People will tell you that they collect various things, but more often than not they are collecting memories. That’s certainly true for me with pens and writing implements. When Maybelline asked me to participate in her “12 Days of Christmas” event here at On Fountain Pens, I jumped at the chance because, for me, Christmas always reminds me of why I got into this hobby and takes me back to gifts from my childhood that started me down this road.
Like many people who collect writing instruments, I’ve had a thing for pens, pencils and paper since I was little. As far back as I can remember, actually. My parents never turned us down when we wanted books or writing materials, but still thought I had an unhealthy obsession with shopping for school supplies. (Go figure.) At Christmastime, we always had a fresh dozen high quality pencils, a notebook or two, or a new pen in our stocking.
I first became really particular about the pencils I used at school. I preferred — and still prefer — drier, even slightly gritty, graphite. Back in the 80s, Berol/Empire/Pedigree made a line of really cheap pencils with a super waxy core that I hated, and I refused to write with them whenever my mom accidentally bought a pack. I gave them all to my brother, who didn’t care. (When you don’t do schoolwork anyway, you tend not to care so much about the pencils you use.)
My absolute favorite pencil of all time was the Blackfeet Indian pencil. Blackfeet pencils were made by the Blackfeet Native American tribe in Browning, Montana until some time in the late 1990s. You can sometimes find them floating around on eBay for less than the price of Palomino Blackwings. My brother and I each received a dozen of these for Christmas when I was 13 (read: I received two dozen pencils), and they lasted me well into high school. Back in those pre-internet days, I never did find a pencil I liked as well as that one, and I think the pencil-collecting side of my brain is somehow still trying to find a suitable replacement.
Once my school started to require that all exams be written in ink, I switched to pens. The earliest ones I remember obsessing over were the Pilot V5 rollerball (which Pilot still makes), and the Pilot Explorer, which died an untimely death. I didn’t have any truly “nice” pens, save for a Waterman Expert ballpoint that my aunt gave me for Middle School graduation. I love that pen, and even used it to sketch out the outline of this post. It’s a testament to how well-made Waterman pens are that this pen is still as good as it was the day I received it, given the abuse it has received over the years.
So what does this long wind-up have to do with fountain pens? It just goes to show how predisposed I was to falling down the fountain pen rabbit-hole. I didn’t first use a fountain pen until I was in college. Fourteen years ago, to be exact, when I jetted off to France — land of Clairefontaine, J. Herbin, and Waterman — and spent a year studying in Strasbourg. As they have in America, things have probably changed in France, but then France, or at least the French university system, had resisted the wholesale shift to disposable consumer culture. People wrote with nice pens! (Back then, if a pen didn’t have to be thrown away once it was empty or dried out, I considered it “nice.”) Even more mysteriously, nearly everybody wrote with fountain pens. And carried around bags of ink cartridges. And these weird-looking pens with white tips that would erase the ink from the ink cartridges if you made a mistake. I was mesmerized.
So off I went to the stationery department at Printemps to get myself some new pens, knowing next to nothing about nice pens in general, and even less about fountain pens. I ended up taking home a Stypen, some kind of extremely low-end Sheaffer that I have never seen again (more low-end than a No-Nonsense), and a Waterman Kultur; a bag of cartridges; and two or three of those eraser pens. While I now know that these pens weren’t very good at all (with the possible exception of the Kultur), I was instantly hooked on fountain pens. Fast-forward to early December of that year, when I met my parents in London for a visit. On my Christmas list for that year was a “decent fountain pen,” and I picked this up in the pen department at Harrod’s:
These two pens both continue to serve me well. The nib on the fountain pen is a gold-plated Waterman medium (which is on the finer side), and it’s super smooth and reliable. I’ve never had a hard start or a skip with this pen, no matter the ink I’ve used in it. It’s also hefty: I believe the pen’s body is brass covered in lacquer, similar to the Man 100 / Man 200 series which were being discontinued at about the time I purchased this pen.
During the past few years in this hobby, I’ve come across several people whose first “real” pen was a Laureate, and all had the same great experience as I did. We lucked out, in that the Laureate was (for the most part) a low-maintenance pen in terms of reliability. Many people are turned off by fountain pens from the get-go because their “starter” pen skipped, leaked, or simply refused to write. I regularly ink this pen, and it still has a place in my rotation. Best of all, it reminds me of a great time in my life, and one of my favorite Christmas seasons!