Penman No. 352: My Sweet Engraveable You

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Penman for Monday, May 6, 2019

 

THAT’S PROBABLY what Jay del Fierro, who goes by the handle “Jay the Engraver” online, hums whenever he sees a gun, a knife, a lighter, a pen, or pretty much anything with a smooth metal side or surface.

There aren’t too many other people in this country who can do what he does, to the degree of skill and dedication that he has. I met Jay in an online forum a year ago, when he offered his services to anyone brave enough to entrust their pens to him. I had a 40-year-old Sheaffer Targa in stainless steel that I thought I could sacrifice to the gravure gods, just to see what this Jay the Engraver could do.

We met up in a mall down South—he had come all the way from Bicol, where he hails from and is now based—and I was pleased to see a modest, middle-aged man who was clearly imbued with an uncommon passion. It’s a spark I’ve seen in other excellent craftsmen (see my column-piece a few weeks ago on “The Master of Commandante Street,” Gerald Cha, who repairs and restores vintage typewriters in his shop in downtown Quiapo), the likes of whom I’m always glad to meet and to draw some well-deserved attention to. (Note to self: do writeups on book and paper restorers Loreto Apilado and Josephine Francisco, and fountain pen nibmeisters JP Reinoso and John Raymond Lim.)

I turned over the Sheaffer to him, and we worked out my preferred design—I asked for bamboo stalks and leaves, for a distinctly Asian appeal—and about a month later, I received the finished work with much delight.

Our connection went beyond that job, because Jay knew that I, too, did a kind of engraving a long time ago, when I was active as a printmaker with the Printmakers Association of the Philippines. The PAP had a studio and workshop on Jorge Bocobo Street in Ermita, and in the early 1970s, I learned and practiced printmaking there, which became an important source of income for me then, fresh out of martial-law prison. (Not incidentally, that’s where I met my wife-to-be Beng.)

I was practicing mainly two kinds of printmaking: etching and drypoint. Etching involves the use of acid to cut lines into the metal to produce the design, while drypoint comes closer to engraving, with the artist employing a pointed tool or burin to scratch out fine lines directly on the plate. With engraving, the artist uses an even sharper and harder graver to cut deep grooves into the metal. For a printmaker, these grooves serve merely to hold ink to transfer onto paper, but for an engraver, the patterns he or she cuts into the metal could be the artwork itself—unless, of course, one is engraving plates for banknotes, or for art prints such as those produced by the German master Albrecht Durer (1471-1528). Indeed, for centuries, engravers did by hand what photographers and graphic designers would do in the 20thcentury for practically anything in print: illustrations, maps, social cards.

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The skill requires a clear eye, a steady hand, loads of energy and persistence, and the right tools. And the medium is unforgiving; if your hand slips, not only could you cut yourself badly, but a mistake on metal won’t be that easy to mend. (Today, automation has taken over much of the menial labor, with computers and printers doing the cutting, but some traditionalist holdouts still do things entirely by hand.)

Which leads one to ask, why would anyone—especially in this digital age—want to undertake anything so arduously analog? Jay studied mechanical engineering, and worked at his profession for a few years after graduation. He seemed to be on track to succeed at what he had signed up for, landing jobs with leading companies. But something was missing, and Jay realized what he was when he chanced upon an engraver at work on YouTube. “I’d always liked to draw,” he says, “and Fine Arts would have been my second choice in college.” He felt drawn to engraving like a moth to a flame, and soon he was watching as many instructional videos as he could, and trying out what he saw.

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He soon became an entirely self-taught engraver, and began taking on jobs from clients looking for a more personalized flourish on their “everyday carries” or EDCs and their trophies. For some clients, those trophies could include fearsome .45s (there’s a huge market for firearms engraving in America—not surprising given their gun culture—and “master engraver” titles are bestowed by the industry for gunwork; see pic above from shotgunlife.com). For others, Zippo lighters, knives, and even spoons could fit the bill. “The most challenging job I’ve done so far,” Jay says, “is a Series 80 Colt .45, featuring English scrolls with arabesque relief on bead-blasted areas. Mind you, I insist that every gun I work on has to have full legal papers.”

Preferring pens to pistols, I show Jay a 1970s Sheaffer with a machine-pressed grapes-and-vines motif that I’ve admired for the past 30 years. “I can do that,” he tells me, and I believe him. (You can get in touch with Jay directly at jay.engraver@gmail.com. That’s him below with his daughter Ella.)

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Penman No. 348: Transience in Tokyo

 

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Penman for Monday, April 8, 2019

 

MY WIFE Beng and I have been to Japan—on our own and together—a few times, but not until last week did we go there just to immerse ourselves for seven days in one place, not trying too hard to see or do or buy too many things. The place was Tokyo, which Beng and I last visited as a couple almost 20 years ago, a depressingly downscale sortie from which Beng can only remember living off the nearby 7-11 and slurping rice gruel with construction workers beneath a bridge. With my retirement then looming, I booked this trip last year, well in advance of the 2019 cherry-blossom season, which Beng had expressed a longing to catch. I thought it was a chance to make up for that sorry first outing and for making new memories.

Wherever we travel, Beng and I always have two sure targets in mind: museums and flea markets. The museums provide an intimate feel of the history of the place, and the flea markets—well, they a have a bit of the museum in them, bits you can actually buy and bring home. (Indeed, we often remember cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Beijing, Seoul—less for their landmarks than for their flea markets.) For this Tokyo trip, we also resolved to enjoy the cherry blossoms and to look into as many fountain-pen shops as we could.

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The Japanese fascination with cherry blossoms—that perennial signal and reminder of the transience of beauty and of life itself—is well known. As our friend Julie Hill puts it in her book Privileged Witness, “Cherry blossoms are a punctual miracle, a well-rehearsed event in the annual Japanese calendar. They first appear in the southern part of the archipelago, around the subtropical islands of Okinawa. As the weather gets warmer, cherry trees flower in central Japan; and in two weeks, depending on the weather, they will make their presence in Tokyo, achieving their full glory in the parks—Ueno park is a famous spot—and the gardens bordering the Imperial Palace.

“For weeks preparations have been underway in Kyoto; paper blossoms have been fluttering off lampposts and major downtown stores; newspapers and television channels have run elaborate charts of the sakura zensen—the cherry blossom—as part of the daily weather forecast. There are many varieties of trees, some occurring in the wilds of Japan, featured in gardens and parks as a cultivated tree. Others are bred as flowering trees with over-large, over-pink and over-endowed petals. The most popular are those with small pink flowers held in compact clusters.”

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The sakura bloomed early this year—the weather in Tokyo was nippy to almost chilly—but we caught showers of them in pink and white around the Imperial Palace, along the Meguro River, and in Ueno Park. Most fortunately, we stumbled into a bank of them in Chidorigafuchi Park just as it darkened, and suddenly the trees were lit up, lending ethereal magic to the scene. The only downer with these hanami or flower-viewing walks is that you’re doing them with several hundred other people looking for exactly the same thing—that perfect pose or shot under the same trees.

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A quieter time can be had exploring the sakura in context, such as you might do at the Tokyo National Museum on the far edge of Ueno Park, fittingly at the end of a long walk under the flowering cherry trees. There the blossoms figure in everything from Hiroshige’s Edo Road prints to exquisite kimono and lacquered boxes and bowls—indeed, a recurring theme that can only resonate more poignantly in these times of fleeting joys and affections.

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Speaking of fleeting joys, we had our fill of them at the Tokyo City Flea Market beside the Ohi Racecourse in Shinagawa, where we spent most of our Sunday morning. Beng and I are Japan surplus-shop regulars, and this was the mother of all of them, hawking everything from used clothes and vintage electronics to ceramics and scientific instruments. We walked away with a handsome thermometer/hygrometer, which Beng needs for her art restoration studio, for 100 yen (50 pesos) and a big leather bag to carry our stuff for 300 yen. My big find—adrift in a sea of bags and blouses—was a newish Pilot Custom 74 fountain pen, which normally retails for between $100 and $150, for less than P2,000.

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That was before I ran into the mother lode of vintage pens at one stall, where the owner had kept them in translucent plastic boxes, not thinking that anyone would be interested in them, and not thinking that a persistent Pinoy with X-ray vision would spot Montblanc stars in a galaxy of caps. It was a real treasure trove that I would have gladly sold a car for were I a younger and hungrier collector, but after much dickering, I picked out just two prize pens, about which you’ll hear more in another report on pen hunting in Tokyo.

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This time around, we had chosen a better hotel, well located near the Imperial Palace, small and rather expensive but impeccably clean as Japanese hotels go. We still found ourselves subsisting on the prepackaged rice-and-fish dinners at 7-11 (actually, they’re good and cheap!), so Beng and I celebrated the day (and yes, the transience of money) with a grand dinner at a steakhouse in our neighborhood in Chiyoda. A good time was had by all.

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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. 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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Flotsam & Jetsam No. 47: Fountain Pen Day Nov. 5-6 at SM Aura

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 IN CELEBRATION of Fountain Pen Day—marked globally every first Friday of November—Manila’s foremost dealers of pens and inks will set up shop on November 5 and 6 at SM Aura Premier in Bonifacio Global City near Toby’s Estate on the 3rd floor.

Scribe Writing Essentials, Pen Grafik, Everything Calligraphy, Faber Castell, National Book Store, and Lamy will be showcasing some of the finest brands of pens and inks from Europe, the United States, and Asia.

Handwriting workshops have also been lined up over the weekend. Kids wanting to discover the joy of handwriting can sign up for demonstrations guided by children who themselves use fountain pens for writing and illustration. Local pen restorers and nibmeisters will be present to tune, repair, and appraise pens. Pen lovers wishing to learn more about both vintage and modern pens can pick the brains of seasoned collectors, and students of the ornamental word can interact with expert calligraphers.  An art exhibit will feature works rendered in pen and ink by some of the country’s best artists. (Some of my best vintage pens will be on display, as will those of other FPN-P members.)

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Fountain Pen Day was started in 2012 by American pen collector Cary Yeager. In the Philippines, the Fountain Pen Network-Philippines (www.fpn-p.org) organizes this festival. With over 2,000 members in its Facebook group, FPN-P is a diverse community bound by a shared love for the written word in an increasingly digital age. Its members include writers, lawyers, doctors, teachers, artists, tech professionals, civil servants, and students.

Fountain Pen Day Philippines 2016 is also made possible by the support of SM Aura Premier, PNB Savings Bank and Asia Brewery. For more updates on Fountain Pen Day, go to Instagram and follow @fountainpenday and @fpnph, or interact using hashtag #fpdph2016.

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.

HemNote

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.