Category Archives: How Do I Start Collecting Pens?

Don’t Be Fooled by Fake Mont Blanc Pens

When you are the #1 selling maker of luxury pens, everyone will be chasing your brand, trying to emulate it. That is why the market is flooded with myriad knock-off Mont Blanc pens.

At a quick glance this looks like an authentic sterling silver Mont Blanc Classique, but MB never paints its logo on the pen like this fake has.

We’ve seen our share of them. They range in quality from obviously fake to nearly identical to the real thing. In fact, some fakes are so good, only Mont Blanc can tell the difference, which is why the company has an authentication service.

However, with a little research and careful observation, you can suss out the bulk of the fakes while saving a fortune on authentication fees.

The most common models in the Mont Blanc line up are known as Classiques and LeGrands (146 fountain pen), as well as the oversized fountain pen known as the 149. Mont Blanc makes the bulk of these pens from what they call a “precious resin,” sterling silver and plated and solid gold. The precious resin pens are trimmed in gold plate or platinum plate.

 

Look closely at the gold-plated clip band of the cap to see a finely machine engraved serial number.

There are 3 obvious details to search for when you look at a Mont Blanc pen made of precious resin. Since 1991, Mont Blanc has included a tiny serial number on the clip band of its pens. Only the very best fakes include a serial number, and that only started in more recent years. The vast majority of fakes leave out the serial number. It doesn’t help, that Mont Blanc actually reuses some of its serial numbers and didn’t keep the best records of who got which serial number and where the serial numbers were sent.

Another detail to look for on authentic Mont Blanc writing instruments is the word “Pix” written under the clip. It is nearly impossible to get a good photo of that with our lighting rig. However, starting around 1997, Mont Blanc began including that detail to help customers authenticate its pens. Of course, in recent years, the very best of the Mont Blanc replica makers have started including that feature. Yet, the vast majority of the fakes leave it out.

Black “precious resin” on a Mont Blanc is really a wine-red plastic when you hold it up against a really bright light source, as we did with this glass of wine.

Lastly, among the black pens, the precious resin has several special give aways to its authenticity. First, the black pens are not metal with a black paint job or lacquer. The precious resin is actually a very brittle plastic. Although it looks black, it is really a very deep wine red. If you hold it up to a very bright light source that won’t do any eye damage, you can see a deep red glow around the edge of the pen, much like this more easily seen red edge of this glass of wine. (My favorite blog homework assignment. I mean, I couldn’t let that glass go to waste.) This is generally the most difficult authentication test to perform, as you really need to catch the light just right…and not go blind in the process. Most fakes just use a normal black plastic or a metal barrel painted black.

 

This Mont Blanc Starwalker rollerball pen fake nearly had us convinced until we couldn’t fit an authentic MB refill in it.

Rollerball pens have an additional feature that helps you authenticate them: refills. Mont Blanc rollerball refills are specially threaded and screw into the barrel. Even some of the best fakes that we’ve seen, fail on the refill. The fakes might take a standard plug-in Schmidt-style 888 refill. The Mont Blanc Starwalker rollerball pen in the photo was one of the best fakes we had ever seen. It even came with a screw-in refill that said Mont Blanc, BUT it would not take a genuine MB rollerball refill. The guy who gave it to me after we couldn’t find a refill to fit it confessed he got it in China for only $25 and thought it was too good to be true. At least he wasn’t out a full retail price! That was about 11 years ago when we got it. Back then the crystal topper was clear, but now it also is discoloring, which the real ones won’t do.

Although boxes are easily found on eBay and other places, as a rule of thumb, if you see a pen being sold in its original box, then you are more likely to be dealing with the real thing. So many of the fakes don’t come with any boxes. Also be sure to check with the dealer. The well known pen vendors out there can be trusted to stock the authentic secondhand pens. However, you really might want to check the pen closely if you’re buying from someone at a flea market who knows nothing about pens or from a seller on an auction site that has lots of bad reviews or no reviews.

For pre-1990s Mont Blanc pens, there are myriad other ways to date and authenticate them. However, we shall save that for a future post.

How Do I Start Collecting Pens? Vintage vs. Modern

You can’t go wrong with vintage or modern pens. In either case, it is best to do a little research to know what to look for to get the best deal. It also helps to know if you intend to use or display them.

MODERN PENS

Most people who are new to collecting pens start with more modern pens, and this is a great place to start. When you buy new, you aren’t buying into any problems not covered by a warranty. Plus, you can frequently find less expensive pens that help you get acclimated to the hobby while satisfying your jones for awesome writing instruments. If you’re enjoying your TWSBIs, Kawecos, Heros and Lamys, just revel in the joy they bring and don’t let any pen snobs get you down.

Lamy calligraphy nibs range in size from 1.1mm to 1.9mm. Each provides a distinctive nuance to you handwriting. The Lamy Joy fountain pen set is a great way to try all three sizes for fewer than $70.

The aforementioned brands are all great places to build up a daily-use collection on a budget, and you typically get great steel nibs with the Lamy pens and TWSBIs. Experiment with nib sizes and inks. The more you write with them, the better you will understand characteristics of fountain pens such as smoothness, feedback, flex, flow and the size grips (In more technical fountain pen parlance, the part you grip is usually called the section.)  that feel best.

Once the collecting bug has bitten, you might be tempted to branch out into vintage users, luxury users or vintage or luxury collectible pens. We will get to vintage in a minute, but for now we’re sticking to modern.

Like any car you buy brand new, the second you buy a brand new luxury pen, its price drops the when you bring it home. If you buy new, you get all of the joy of being the first to use the pen and are guaranteed it will be displayed without any damage. Yet, there is a great deal of money to be saved by purchasing luxury pens from Cross to Montblanc on the second-hand market.

To safely buy second-hand, it is best to have two checklists of things to investigate before spending your hard-earned money: the dealer and the pen.

As far as dealers go, check to see if they are established and reputable. Ask around on social media forums. Investigate the website. Check out their social media accounts and reviews. Is there a return policy? Do the descriptions honestly address damage and wear on the pens? Some pens might be perfect and listed as new old stock. But if a pen was clearly a daily user and is still described as absolutely flawless, get suspicious. Ask questions of the dealer. Most should get back to you within a day, unless they are traveling to a pen show. Feel free to ask for more photos. If you are buying from an auction site, never pay “buy it now” prices, as they are usually hyperinflated. Check the seller’s rating. If they have a few hundred or more sales with a 98% or higher approval rating, you’re probably pretty safe. Some bad vendors just keep creating countless new accounts to shed their old bad ratings. Don’t be afraid to buy from a brand new auction vendor, but don’t go crazy-high bidding. Also, especially on auction sites, set a budget for a pen. Even some fairly rare pens come up pretty often. Don’t be afraid to let them go until the right one comes along for your budget.

Montblanc pens are often authenticated by their serial number, “Pix” written under the clip and by coming complete with their box and papers.

If you are buying a pen as a user, make certain that the pen is in good working order. Get a good description for how the nib writes. If you are buying for display, make sure the pen is complete with minimal or acceptable wear. If you are at a store or pen show, ask to dip the nib and give the pen a scribble. Research ways to authenticate that the pen is not a fake. Most modern Montblanc pens since the mid-1990s have a serial number on the clip band, the word “Pix” in high relief under the clip and various models have other telltale signs of authenticity. For example: The black “precious resin” of the caps and barrels is really a translucent merlot red when held to sunlight or another strong light source. Most fakes of any brand also don’t have the original box and papers. Pens with boxes and papers typically carry a premium compared to ones that don’t.

VINTAGE PENS

Do not be daunted by the world of vintage pens. It is a ton of fun. Start slow. Get a feel for what you are doing. Do lots of research, and grow as you feel more and more comfortable. Unless you are independently wealthy, don’t start by spending $1,200 on a mandarin yellow Parker Duofold Senior that needs a complete overhaul. Start safely with a few fully restored $50 Parkers, Sheaffers or even Esterbrooks.

Sheaffer’s early nibs of the 1920s featured heart-shaped breather holes. Who says fountain pens aren’t romantic.

There are tons of great books and websites dedicated to vintage pens that can help point you in the right direction. Whether you want to restore, write or display, it won’t take long to get into the swing of vintage. Plus, most of these pens were designed specifically for daily use. Hardcore vintage pen lovers are convinced their nibs are better than most modern nibs. Plus the pens are more lightweight and designed not to let you cramp up during the writing of a long letter or journal entry.

Unless you are collecting for display, it is vital to know if the pen has been restored before you purchase it. Restored pens will cost more than unrestored, but there is no worse surprise than thinking you’re buying something that works only to discover it doesn’t. Even vintage new-old-stock pens might have some wear from rattling around a desk or drawer, so be sure to know what type of damage it has. Also find out about the pen’s nib? Is it original and/or in great working order? What size line does it write? When buying online this can be tough to gauge. The dealer might honestly find it is perfectly smooth because of the angle she or he writes, and you might write from a different angle that has feedback with the same nib.

If buying a vintage pen in person, always ask to see the pen before you pick it up. It is a very nice courtesy that saves dealers many broken or misplaced pens. When examining it, look it over closely for wear, discoloration and stains. Gently place the cap on your thumbnail and pretend to screw the pen on to your thumb. If there is a crack, your thumbnail will likely snag on it long before you can see it. Run your thumbnail over the threads of the barrel, too. Some cracks hide there, too. Ask to gently work the filler without ink to make sure it works. Again, ask to dip the nib to see how it writes. Try to get as close to your usual writing position as possible. Also check to see the strength of the barrel and/or cap imprints. Is there brass shining through the gold plate on the clip, cap band or lever?

PRICING

Comparison shopping is easier than ever in the age of the internet. Every site has its own pricing strategy, some offer better deals on certain pens than others. Follow pens on auctions sites to see what they are going for, too. You can even look up pens and check their “sold price.”

Mandarin Parker Duofolds are very fragile and rare. They are among the most expensive vintage Parker Duofolds.

If you see what look like two similar pens of drastically different prices, feel free to contact the vendor to ask why. Sometimes, subtle differences between pens can have huge effects on the price. One orange hard rubber senior Parker Duofold with two cap bands might look almost identical to the same pen in an early orange hard plastic, but their prices are going to be vastly different. (The old orange hard rubber is a lot rarer and more expensive.)

 

BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS

Dealers are not usually hard, cruel keepers of pens. We like getting to know our customers. Don’t be afraid to e-mail or call with questions. If you build a good relationship with a dealer, they are likely to keep a lookout for pens you want at better bargains…giving you the first option to buy. Who doesn’t love dibs on great pens before the rest of the public can see them?!

How Do I Start Collecting Pens? Know Thy Obsession

Starting a pen collection isn’t always easy. There are soooooo many great pens out there in need of a good home. Where do you begin?

There is no right or wrong way to begin, but sometimes it helps to narrow your options.

Do you like dip pens, fountain pens, ballpoint pens or rollerball pens? Do you prefer vintage pens or modern? Do you want to write with them? If so, do you want to use them for everyday writing or do you want to perform calligraphy or Spencerian scripts? Do you just love their design and aesthetic? Are you collecting for an investment? Are you looking to make an impression during special signing ceremonies? Are you dedicated to a specific period in history and only want pens to go with what is perhaps a larger collection of that era? Do you love to tinker with things and want to learn the art of pen restoration? Do you simply love the fact that millions and millions of dollars were spent researching and designing many complicated ways to fill a fountain pen with ink?

It is not unusual at all to find yourself drawn to one or more of these questions. Over the course of this series we will begin breaking down each of these questions and discuss the pertinent issues with each of them, along with other elements of collecting pens.

TYPES OF PENS

Defining the four major types of pens is a good way to find common understanding and definitions of what you are interested in collecting. Most of this might be what many of you already know, but you would be surprised by how many people are still learning. I especially want to encourage people to learn as much as they can about this fun hobby…and obsession.

Some dip pens are made of glass, gold, silver, wood and even ivory.

This is a modern dip pen made of Murano glass. It is great for testing new inks.

Dip pens are the most basic type of pens that use water-based inks. You can still find many beautiful examples dating back as far as the 1700s when ornate metal pens began replacing feathered quills. A dip pen can be typically made of metals, glass, wood or ivory. The writing point is called a nib, which was usually made of gold, glass or steel. To write, you simply dipped the nib in ink and started scribbling. Depending on the pen, you could write about two to ten words per dip. You can find many base-level dip pens with steel nibs for around $1. Yet, some dip pens are ornately made with silver, gold, mother of pearl, ivory and other precious materials. Big flexible gold nibs from the late 1800s are prized for their ability to create works of art with the Spencerian handwriting method.

FUN FACT: The famous American Civil War historian Shelby Foote wrote the rough draft to his extensive two-volume history of the war using an authentic Civil War-era dip pen and period appropriate nibs! He said he did it to feel a closer connection with the people about whom he was writing and to slow himself down to really think about what he was writing.

Fountain pens, also known as ink pens, use gold or steel nibs like dip pens, but these pens were the first to carry an internal reservoir of water-based ink. Originally made of hard rubber, these pens first came on to the scene in the late 19th century. Fountain pens seemed to enter their glory days in the 1920s through the 1950s. Myriad mechanical systems were invented to fill a pen with ink. Pumps, levers, buttons, pneumatics, diaphragms, pistons, cartridges and converters have all been used to load a pen with ink. Another feature unique to fountain pens was the inkfeed. This is a special assembly under then nib that delivers ink to the nib while regulating its flow. Typically, fountain pens can hold 8 to 12 legal pad pages worth of ink. Some pens can hold a lot more ink and others much less.

American author Samuel Clemens, who wrote under the pen name Mark Twain, was the spokesman for the Conklin Pen Company in 1903.

FUN FACT: Mark Twain was the first celebrity to be paid to endorse a pen company. The Conklin company of Toledo, Ohio, paid him to speak well of their Conklin Crescent. Twain claimed he liked their early fountain pen best because it carried its own ink reserve, and its crescent-shaped filling system prevented the pen from rolling off his desk. He left out the fact that he was the first author to ever write a novel on the marvelous new invention called the typewriter…and had no intention of going back to pens to write novels. Faster and ultimately easier to use and easier to read than a fountain pen, both writing instruments remained vital for myriad needs.

Ballpoint pens were first invented during World War II. Fountain pens use water-based inks drawn, normally, from glass inkwells. They are also gravity fed. Thus, while running around under fire in combat, it is difficult to keep your pen from making a mess and your inkwell to keep from breaking. A ballpoint pen uses a (typically) tungsten ball bearing at the base of a cartridge full of oil-based ink. The ink is more viscous and less likely to slop around and make a mess. The ball lets the pen write on most any surface. The early generation ballpoints had a lot of issues, primarily due to the ink drying too quickly inside the cartridge. Yet, once ink cartridges were perfected, these pens became infinitely cheaper and easier to mass produce than traditional fountain pens. The ink lasted much longer, dried instantly on the page and took a much longer time to dry out inside the cartridge. Soon the pens were gussied up with great designs that employed twists, clicks and caps to protect their writing points. These days, ballpoint pens rarely have caps and are more readily identified by being either twist or click pens.

FUN FACT: Parker first introduced its Jotter model click ballpoint pen in the 1950s, and it is still one of the most popularly sold ballpoint pens today!

Rollerball pens were the last major evolution of pen designs. Many pen users found that they missed the smooth, fast-writing action of water-based ink but preferred the ballpoint style compared to fountain pens. As such, the rollerball was born. It combined the best of both worlds by having cartridges that hold water-based ink that is delivered with a very smooth, fast and efficient ballpoint.

What type of pen is your favorite?

Me? I love all pens, but my greatest passion is for fountain pens. After discovering my late grandfather’s Sheaffer Lifetime when I was 9, I was hooked. It wrote better than anything I had ever experienced. I was a particularly strange child. I clearly remember resenting my first grade teacher who made us write with pencils. Dirty, ever-shrinking and inconsistent pencils. The sloppy, ugly stains left by erased mistakes. “Only adults can use pens,” my first through third grade teachers insisted. I genuinely resented them for it, and I routinely asked special permission to use pens on homework that was especially important. Weirder still, I would try to rally my classmates in protest of pencils. Honest to God! And I resented them when they preferred pencils and being shackled with the label of irresponsible children not yet ready for something as clean, dignified and mature as pens. I actually rejoiced when Ms. Bartuce permitted those of us with especially neat handwriting to use ballpoint pens toward the end of fourth grade.

You can ask my parents. I am not making this up.

I never dared bring my precious fountain pens to school, but I was particularly devoted to my clickable Parker Jotter in junior high. When I was an exchange student in Germany during my junior year of high school, all of my classmates saved up their money to drink themselves blind in a country that served alcohol at 16. Me? I knew that most Germans still use fountain pens and that I could get real bargains on brand new fountain pens that would be way too expensive in the U.S. Instead of getting drunk every night, I insisted my host family take me to a quality stationary store where I fell in love with an elegant stub-nibbed Rotring. (I wasn’t totally square. I also fell madly in love with a beautiful blonde fraulein who liked me as much as I liked her. We just never drank to the point of vomiting in the gutter.)