Elegant, ornate and adaptable to each individual hand, nothing beats writing with a fountain pen, says Flora Watkins, who picks out five favourites.
Among the obituaries of a former Conservative Minister a few years ago, there was one delightful snippet. A line in The Daily Telegraph described how, when she received the letter from Mrs Thatcher appointing her to the Lords, Lady Blatch initially believed it to be a hoax, because the letter was signed in Biro and she had been ‘brought up to believe that nobody who matters uses a Biro’.
Fountain pens are owned by the sort of people who would always write invitations in ink and never, ever refer to them as ‘invites’. They’ll use their fountain pen to sign cheques and to write down dates in a leather organiser, rather than tapping it into their phone.
One might expect technology – and, before it, the ballpoint pen – to have rendered fountain pens obsolete, to the status of curios, sought out only by collectors, yet they’re enjoying a renaissance, with sales rising and not just among the generation old enough to remember the vestiges of china ink pots and ink monitors.
‘Handwriting will always trump predictive text or email,’ proclaims Robin Field, chairman of Yard-O-Led, which produces exquisite, engraved sterling-silver fountain pens (as well as propelling pencils and rollerballs) at its factory in the jewellery quarter of Birmingham.
‘Just as with a vintage car or mechanical watch, there’s a special joy and pride in owning a beautiful handmade instrument,’ explains Mr Field, who has recently started to see interest from younger customers.
‘There appears to be a conscious choice among millennials to express themselves through seeking out true craftsmanship over mass-produced items.’
Large and bold, with a wonderfully weighty feel tempered by intricate Victorian engraving on its silver shaft. Yard-O-Led, from £895.
Fountain pens have come a long way since the Romanian inventor Petrache Poenaru received a patent from the French government in 1827 for a pen with a barrel made from a large swan quill.
Sixty years later, in New York City, an insurance broker called Lewis Waterman – who went on to found the company that bears his name – obtained a patent for a pen with its own ink supply. Replenishing the ink continued to be a messy business and the design required several more iterations.
Memories of inky fingers and smudged exercise books meant that the fountain pen fell out of favour for decades. However, the modern heritage pens that discerning customers seek out today are a far cry from the scratchy implements of the older generation’s schooldays.
Writing with the perfect fountain pen should feel ‘like heaven’, enthuses Amaya Cerdeirina of Penfriend. She sells fine pens made by a number of boutique British manufacturers, including Onoto, Conway Stewart and Yard-O-Led, as well as refurbished vintage pens.
Spiralling London rents meant that Miss Cerdeirina gave up her shop in the Burlington Arcade last year, but she offers a free service to customers, meeting them by appointment in central London, because ‘you have to feel the pen and write with it’.
‘You can buy most things on Amazon and return it if you don’t like it, but, with fountain pens, it’s important to hold the pen and try the nibs. All of us have preferences – some like a heavy pen, some prefer a thin one,’ she explains.
Should James Bond have deviated from a British brand, this is the one he’d have slipped inside the breast pocket of his Savile Row lounge suit. Vintage only, from about £175 – there’s a good selection at Penfriend or Vintage Fountain Pens.
Using a fountain pen shows attention to detail, believes Alastair Adams of Bespoke British Pens, which manufactures Conway Stewart pens and sells a selection of other high-end brands.
‘To write properly with a fountain pen, you can’t rush it, so it does help you deliberate over the words you’re writing,’ he expands, whether that’s a signature on a contract, a thank-you letter after a dinner party or a love note.
‘A good fountain pen is something that many people aspire to now. In the throwaway world that we live in, having something you use every day and have a personal attachment to is enjoying a renaissance.’
Mr Adams favours the silver Shakespeare pen from the company’s own recently-launched brand the Stratford Pen Company, which develops a ‘wonderful patina’ with use.
The Doctor’s Pen
Made of sterling silver, known for its antibacterial properties, the cap is adorned with the Rod of Asclepius. Even the most florid of signatures at the bottom of a prescription will look better thanks to this pen. Stratford Pen Company, from £430.
About three-quarters of fountain-pen sales at Bespoke British Pens and Penfriend are to men. This, thinks Simon Gray of mail-order repairs service Battersea Pen Home, is because men have a limited range of personal effects open to them.
‘In the old days, men had a special lighter, a watch, a pen and cufflinks. The lighters have largely gone, so one is now restricted to watches, cufflinks and pens,’ he explains.
Mr Gray uses a vintage Parker 51, esteemed by many as the dernier cri when it comes to pen design.
‘The caps and barrels are made of Lucite,’ he enthuses. ‘That’s the same stuff that Spitfire cockpit windows were made from, because it’s very tough.’
He recommends considering a refurbished 51, not least because there’s a vast selection available, with prices ranging from about £175 to more than £1,500.
Solid and impressive, with plenty of presence; a fitting homage to the great man. Available in lots of different colours, but the classic black with gold fitting feels suitably Churchillian. Conway Stewart, from £449.
Once they’ve gained their ‘pen licence’ in Year 3, all the girls at Old Vicarage School in Richmond-upon-Thames are expected to write in fountain pen, but there’s no need for parents to spend huge amounts of money.
According to headmistress Gill Linthwaite, most girls use one of three, all of which can be bought for under £20: the Parker Vector, Pelikan or Lamy junior models, which come with a triangular grip to help little fingers. Cheap fountain pens, she cautions, tend to be ‘quite scratchy, and you don’t get that lovely ink flow’.
Writing with a fountain pen is important, Mrs Linthwaite believes, because ‘it teaches children to take pride in their work’. When we speak, the girls are practising for a handwriting competition, but it isn’t just about neatness. ‘Because you can’t pause your pen at any point on the paper, it tends to stimulate a flow of ideas.’
Many a writer would concur. As Graham Greene put it: ‘My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain. My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course.’
Magna Classic Vermeil
Encased in 23-carat gold-plated silver and based on the shape and dimensions of the Onoto Magna, launched in 1937, this is, in the opinion of many aficionados, the best fountain pen ever made. Onoto, £1,995.
At home in Edinburgh, Alexander McCall Smith also finds that employing a fountain pen helps aid the writing process. ‘I’ve just started to write the 19th volume of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency,’ he says.
‘I opened up a fresh Smythson notebook and wrote the first few pages on that with a fountain pen, which I will now go and type.’
Mr McCall Smith uses longhand in his notebooks – without practice, handwriting, he feels, ‘becomes a bit “crabbit”, a lovely Scots word, meaning ill-tempered, contrary’ – but confesses to using a Montblanc rollerball for ease when signing books. (Purists will surely forgive him, on learning that he’s just had to sign 2,000 flyleaves for his American publisher.)
One of the great joys of a quality fountain pen is that it can be as individual as its owner. Choose your colour, material, fittings and the nib, be it fine, medium or italic. Miss Cerdeirina even has a man who can grind a nib to the customer’s individual satisfaction.
Then, of course, there’s the ink. Today, there are hundreds of hues to choose from, with sparkling and even scented inks available. ‘Some people will choose a particular colour and use it as their “brand”,’ says Mr Adams.
For Mr McCall Smith, however, there is only one colour: ‘Rather like Henry Ford, I think black ink is hard to beat.’
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