All That Glitters…

“Say, how do like your new pen?”

It seems like a strightforward question, doesn’t it? But the answer you might get depends entirely on when you ask. Or, rather, in what era you asked.

Today, the answer might include details about the model, the colour, or the materials of which said pen is made. The proud owner might wax on about it’s rarity, heft, or it’s writing qualities.

But if you had asked that question 125 years ago, the answer would have been much, much different.

Gold pens=nibs, circa 1925.

Back in the early days of writing equipment, your “pen” meant only one thing: the nib. All else was just details; a means of holding the “pen”. In fact, early fountain pens were actually called “pen holders”, because that is all they were considered to be. And in many ways, that nib-centric way of viewing the world isn’t a bad one at all.

The nib is the most vital part of a pen. It is the interface between the user and the paper that will receive the message. A scratchy nib is a recipe for distraction. A nib which is damaged renders a pen useless, in a way that other repair issues may not. And opinions about nib sizes and qualities are the cause of many a heated debate in the fountain pen community.

So when it comes to our show pen, the nib is a big, big decision.

Philip “We can’t.”

David “What do you mean ‘we can’t’?”

Philip “It’s just too expensive. We can sell a pen for $275, but I just can’t see $600 going over too well. And that’s where we would have to be.”

David “But…it’s not a real pen if it’s not gold!”

Philip “I know. but there are some good steel nibs available. And Cyn suggested that, if we go with Jowo, people could just upgrade on their own.”

Nibs have always been important in pen manufacture; making one’s own nibs was often considered to be a graduation into serious business. The best pen makers were referred to as “first tier”, and they all made their own nibs, in-house.

So-called ‘nib meisters’ today are viewed as modern-day magicians, with mystique and arcane lore unknown by others. Similarly, the nib departments in the past were often viewed as being the most skilled of the entire work force. And for good reason.

Nib making combined the skill of jewellers with the knowledge of engineers and the tools of watch-makers. The materials were (and are) worth thousands of dollars for even small quantities. and even the smallest of mistakes could render a day’s work useless. Rolling out gold sheets; welding on tipping material; stamping, polishing and shaping the finished product: it was all done by hand. Expert hands.

History of Foleys Gold Pens: illustrated details of mid-1800s nib manufacture.

(“History of Foleys Gold Pens” is a lovely (and public domain) combination of catalogue and simple textbook, with fabulous illustrations of 19th century nib-making techniques and technology. Click on the blue book at left for a free pdf copy. It’s a lovely read.)

Today, almost all of the nibs in the world are made by just a handful of specialist companies. The best, by just two venerable German companies: Bock, and Jowo. And, much as it would be best to have a gold nib, if you have to settle for a steel one, you may as well get one from a firm which has been making them since the 1850s.

And, as Cynthia (a long-standing and enthusiastic member of the Toronto pen community) suggested, you can easily swap out a steel Jowo nib for a gold one. You just pull out the old one, and stick in the new one. The repairman in me both cringes, and cheers.

And, a good steel nib writes very well. Especially if it has proper tipping material welded on the end.

So, steel it is. It kind of glitters, when the light hits at just the right angle.