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It looks old but it isn’t

14 Aug

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A pen friend just became the local distributor of a revived and revered brand. Naturally, we supported his new venture and I was quite happy to be one of his first two customers not long after his shipment arrived.

Details soon. I promise.

Two brothers (and a gatecrasher)

5 Aug

These two share one name and not much else. One looks genteel and refined. The other is dark and edgy, a certified bad boy in designer Goth.

The guy on the right didn't have an invite. I'll let Leigh talk about him some other time.

The guy on the right didn’t have an invite. I’ll let Leigh talk about him some other time.

The respectable member of the brood is the Ogiva. Its torpedo silhouette is a 1927 design, launched at a time when Irving Berlin, Duke Ellington and the Gershwins were all the rage. Style was a non-negotiable commodity and the Ogiva never had to plead for anyone’s sympathies. Over decades, not once did it lose its sense of élan and OMAS have made it available in various sizes and materials, keeping it tasteful and attractive regardless of what fashions prevailed.

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OMAS draped this particular pen in a wonderful celluloid material called Saft Green. Granting a slight nod to modern tastes, rose gold was chosen for this Ogiva’s decor. The pink hues cast a warm and more welcoming look compared to the rather vibrant moods of yellow gold. While the rose gold rage will fade soon enough, this treatment, like a pair of bespoke Balmorals, will survive the ebb and flow of fads.

One will dance if it likes your tune. The other headbangs.

One will dance if it likes your tune. The other headbangs.

The nib is an Extra Fine Extra Flessible which I think is the best width from among Omas’s soft nibs. I’ve handled their Fine Extra Flessible before and while it had spring in it step, its line variation was more modest than a convent-bred schoolgirl. (While the nuns were about, of course.) The EF on the other hand is capable of a bit more flair but not along the lines of a vintage semi-flex. Snapback is good and thankfully, the feed never struggles to match the whims of the nib. (If you know box-stock Italian pens, this is nothing short of miraculous.)

Then we have the offspring from a totally different era. This one doesn’t swing to bebop but bangs to the likes of LL Cool J, the Notorious B.I.G. and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. The 360 came about in 1996, in the middle of a decade committed to insane (read: tacky) opulence and a worldwide obsession with technology and the Internet. Not exactly an ideal period for writing instruments, let alone new designs. But OMAS boldly took up the cause that the Triad Pen Company unsuccessfully championed in the 1930s and introduced a pen with a triangular cross-section.

Round isn't the only shape out there.

Round isn’t the only shape out there.

Of course, the immediate question is, “Why?” Round and even faceted shapes worked so well for so many hands. What did a triangular shape bring to an admittedly cramped table? A few years ago, I would have said, “Nothing.” But a pen friend I respect tremendously told me that the 360 is the most ergonomic pen she had ever used. Now she has an impressive collection of really nice pens and doesn’t impress easily. At all. So her unusually high praise is what I considered a clue. Of course, she was right. The 360 shape doesn’t look like it’ll work but if your grip is close to what the schoolmarms insisted on, it’ll fit you like a pair of well-worn Luchesses.

Look closer and you'll see that black isn't always completely so.

Look closer and you’ll see that black isn’t always completely so.

This model is wrought from cotton resin, which thankfully makes it a little more accessible than its older sibling. It is not close to being as rich or warm as celluloid, but OMAS cleverly make up for this by etching an intricate diamond weave pattern into both barrel and cap. Ruthenium is wisely employed to trim this pen and the overall effect is dark without being flat. The resin retains some transparency and if you hold the pen to the light, you see not just the ink sloshing about but also a slight aubergine hue lurking beneath the material. It is an über cool nuance and one of the small details that set OMAS apart from many other makers.

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The nib is a standard firm Fine. Well, firm isn’t completely accurate. It has a very (and I mean very) slight bit of give, which feels pleasant on paper. It also possesses a hint of feedback. Some may not like this but this is exactly how I prefer my fine nibs to behave. Flow is dry-ish but not arid, and gives some interesting variation to its cross-strokes. Compared to the Arte Italiana Noir that I wrote about recently, this one gave me no trouble at all.

Even the nib ornamentation is a little passive aggressive on this one.

Even the nib ornamentation is a little passive aggressive on this one.

So there you have the tale of two brothers. One struts about in Battistoni threads. The other dons Zilli leather before mounting a Ducati. It’s hard to choose between these two but luckily, I don’t have to.

(The Vintage LE Paragon in Arco celluloid makes its guest appearance courtesy of Leigh.)

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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.

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