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?