As I head towards the end of another crazy year in the world of fountain pens, it’s time for reflection and to heap a little praise where praise is due. So here is my attempt to sort chaos into order and bring some highlights to the fore.
1. Colour comes to life
2021 was the year when colour became more than just an aesthetic choice, but a defining characteristic for brands, their identities and their growth strategies.
We saw more and more named resin-maker partnerships from companies like Esterbrook, Leonardo and Stipula.
Maiora and Leonardo evoked the Delta Dolce Vitas of the past with their flashes of orange — and now of course we have the news that Delta is back. More independent makers pushed into hybrid wood/resin pens. Esterbrook jumped on summer with the JR Paradise and even autumn with the Pumpkin Spice.
ST Dupont tried to bring its staid reputation back into the modern age with zingy gemlike guilloche. Gravitas turned “skittles” into a trend all by itself. Visconti even turned black lava into an opportunity for colours.
And yep, over there is Sailor kicking out more colour combos than I can keep track of, as usual.
It’s not just colour, but the materials and finishes too. I’ve already mentioned Gravitas skittles in this list, and Kaweco’s flamed Fireblue finish (also used by Diplomat) is not new. But in 2021 I saw more makers use Cerakote, from Karas to Gravitas and Tactile Turn. Matthew Martin brought out some beautifully colourful finishes on his OG range. Visconti pushed the Homo Sapiens into carbon fiber. And there were more urushi choices than ever before, from Dovidu, Tamenuri Studio, Penteo and the usual Japanese studios.
The downside of all this choice is, well, colour fatigue and the limited edition FOMO effect. But it’s nice to have more choice, of course.
But for me the brand that brightened up my day most with colour this year was Benu. I reviewed a couple of Talismans and another Euphoria in 2021, and like all the Benus I tried before, they are fierce and bold with their use of colour, intrinsic to the pen, not as a surface.
2. Storage at last gets the attention it deserves
In 2021 I saw at-home pen storage come into the spotlight for the first time. Rather than paying big bucks for custom cabinets or rolling our own with tray liner and Muji makeup boxes, at last it seems we have some proper purpose-built options for storing and displaying pens.
Galen Leather brought out its stacking trays, which immediately sold out. Bluestarcraft MX innovated new portable formats with a similar aesthetic. There’s a beautiful new storage bureau with pen drawers by Tools to Liveby. And so on.
For me Toyooka Craft were the stars of the trend, which culminated in a sellout performance at the October London Pen Show.
3. Superplastics for everyone!
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that Schon DSGN has a full-size pen in Ultem, black Ultem, and now PEEK. Karas offers the Vertex in Ultem. Various solo makers are using it too. These pricey, high-performance superplastics are suddenly everywhere.
But Kasama got there first. It was the pioneer of plastics, and my stone-embedded PEEK Una Panahon arrived in 2021 and became a firm favourite.
It looks like they have a new collab coming out too…
4. Ink jumps the shark
Let me rant a bit here: At the end of 2021, I am simultaneously super jazzed up and… so burned out on ink.
Why am I burned out? Montblancgate was one reason why. It’s a brazen and cynical thing to recycle and relabel one ink bottle, say James Dean Rebel Red, and sell it as something else, say Doyle Scarlet Red.
But I realised, well, isn’t that effectively what the whole industry is doing all the time, with us as willing participants?
There are literally thousands of different inks already out there, with hundreds coming to market each year. They may not be literally from the same bubbling cauldron, But how many of them are genuinely new, different or better than what is already there?
When we buy that next cute bottle or evocatively named LE with ornate backstory, could we honestly tell it apart from all the other shades we already own? Can we identify all these new shades in a blind test?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that we have more choice than Parker Quink, Sheaffer Skrip and Private Reserve. Want almost-unreadable pale colours? We’ve got ya. Smeary super-sheeners? Go crazy. Unloved shades like mustard and murky greens? We have em! Shimmer? Oh yes.
But in 2021 the degree of choice available went from being a good thing to a bad thing.
I was drained by the sheer volume of new inks: familiar brands like Robert Oster, Colorverse, KWZ, Birmingham, Diamine and Ferris Wheel Press continued churning out new shades by the dozen, but they were joined by more colours and much wider distribution for less well-known brands from Asia and Eastern Europe like Lennon Tool Bar, Taccia, Tono and Lims, Van Diemens, Dominant Industry and Pennonia.
Some of these makers offer limited ‘seasons’ of inks as their normal business model, driving FOMO and hoarding. Pen stores from Cult to Yoseka commissioned exclusive shades. Every pen show has its own ink from KWZ or Papier Plume.
And penmakers, such as Esterbrook and Venvstas, continue to try to jump on the ink gravy train too with their own branded ranges.
I used to have my arms around all the ink brands readily available in the UK, stuff like Sailor and Iroshizuku, Lamy and Kaweco and the like. I can’t begin to contemplate the notion of even attempting to keep up now.
My response has been generally to stick with a few brands that I know, like Montblanc, while taking occasional forays out into discovering new brands, like Dominant Industry.
In 2021 I really welcomed a new brand into my inner circle: Vinta. Vinta does everything right: decent bottles, affordable prices, some interesting colours, memorable names, and good performance. Inks like Sirena and Ulap are now in regular rotation for me.
5. Big nibs go big
In previous years, if you wanted a nib bigger than a #6, you had a few options, mostly expensive. From Japan there was the Emperor and King of Pen, and then the Custom Urushi. In the west, Montblanc’s 149, Pelikan’s M1000, Conid and Oldwin. Did I miss anything?
But in 2021, big nibs are suddently everywhere. Newton’s Prospector is mainstream. Onoto offers #8s on most of its pens as an option. Schon offers #8 sections for his full-size pen. Santini has developed its own in-house #8.
More and more custom makers are offering Bock’s 380 unit as an option, with John Garnham’s JG8 being one notable example. And over in Japan, Tohma is pushing the very limits of how big a nib can be.
I’d put money on it: this is a trend.
For me in 2021, my big-nib discovery has been the Santini Giant, but a very close second is the medium King of Pen nib.
6. Pocket pens continue to evolve
Gone are the days when your choices in the pocket pen space were Kaweco and… Kaweco. In 2021 we saw the Kickstarters for the Namisu N1 and Ensso Piuma Pocket, and the release of Elbwood’s high-end Pocketmaster, more Schons included coloured facets, the Gravitas Pocket, and probably several others I’m forgetting.
My personal pocket pen highlight of the year was the Montegrappa Gnomo. More than just its insanely compact design, I was blown away by the nib and finishing. It sets a very high bar for a luxury pocket pen.
7. QC resentment gathers pace
I felt the community bubble up this year about QC.
Visconti has gotten worse since its move to in-house 18k… and that’s not just my opinion; I polled nibmeisters who have to deal with it every day.
Formerly trusted JoWo suffered a massive, massive PR problem from its cracked housings scandal. Kaweco apparaently tried to solve the problem of its nib reputation by introducing a paid-for upgrade to a premium steel nib (and even that has seen some community reports of failures).
The backlash against all of these topics whenever I bring them up… well, it indicates a general frustration in the community. And even brands that I generally respect and rate highly for QC are not immune. In 2021 I experienced my first not-quite perfect Sailor nib. Friends have reported bad Montblanc nibs. I experienced a bad Scribo nib too.
It’s the likes of Benu and Esterbrook that have performed most consistently, but the real award winners here are the nib technicians who clean up the brands’ sloppy work.
8. Pens still have the capacity to surprise, delight, and move
This last one is a bit broad and even personal, but in 2021 after reviewing and owning literally hundreds of pens, I still regularly found myself grinning like a lunatic or gazing in wonder at a pen totally different to any I’d used before.
The Visconti Divina, with its perfect spirals catching the light. The jewellery-like Montegrappa Gnomo with its tiny details. The moving story behind the Onoto Flanders. The batshit crazy Drillog looking like a tiny lightsaber. The Benu Mistletoe glowing in the dark on my desk.
But the one that, perhaps unexpectedly, captured my heart the most was the impossibly pretty Pilot Capless Wish, evoking the dawn sky.
There’s so much more to say, but I’ve rambled long enough. What do you see when you look back on your year?