In the digital age of keyboards and touchscreens, pens are little more than practical instruments used primarily by — though less and less — students and reporters. But artists — authors in particular — have long had a special relationship with the pens they use, as if it were a wand channeling their creative thoughts like magic onto the page. Writers such as Stephen King, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway and C.S. Lewis often used fountain pens to write their drafts longhand, claiming the physical act helped slow them down, made them be more thoughtful and thus involving themselves more in the creative process.
“My two fingers on a typewriter have never connected with my brain,” author Graham Greene said. “My hand on a pen does. A fountain pen, of course. Ball-point pens are only good for filling out forms on a plane.”
While perusing a local antique store in Guntersville, I happened upon a small collection of fountain pens. I ended up walking away with two of them: a Sheaffer Statesman and a Sheaffer Sentinel, each circa 1950. I paid $37 for the two pens, a fair price I thought, or perhaps even a bargain if they — each with a 14K gold nib — turned out to be worth something.
I reached out to pen enthusiasts online for help with identifying and appraising the pens and found similar models listed for approximately $100. These models had been restored, of course, but my pens were in really good shape.
I cleaned them, removed the old, hardened ink sacs and began researching what parts I would need to fix them up. Two new ink sacs and O-rings, which aren’t so easy to find, would cost me about $21. Then there’s the shellac and silicone grease needed to affix the sac and ring to the pen. So, I’d be into the pens for an approximate total of $70 if I restored them; still a profitable endeavor if I sold even one of them for those online prices.
I’ve already started shopping for another pen, which I would presumably buy using the Sheaffer pen profits, trying to keep my next purchase under $200. (My wife thought $17 for one pen was insane.) But the sky’s the limit on pricing when it comes to fountain pens, especially luxury brands like Monteblanc, which start at around $500 and go up to $10,000. Many other brands offer pens well into the three and four figure range, as well.
The one I’ve been eyeing is the Lamy 2000, which goes for a comparatively modest $160 on Amazon.com. With that price tag you get a sleek, modern design with a platinum-coated, 14K gold nib. It regularly appears on people’s list of top 10 pens. I’ve owned a Lamy Safari ($22) and loved it, but have since misplaced it, as I do with a lot of things.
The big question when it comes to shelling out more than a few bucks for a pen is is it worth it? Why not just buy a four-pack of Pilot G2s from Walmart for $5? What are you getting for the sometimes-massive upcharge?
This question could be asked of a lot of collectible items (e.g. watches, snow globes, cars, shoes, etc.). Some pens offer high-end finishes with precious metals and materials, but most write the same as their cheaper counterparts. There is the investment argument. Fountain pens, especially Montblancs, have been known to increase in value, sometimes dramatically. The Montblanc Ernest Hemingway fountain pen sold for less than $500 in 1992, but it goes for more than $3,000 today, if you can find one.
Vanity and ego may drive a lot of high-priced purchases — an attempt to evoke a depth of character through accessory. For some it’s a hobby, both writing and collecting, which needs as much explanation as any other leisure pursuit.
I prefer the more romantic notion that a fountain pen acts as the conduit between the brain-muse and the page. David Foster Wallace didn’t go on record as being a fountain pen fan (I think it’s well-known he used the cheapest he could find), but he did believe in that connection, often making sure to write with the exact same pen if it had given him a hot streak the day before.
Currently, my daily writer is a Pilot Varsity fountain pen. It’s cheap enough where I don’t have to worry about losing it but writes well enough to give that unique fountain pen experience that neither a ballpoint nor keyboard, can come close to. This all may sound pretentious and unnecessary, but it’s the little fictions that keep the inspiration flowing and make certain tasks worthwhile. Writing is hard. Maybe if I wrote this piece with my fountain pen it would be better, less wordy and scattered. Like Mark Twain said, if I had more time, I could’ve made it shorter. I’ll leave you with another Twain quote: “None of us can have as many virtues as the fountain-pen, or half its cussedness; but we can try.”
Daniel Taylor is a staff writer for The Reporter. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.