Penman No. 349: Pen Hunting in Japan

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Penman for Monday, April 15, 2019

 

MOST TOURISTS visit Japan, sensibly enough, for the sushi, the sakura, and the swords. I like all of the above, and chased after all of them during our recent trip to Tokyo (a highlight was seeing a 13th-c. Masamune katana at the Tokyo National Museum). But I had one more item on my personal agenda that I couldn’t possibly leave Japan without—or at least, without looking for it.

That desideratum, of course, was the fountain pen, and there’s a very good reason why fountain pens should be on the discriminating tourist’s Japanese shopping list. Just as they’ve excelled in practically all the arts and crafts, the Japanese have made some of the world’s best fountain pens, many with uniquely Japanese materials and production processes, and some very special nibs.

With fountain pens undergoing a global resurgence in both the corporate and personal spheres as instruments of individuation—a means by which you can literally leave your own signature on a stack of digitized documents, and set yourself apart from the ballpoint-clicking herd—many Filipinos now know familiar American brands like Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. Lawyers and doctors typically want German-made Montblancs, and might even try Pelikans, Lamys, and Faber-Castells. But a growing number of mostly young professionals have discovered the Japanese Big Three—Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum—as well as newer brands like the Taiwanese TWSBI. They’ve been helped along by the emergence of local fountain pen, ink, and stationery specialists like Scribe Writing Essentials, Everything Calligraphy, Noteworthy, and PenGrafik.

The Japanese pens I was looking for in Tokyo exist in a whole other realm of connoisseurship. These are artisanal masterpieces, the culmination of centuries of fine workmanship. I’ve often said that pens fascinate me as the perfect fusion of art and engineering, and nothing exemplifies that more than the best Japanese pens. You’d think that the Japanese would be more inclined toward brushes—and they still may be—but a fine pen is considered a personal treasure, as distinct as the swords carried by the samurai of old.

In 2002, Pilot Pen Company—one of Japan’s pen pioneers—opened a pen museum at its headquarters in Kyobashi. Beng and I made a beeline for it, walking the couple of kilometers from the Tsukiji Fish Market, only to discover to our dismay that it had closed a few years earlier. But Tokyo’s fabled pen shops are in themselves museums, and more, so armed with a 72-hour subway pass, we made the rounds of the usual suspects. (Earlier, at the Tokyo City Flea Market in Shinagawa, I had treated myself to a defective but repairable Pelikan M805, a Pilot Custom 74, and a prewar Pilot with a flexible shiro steel nib.)

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A fountain pen tourist’s first stop in Tokyo should be Itoya in Ginza. Japan’s oldest stationery store, Itoya has a whole floor devoted just to fountain pens, and not just your everyday Sheaffer either but the very finest examples of Japanese penmaking. The Japanese pride themselves in the art of maki-e (literally, “sprinkled picture”), which involves creating intricate designs with gold dust and hand painting on ebonite or hard-rubber barrels and caps, on which many layers of hard urushi lacquer are applied. In the 1920s, Pilot—then known as Namiki—partnered with Dunhill to create exquisite examples of urushi/maki-e pens, which have since sold for over $250,000. These urushi and maki-e pens—now also produced by such makers as Nakaya, Danitrio, and Hakase, aside from the Big Three—are hand-made by master craftsmen in small shops, and are typically ordered months ahead. Or you can go to Itoya (or online, to www.nibs.com or www.penchalet.com, among others) to find yours.

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A couple of blocks away from Itoya is Eurobox, a small room on the fourth floor of an old building stocked full of vintage pens, mainly Western, very well chosen and sold at competitive prices. Another must-see is Maruzen’s large pen section at the basement of its Nihonbashi store. And no Tokyo pen visit would be complete without stepping into Kingdom Note in Shinjuku, which specializes in used but top-tier pens, both Japanese and Western. One pen store that takes and ships orders for Pilot urushi pens with special nibs like the so-called Waverley and Falcon nibs is Tokyo Pen Shop Quill in Kugahara, which unfortunately we missed because we took an express instead of a local train on our last full day in Tokyo.

That diversion turned out to be serendipitous, because Beng and I got off on a whim at Sengakuji Station, only to realize that we were within walking distance of the graves of the famous 47 ronin who had attacked and beheaded a despotic ruler in 1702, paying for their deed with their own lives. As we paid our respects to these noble warriors under the cherry blossoms, I seemed to hear voices urging me to “Buy a big Japanese pen to fight evil overlords!”

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So off we went to our last pen stop, Komehyo Ginza. Komehyo is a resale chain that sells mostly high-end used goods but also some new items, including fountain pens, and this was where I found my “grail” pen, by which I was going to remember Japan this time around—a large, new, and thankfully affordable urushi Platinum Izumo pen, its deep red undertone sheening through the rich lacquer. As with many things Japanese, it’s simplicity itself, but breathtakingly elegant. Unlike some places we know, Japanese stores accord their customers extraordinarily solicitous service—you can hold and try out any pen you want for as long as you want without any dagger looks from the staff—and even Komehyo lived up to that standard, processing my 8 percent tourist rebate without any fuss (a few stores ignore it, or require you to collect it at the airport).

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As we flew home with the Izumo sitting smartly in my pocket, I munched on my 100-yen rice crackers from Daiso, and dreamed about whipping out my pen and slashing a few bile-filled throats in the name of truth, beauty, and justice.

(Top pen images from http://www.nibs.com)

 

Penman No. 345: Sheening, Shimmering, Splendid

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Penman for Monday, March 18, 2019

 

I’VE BEEN writing in this column about the recent resurgence of fountain pens, a phenomenon well documented by mainstream, social, and business media like the BBC, the Chicago Tribune, and the Advertising Specialty Institute, which have noted that a whole new generation is turning on to the vintage vibe, of which pens are a part. That vibe, in turn, comes from the need—especially among the young—for more self-expression in an increasingly homogenized and digitized world.

There are few things more personal and more personalized than writing with a pen—and not just with any pen but a fountain pen. Ballpoints and rollerballs will yield the same F, M, or B line, with the same black or blue inks. But with fountain pens, you have a wide range of nibs—the writing point of pens—to produce different results and experiences, from extra-fine to triple-broad, from stiff and stingy to flexible and flowy. In the end, the pen you choose and use, both in terms of form and function, will be distinctly and distinctively you.

And it doesn’t stop with the pen itself, which is popular enough (on any given day, on eBay, you will find more than 100,000 fountain pens listed). To customize the writing experience further, you can now choose from hundreds of inks on the market, a sub-industry also re-energized by the fountain pen revival.

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We seniors will remember that, when we were growing up and working on our first jobs, we never had much of a choice in inks—it was either Parker Quink or Sheaffer Skrip (both of which are still being produced, by the way), in black or blue-black, and occasionally green, red, or royal blue. Pens and inks were meant for use at work, in school, and at home, not really to be enjoyed or collected, although some esoteric inks, like Sheaffer’s gorgeously vivid Persian Rose from the 1950s, are now regarded like rare fine wines.

With fountain pens becoming more of a lifestyle choice or fashion statement than everyday tools, inks have acquired designer status as well, and more than a dozen companies now manufacture and distribute their inks worldwide to cater to users looking for ever more unique swatches and signatures. Brands like Noodler’s, Diamine, Rohrer & Klingner, Akkerman, Private Reserve, J. Herbin, Iroshizuku, Organics Studio, de Atramentis, and Robert Oster compete with the more familiar in-house inks of major pen companies like Parker, Sheaffer, Montblanc, Pelikan, Waterman, Aurora, Pilot, and Sailor, among others.

Color is, of course, the most important determinant of choice. Fogies like me tend to stick to the old black, blue-black, and brown, but millennials prizing individuality won’t think twice about—and will even seek out—splashy hues and special effects. Where we just wanted our inks to be either washable or indelible, the new inks offer add-on qualities and properties previously unheard of. Two of those most popular features are sheen and shimmer—sheen (as in Robert Oster Fire and Ice) being the presence of more than one color in the same bottle of ink, with one color serving as the base and another as a shiny highlight, and shimmer (as in J. Herbin’s Rouge Hematite) being the addition of glittery metallic particles to the ink. These two can even be combined in some inks. The result will often be more art than penmanship, an enjoyment of colored ink almost for its own sake above anything else. (You’ll also note that ink names have gone far beyond “Permanent Blue” to something as flamboyant as Noodler’s purplish Black Swan in Australian Roses and J. Herbin’s orangey 1798 Cornaline d’Egypte.)

 

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It’s liberating, in a way, because people—especially young students and professionals who have yet to get their first Montblanc—can indulge themselves in ink-play without splurging on high-ticket pens. For a thousand pesos, you could get a fistful of entry-level pens (easily available on Lazada and Shopee, among other sources online, aside from local retailers like Scribe Writing Essentials, Pen Grafik, and NBS) and focus your spending on a menagerie of inks. Do note that milliliter for milliliter, a bottle of specialty ink could cost much more than an equivalent volume of quality wine or scotch.

Color aside, other factors come into play in ink selection. How “wet” or “dry” is the ink? Will it “feather” or “bleed through” on cheap paper? (Paper deserves its own column, being another key factor in the writing experience; happily, inexpensive but fountain-pen-friendly paper can be found in local bookstores). Even bottle design matters—you might buy Iroshizuku and Akkerman inks as much for their iconic bottles as for their contents.

The best news of all is that some pretty fantastic (and fantastically pretty) inks are now being made locally—designed, blended, manufactured, and distributed by Filipinos. Two brands in particular stand out: Troublemaker Inks (troublemakerinks.com), concocted by two young Cebu-based guys and bearing such names as Bantayan Turquoise and Luneta Twilight Pink, and Vinta Inks (inksbyvinta.com), launched just last week by Everything Calligraphy, in such varieties as Sandugo 1565 and Leyte 1944. “We hope to export our proudly Philippine-made inks soon,” says EC’s Jillian Joyce Tan.

And well we should. Pinoys love color, and short of carrying and wielding a brush, we can’t have more fun with color on paper than with these new inks—sheening, shimmering, splendid. (With many thanks to Chiyo-chan Sakamoto, Nicole Angelique Sanchez, Lorraine Marie Nepomuceno, and Troublemaker Inks for the images.)

 

 

 

Penman No. 335: Senior Moments

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Penman for Monday, January 7, 2019

 

BEFORE ANYTHING else, I’d like to put in a word of praise for the only movie that my wife Beng and I really wanted to see among the entries to the recent Metro Manila Film Festival, Joel Lamangan’s Rainbow’s Sunset, a film about two gay old men on the brink of death and of the family around them. I’ve often said that in our youth- and gimmick-centered culture, we don’t have enough movies (or books and songs, for that matter) about old people, and not enough intelligent movies, either.

 Rainbow’s Sunset satisfies both criteria, offering a sensitive, often comic, in-your-face portrayal of the undiminished decades-old love between two men—and of the woman who loves them both—without losing sight of the very real complications it creates for others, no matter how sympathetically inclined. It’s a project that could very easily have given in to caricature and condescension, but it doesn’t. The acting performances are solid and engaging, both individually and as an ensemble. Aside from the lead actors Eddie Garcia and Tony Mabesa, of course, Gloria Romero and the three children—Tirso Cruz, Aiko Melendez, and Sunshine Dizon—are a delight to watch.

It’s far from a perfect movie—I find the title a bit strained (I get it, I get it) and there are a few off-key notes in the drama—but the minor flaws shouldn’t take much away from its overarching achievement. It will probably be gone from the mainstream theaters by the time this comes out, but it deserves more than passing notice, and I hope it leads to more good movies about seniors, who should know a thing or two about love and life.

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SPEAKING OF seniors, I started the New Year in the best and the worst possible way: by buying an old pen, I suppose as a late Christmas or early birthday gift to myself, but whatever the excuse, I’m happy, because it was one of the last of what we collectors call our “grail” pens (as in “Holy Grail”), something I had been dreaming about for, oh, thirty years.

I woke up early on January 1, and like most of us do, I picked up my phone to scan my messages—nothing too interesting there beyond the predictable plethora of New Year greetings. And then, unlike most of us, my digits drifted off to the fountain pen sites, just to see what people could be possibly up to. There is such a thing as a global fountain-pen community (just as there’s an antique typewriter community, a wristwatch community, a Japan-surplus community, and an Apple community—and yes, I belong to all of those, too), and it’s become my virtual hangout online.

Unlike real friends, with whom you have to chug beers and trade miserable stories that inevitably involve retirement options, Metformin, and political sleaze, these thing-centered, Web-based communities offer mostly good cheer and kind intentions. Sure, we get our share of jerks and trolls, but they’re pretty easy to weed out with a few keystrokes. These sites are the best distraction I can find from the front-page news (let’s not get started on that, shall we?), and they offer something often lost in today’s Twitter-driven dystopia: a sense of wonder and discovery, and for an aging romantic like me, an enchantment with things past. I know that we keep bemoaning how consumerism has turned us into heartless, mindless brutes, but you’ll be surprised how people can be their nicest, most civil, and most helpful selves when talking about flexing vintage Waterman nibs, locating the tension lever on an Olivetti Lettera 22, and using Stage Light in Portrait Mode on an iPhone X.

But all that’s a long excuse for treating myself in my creeping old age—I’ll hit 65 and retire in two weeks—with a new old pen. “Senior moments” are supposed to be about forgetting things, but they should also be about remembering things, chiefly that life is short and keeps getting shorter, which means that any treats you deserve or expect had better come sooner rather than later.

The fountain pen I grabbed when I saw it was a (hold your breath) Wahl-Eversharp Personal Point Gold Seal Deco Band Oversize in woodgrain ebonite with a factory 14K stub nib—meaning a large, fancy, impressive-looking pen with gold trim, great for loopy signatures and maybe for stabbing malevolent strangers in the dark (but with a stub or flat nib, it won’t do much damage). A 25-peso ballpoint will probably write better for most people, but with all due respect to most people, I’m a bit odd in some ways.

In its time, the W-E Deco Band was among the classiest of them all, alongside the Parker Duofold Senior and the Waterman Patrician—think Duesenbergs, Auburns, and Bugattis in terms of 1920s cars. This pen I got survived wars (and worse, people with clumsy hands), and given a few weeks, it will make its way from Pennsylvania to California and then to me. It won’t write a novel—maybe it’ll sign a few greeting cards—but even just sitting in my pocket, it will make a boy from Romblon feel like the Great Gatsby, for once in his Nick-Carrawayish life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Penman No. 264: The First Filipino Pen

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Penman for Monday, August 15, 2017

 

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about the objects that gave this column its title—my fountain pens—so I’ll indulge myself after many weeks of hardcore arts-and-culture pieces to talk about my favorite pastime. Pens, after all, are both technological and cultural tools without which civilization and knowledge could not have advanced over the past millennium. Just imagine Shakespeare or Einstein without pen and ink, and you’ll see what I mean.

With that excuse out of the way, let me report that for the past year or so, I’ve considered myself semi-retired as far as pen collecting is concerned. Where I used to pick up two to three pens a month, I haven’t (until very recently) bought a pen in half a year; more than that, I’ve sold off much of my collection, bringing down what once would have been around 300 vintage and modern pens to less than half that. I plan to reduce that further to a core of about 50 that I can pass on to my sole heiress, Demi, who will inherit no tracts of land or shares of stock or certificates of deposit, only colorful tubes of plastic and metal with pointed ends and messy blobs.

My most recent acquisitions could hardly even be called spectacular, save one. Off eBay, I picked up two pen-and-pencil sets of Parker Vacumatics from the early 1940s, because they came in the less-common azure pearl color and at a price hard to resist. Last month in California, poking around our usual haunts in the antique malls and flea markets around San Diego, I landed a Montblanc 22 and a Parker 21 from the 1960s, an Esterbrook from around 1940, and a Sheaffer Targa rollerball from the mid-1970s (yes, I keep a few rollerballs around, for filling in those immigration and customs forms on which fountain-pen ink tends to run because of bad paper).

Many people, even those more used to cheap (but perfectly good) ballpoints, have some idea what “Montblanc” is, so let me just demonstrate why it’s important to know what you’re looking for. I saw that near-mint MB displayed in a cabinet in a shop in San Diego, with a tag that said, “Not sure if it works,” which probably explained the very reasonable price of $48. That’s about a third of what this pen—in very good shape and working condition—would go for online. (The 22 is a lower-end but still attractive model and not the fat, cigar-shaped 149 that most people rightfully associate with Montblanc, which sells in the boutiques for about $700 but which you can get, slightly used, for half that price on eBay, if you’re a risk-taker and bottom-feeder like me.)

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The seller probably couldn’t make it work because he or she didn’t know how: the 22 is a piston-operated pen, requiring the turning of a knob at its end, and you can see the piston rise and fall in a see-through window on the barrel. That’s how I tested the pen and why I bought it without hesitation (intending to resell it later, but when Beng remarked how nice it was, she instantly became its new owner). In other words—and every collector, every picker of every little thingy from vintage Hamiltons to bird stamps knows this—knowledge pays.

So the MB was a great score, but the piece de resistance of this andropausal batch was truly one of a kind. Filipinos have been among the world’s most avid and most knowledgeable pen users and collectors (we have hundreds of members at fpnp.org), but until recently, no one has ever made one. (We found an advertisement for a “Rizal” pen from the 1920s, but it was likely a British or American pen rebranded for the local market—and yes, I’d happily pay for a specimen!)

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That changed when I got a call from one of our members, a bright young man and newly minted MD by the name of Mark del Rosario, who enjoys tinkering with pens, blades, and lathes in his home workshop when he’s not preparing for his internship as a neurologist. Mark had been fascinated by nibs (the pen’s writing point) and had been modifying them to produce different lines, but when he presented me with a box at our meeting and when I opened it, I saw that he had gone much farther than just toying with steel tips—because there was the first fully functional fountain pen ever made by a Filipino, a prototype handcrafted by Mark in frosted acrylic and sporting a lovely smooth German-made Jowo (“yo-vo”) nib. And he was giving it to me for my collection, to honor me as a prime purveyor of our common addiction.

I couldn’t congratulate and thank Mark enough, so I’ll say it here: finding a 1960s Montblanc in California for less than $50 was good, but being gifted with the first Filipino pen by its maker is incalculably better. The only bad thing about it is that now I’m looking at pens again….

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Penman No. 219: The Chase and the Company

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Penman for Monday, October 3, 2016

 

THERE COMES a time in every collector’s life when he or she realizes that the road has suddenly ended—that there’s hardly anything more to be found, no further byway to be explored. It’s a sad acknowledgment but also in some ways a relief, knowing that one’s disposable income (and better yet, one’s savings) can go to more prosaic but in all likelihood more practical objects—a roof repair, or new tires for the car, or a larger fridge, all long overdue.

None of those, of course, will quite compare with the gleam of a 1786 Carolus III dos reales or an early edition of the Noli or Fili, or a 1950s Mercedes 180 (nothing too special, just one of my favorites) tucked away in an old garage. Or, in my case, a 1936 Wahl Eversharp Coronet, widely upheld to be the “acme of Art Deco pen design.” I’ve lusted after a Coronet in more than 30 years of pen collecting, even keeping a picture of it in my burned-out Faculty Center office, and maybe came close to acquiring it once. But like all “grail” pens, it remained a wisp of a dream, within tantalizing sight but always beyond one’s feeble grasp.

I knew I’d come to the end of my collecting road when the thought struck me the other day that if a Coronet were to be offered to me tomorrow for a reasonable price, I would probably smile and politely decline, preferring to keep it a pretty phantom forever. If I actually held it in my hand it might seem dull and stale, its Pyralin inserts (whimsically described as “Dubonnet red”) somehow lacking in the fire of fantasy.

Come to think of it, I’ve bought only two or three pens over the past three months—at least one of them for resale—when I used to acquire one almost every week. At its peak three or four years ago, my collection of vintage and modern pens numbered more than 300, ranging from the 1890s to the present and representing many of the best pens of every period (excepting the Coronet), by brand and model. It was a collection put together over many years of patient pursuit, of moving up from one model to the next tier, of selling five average pens to buy a first-rate one, of foregoing ampler lunches in my grad-school days in the American Midwest to be able to afford mid-range Parker Duofolds, Vacumatics, and 51s.

Some of those early buys turned out to be bargains and lifetime keepers. Back in 1987, I agonized for a week over whether to purchase an ebony Wahl Eversharp Doric from 1934—another Art-Deco icon, with a 12-sided cap and barrel and a latticed cap band—for the princely sum of $28. Thankfully beauty won over economy and I still keep the Doric, now easily ten times its purchase price.

Another classic I found at a Milwaukee antique shop in 1990 for a small fraction of its true value was a Parker Duofold Senior in Mandarin Yellow, a large fat pen from the mid-1920s, much sought after for the rarity of its color. Bought for $68, I had to resell it a year later for $380—still well below what it would fetch today—when I was living on turkey backs and trash fish on my meager stipend. And how can I forget the gorgeous 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy red which I found in Edinburgh in 1994 and based my “Penmanship” story on?

It was stories like these that kept my interest in collecting alive, almost as much as the pens themselves, the remaining 150 or so of which I can’t possibly all use and learn to love, even if I rotated them every other day. I still value my best pens as marvels of both art and engineering, which also just happen to lay exquisitely shaded lines and whorls of glorious ink on fallow paper.

I suppose the end began a couple of years ago, when I turned 60. I started selling pens from my collection—even pens I had kept for over 25 years—to allow the members of our pen club, especially our millennial newbies, the privilege of owning and writing with something their grandparents may have used. That’s also when I began using my best pens, like the Montblanc Agatha Christie, on a regular basis—a bit like driving a Rolls to the 7-11—but my reasoning was, as we UP people like to say, if not now, when? What might have been ostentation at age 35 can now only be fondness in a senior, and the silver-snake-clipped Agatha gives me sublime pleasure even in the pocket, and many times more so when I sign my name—even on office forms—with its double-broad stub nib and sepia ink.

Such, I think, are the pleasures of aging, when one turns from sheer accumulation to discernment, and to the dawning acceptance of the finitude of all things, including and especially material objects, no matter how lovely and intricate and painstakingly acquired, be they pens, cars, watches, or Persian carpets.

Whereas I used to check eBay literally a dozen times a day (employing a special search term to ferret out the most desirable vintage pens), today I hardly blink when, say, a 1928 Parker Big Red sails under my nose for less than $100—let someone enjoy the bargain, as I’ve done myself many times. It was the hunt that kept me in the game, but I’ve learned that spotting the target but letting someone else take the shot could be just as satisfying.

In what was likely my last big pen adventure, a few months ago, I found another of my “grail” pens—the much-coveted Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992—being sold online for about half its usual price (if you really want to know how much these babies cost, try Google). The seller was in Malaysia—reason, perhaps, for Western buyers suspicious of anything too far East to shy away, but to me a heaven-sent circumstance.

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I closed the deal (drawing deeply on my savings, but what the heck, a Hemingway appreciates better than a time deposit) and, in a moment of inspiration, I did some quick computing and figured that it was only marginally more expensive and a lot safer to fly out to KL on a budget fare and pick up the pen personally the next day than to entrust everything to PayPal and a courier service. And that’s what I did. I always enjoy KL for whatever excuse takes me there, but I daresay no Argonaut ever crossed the South China Sea just to pick up an orphaned Hemingway and bring it home. (To be honest, it’s my second Hemingway—I use the other one, the gift of a generous friend, exclusively to grade student papers, in a bright orange ink.)

Over the next few years, I’ll be trying to bring down my remaining stash to an absolute core of about two dozen pens, which will be our daughter Demi’s inheritance from me (sorry, anak, no tracts of sugarland or bubbleback Rolexes here). They won’t necessarily be the most expensive pens—Demi can sell those off, if I don’t—but the ones most laden with story, blobbing like ink at the very top of the nib, eager to be disgorged. It’s been a privilege playing steward to these fine shapers of fine words, and I may miss the chase but not yet the company.

Penman No. 188: Risk and Reward in the Collectibles Market

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Penman for Monday, February 22, 2016

 

 

I’M GOING to be talking a lot about pens in the next paragraphs, so you might think of turning away if they hold no interest for you, but this is really about collecting and purchasing decisions as a whole, and could just as well apply to cars, watches, Star Wars figurines, and whatever else people hoard in their inner sanctums. If you’ve been bitten by the collecting bug, do read on.

Dr. Jonathon Deans is an Australian economist who specializes in the study of energy and commodity markets, and who teaches economics at the University of Newcastle. But away from his day job, Jonathon pursues a hobby with equal passion: collecting fountain pens. And unlike most of his fellow stylophiles (the fancy word for the addiction) who simply chase after and gloat over their inky toys, Dr. Deans has managed to merge his two interests by running a highly regarded blog on “Pen Economics” (www.peneconomics.com), tracking and discussing the vicissitudes of the global market for writing instruments.

Jonathon happened to be in town these past two months to accompany his partner Lisa, a Colombo Plan fellow and Development Economics student at De La Salle University, whose Economics department is headed by Dr. Gerardo “Bombit” Largoza—by uncanny coincidence, another fountain-pen collector and fellow member of Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org). This happy confluence led to DLSU sponsoring a well-attended lecture two Saturdays ago by Dr. Deans at La Salle on “Adventures in the Fountain Pen Economy.” (He’s left for now, but will be back in April.)

Jonathon explained that central to the economics of the matter is the idea of price vs. value, and where value (how strongly we desire the product) exceeds price, a purchase will likely be made. I listened with great interest and some amusement to his observation that many buyers of modern pens are risk-averse. He admitted that he was one such person himself, and noted further that he valued a close relationship with his favorite pen dealer—even at the cost of paying a certain premium over regular prices—because of the many benefits afforded by such relationships, chiefly personalized service and unparalleled solicitude.

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I couldn’t agree more with Jonathon (who gave a brilliantly comprehensive and insightful overview of the global fountain pen industry and particularly of our behavior as consumers). My amusement, however, came from my realization that while we thought alike on many important things (like our shared love of the Montblanc Ernest Hemingway, a pen considered a “holy grail” by many collectors), we differed in a few basic respects, particularly my greater willingness to take risks, to navigate the choppy waters of eBay to fish for rare species of vintage pens. But then, of course, I’m a poker player, so am more comfortable with taking calculated risks (and losing as well, because of over-optimistic calculations). My collection contains mostly vintage Parkers and modern Montblancs, so I found myself asking, what makes consumers favor one over the other?

The risks in buying, say, a 1928 Parker Duofold vs. a brand-new Parker Premier seem obvious. The modern pen should be shiny and trouble-free, and if it shows any problems or defects will be replaced under warranty. Being older than your grandfather, a vintage pen could be broken, leaky, warped, or missing parts, or otherwise difficult to operate, maintain, and repair.

So why do vintage buyers and collectors seem more willing to take more risks, and even court them? One trade-off is a generally lower cost. If the items work or if you can make them work, then they will likely be well worth their price. But there are also unquantifiable values to be added to vintage objects, values that help account for their allure: the cachet of age and relative scarcity or even rarity, the history of the object itself and its provenance, and materials and workmanship you won’t find on the modern factory floor.

In buying vintage collectibles, risk can be reduced by knowledge. For the highly knowledgeable buyer or collector, who will be aware of the common pitfalls of the vintage trade, the opportunity of acquiring a rare object at low or reasonable cost far outweighs the risk of receiving an object not as described, with no return option, or needing service. (Those risks will be even more diminished in direct physical sales, not online. But even online, the risks of buying pens long-distance—whether vintage or modern—are drastically reduced by eBay’s built-in money-back guarantee: if you don’t get the product as advertised, your money will be refunded.)

Indeed this ratio of risk to reward forms a great part of the thrill and satisfaction of vintage acquisition. While buying a new car from a dealership can be pleasurable, it’s hard to equal the excitement of finding, say, a 1952 Volkswagen Hebmuller tucked away in an old garage. While these two buyers will likely be two different people buying for different motives, many collectors will weigh both options, anticipating and investing in the collectibles of the future as shrewdly as they assemble the best pieces from the past.

With very few exceptions, vintage pens can only be bought on the second-hand market, where warranties and returns normally don’t apply. They are often sourced by enthusiasts and pickers in the wild, from estate sales, yard sales, resale shops, pawnshops, and small, out-of-the way antique shops. Eventually many get aggregated by dealers who sell online, on eBay and in their Web stores. The transition from a sale at the flea market to one concluded via PayPal is important, because here a certain measure of security can be afforded the buyer, not to mention the possibility of paying less for a prized pen at auction. (I’d typically pick up a $200 pen for $50, and resell it for $100 to finance other purchases.)

In fact, as far as eBay is concerned, I’ve probably had 1,000 transactions on eBay these past 19 years, and in the two or three times I’ve had to avail myself of its money-back guarantee, it worked without a hitch. This leaves just the risk of being disappointed and of being inconvenienced by the refund process.

Knowing this, the knowledgeable eBay buyer can take even more risks with the pen itself—that poorly photographed Vacumatic could be a sought-after Oversize, and therefore worth paying $50 more for. While the eBay guarantee will not refund the buyer in case the pen turns out not to be the desired Oversize (if it wasn’t advertised as such), it can give the buyer an extra boost of confidence to make a purchase, any purchase, in the way that gamblers may tend to play more aggressively in comfortable and well-secured casinos.

So yes, there are indeed more risks involved in buying vintage, and buying online; but the rewards, both physical and psychic, are also potentially great, and as Dr. Deans emphasized in his talk, when the buyer perceives value exceeding price, a purchase will be most likely happen, to the dismay of our bank accounts and hapless partners.

[Photo of Jonathon by Chito Gregorio]

Penman No. 173: Lines and Letters

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Penman for Monday, November 2, 2015

IT’S BEEN a while since I’ve written about my favorite pastime (aside from my weekly poker binges and my foot-massage-and-movie dates with Beng), so indulge me this break from the headaches of literature and politics and let me talk about those obscure objects of my writerly desire—pens and all things appurtenant thereto, as my lawyer friends would say.

We have, not incidentally, a good many lawyers among our members at the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (FPN-P), which isn’t surprising, given how lawyers have traditionally used pens in their work, and at least in taking their bar examinations. Those pen-wielding members of the Philippine bar include Undersecretaries Albert Muyot, Ronnie Geron, and Rey Cruz; SEC Chairperson Tess Herbosa and SEC lawyer Joanne Ranada; pro-gun advocate Ticky Tabujara; former ACCRA lawyer Elsa Divinagracia; and Aboitiz lawyer Anthony Goquingco. While he hasn’t formally signed up with FPN-P, Supreme Court Justice Marvic Leonen, an avid pen user, has turned up at a meeting or two.

We also have a sizeable representation of doctors—among others, Novartis executive Aileeen Dualan, surgeons Jojo Hosaka, Joy Grace Jerusalem, and Leo Ona III, Healthway Medical head Eleanor Bengco-Tan, barrio doctors Edrie Alcanzare and Jim Lopez, Dagupan-based rehab specialist Hazel Gazmen, company physician Kristine Arabaca, and new Med graduate Mark del Rosario. Predictably, there’s a special thread in our forum devoted to providing specimens of our doctors’ handwriting—the more unreadable, the more impressive.

Alongside these professionals come teachers, writers, artists, businessmen, bankers, students, and all manner of writing enthusiast, drawn to the group if not by pens then by inks, papers, calligraphy, or drawing. What started out in my front yard in Diliman seven years ago with less than 20 people has grown to over 500 members on our dedicated website at http://www.fpn-p.org/, and more than 2,000 on our Facebook page (being FB-averse, I stay out of that group, but you’re welcome to sign up there if FB’s your thing).

Once or twice a month, we get together—typically for a long Saturday lunch in a Makati or Ortigas restaurant—to play with our pens and to doodle away in wild abandon. While we may talk politics in the corners of the meeting and devote some attention to tangential interests like watches and knives (you’d be surprised how many pen people have one or the other or even both as secondary hobbies), the focus is clearly on fountain pens, inks, and papers.

Whatever for? There’s no better way I can explain it than group therapy. As I’ve said in this column many times, it’s the sheer tactile pleasure of laying down lines and letters on a page, of watching the ink spread through the paper’s fibers, creating networks of meaning, or otherwise an impression of beauty, an entirely handmade beauty at that. This is what you can’t get from a ballpoint or a rollerball—a soft or shaped nib that can create breathtaking line variations from from extra-fine to triple-broad, that can be so sensitive to the touch that the merest tremor can betray some deep-seated emotion. With every stroke of the pen, another worldly care is banished, another rampant anxiety quelled. There’s nothing more intimate yet more revealing than that stroke, the physical commitment of thought to paper.

Fountain pen collectors (among other creatures infected by the same virus of compulsive acquisition) often speak of their “grail” pen, that one elusive, near-unattainable pen that calls to them in their dreams and shimmers like a mirage on the horizon of their consciousness. That pen could be as simple as a Parker 51 that they recall their father used, or as weighty as the Montblanc 149 favored by Supreme Court Justices, or as uncommon as a custom-made Nakaya or Hakase epitomizing the finest of Japanese craftsmanship.

Over the past 30 years of immersing myself in the hobby, I’ve had many such “grail” pens cross my fevered brain, and have actually had the good fortune of realizing most of them—a 1938 Parker Vacumatic Oversize in burgundy, a Parker “Big Red” Duofold from 1926, a Montblanc Agatha Christie from 1993, and, most recently, a Montblanc Ernest Hemingway from 1992. Almost as interesting as the pens themselves, each of these pens has a story behind it, a near-mythical chase across decades and continents.

Unlike many collectors, I don’t keep my best pens in a case, under lock and key. I rotate them for daily use, praying that I’ll never lose one, although that’s almost a statistical certainty. It isn’t ostentation that impels me to do this, but rather an acute and growing awareness of time passing—of the sense that, at my age, I probably have another ten good years left, and what a waste they would be if I let my happiest acquisitions moulder away in some dark drawer, never having kissed paper.

If all this talk of pens makes you want to reach for one—whether in memory of a long-forgotten practice or in anticipation of a novel experience—then join us this Saturday, November 7, at the Cinema VIP Lounge of Century City Mall on Kalayaan Avenue in Makati as we celebrate International Fountain Pen Day (yes, such a day exists) around the theme of “Celebrating Analog Writing in a Digital Age.”

Open to the general public, the day’s events will include a pen-and-ink art exhibit, a calligraphy workshop, a sketching session, as well as an introduction to fountain pens for children. Guests may also avail themselves of services such as vintage pen restoration, appraisals, and nib tuning.

For supporting this project, FPN-P would like to thank Manila’s leading purveyors of quality writing instruments such as Everything Calligraphy, Faber‐Castell, Lamy, Parker, Scribe Writing Essentials, Sheaffer and Wahl‐Eversharp/PenGrafik. Our special thanks go as well to Asia Brewery for their assistance.

Entrance is free, so take those leaky old pens out of your grandfather’s desk drawer and bring them to us for a cleaning and a good chat. But I warn you: fountain pen use can be highly addictive, and leave your fingers stained in the most wonderful colors.

Penman No. 160: Hemingway in Manila

HemingwayManilaPenman for Monday, August 3, 2015

THE LAST time I thought about Ernest Hemingway, it was a few weeks ago when I was teaching his controversial 1927 short story “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of my all-time favorites for its compactness and subtlety, not to mention its grasp of human psychology.

Coincidentally, when I was giving that lecture, one of the pens in my pocket was an Ernest Hemingway—the first in a series that Montblanc called its Writers Edition pens, issued in 1993. Considered one of the “holy grails” of pen collectors, it had been generously given to me by a fellow member of the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org); we had a small business arrangement, but the cost of my own service was so negligible that the pen was practically a gift, most thankfully accepted.

My pen’s inscribed with Hemingway’s signature, but ironically, I don’t think Hemingway was ever much of a fountain-pen person, and being the practical, outdoorsy person he was, would probably have disdained carrying anything fancier than a Parker Jotter. He was actually known to favor pencils and typewriters—Angelina Jolie bought his 1926 Underwood as a wedding gift to Brad Pitt—and he wrote this down to explain why:

“When you start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none. So you might as well use a typewriter because it is much easier and you enjoy it that much more. After you learn to write your whole object is to convey everything, every sensation, sight, feeling, place and emotion to the reader. To do this you have to work over what you write. If you write with a pencil you get three different sights at it to see if the reader is getting what you want him to. First when you read it over; then when it is typed you get another chance to improve it, and again in the proof. Writing it first in pencil gives you one-third more chance to improve it. That is .333 which is a damned good average for a hitter. It also keeps it fluid longer so that you can better it easier.”

I’ve since located an online sample of Hemingway’s handwriting—likely in pencil—which has him drawing up a list of recommended readings for young writers (among them, Stephen Crane’s short stories, Madame Bovary, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Oxford Book of English Verse). It’s comforting to know that his penmanship is a lot like mine—cramped, stiff, and generally ugly.

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One of the things that I forgot to mention to my audience—a group of English teachers—was that Hemingway once visited Manila, in February 1941, with the clouds of war already hovering above Europe, where the young Ernest had served as an ambulance driver in World War I. (Ambulance driving seemed to be strangely attractive to young men who would soon make a name for themselves in the arts and letters. Aside from Hemingway, these illustrious WWI volunteers included the writers John Dos Passos, E. E. Cummings, W. Somerset Maugham, and Archibald MacLeish, the composer Maurice Ravel, and the filmmakers Jean Cocteau and Walt Disney.)

In another uncanny connection to fountain pens, Hemingway and Dos Passos served in Italy close to the factory of the Montegrappa fountain pen company, as Montegrappa continues to recall on its website: “Close to the Elmo-Montegrappa factory was situated the Villa Azzalin, which during the conflict. was converted into a field hospital. Two volunteer ambulance drivers for the Italian Red Cross at that time were the famous writers Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos, both of whom spent many happy hours visiting the factory and experimenting and testing various Montegrappa fountain pens, and availing themselves of the Company’s after-sales service.”

But back to Hemingway in Manila.

An article by Brown University Prof. George Monteiro in The Hemingway Review (Fall 2010) talks about Hemingway’s short 1941 visit, a stopover on his longer assignment to China as a journalist. Accompanying Hemingway then was his third wife Martha Gellhorn, herself a distinguished writer, a novelist and a war correspondent. (Annoyed by her frequent absences—she would be the only woman to land with the Allied troops on D-Day—Ernest wrote her to ask, “Are you a war correspondent, or wife in my bed?” She led a long and colorful life after her divorce from Hemingway, and tragically, like Ernest, died by her own hand at the age of 89 in 1998.)

Flying to Hong Kong by Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco via Honolulu and Guam, Ernest and Martha stopped by in Manila for a few days and stayed at the Manila Hotel, and managed to meet with representatives of the Philippine Writers League, which was then led by Federico Mangahas. There’s a picture in the Flickr photo gallery maintained by Malacañang’s Presidential Museum and Library (whose Director, Edgar Ryan Faustino, just happens to be a member of FPN-P), taken from A.V.H. Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine, showing Hemingway meeting with Filipino writers.

Seeing it reminded me of a similar picture of the big white Ernest looming over a small brown young Filipino named Nestor—a picture that NVM Gonzalez himself showed me in the 1990s, which sadly may have been lost in the fire that later razed the Gonzalez home in Diliman. Monteiro’s account mentions that Hemingway shared this bit of wisdom with his Filipino counterparts: “I think a writer’s gravest problem, always, is to write the truth and still eat regularly.”

Unfortunately I couldn’t access the rest of the Monteiro article online (you need membership access to Project MUSE), but I read enough of it to understand that brief as it was, Hemingway’s stopover created quite an impact, enough for the Manila Hotel to use a quote from the big guy as one of its taglines: “If the story’s any good, it’s like Manila Hotel.” The bayside hotel, founded in 1912, has of course hosted other luminaries such as Douglas MacArthur, John Wayne, John F. Kennedy, and the Beatles, aside from another popular postwar writer, James Michener.

As we all know, Hemingway killed himself with his favorite shotgun in July 1961, seven years after receiving the Nobel Prize for literature, in a fit of depression. It was a sad ending to a many-splendored life that we were privileged to glimpse, however briefly.

Penman No. 157: Dandy Doodles

14100168582_2191dbaffc_zPenman for Monday, July 13, 2015

YOU’LL UNDERSTAND if I’m mighty proud of my fountain pen collection, built up painstakingly over the past 30 years. Now numbering about 200, it contains some of the world’s rarest and most desirable vintage and modern pens, and I’m still upgrading it, bringing down the numbers while raising the quality, hoping to downsize it to about 30 of the very best that I can pass on to our daughter Demi not too long from now.

At least that’s the press release. What I’m not saying, and what I’m not too proud of, is how awful my penmanship is, a trail of chicken tracks worthy at best of a Bic ballpoint. We have members in our fountain pen club like advertising executive Leigh Reyes and designer Fozzy Dayrit who can carve out whole new careers as professional calligraphers should they want to, so artfully do they put nib to paper. Oafs like me just wear our pens like others might sport brooches and hats, as body décor to look more substantial and interesting, especially as our other charms wane with age.

The fact is, I can’t write more than half a page of anything with a fountain pen before my fingers start crimping with fatigue, more accustomed as they’ve become to tapping on a keyboard with whispery ease. The saddest part of the story is, the only time my fountain pens get any real exercise is when, joylessly, I have to write out checks to pay for the credit cards and the utility bills.

It’s not as if fountain pens are alien, certainly not to me. We used them as grade-school kids in La Salle, where we also wrote loopy letters for Penmanship class, and where an inkstain on one’s shirtfront was just a blue badge of honor (or so I told myself, to mitigate the embarrassment). But as the world has since moved from writing in cursive to block letters, and from the pen to the computer, our writing muscles have atrophied, and the feathery Fs and coily Qs that garnished our forebears’ documents are a barely legible memory.

So how do I derive pleasure from my pens beyond the sheer, avaricious thrill of ownership? When the day comes to cart away my papers and my trash, they’ll find stacks of well-used notepads in my drawers and cabinets, and the nosy rummager might well imagine discovering some private snippets, or passages from an unfinished novel, among my scribbles. I hate to disappoint the snoops, but they’ll find nothing of the sort; instead, all they’ll come across will be a trail of doodles—page after page of doodles in every color of ink and width of nib. And that’s going to be the big dark secret out of my bag: I buy fancy pens not to craft great literature with, but just to doodle all day, wasting time, ink, and paper on nothing grander than the pursuit of pointless happiness.

My dictionary defines “doodle” as “To draw or sketch aimlessly, especially when preoccupied,” which isn’t too far from Wikipedia’s take on it, which sees a doodle as “a drawing made while a person’s attention is otherwise occupied.”

Here we see that the key idea behind doodling is distraction: you’re thinking about something but don’t really want to think about it, so you do something else, and if there’s a pen in your hand, that pen will have a mind of itself and start making squares and circles and lines that lead nowhere and everywhere. In my case, I know exactly what it is I’m running away from: work! I’m so drowning in book projects that I have no proper business doing anything else—not even writing a column like this—but it’s when things get tough that the doodles get going.

I’m sure that psychologists have a perfect explanation for this, but I’m convinced that there’s a symbiotic relationship between work and distraction, and that doodling actually helps me get my work done by letting me relax while my brain processes headache-inducing conundra like “How can we pass an anti-dynasty bill when 14 out of our 24 senators belong to a dynasty?” You’ll agree that it’s more fun to deal with questions like “Hmm, should I go with the Rohrer & Klingner Sepia in the Montblanc Oscar Wilde or the Diamine Oxblood in the Parker Vacumatic? Heck, let’s do both!”

To some others, doodles are more serious business—or at least halfway-serious, as the Google Doodles illustrate. You may not have heard of them as such, but you’ve surely seen them if you’ve ever used Google, because they’re the quirky, funny, topical drawings that periodically festoon the Google landing page to mark an anniversary, a birthday, or some other cause for celebration.

Googling around, I discovered that there’s actually something called the Doodle Arts Magazine (www.doodleartsmagazine.com), which happens to be Philippine-based. The people behind the website organized Doodle Fest 2015 a few months ago, and you can still catch the artwork online. If you want to see how good doodle art can get all around the world, have a look at http://www.creativebloq.com/illustration/doodle-art-912775.

Me, I’m happy with my squiggles and X’es and endless iterations of “This is a 1928 Duofold” and “This is a Sheaffer Balance” and “This is Carlo Collodi ink” and “This is a fine pen.” Maybe if I wrote something more sensible like “I come from a country without snow and without raspberries,” I could get another novel going and done in no time, but that sounds too much like real work, which apparently was never what these glorious pens and inks were meant to do.

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