 years after it’s debut. It’s a beautiful, rich shade of bottle green that I love to watch as I write, but also a total work horse – minimal enough to use for all occasions, but also deeply special to me, because I bought it as a present for getting my first full-time job in my field after a year of working part-time. Finding a pen I felt totally content with really opened my eyes to how chasing over the next “grail” quickly turns into mindless, rather than meaningful, consumerism – most of the flashier pens that I chased as a grail or as my “perfect” pen turned out to have something that stopped me from reaching for them, either being too heavy, or not the right nib, or so specifically colored that I only wanted to use them with certain inks or notebooks. And for anyone on a budget, don’t worry that you won’t be able to find an exit pen until you’re paying big bucks – the M205 is definitely not a “budget” option (I got it for $172) but my first almost-exit pen was a Lamy Safari Dark Lilac ($30). An exit pen doesn’t have to be a $700 Visconti, or a one-of-a-kind maki-e. It’s simply a pen that’s the right fit for you.

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  18. For me, my exit pen would be my Hakase RW15C.
    In truth, it hasn’t obliterated the near-sexual urge of hunting for another pen, but it has brought the level of intensity and lust from 10 (out of 10) to roughtly 1 ~ 2.

    I used to buy 20+ pens a year, plenty of them over USD 500. The money I used to spend on pens could easily buy a BMW in Taiwan. Anyway, after I’ve received my ordered Hakase in 2019, my pen consumption amount dropped to like USD 2000 per year. Quite amazing, isn’t it?

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  19. When I got my Pelikan Souveran Stresemann M600 I didn’t know I had bought my EXIT pen. I had been purchasing a shiny new bobble about four or five times a year for about 6 years. After the Pelikan, I’m just not interested. I noticed my disinterest after a couple of years. A friend asked what type of pen would I like for my birthday. I didn’t have an answer for him. I had my favorite pen. I still used my Safari for highlighting and my Kaweco matt purple aluminum with my favorite purple inks – but the Pelikan was my go-to – still is – 8 years later.

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  20. Great article. I enjoyed it and it got me thinking, as my lovely wife has now limited my Covid buying spree to one pen a month. I have been out of control. But, then I read the comments and have a long list of pens and now more paper that I am lusting after. Thank you Devonico for reminding me of a pen that I have been lusting after, the Ramses II. And the many others for great suggestions. I have been collecting pens for 40+ years and never heard of a Hakase, it is now on my list.

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  21. To me, the term “grail” anything has at its core the concept of being so nearly impossible to obtain that it requires nothing short of a miracle to add to your collection. Anything which can merely be purchased, albeit with an eye-watering amount of cash, isn’t really a grail. Unfortunately, to me the term “exit pen” sounds like the pen you buy then drop down dead…. definitely not one I’m looking to add to my collection!

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