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Batman meets Blade

20 Jul Because pen friend Hana asked if I could find a Batman knife to go with a Batman pen.

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A caped crusader…Italian style

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In a pile of Western pens, it’s always easy to spot an Omas. They just seem to be the most elegantly coiffed in the bunch, sporting details that belie an inner playfulness. Whether it’s a gemstone roller on a clip, ornate nib decor, or vivid colors swirling deep within layered celluloid, these subtle touches deftly skirt the lines that divide drab, dapper and gaudy.

However, when Omas announced they were doing a stealth pen I cringed and wondered if their expression would defile everything their pedigree stood for. After all, Omas are masters of pomp that never offends. They veer away from the limits of brash and leave concepts like the Chaos pen in the able hands of Montegrappa. Would their Dark Knight prove to be their champion or their undoing?

 

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Enter the Arte Italiana Noir, a Milord in this case. It may be kid brother to the Paragon but scrawny it is not. It is about the size of a Souveran M800 or a 146 Le Grande. Not obscenely huge but a fist full of pen nonetheless. Signature Omas design cues frame the Noir – faceted shape, roller clip, Greek key motif on the cap band, and the trademark O inlay on the cap finial. These are all hallowed hallmarks of the brand’s DNA but the craftsmen of Bologna added a dash or two of spice to the genetic mix.

 

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Its finishing is one its most obvious distinctions. Watchmakers reserve guilloche to embellish the dials and movements of their high-line timepieces, and Omas chose this regal treatment for both barrel and cap. The pattern is evenly applied across all facets and surfaces, with no nicks or blemishes found. I am unsure if this was molded into the resin or executed by machine prior to finishing. However this dark magic was conjured, the results stand above the unadorned matte or satin surfaces of the lesser stealth pens in the market.

 

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The trim is nothing short of spectacular. I’ve seen various flavors of ruthenium plating, ranging in hue from dark pewter to glossy black nickel. The plating on the Noir is closer to a smoky shade of charcoal without overdosing on sheen. This complements the guilloche perfectly and permits the engraving on the metal bits to emerge cleanly yet discretely.

 

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Gripping section is thankfully rendered in resin (I dislike the feel of metal in this area) with the transition from barrel to the section being effortless. The threads never intrude on the writing experience and the balance of the pen is spot on. The bias favors the nib ever so slightly, which makes handling easy and effortless. Filling is done via an international cartridge or the included converter. I know real men use pistons but C/C’s are far easier to clean and maintain.

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My copy came with a factory Stub, and here is where the guardian of Gotham meets Bane. From the get-go, this nib was temperamental and rather dry. I figured I could eventually coax it to settle down. I spent several hours aligning the tines, massaging the rough spots with a bit of lapping film, and flossing the slit with a brass shim. No matter what I did, ink flow remained erratic and the tips taunted me with their incessant clicking, indicating that the gap might still be too tight.

With my DIY options running low, I stripped the feed and nib and rolled up my sleeves. The feed was scrubbed with a soapy water solution, rinsed and then cleaned in an ultrasonic tank. I balanced the tines while the nib as off-feed, working the shoulders gently until the tips aligned. I heat-set the feed to the nib, and reseated the whole mess into the section while chanting every prayer I knew to the gods of pendom. The improvements were dramatic but sadly, insufficient to give me the reliability I demand in a daily driver.

If this were a Japanese writer, I’d be severely disappointed. But I’ve long accepted that the dashing good looks of Italian pens are often accompanied by peculiar quirks. These are part of the ownership experience and with some professional help, are easily overcome.

Now if I can only find John Mottishaw’s email address…

Just black, please.

15 Jun

It’s true of every cup I order in a café. Well, almost. Maybe three visits in a hundred, I’ll ask for a latte but I typically choose plain old black, preferably using beans that are ground just before brewing. Better if they were roasted in the past week. No cream. No sweetener of any kind. Just black, thank you very much.

If I have a say in preparation, I’ll opt for whatever suits my moods; Aeropress if I’m in a rush, syphon brew if it’s a leisurely afternoon, hand pour if I crave depth. Seems like a lot of trouble for a plain old cup of black, but it’s the craft and detail that go into the brew that make a rather plain drink so very special compared to what you mix from a sachet.

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In some ways, the same thinking carries over to pens. Take the case of picking out a black pen. It should be the easiest thing in the world. Every maker worth their name offers a decent black writer and you will not lack for choice regardless of your budget. From Monteverde to Montblanc, faceted to torpedo, simple to garish, one can get a smooth flowing pen that will likely outlive its owner. Being a bit of a gear snob however,  I wanted something with a bit more craft to it.

The stars aligned when work brought me to Singapore. I had a day to kill before my conference began, and Leigh messaged to ask me to visit Aesthetic Bay. She wanted me to see if the new Mizu Iro Nakayas were in stock and indeed they were.  I marveled at the enchanting water-like hues of this new finish. Depending on how light was cast on the pens, the color would shift from mint, to gray, to blue, much as the sea’s tones change in the course of the day. As the staff gently returned those treasures to the display counter, I spied a lustrous Long Piccolo nestled quietly in the corner of the showcase. I asked to see it and you can probably guess what happened not long thereafter.

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Nothing could be seemingly plainer but Nakaya excels at making even the simplest objects exude a profound charm. This one is totally devoid of metal trim. Unlike its tamenuri kin, there is no hint of color peeking from beneath the pen’s finished edges. It is all black but perfectly so, with a shimmer and depth that would make a Steinway’s keys seem ashen in comparison. You can stare into the finish all day and never discover where the bottom of the lacquer lies, and the radiance of the urushi betrays how a living and breathing Japanese craftsman spent countless hours unearthing the beauty hidden within a lowly tree sap.

The Long Piccolo is exclusive to Aesthetic Bay and I confess to liking this shape a lot. Mottishaw’s Naka-Ai, another personal favorite, is a little more agile but the Long Piccolo gives you a bit of welcome chunk and a more pleasing visual balance. All Nakayas look good but in my opinion, this is the one that wears kuro roiro best.

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The monotone BB is a pleasant departure from Nakaya’s conservative nib norms. Like all Nakaya nibs, it needs no coaxing at all to write smoothly without stumble or stutter. But I have never ever handled a stock Nakaya that is this lush. I find it to be a notch wetter than an M4xx Pelikan B, a nib that is many things but stingy. It writes so well that it need not visit with John Mottishaw for a regrind. I generally like italic cuts on wide nibs but when something is this exceptional, I can learn to look the other way.

The best part about this pen is that it attracts no attention from the crowd. Only those familiar with Japanese pens would probably give it a second glance and even then, they would ask themselves doubtingly, “Could it be a Nakaya?” This prompts them to perhaps look closer and look closer still. Only when it is in one’s hand is the magic revealed.

Much like a perfect cup of black.

 

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Old school 88

22 May

(Yes, this blog still has a pulse however faint. Work’s been hectic but I hope to get an occasional entry posted once in a while. Thank you for your patience.)

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I once read that if you sent your Parker “51” to finishing school, you’d end up with an Ottantotto. Having owned a “51”, I’d have to agree. The iconic Parker was certainly sleek but its nail of a nib prompted me to pen a Dear Janesville note.

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The 88 on the other hand, has everything I could want or like. Three materials drape this dapper Don. The barrel is wrought from glossy piano black celluloid with subtle clear slots cut near the section to provide an ink view window. The piston knob and hood are crafted from black ebonite, which is less lustrous vis-a-vis the barrel but just as warm in feel. The striated rolled gold cap provides just enough bling without making the pen look like a Soprano in a track suit.

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Then we have the nib. Apparently, stiff wasn’t cool in late 1940s Torino.  The Fine is intoxicatingly supple and the ebonite feed insures that ink is always on tap. In fact, the only time it stops is when it hits the bottom of the tank. If you hate firm tips but need something more usable than a wet noodle, this may well be your poison.

 

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My copy is not pristine but its small nicks and scars hint at a storied past. It is honest wear draped in finery and despite its age, it looks a lot better than many of the newer pens out there. (How do you spell M-o-n-t-e-g-r-a-p..?) Its original cork seals expired in December 2012 so I asked Ron Zorn to help me out. I knew he had a long queue, but he built his name by doing things right more than fast. Eight months later, my faith was amply rewarded and he even cleaned her up for me while he was at it.  Old was made new once again and my usually confident Vacumatic Long Major inexplicably started to sweat.

A string of fleeting moments

23 Mar

So this blog has been forced to remain silent for a while. I apologize.

I’ve been meaning to review a few pens that came my way but time has been scarce and some of these writers are actually leaving my box fairly soon. They are great pens for sure but other events have made it necessary to create space in my rather cramped pen chest.

The Pilot Justus is a gift that keeps on giving. Adjustable nibs may sound like pure gimmickry but the one on the Justus lives up to the hype if you choose the Fine. I loved every bit of mine and I even managed to overlook the quirks of the CON70 that came with it. But Leigh wanted a Spencerian Pilot and I figured if anyone could do justice to the Justus, it would be her. I can’t wait to see what magic she will weave once Mottishaw is done with the pen. (Note to self: check back in 8 months.)

A Conway Stewart 58 reissue with an Italic Fine regaled me with its passive aggressive looks and its exquisite nib. Modern English pens often get a bad rap but this one seems to have been granted pardon by the Crown. No chokes or stalls and the stub is quite springy to boot! My meeting notes never looked so dashing and the 58 helped me earn my keep for a few months. This one has earned its freedom.

I wrote of the Pilot Half Stealth not too long ago and it too must seek better hands. I loved the idea of the Capless, and the Broad on mine was as lush as I could ever want. But it never really found its way into my daily grind and I couldn’t stand to see it suffer in storage. Someone else will put this pen to good use and give meaning to its design and creation.

Traffic has not been exclusively outbound though. Leigh is also making room for some new adoptions and has entrusted a Piccolo to my care. It’s one of the new Carbon Graphite models with a rhodium played Soft Medium. I’ve only had it for a day but I’m sensing it will be a favorite. Besides, there is something so inherently cool about having a pen made out of pencil lead. I hope I can find enough respite to write about this novel Nakaya.

Pens come and go, and this is to be expected. What you do with them while they’re around is perhaps what matters most.

White for an Asian Christmas

13 Jan Some things do look better in white.

 

Some things do look better in white.

Some things do look better in white.

I wanted to gift myself with a Nakaya for Christmas 2013 but since you don’t always find what you want on the shelves in December, I placed my order in May and let both time and lay-away do their work.  Not long after November ended, I was extracting a blue silk kimono from a telltale Paulownia box.

Unboxed and waiting for its first fill. Leigh's Carbon Graphite Piccolo insisted on joining the fun.

Unboxed and waiting for its first fill. Leigh’s Carbon Graphite Piccolo insisted on joining the fun.

Most of Nakaya’s pens are offered either as Writers (with clips or roll stoppers,) or Cigars (clipless.) Only one thus far is exclusively available as a Writer – the Neo Standard.  This model came to be around 2009 when a German client placed a bespoke order. Very shortly thereafter, it became a regular and rather successful offering. In standard dress, it is confidently elegant. Lavished with maki-e art such as the Nine Tailed Fox or the Ascending Dragon, it makes the heart skip a few beats.

Taken alongside a heki tamenuri Naka-Ai. Shiro is noticeably brighter.

Taken alongside a heki tamenuri Naka-Ai. Shiro is noticeably brighter.

Many of its traits are undeniably Nakaya: the deep Wajima urushi gloss, the smartly peaked ends, and the signature border-cut pocket clip. But if you look hard enough, you’ll see Western influences shaping its silhouette.

Section shapes and sizes compared.

Section shapes and sizes compared.

The section is distinct from the variants that preceded it. On pens like the Piccolo, Long Piccolo, Portable and even the more recent Naka-Ai, the sections are identical in shape, length and girth. The Neo’s is long, visibly more tapered, and quite accommodating of chunky fingers. Friends who prefer the handling of Western brands have found the Neo Standard easy to approach.

The Neo's cap is slightly longer. The pink gold trim is a subtle departure from the standard yellow gold fittings.

The Neo’s cap is slightly longer. The pink gold trim is a subtle departure from Nakaya’s standard yellow gold fittings.

Shiro tamenuri is not an easy finish to express. The white base takes skill and patience to render, as natural urushi is never perfectly white. Instead, it ranges from a slightly off-white tone to a more custard hue. This natural variation paints a broad range of possibility. Some samples will sport a terra-cotta glow while others will be like flan. Each Nakaya is in itself unique, but the shiro tamenuri pieces are even more so.

The nib is a Soft Medium. It initially dragged a bit during anticlockwise strokes, but a month of daily use soothed that minor ache. This is not a flex nib and it doesn’t have to be. It is entertaining in use and provides a subtle gateway to the nuances of flex and hand pressure. With a bit of coaxing, it will kiss the limits of a Western Medium while absent any stress, it lays down delicately fine lines.

Writing samples done on the fly. The Soft Medium can flex just a bit more, but I decided not to push it.

Writing samples done on the fly. The Soft Medium can flex just a bit more, but I decided not to push it.

December in Paris or New Year’s in Times Square may be chic ways to savor winter. I’ll take this over snow any time.

It really was the most wonderful year!

It really was the most wonderful year!

(Pardon the less than stellar pictures. I used an HTC One to take the photos.)

Silent this Christmas

3 Dec

I thought of resuming posts this month but so many people in my country remain in need of aid and it doesn’t help that the government intends to stop distribution of relief packs by the end of the month.

Luckily, the citizens have decided to boldly go where their leaders fear to tread. Initiatives like Project Santa are now bringing toys and cheer to the kids in devastated towns. Efforts like the Peter Project are raising money to replace the boats lost by thousands of fishermen in distressed coastal villages. And of course, the Philippine National Red Cross continues to work heroically even after the camera crews and politicians have gone home.

It will take decades to revive all the places that Haiyan hit. Those of us who were spared her wrath have every reason to be thankful, and all of us have the duty to contribute to the recovery of our people in whatever way we can.

Please keep the Philippines and her children in your thoughts and prayers this holiday season.

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