The Gift of a Pen
Giving an elegant writing instrument as a gift as a sign of academic and personal appreciation and respect is an old tradition. It doesn’t get more personal than gifting a beautiful item that you use daily, carry on top of your heart, hold in your hand and is the vehicle of your inner most thoughts and emotions. In the old days, a nice pen would be a common gift for graduates, professionals and academics. A person might receive a pen from a loved one, a co-worker or a boss and carry it, that perfect pen, for a lifetime. In many cases using and holding onto that one or maybe two, if their lucky, perfect pens, eventually passing them down to the next generation. As with many things, depending on the circumstances, a nice used or vintage pen coming from the right person can mean more than a brand new one ever could. Now, even though writing by hand is becoming less and less common, take it from me, there is nothing like writing with a quality instrument to motivate you to use it. Plus, your friend will think of you each and every time they pick it up, how many gifts can boast that.
(L) 1867 patent for the original Fountain Pen (R) 1725 The Bookkeeper by Van Dijk
To start, a little history. Written language has been around for almost 7,000 years. For the first few millennia people wrote with sticks, stones, or hard chisels which they used to scratch clay, stone, or metal slabs. There is evidence from about 2500 BC in Egypt of pens made from reeds and simple inks. Scribes would write on bark or papyrus using a carved reed mostly recording matters of trade or politics. The reeds were adopted by the greeks and romans as they conquered more territory. As the Roman empire expanded further into Europe they had difficulty obtaining reeds but, they found that goose feathers, which were plentiful, when cut, could be used just as well as the reeds of old. From then the Quill became the primary writing medium in the western world for more then 1600 years. By the 19th century technology had sufficiently advanced to where, within 100 years, metal pens, fountain pens, and ballpoint pens would all become readily accessible.
So, you’ve decided to give someone a pen. How do you decide what to get? A good place to start is to figure out what kind of pen would suit that person best. In the end if they don’t like the way it writes it will become a glorified paper weight.
There are three basic choices: Fountain Pens, Ball Point Pens, and Roller Ball Pens, with many sizes and varieties of each.
(clockwise) mechanical pencil, ball point pen, fountain pen, and a roller ball pen
- Fountain pens are the original portable reliability pen. They were developed in the mid-19th century borrowing the split gold nib from the earlier dip pens and adding a reservoir to hold the water-based ink delivered through the body of the pen across the nib and onto your page. The way the nib on a fountain pen lays ink to paper is unique to the shape of each nib as well as the pressure and hand writing of each individual making it a very expressive writing tool.
- Ball point pens like your standard disposable, were perfected by a pair of Argentinean brothers by the name of Bíró in 1941 and sold to the RAF during WWII. For writing on a variety of surfaces and under varying atmospheric pressures the ball point pen with its heavier ink was far superior to the fountain pens of the past. Ball points use an internal chamber filled with an oil based viscous ink which is dispensed at the tip over a small ball bearing making it much more versatile, long lasting, and more reliable in adverse situation then the old water based ink and gravity fed systems.
- Roller ball pens take the same ball bearing mechanisim that the ball points use but, with a smaller ball and a liquid ink instead of the slow oil based kind. They were introduced in the early 1960s by the Japanese Ohto company as a cross between fountain pens and ball points. Combining the ease of use of a ball point with the smooth fluid hand of fountain pens. The smaller bearing, which was necessary with the less viscous ink, also always for a finer, cleaner line then the rudimentary ball points.
The easiest way to narrow it down is to look at what kind of pens the recipient already uses. Although, in many cases today, this may be the first none-disposable pen this person has ever had. In that case think about his or her profession and what you imagine them using there pen for; Lawyers and Teachers tend to write long hand extensively in which case a roller ball may be a good choice, Doctors tend to be constantly moving and writing short quick notes, maybe a long lasting ball point would be best, Buisness men and Bankers tend to use there pens mostly for signatures and personal notes so, maybe a fountain pen would fit best. As you can see it really comes down to use and preference. Im going to focus on fountain pens but, many things are the same between the three designs.
Pelikan Souverän range with a full assortment of nibs, see the entire array here (L) Extra Fine sample (R) Double Broad sample
One good tool in helping to make a decision is a handwriting sample and the amount a person writes long hand currently. If a person doesn’t write often and has very messy hand writing a fountain pen might not be the best choice but, on the other hand if your friend enjoys writing and has a studied hand then they may very well appreciate and find great joy in a quality fountain pen. In that case you can learn even more… for instance, if a person has a smaller more delicate hand, then a fountain pen with a fine nib would suit them well. On the other hand, someone with a heavy hand and larger script would be much more comfortable with a medium to broad sized nib.
Parker Duofold ad ca. 1925 showing the variety of nibs
The last thing to consider is the design of the pen itself. How it looks or feels in your hand. After all a cheap disposable will write but, we by quality pens to make a statement. So, hopefully you know this person well enough that you have some idea of their style. Ask yourself is he or she a traditionalist, a trend setter or somewhere in between? A modernist or a classicist? Get your clues from personal or business attire, accessories such as watches, jewelry and eyewear, even what the person drives. These answers will help you pick a pen brand, finish, and color.
Here are some suggestions from The Fountain Pen Network, a forum which is a great resource for anything fountain pen, just to give an idea of some of the big names as well as exactly how personal a pen can be…
A small framed lady with the the elegance of the years? consider Cross Spire (below) or other delicate similarly classic shapes
A modern young man? a Sheaffer Intrigue in a rabidly modern finish (Shark Whale, Barken Silk (below), Seal)
A middle aged professor that drives an elegant sedan? look at Parker’s Duofold line, maybe the International or the Centennial or Pelikan’s Ductus (below). A solid classic shape in an understated color
A young man getting his first fountain pen? possibly a basic Lamy Studio (below), 2000 or similar subdued work horse pen
An everyoung, ethereal of witty spirit and artistic soul? check the Aurora Alpha (Florentine Sky below) or a vintage Sheaffer Balance. Something that will stand out but with a bit of class
A venerable professor that uses fountain pens already? pick from the classics, Visconti or Mont Blanc (149 Diplomat below)
Also, remember to take the size of the recipients hands into account. You wouldn’t necessarily want to give a basketball player with frying pan hands a toothpick of a pen just like you wouldn’t necessarily want to give a delicate ballet dancer a pen the size of a cigar.
Finally, remember, these have simply been suggestions and food for thought. There is also a huge vintage and discontinued pen market out there so, I guarantee the ‘write’ one for you is out there. The key when buying a pen, as with any gift, is always person first. pen second. it never fails. Don’t buy for you, buy for whoever its for.