Onoto Heritage Overlay by Henry Simpole: artistry, at what cost?

TL;DR: check out the video review

The full story

This is an unusual, even special, pen. It features a skeletonised sterling silver overlay on both cap and barrel, created by the late Henry Simpole.

Overlay pens are not common nowadays, and to me they are strongly associated with vintage pens: you find overlay pens on eBay from the like of Waterman, in various states!

But this is a modern design. Henry Simpole only started producing overlays in 1999, and this is a new pen that you can buy today, from a proper, trading manufacturer (although it’s not quite as simple as that, as I’ll explain later).

The aesthetics are distinctive to say the least. The silverwork is visibly handmade, with a strong artisan feel, the polar opposite of today’s machine-turned pens.

The shiny hallmarked silver is set over a plain black acrylic underlying pen, for maximum contrast, and the curling, undulating foliage pattern is both interesting to look at and tactile under the fingers.

I happen to like how the overlay looks, and it is well done — but not perfectly. There’s the odd gap between the pen and overlay that you can see daylight through, the odd rough edge. Enough to show that it’s hand-made and hand-fitted. The serial number is hand-stamped and the digits don’t line up at all. Charming? Annoying? A little of both.

Note there’s no rollstop or clip as part of the design, and the pen is round… and the overlay is heavier on one side than the other so it will and does roll away!

The pen overall is long and very skinny. The barrel is just 12mm across, and the section 8mm at its narrowest. This adds to the vintage charm, although not particularly to the comfort. Not only is the section skinny, it’s also quite short, and so is the nib. To get enough space from the page, I found myself gripping the pen by the barrel instead of using the section alone.

Luckily the silver is not uncomfortable under the hand. But the sharp and prominent step up to the barrel definitely is noticeable.

Surprisingly, when in position the pen feels good in the hand. I expected the silver to add weight, but the whole pen is only 29g. And though it looks long, that’s only because it’s skinny. Uncapped, the Simpole is a good normal size.

Although I like the overlay a lot, I’m not totally convinced by the underlying pen design, and not just because it’s skinny.

For starters, the cap is relatively short and the barrel is long, giving unusual proportions to the pen when capped or uncapped. The end of the cap is rounded and domed, while the end of the barrel is stepped and conical. And that stepped end to the barrel looks like a perfect place to post the cap — but it doesn’t quite fit. These little things undermine the coherence of the design.

Most of my complaints centre on the cap. For starters, it’s actually fractionally skinnier than the barrel, even with the overlay in place. That just looks odd.

Barrel on left, cap on right. Note the cap is fractionally thinner than the barrel even on the overlay.

The cap secures with a friction fit mechanism. This has some positives: it actually does a solid job of keeping the cap in place, and there’s no drying out even when the pen is capped for long periods unused. It’s also very easy to whip the cap off quickly to start writing.

But the cap wobbles to and fro when it’s secured, with an ominous creaking sound. Look closely and it can be visibly wonky when it’s in place.

Take the cap off, and the very thin edge of the cap under the overlay also creaks and makes sharp cracking sounds at the tiniest pressure.

For a pen that’s expensive and an heirloom object, I am concerned about the long-term endurance of this design.

Inside, the pen is a cartridge converter, with a screw-off section. The section threads are shallow and extremely fine-pitched, and while my example felt secure, a fellow pen addict alerted me that her Simpole stripped these threads and the section pulled straight off along with the cap the first time she tried to use it.

I haven’t been able to replicate that failure, even though Onoto invited me to try my best, which is certainly reassuring. But overall I don’t think robustness was a main consideration in the design, unlike, say, the Magna.

The writing experience is good. This is a small, slim pen, so Onoto equipped it with a small nib: Onoto’s #3. It’s 18k, bicolour, with a plastic feed, and it’s fairly responsive and bouncy. Mine was dry at first but a little light tuning brought it to life and now I’m enjoying it. There’s a touch of feedback. The fine designation is accurate.

At £1,200, this is far from a cheap pen, and there is plenty of incredible competition out there. A Yard o Led Grand Victorian is also £1,200, with a leafy pattern also hand-engraved in the UK by specialist artisans… and it’s also solid silver, practically indestructible, and has a larger nib. If you want a less “handmade” appearance, one of Montblanc’s Solitaires will give you that experience, along with an integral piston filler.

Otto Hutt also offers the design07, undercutting the Onoto significantly. Onoto’s own Magnas in my opinion offer greater comfort and a better writing experience, with sterling silver trim for that luxury feel.

With a wobbly, creaking cap and a miniscule section, the Onoto Simpole is not perfect by any means. Its appeal and price premium lies primarily in that wonderful handmade silver overlay, and this is where things get interesting.

Henry Simpole sadly passed away in 2020, so no more of these overlays will be made. Onoto informs me that around 10 remain for sale. Some turners (like J Albert Lawrence) do overlay designs on request, but this is a rare skill and I know of no other production model using this technique. The upshot: if you want an overlay pen and don’t want to mess with vintage, the Onoto Heritage Henry Simpole #1 is your option.

Onoto loaned this pen to me for review. You can pick it up here.

3 thoughts on “Onoto Heritage Overlay by Henry Simpole: artistry, at what cost?

  1. I have to say that I am dismayed by the quality of the Onoto in this post. I am a big Henry Simpole fan and have 5 of his overlay pens. They are all, however, built on Conway Stewart chassis.
    I have not found any of the issues that the Onoto seems to have but yes, these are handout overlays and so there is not machine cut perfection.
    While I am always looking to expand my collection of Simpoles I think I can do a pass on this one.

    Like

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