Thursday, September 24, 2020

Getting Into Fountain Pens

Featuring the Sailor Pro Gear Slim, Yuki-tsubaki pen. I now have... a few more pens and inks now than I did back in July. Most of these inks are samples though, I don't own many full bottles.

I bought my first ever fountain pen - a Pilot Metropolitan - back in early July, after seeing Adina post about her favorite fountain pen inks. Since then, I've been completely enamored with writing and journaling with fountain pens. Though I've only been part of the fountain pen hobby for three months, the size of my collection is already formidable. And judging from various comments and posts in the many super-active online fountain pen communities out there, I'm far from the only person who started their participation in this hobby - and then escalated very quickly - during these recent months of COVID-19 social distancing! 

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Just the pens and bottled inks I mentioned in late July, including the ones sampled in the photograph - plus a converter for each pen that needs one, so I can actually use bottled inks - totals to a retail value of approximately $240 (including the dozen ink samples at ~$2 each). Everything discussed in that post was purchased at the US retail price. (Some Japanese pens and inks can also be readily obtained more cheaply from gray market sellers, including on Amazon, because they retail for significantly less in Japan.) And, ah, I now have... at least a few more pens and inks than in late July. In short, fountain pens can be a fairly expensive hobby. I'm even omitting the not-insignificant cost of fountain pen-friendly notebooks and paper! 

It's interesting to me to think about how this hobby and its associated online communities are similar to - but also different from - my fashion hobby and its relevant online communities. Though I can't exactly say I'm an expert in either hobby, of course. 

To tell the truth, I can barely even claim to be that knowledgeable about the relevant online communities either. Outside of keeping this blog and responding to comments here, I'm basically just a "lurker" or observer. I'm extremely shy - even when online and mostly anonymous - and only rarely interact directly with other people in any of these hobbies, whether on Instagram, Reddit, or otherwise. So my thoughts do need to be taken with that grain of salt.

Similarity: Lots of Small Businesses and Independent Creators to Support

Much like with fashion, there are many small businesses and individual creators and artists in the fountain pen space. Fountain pens are a fairly specialized, niche interest after all.

I mentioned in my recent money diary that I've been shopping online for some of my fountain pens, inks, and fountain pen-friendly notebooks from Yoseka Stationery, a small independent shop that's local to me. (They're great, and I highly recommend them!) From looking at Yelp, I understand there aren't many other brick and mortar stores in NYC that stock a wide range of fountain pens and inks. Fountain Pen Hospital may be the only dedicated fountain pen shop in the city. 

Super-large companies like Amazon do sell fountain pens and related supplies. Target even has a limited selection of slightly below-retail Pilot Metropolitan fountain pens and Pilot Iroshizuku fountain pen ink (only four colors, and only Take-Sumi and Asa-Gao are below retail at the time of this writing). Though it may generally be best to avoid such non-specialist retailers, at least for ink. When ink is not packed properly - as the specialized retailers generally all take special care to do - disaster can ensue. But I should note that most new fountain pens come in very secure packaging, generally in small padded boxes, so buying the pens themselves from a big-box retailer probably doesn't carry particular risk of damage in transit. I've read anecdotal comments about counterfeit Lamy pens on Amazon, however, so that's something to be aware of. 

There are also larger stationery or fountain pen online retailers that are still relatively small businesses, in the grand scheme of things. In addition to Yoseka Stationery, I've enjoyed shopping from Goulet Pens, Jetpens, and Goldspot

As for the independent artists and creators in the fountain pen space, I haven't quite gotten to that level of fountain pen connoisseurship yet. I follow an artist who uses fountain pens as a medium, and she has a large collection of handmade fountain pens from independent artists. Mostly through her Instagram, I've come to admire the handmade pens by Kanilea Pen Company and Yoshi Nakama, but am otherwise not yet knowledgeable about that side of the fountain pen world. I do, however, get one of my favorite notebooks from Taroko Shop, a small maker based in Taiwan. 

Similarity: Things (and Spending) Can Escalate Pretty Quickly 

As with fashion - even with slow fashion, where, in recent years, I've observed that following the relevant Instagram hashtags can sometimes cause people to desire a bunch of new-to-them pieces from, say, Babaa, Misha & Puff, Ace & Jig, Elizabeth Suzann, etc. in fairly short order - shopping for new-to-you fountain pens and related items can also escalate fairly quickly and require a significant amount of disposable income. I'm no stranger to this sort of rapid escalation myself, with regards to both fashion - including slow fashion - and fountain pens, as I've documented on this blog. 

Like with fashion, there's an incredibly wide range of different price points available out there for fountain pens, including within the limited category of commonly recommended "starter" pens. My first fountain pen was the Pilot Metropolitan, which retails in the US at $19.99 (previously including a converter for  bottled ink at that price, though that no longer comes standard). That's somewhat middle of the road in price as far as typical "first fountain pens" go. 

Some of the most commonly recommended "first fountain pens" include the Pilot Metropolitan and the Lamy Safari at $29.60. (If you're inclined to using bottled inks rather than cartridges, you'll need to buy a converter with both pens, for an extra cost of ~$6.) I tried both of these pens in my first month in the hobby, and I like both. There are also many cheaper pens in the beginner fountain pen category, including - among others - the Platinum Preppy, Pilot Kakuno, and Jinhao Shark. I believe the Jinhao Shark comes with a converter, but I don't believe the others do, which adds to the total cost associated with the pen. If one is okay with the higher end of the price range for starter pens, my overall favorite in that genre is the TWSBI Eco at $30.99 (a piston filler that doesn't need a converter). 

There are a few potential ways of measuring how quickly one has escalated their spending on fountain pens. Obviously, total spend in whatever period of time is one way to measure. As mentioned above, my post about fountain pens in late July - when I was a mere one month into the hobby - revealed that I'd already spent at least $240.

And then there are other, more niche ways of measuring, taking into account the quirks of the hobby. One way to frame it is how long it took to get your first gold-nib pen, which usually means spending a bit over $100, if one is getting the pen new at its US retail price. I ended up hitting both milestones - first gold-nib pen and first pen over $100 - with a pen purchase my second month, a Sailor Pro Gear Slim in the Yuki-tsubaki colorway.

Were it not for COVID-driven social distancing and working from home full-time, I don't think I'd have escalated my spending on fountain pens with such remarkable speed. I'd have a lot less time to enjoy my pens and get ideas for new purchases if I wasn't staying home all the time, as I'm reluctant to bring most of my fountain pens out to the office. Many people do bring some very nice fountain pens to school or the office every day, but I'd be nervous about accidentally losing or damaging them.  

Difference: More Welcoming to Lower Price Points?

For a hobby encompassing such an incredibly wide range of different price points (there are well regarded fountain pens that retail for $14 or less, just as there are many popular pens in the $100 to $200 range, and there are also fountain pens that are seen as pieces of art, which could go for $500+ or $1000+), I've generally found the relevant online communities to be quite welcoming to people - and pens - across all price points. 

I generally haven't seen anyone get snobby about more affordable brands or pens being low-quality, and I was spending tons of time searching old posts on r/fountainpens and other online forums in my first two months in the hobby. A good number of people will say nice things about the Platinum Preppy (~$4 to $5 each, no converter) or Hongdian Black Forests (~$15 on Amazon, including a converter, and my personal favorite and best value of the more affordable pens I've tried), just as they would about a $100 or $200 fountain pen, or about something much fancier. 

People will certainly express opinions about certain brands having quality control issues or problems with inconsistent nibs, but this happens across the price spectrum. For instance, I've seen this criticism about Jinhao (a Chinese company making extremely affordable pens, carried at Goulet Pens), Lamy (a German company making pens across many price points), and Visconti (an Italian company that mostly makes luxury pens; though of course, consumer expectations and standards for a luxury brand are probably very different from expectations for brands that mostly make more affordable pens). 

This contrasts somewhat with my personal experience with fashion as a hobby, going back over a decade and long predating the existence of this blog. As longtime readers might know, when I started Invincible Summer while I was still in law school, I had a sort of persistent insecurity about feeling out of place in the profession because I come from a visibly less wealthy - though still very privileged - background than many of peers. I feared this was something that could easily be identified in my professional wardrobe when I was starting out, to the extent that anyone was knowledgeable enough about women's fashion and cared to look. (In actual practice, nobody actually really cares what you're wearing in biglaw, I'm pretty sure, so long as one is dressed appropriately for one's professional setting.) 

And I don't think I'm the only person who has ever observed that focusing on slow fashion or trying for more "ethical" consumption can sometimes feel like an economically privileged person's game. (Particularly on Instagram.) A lot of items from slow fashion brands are fairly expensive by any standard - as they probably should be, due to the cost of labor and materials - and that's not going to be accessible at all income levels. 

Difference: Near-Perfection Out of the Box (or Off the Rack) Might Not Exist

At least for my body shape (solidly within most brands' size ranges, though my figure is a bit too top-heavy or busty for some brands and styles to suit me) and location (NYC, where tailoring is extremely expensive), I get the most value and use out of my clothing purchases when I insist that things fit extremely well right off the rack. I'm not sure one can insist on the same thing for fountain pens, which require at least some of regular maintenance just to clean and refill, in the course of normal use. 

I now own slightly over a dozen fountain pens, across a decently wide range of price points, and while I haven't yet gotten a real dud or lemon of a pen, there are maybe four or five pens that have had slight issues. A lot of times, if a fountain pen that's new from the factory isn't writing perfectly, it might start working fine if one tries writing with it a bit after cleaning it thoroughly - or "flushing" it with water - and refilling it. Most of the issues I've encountered with a few of my pens are in that vein, problems that mostly resolved themselves with a bit of writing after a cleaning session and refill. 

To complicate things slightly, there are some fountain pen inks that are a bit more dry or fussy with certain pens, some of which can be more "dry" or "wet" writers. Paper quality is also an important part of the equation with how a fountain pen writes and behaves. I don't often use inks known for being fussy - for example, glitter or shimmer inks could clog more fine-nibbed pens; and I know from trying ink samples that certain darker-shaded "sheening" inks with a lot of complexity to their color will smear terribly on some paper, even after being given ample time to dry (I'm thinking of the popular and beautiful J. Herbin Emerald of Chivor) - but I've still selected a few pen and ink combinations that didn't work very well.

Longtime participants in the hobby also report that it's not impossible for even a fairly expensive brand new pen to end up being a lemon, with a misaligned nib or some other defect that could even cause it to fail to write. Thankfully, I've never had that issue, and I hope it's not especially common. That may be another argument in favor of buying from small businesses specializing in stationery or fountain pens as much as possible, at least with more expensive purchases. Small, specialized retailers might be more willing and able to work with you if a brand new pen turns out to be a dud, while big-box retailers don't have the expertise to do much more than issue a refund. 

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