This is a good question that should probably be asked more often of a lot of types of everyday equipment that has very high-end, expensive brands. Fountain pens, watches, suits, cars – companies are forever creating very tempting “needs” and then telling us our lives will be so much better if we get the most expensive things.
Most of us have limited funds though and we want to avoid “rubbish” and buy “good” products without wasting money on over-priced hype, but where do we draw the line and how do we make educated choices?
Well, here are some of the factors that influence the price of a fountain pen:
- Country of manufacture: Simply put, the cost of production in China is much lower than in Europe or North America. European manufacturers like Lamy still mass produce cheap pens but most of their product range costs more because they employ highly skilled and highly paid staff to make them.
- Materials: Cheaper plastics will be more prone to cracking than specially made resin compounds or metals. That doesn’t mean plastic is bad though and actually most pens are made from very similar resins.
- Design: Simple designs with fewer parts are cheaper to make while the higher priced pens usually have a lot of parts in their design that make the pen nicer to use or more reliable. The cap is an area that can get quite complex so that the nib is protected and sealed off so it doesn’t dry out.
- Nib size & materials: Most pens at the cheaper end will have a small (#5) steel nib while the higher priced one might have a specially tuned/checked larger (#6 or #8) steel nib or even a gold nib, using various purities of gold. With nibs it’s usually thought that larger is better.
- Customization: Many of the smaller makers will offer you more options for the trim colour (e.g. gold, silver or palladium) or nib shape/grind (e.g. flexibility, cursive italic, archetect, scribe etc.). But that also comes at a cost because they have to design, test, make and then stock each of these different products.
- Refilling: Filling systems using a piston or vacuum effect allow for a larger volume of ink and an easier filling process but are more costly to manufacture than simple cartridges or converters, which also tend to be small volume.
- Brand: As in all things, some brands (like Montblanc or Pelikan) are considered “premium” and probably invest more in design, manufacture and materials so can charge more. They have usually been in business a long time and employ highly skilled staff who hand finish the pens and manually check that the nibs are perfect. You can get very generous guarantees and they often have concessions in expensive boutiques where staff off a high level of service.
Up to £20
So, at the cheaper end we have a lot of Chinese pens, available from AliExpress, Amazon or eBay, which cost anything from £1.50 to £20 and they look perfectly fine. My experience of these is that you will usually get a pen that does the job and many of them have very decent, smooth steel nibs. But the quality control in these companies isn’t great so they do occasionally ship-out damaged pens with very poor nibs. Also, the pen design itself will usually be basic – often lacking cap-liners or gaskets that can lead to pens drying out between use, or made from cheap plastic which can be a bit flimsy and prone to cracking. Brands like Jinhao, Majohn, Wingsung/YongSheng, Hero are very well respected in this price range and do, generally, made good pens that make a great way to get into the hobby.
You can also get pretty good basic pens at this price point from Japanese & German companies like Platinum (Preppy), Lamy (Safari), Faber-Castell (Fresh) which are probably better made but still quite simple and mass produced.
£20 to £60
The price of these is already probably more than the average person would think of spending on a pen but you get a much better designed pen, with good cap-liners to seal the pen and stop it drying out and perhaps with more attention to design and materials. In this group are brands like TWSBI (Eco, Go, Swipe and the cheaper 580s), Lamy, Majohn, Wingsung/YongSheng and PenBBS (309 etc.)
£60 to £200
Now you are starting to get into the higher quality pens or low volume manufacturers that try to give the user a more satisfying experience with more refined design, special materials and even gold nibs on a few of them.
The Lamy 2000 is an absolute classic of bauhaus design from the 1960s and is a gorgeous writer. The minimalist design hides a 14k gold nib which is very smooth and lovely to write with; a hooded nib, which protects the nib from drying out if not capped; a cap that fits very smoothly, sealing the nib; a piston filling system with large ink capacity; and even a window in the plastic to see if you are running out of ink.
From the Japanese manufacturers you can find pens like the Pilot Custom 74, Pilot Custom Heritage 91, Platinum #3776 Century, Sailor Professional Gear Slim etc. which are really great writers and all feature gold nibs.
You can also buy something like a Leonardo Momento Zero with a steel nib – the design is beautiful and the nibs are very well tuned and offer some unusual options like flexible, cursive or architect nibs – something you don’t usually see on cheaper pens.
Now we’re starting to get into the premium brands (e.g. Pelikan, Montblanc & the top models from Japanese makers) where it’s impossible to put an upper limit on their products because they often release ridiculously expensive, limited-edition models aimed at super-rich clients.
But if we just look at the “lower end” you will find absolutely lovely models such as the Pelikan Souveran M600 or Montblanc Meisterstuck 146. These are designs that have been produced and refined for decades giving discerning writers a wonderful writing experience. Usually they have fairly conservative designs in a limited range of colours and each brand will have its own house style. Montblanc have the little snowflake on the cap and are usually black-bodied; Pelikan have striped bodies and a “Pelikan beak” clip and they all have their own design of nib decoration. But beyond that it’s very difficult to know if one of their pens is from the 1970s or the 2020s. They got the design right and they keep it that way.
Japanese pen like the Pilot Custom 823 & Sailor King of Pen are also in this price bracket and are both brilliant pens with lovely gold nibs. They are very smooth and give a refined experience while being beautifully proportioned and comfortable to write with.
Japanese brands also offer some amazing hand-painted finishes such as colourful maki-e which features gold dust and deep urushi lacquer. But you are basically paying for the artistry and beauty of the finish and the important components like the nib and filling system are the same as the slightly cheaper models so if you are just interested in writing experience then follow the nibs.
If you are only interested in getting a fountain pen to try then you’d be able to do that with a low-priced pen like a Lamy Safari or Platinum Preppy, which you can get readily in any country or your favourite online store. Many collectors use these and really like them even when they have much more valuable pens. There’s nothing wrong with them except they are very simple plastic cartridge/converter pens with steel nibs and plastic bodies.
If you spend more then you get a better pen, up to a point, but throwing more money at any problem is an exercise in diminishing returns. You get something “better” but as you add money you get less for that money each time, until you are buying mainly brand or exclusivity or rare decorative materials that actually don’t improve your writing experience at all. It becomes less possible to see or feel the difference too, rather like an expert wine taster might extol the virtues of an expensive wine while an average person really couldn’t taste much difference.
How much you spend is going to come down to your own personal opinions but in my opinion the main products from brands like Pelikan and Montblanc, which they have been producing for decades, are really worth the extra because they give a wonderful writing experience, classic designs, great reliability and high quality materials. But then whether you want to spend over £500 on a pen is up to you and depends on how much enjoyment you’ll get from owning and using something exclusive, beautiful and very valuable. But just remember that limited edition models or exclusive designs with diamonds (etc.) are not going to get you a better writing experience though so just buy them if you really really want them, but if you’re considering buying something costing £700 or more then you’re probably already heavily invested in good writing equipment.
For me the key is finding pens that genuinely give the user an exceptional writing experience and so if I were to choose some good but pricey ones I’d say:
- Platinum Century #3776 (£135-£185): Platinum nibs tend to write thin so their <F> might seem like an <EF> and their <M> like an <F>
- Pilot Custom Heritage 92 (£185): Again the Japanese pens tend to write thinner than German makes so a Pilot <F> will seem finer than a Lamy <F>
- Lamy 2000 (£180-£200): I went for an <F> in this because I’m used to Japanese <FM> or <M>
- Pilot Custom 823 (£285): This has a fairly large nib but an <M> still writes rather like a German <F>
- Pelikan Souveran M600 (£300): I would go for an <M> or broader to really accentuate the smoothness of this lovely nib
- Montblanc Meisterstuck 146 (£650-£850): Annoyingly, Montblanc don’t have any nib width markings and so on a secondhand pen it’s impossible to know for sure what width it is. The only place they print this is on a small sticky label on the pen when ti is new or in the original documentation / receipt that came with it. I think mine is an <F> but it writes beautifully.
At this point I’d also suggest thinking about some of the vintage pens too because models like the 1950s Parker “51” are superb quality and can cost anything between £40 to £250 depending on the colour and the condition. For this you’ll get:
- a design classic – literally the most popular fountain pen design of all time with 20-million pens produced in the 30 year lifetime of the design.
- a super smooth 14k gold hooded nib that should stay wet and write very smoothly.
- and an effortless Aerometric filling system – very reliable and very clean to use.
These pens have been around for 70 years and are still writing as well as the day they were made.