I’ve been singing the praises of the Onoto Magna for at least three or four years now (Flanders, Shakespeare, Sequoyah, Mammoth…), and still I find that people don’t see the value proposition until they’ve held one. A plastic converter filler with steel nib for £400? Sure it has sterling silver trim and comes in a nice box, but where’s the money going?
These questions only intensify when you tot up the cost of upgrading to a gold nib, or look at Onoto’s more, ahem, premium designs.
The answer to these price concerns has always been, in my eyes, that with Onoto you get a sublime nib, excellent customer service, a pen that’s made in England, and most importantly, a design that’s close to perfect in terms of size, weight and proportions. You also get a huge degree of customisation control, in terms of nib, barrel weight, etc.
I might be convinced by these answers, but the questions keep coming, and it’s no surprise that Onoto has been working for a long time on how to tackle a lower price point. An ‘entry level’ Onoto would give first-time customers a gateway into full-blown Onoto ‘custodianship’, and furthermore help this small business tap into the huge pool of pen addicts who will never spend £400+ on a pen.
But the challenge is formidable. How do you make a ‘cheap’ pen that still feels premium enough to uphold your brand? How do you bring across all the qualities that make your product special, on a shoestring? And more significantly, what changes (not just compromises) do you make to your approach to fit the needs of a different group of customers, one that you’ve never reached before?
It seems that Onoto really took their time to think about these questions, because the Onoto Scholar, the ‘budget’ Onoto that’s just launching, has turned out to be a very sure-footed move into the sub-£200 category.
Here’s what’s different.
The first thing that’s changed is the packaging. There’s no option for a big plush wooden gift box with hand-written card; instead by default the Scholar ships with Onoto’s leather pen roll — itself a £40 product. This is a smart move; no excess, no waste, and in fact added value for the Scholar’s intended audience, for whom this might be a first fountain pen, in need of protection in a schoolbag or work bag.
Gone too is the sterling silver clip, finial, cap coin and trim rings. This is totally understandable. But Onoto has kept the same visual design of clip and of cap coin, which is an important point of continuity with the wider range.
The cap coin lacks the crispness of the frosted sterling coin from the Magna, and in general shows the slightly plasticky shine you get from plating, but there’s plenty of definition and an even finish.
The cap band is big, simple, and has VERY LARGE TEXT, but it’s by no means offensive.
The Scholar is also noticeably smaller than the Magna, but it doesn’t feel small.
The presence in the hand is down to two things: a long section, and a weighted barrel courtesy of a brass tube inserted inside the plastic.
This is an all-new design, with no parts in common with the Magna, but it has a clear familial resemblance (especially when capped) and has the same high level of comfort.
There’s a weight and solidity that just feels great. But don’t try to post the cap — it does post, but not deeply, and it throws the balance right out.
While the Magna is available in a wide range of resins and barrel chasing patterns, the Scholar is available in five colours at launch (black, navy blue, red, yellow, and the ‘highlander’ patterned plastic), with all five colours available with silver and gold trim. I got the red and the blue, both with silver trim; the blue is undeniably attractive, but I found the red looked a little translucent and pinkish under hotel lights at the pen show. An impression that hasn’t recurred. This choice of five resins is I think plenty for an entry-level design and they’re timeless colours.
I have moaned over the years about the long, stately cap threads on the Magna. While that has improved in recent years, at least in part due to my feedback, the Scholar was designed from the outset with ultra-fast triple-start threads. The cap comes off in a single turn, maybe even less.
And now what’s not different.
Most importantly, the nib. The Scholar has a fully Onoto-branded, bi-colour plated steel nib, which as far as I can tell is identical to the one on the Magna (embarrassingly, I don’t have a #7 steel Magna to hand to do a direct comparison, so I’m just going from memory). This is a very smart move by Onoto. It’s resisted the temptation to hamstring the performance of the Scholar just to keep the Magna feeling special. Whatever Onoto you choose, you’ll get the same great nib performance (and the same branded converter feeding it). And the nibs on the Scholar are great, at least in my small sample size. I have a fine and a medium, and both write with the effortless flow I’ve come to expect from Onoto, perfect out of the box. If I was a first-time Onoto customer buying a Scholar, the nib experience would be what brought me back for my second.
I was really nervous about trying the Scholar, after tracking its development for years. It’s an important release for Onoto, with the potential to win new customers and boost the brand into mainstream awareness. And I think the team has nailed it. My first impressions were a little mixed: Sure, it’s an Onoto, but I looked at the plated trim and the slightly translucent red resin and I had a little wobble. But then I (quickly) uncapped the Scholar and held it in a writing grip, and it felt solid and balanced. Then I inked it up and tried out the two nibs on my samples, and they were brilliant. This is really what counts in a pen, whether it’s your first or your hundredth. So if you’ve been wanting an Onoto but £400 is way out of reach, I can honestly say the Scholar will serve you well.
In my mind, the question will be about the price and how that lines up against the competition. At the London pen show, where I picked up my two samples, Onoto was offering the Scholar for an introductory price of £129 — at that price it’s a no-brainer, great price indeed, and there’s been a bit of a feeding frenzy.
Now I understand the retail price might be nearer £200, which reaches a step above quality £150 midrange pens like the Esterbrook Estie, and even the Lamy 2000 (with its gold nib and piston filler) and various other gold-nibbed Lamys, Pelikan M400, Platinum 3776, Sailor 1911… wow, there’s a lot of global competition at this price point, and every tenner matters.
I can’t tell you how to spend your money. So I’ll close with this. I like the Scholar a lot. As Yard-o-Led moves even more high-end, and Manuscript plumbs the blister-pack realm, I like the path that Onoto is beating… and I respect the thought it’s put into this design. I hope it succeeds — and I hope you give it a try.
In case you missed it, here’s my first impressions video.