PenBBS is, apparently, a Chinese fountain pen community that also manufactures or contracts with someone to manufacture fountain pens. The brand is ubiquitous and has grown in popularity over the past couple of years, and for good reason.
The 355 is a very interesting pen. It is quite long but has a fairly standard diameter, so it feels substantial. The section itself is also long and tapered; the pen is very comfortable to hold and use. The section is easily removed, making cleaning the pen a trivial task.
The cap is a simple, threaded design that takes 1.75 turns to remove. It does post, but the pen becomes long and unwieldy, so I don’t think most users will routinely post this pen.
The 355 is the brand’s example of a syringe filler, not unlike Conid’s patented Bulkfiller system. It features an ink shutoff valve that, when completely closed, prevents ink from reaching the nib and feed. I have a Pilot Custom 823 that has a similar feature, and I find it very useful for traveling because it is easy insurance against leaks caused by pressure or temperature changes. The pen holds a bucket of ink–2.4mL for a typical fill or a maximum of 3mL if the pen is inverted, the residual air is expelled, and the pen is filled again. I don’t really bother with getting a full ink fill because I invariably flush pens before they’re empty, but a lot of writers love huge ink capacities and only use one ink. This pen would be a good choice for those users, or someone who flies a lot and doesn’t want to carry refills.
There’s been some discussion online about weather PenBBS ripped-off, copied, cloned, or etc. Conid’s system, but the reality is that the original concept of a telescoping/reciprocating syringe-filling system was originally patented by G.H. Means in 1898 and both Conid and PenBBS have made their own unique improvements to the filling system, so it’s not really relevant at this point.
The pen features a very attractive two-toned nib, and it writes fairly well. It’s not my favorite nib ever, but it is adequate for the price of this pen. It is folded steel–the writing point is made by folding the nib onto itself and polishing that rather than attaching a separate pellet of tipping material and shaping that into a point. This is an old technique for making cheaper nibs, but the nibs’ profiles end up being squarish with smaller “sweet spots” than conventional nibs. Technicalities aside, the pen wrote just fine out of the box with no drama.
What really attracted me to this pen was the finish–mine is the galaxy acrylic. The pen is available in a number of finishes, but potential buyers might have to search around a bit to find the one they want.
PenBBS pens, including the 355, are often used as platforms for JoWo, Aurora, Platinum, Sailor, or other nibs by enterprising tinkerers, likely because of their low cost, attractive finishes, enhanced cool factor, and bland nibs. I could see this pen being really cool with a Platinum 3776 nib on it, quite frankly.
For the price, this is a sweet deal. It’s a pen by fountain pen people, for fountain pen people. The fit and finish are fantastic, the pen is attractive and feels good in the hand, and it writes correctly, even if the nib isn’t really inspiring. Other companies would happily charge $150 or $200 more for the same thing. I strongly recommend checking out this pen.
Very attractive material.
No nib drama. It just wrote, and continues to write.
Fit and finish are spot-on.
Incredible value. I paid $46 shipped!
A+ fountain pen. This is how you build a sub-$50 pen.
The nib is functional and practical, but uninspiring–stiff, small sweet spot, and too fat to really be a fine. It’s not a bad nib per se, it’s just not my favorite.
This is more of a personal note than a true con: while I think the idea of this pen’s filling system is great, in practice unscrewing the piston rod, engaging the plunger, and otherwise actually using the pen is incredibly fiddly compared to a piston or vacuum filler or even an eyedropper pen with an ink shutoff valve, like an Opus 88. This is compounded slightly by my pen not being a demonstrator, so it’s impossible to see what’s going on in the pen. Again, not really a true con, and once the pen has ink in it it’s basically irrelevant.
While they are not presently in production, Conid Bulkfillers are, apparently, really cool. I never personally bothered because I hold Bock nibs in total contempt and Conids are exorbitant, but that’s just me.
1.75 turns to remove.
Folded steel nib.
Only available in Fine, it seems, and it’s not especially fine.
Acrylic, shown in the galaxy finish.
There are seemingly dozens of finishes available.
PenBBS doesn’t appear to have a name for it and I’m pretty sure Bulkfiller is trademarked by Conid, so I’m calling it a “reciprocating syringe filler.”
I didn’t want to write this review. I feel like it’s going to be one of the few dissenting YOL reviews out there. But the community needs to hear about my experience.
I actually love Yard-O-Led, in principle. I gushed over them in my post on the YOL Viceroy Grand–which is truly a remarkable work of art.
But I also outlined some of the issues I’ve noticed with the company in my post on the YOL Standard.
For context, I recommend reading both of those reviews before continuing.
First, the good: this petite pen is beautiful. Each pen is individually made either on very old machining tools or chased by hand by silversmiths. Because of this, one can see the different styles used by the individual silversmiths–for instance, it’s very obvious that my older Viceroy Grand was made by a different person than the Pocket, even though they are the same pattern.
The Pocket is awesome. Delicate. Petite. Painstakingly made with care by artisans.
The tiny size necessitates writing with the cap posted. The pen only fills via short international cartridges officially, but I found that the pen can use a Kaweco slide piston converter if the converter is only filled to about 70-80% capacity. The barrel of the pen cannot accommodate the piston rod when it is fully extended and filled, and reassembling the pen creates a mess when the barrel compresses the tiny piston. Is this hassle worth the 0.4mL ink capacity? That’s up to the user. If it were my one and only pen, I’d just use cartridges.
This is where my YOL Viceroy Pocket love affair stops. It’s all downhill from here.
The cap is not secure. The pen–like all of YOL’s fountain pens–uses a simple plastic inner cap that engages with a lip on the pen and is subsequently snaps into place. But for whatever reason on my Pocket, the inner cap does not engage very well; in fact, it is downright insecure. Any lateral pressure on the cap, whether posted or in the pocket, causes the cap to dislodge and pop off. This doesn’t sound like a huge deal, but think about all of the times one could conceivably place pressure across the pen when it’s in a shirt pocket–crossing your arms, leaning against a surface, or bumping into something can cause the cap to come lose. Now you’ve got a cap clipped to your shirt and a pen floating around your pocket. Forget about having it rattling around a purse or bag, unless you can find a suitably rigid pouch to keep the pen in. This is obviously a very bad quality for a pocket pen.
I have great disdain for Bock nibs. Every nib that I’ve tried that was originally made by Bock, whether on a $20 Kaweco or on this very expensive Viceroy has had some issue and required some level of correction to make it write correctly. The nib on this pen was a disaster out of the box. It came with a very blobby, wet, medium nib that was so unbelievably over-polished that it barely wrote. That nib is now on my Viceroy Standard and had to be corrected by a nibmeister. The nib that is currently on this pen was also so over-polished that it did not function out of the box. Dan Smith ground this nib into an extra fine for me when he was still doing outside work, and now the nib is okay. Dan does magnificent work and the grind is perfect, but I still don’t really like how it writes. It feels like the nib has too much flex but in a weird way, like the tines flex too much radially creating weird, needle-like feedback. It’s an 18k gold nib and it has to be very thin to get this level of softness, which makes the nib feel unpleasantly fragile to me. Flexing this nib would certainly spring it or outright destroy it. There is a reason why the best vintage and modern flex nibs are 14k gold. To counter-act this sponginess, my pen has to be used with a very delicate touch, which might be okay for some users but I don’t like that quality in a pocket pen that is, presumably, intended for hurried jotting. I’ve half-considered finding a generic steel #5 Bock nib and trying that in this pen to see if I like it more.
This pen currently retails for well over $1000. I didn’t pay nearly as much for it when I got mine, but even for what I paid for it it should have wrote well.
edit: Looks like Fahrney’s is carrying some YOL pens again for a much fairer price–no affiliation, and they don’t seem to carry the Pocket model. That’s probably where USA customers will need to go for a YOL pen.
YOL has, historically, been noted for its good customer service but when I emailed them with a question I received a canned response telling me to send the pen back to Birmingham. That’s a solid “meh” from me on the customer service front. Plus they’re not accepting repairs because of the pandemic–I don’t hold that against them for obvious reasons, but it’s something to consider if one is currently trying to decide on a YOL instrument right now. You don’t want to get stuck with an unrepairable dumpster fire of a pen that cost you a whole stack, now do you?
So, there we have it. I love YOL as a company, I really do. I love the company’s story, I love the art they are producing. But I am not a silver rod collector, I am a pen collector, and I can buy a hell of a lot of pen for $1000. Maybe that’s harsh, but I’d point-out that silver still isn’t that expensive as far as precious metals go (the spot price is under $30 per ounce [28 grams], as of this writing.) Compare this price to, say, Nakaya pens that are also produced entirely by hand and undergo lacquering processes that take months and can be found for well under $1000. And their pens are basically guaranteed to write.
It breaks my heart to write this, but I’d pass unless you get a good deal or can get it from a retailer with an outstanding return policy and even then I’d only pull the trigger if you really have your heart set on a Yard-O-Led fountain pen.
edit: I was thinking about this and I am pretty sure I bought the YOL Pocket when the Pound/Dollar exchange rate was very favorable. I wanted to be sure I wasn’t ranting about price increases and stuff that had more to do with geopolitical market shenanigans than it did with the company.
So I checked some historical prices via http://www.archive.org (no affiliation.) The Pocket was around £356 ($500ish) when I bought it in 2017. It is retailing, today, for £900. The Pounds:Dollar exchange rate was 1:1.29 back then compared to 1:1.39 as of today. It wasn’t the exchange ratethat sent these products from expensive but obtainable to laughably exorbitant.
I mean, just look at it.
In the hand, it is quite comfortable to hold and well balanced. The proportions are very nice. It has all of the trappings of a fantastic pen, but. . .
. . .for the price, YOL has alarmingly unacceptable quality assurance. For what I paid for this pen I was pretty disappointed. If I’d paid today’s MSRP I would have been outraged.
If you are in the market for a pocket pen, get literally any other pocket pen. On the inexpensive side, consider:
Kaweco Sports and Liliputs are bombproof. Their nibs usually need some tinkering but Bock seems to bork cheaper nibs less often, for some reason.
PenBBS 471 is a great pocket pen.
I find the Luoshi 358B a charming pen, and they work well for the price. One can buff the paint off pretty easily if you aren’t into the cigarette look.
Sheaffer Balance Juniors are fantastic pens. I recommend this one if looking for a flexy pocket pen–just make sure you find one with a “Junior” nib as the rest are not flexible at all.
Pilot E95s. Easily one of the best sub-$150 pens out there–possibly in the top 10 of the sub-$300 category–pocket pen or not. At least in my opinion. Really any vintage Japanese pocket pen by Pilot, Sailor, or Platinum could also work. This style of pen is a bit larger than European-style pocket pens, but they follow the same general concept of being small when capped and bigger when uncapped.
High-end pocket pens are somewhat difficult to come by, but for a more premium pocket pen look for:
Aurora Optima Mini.
Montblanc 114 Mozart.
The now-discontinued Pelikan m300.
The now-discontinued Delta Dolce Vita Mini, but watch-out for that Bock nib.
If you are in the market for a Yard-O-Led, I recommend the Viceroy Standard over the Pocket because the cap is far more secure, but even the Viceroy Grand isn’t that high of a premium over the Pocket model. Personally I would have gotten the Viceroy Pocket ballpoint and used Uniball Jetstream D1 refills with it had I known that I’d dislike the fountain pen so much.
Available in Fine and Medium. Maybe Broad, but after a cursory search I couldn’t find any for sale in Broad as of this writing.
Hand-chased sterling silver.
Shown the Victorian finish, also available in Barleycorn.
Officially Standard international short cartridge only.
Kaweco mini piston converters can be made to work but only hold a tiny bit of ink. Squeeze-type Kaweco converters did not work for me in this pen and created an inky mess.
I am willing to bet that one of these minuscule Templar Ink mini converters would work, too (no affiliation). I’ll update here if I’m ever enterprising enough to buy ridiculously small converters to try in a pen I don’t really care for that much.
Trigger warning: I poke fun at fountain pen enthusiasts in this post, especially Parker fans. A lot.
Last year, Parker announced that they were releasing an updated version of their legendary 51 to much outrage, wailing, and gnashing of teeth by purists.
The problem with re-issuing a legend is it’s only going to be compared to its former self. I brought this up a bit when I reviewed the Aurora Duo Cart, and anyone who follows fountain pen news at all knows that anytime Kenro does anything with the Esterbrook brand hundreds of Esterbrook enthusiasts lose their minds and Richard Esterbrook himself rises from his grave to haunt the earth.
The P51 is immensely legendary, incredibly popular, and supported by a huge cottage industry that dabbles in nothing but vintage Parker. So Parker truly has some guts to try their hand at the P51 again. Honestly, if they’d called this pen the Parker 2020 or made up some other name, I bet there would have been way less drama around it. The Parker 20/20: Inspired by past, eyes to the future or some other marketing nonsense. (Parker, hit me up if you guys need a marketing consultant.)
Me? I just bought one because I like pens with hooded nibs. I’ve reviewed a lot of them. I don’t consider myself a Parker fanboy it just so happens that the original Parker 51 is a really good pen with a hooded nib. Because of this, I’ve compared the original P51 to tons of pens on my blog so it’s only fair that I compare the newest incarnation to its former self.
And the pen is okay. I don’t think Parker did anything earth-shattering, but I don’t think it’s blasphemy against George S. Parker’s good name, either. It’s an okay pen.
The pen is available in two flavors–the base model with a brushed metal cap and the Deluxe version, shown here, with gold plated trim. The base model has a steel nib, the deluxe has an 18k gold nib. I don’t know if the 18k nib was worth the up-charge ($160 more. Really guys?) but I like gold nibs and I like having a desk drawer full of black pens with gold trim, apparently. So I opted for the deluxe.
The fit and finish is great. Everything is nice and smooth. The threads work like they’re supposed to.
Speaking of threads, the cap is threaded to the horror of P51 old-heads everywhere. There is a lot of talk about the cap being metal and the barrel being plastic and how that will lead to threads that will totally strip out and be worthless, but I think that’s largely a theoretical problem. I have probably half a dozen pens in my reach right now that have some metal component that threads into some plastic component and I’ve yet to have something strip out.
The cap striations are tastefully done and very smooth to the touch. The modern arrow clip is springy and works. The cap twists off in one revolution and posts fairly securely. I’ve had the posted cap wiggle off a few times while writing, but I feel like the cap throws the balance of the pen rearward so I’d rather write with it unposted for longer sessions anyways. The cap almost weighs as much as the pen, and in my experience this generally leads to weird balance issues.
My biggest complaint about the pen, and the complaint I see the most from other reviewers that are not diehard Parker aficionados, is the pen feels light and cheap. No precious resin or acrylic, here, it’s straight-up injection molded plastic. The soft, super lightweight, easily scratched, bleh kind of plastic. It doesn’t feel rough, there are no injection molding lines or sprue marks, it just feels unimpressive. I know Parker can make a pen that feels good in the hand. Their fit and finish is outstanding on this pen and their other modern, high-end offerings. But they cheaped out on the body of the pen. Not good. That’s the part that gets the most touch! Why make a lovely a cap for a pen body that, honestly, kind of sucks for the price? ($87 for a base model with steel nib, and $248 for the deluxe, by the way.)
Of course, the feel of the plastic is pretty subjective. But surely Parker knew that this pen was destined to be carefully compared to the acrylic vintage P51 and the leagues of cheapo Chinese copies? Knowing that, why would you make the body feel closer to the Hero pens of the world instead of the titular legend? Especially at $248.
I’m willing to bet that a lot of the design choices Parker made for this pen would be overlooked by the fountain pen community at large if the new model was made of acrylic. Or whatever plastic they made the Duofold out of. Just not…whatever it is. Especially considering that this pen writes very, very nicely.
Mine has a medium nib and it was just a touch over-polished out of the box–only enough that the pen hard-started on smooth paper like Rhodia but was fine on everything else. That’s a pretty easy fix for me, and many users probably would have found it completely acceptable.
The pen fills with Parker’s cartridge/converter system. I don’t like Quink so I don’t use Parker cartridges, but the converter works as it should despite its weirdly small capacity. Even though the host of vintage 51 fanatics will heartily disagree, It’s completely unrealistic to expect Parker to re-release the 51 with an aerometric filler (or, God forbid, as a vacumatic) when 99% of their customers will be happy with the effective, easily serviceable, and replaceable system. I take zero issue with Parker’s cartridge/converter system and their decision to use it.
I am not a huge Parker devotee (my allegiance is to Aurora), so I can objectively say this pen is pretty decent. It’s not going to win over any vintage Parker addicts. It’s not the vile abomination said addicts accuse it of being, and it’s quite a bit better than the $2 copies floating around eBay and AliExpress. I give Parker a C plus–it’s not bad, but I know you guys can do better.
Outstanding fit and finish.
A great writer.
It feels too cheap. This could be rectified by using a better plastic or dropping the price. All of Newell’s fountain pens suffer from the same problem: The MSRP is too damn high.
Weird balance–the cap is too heavy for the pen. Or, more accurately, the pen is too light for the cap.
Anything remotely Parker-51ish will always live in the shadow of the titan that is the Parker 51. Also annoyingly, I have to forever more clarify that I’m talking about the original P51. Thanks a lot, Parker.
Higher-end alternatives that are better pens for less money include:
Vintage Parker 51, the obvious choice. You Parker folks happy? I’ve conceded that the old-school P51 is still the king of this mountain.
Lamy 2000. Helluva lot better for helluva lot less money.
It’s been awhile, but I’m back with a really cool, inexpensive pen!
Kaco seems to be a new-ish Chinese stationary company, founded in 2011 and headquartered in Shanghai. At least according to their website.
Kaco seems to be making unique designs, including a bunch of interesting looking fountain pens that I’ll check out in the future.
I like pens with hooded nibs and I have a sub-collection of them going on, so as soon as the Retro appeared on my radar I bought one. It only set me back $16, so I figured I wouldn’t be out much if the pen was crap. To my surprise, this pen is nothing but crap–it is a solid, well-made, and inexpensive workhorse of a pen.
This pen is an original design. It’s not trying to copy a Parker 51–rounded ends and a hooded nib are not enough for me to classify it thusly. There are no fake clutch cap rings, no arrow clips, nothing like that. I have reviewed severalpens that are clearly trying to copy Parker’s design. This isn’t one of them. But with a name like Retro, obviously they’re at least acknowledging that it is a homage.
The pen came in a simple box with two black standard international short cartridges and one genuine German-made Schmidt K1 converter. I was already pretty impressed at this point–here we have a sub-$20 pen with honest-to-goodness standard international cartridges and a decent converter!
All too often with Chinese pens in this price range, I see semi-proprietary standard international-ish cartridges (if any) and flimsy mystery converters that work some of the time. Many pens above this price range from other common brands don’t even come with converters–Like Lamy. Well done, Kaco.
The pen is simple and very lightweight. It’s not exactly the pinnacle of pens–it still feels like a cheap, brittle plastic pen–but the fit and finish are surprisingly on point. The plastic is very nicely polished. The section threads are smooth and satisfying to use. It wrote without hassle or adjustment. Other than the injection molding marks on the cap finial and the end of the pen, I’d go so far as to say the fit and finish was flawless out of the box. There are very few brands that can make that claim, and fewer yet in the sub-$20 category.
The cap uses a slider/pseudo-clutch type cap not unlike the system used by the Pilot E95s. The mechanism is smooth and satisfying and keeps the cap in place during capping or posting. The cap also seals well. No dry-outs or other weirdness with this one.
One of my favorite elements of this pen is the clip–a simple, bent wire with a plastic sphere on the end. It holds the pen tightly in a pocket and is whimsical and practical.
As stated, the pen wrote without drama out of the box. It’s not the greatest writing experience ever–it’s a standard P51-style steel nib that writes with a bit of feedback and is fairly position-sensitive but otherwise gets the job done. The pen can suffer from a bit of ink starvation with long writing sessions, but it is fully tolerable.
There is not much more I can say about this pen. I was genuinely impressed–and that takes some doing nowadays.
Comes with everything you need.
Fit and finish are impressive for the cost.
Really, this is a high-value pen.
The ink window doesn’t work.
It feels plasticky.
The whimsical design may not be for everyone.
If you’re looking for a cheap Parker 51-esque pen or pen with a hooded nib for under $20, this is your ticket. There’s not another one out there that even comes close to competing with the Kaco Retro in build quality. That said, the Wing Sung 601 or 618 pens are worth considering if you prefer their aesthetics or want a pen with a filling system other than a cartridge/converter set up.
If you are a newbie just looking for a fountain pen to get started on, the Kaco Retro should be high-up on your list, along with the often mentioned Pilot MR series or Lamy Safari/Vista. Also consider the Pilot Kakuno.
Plastic with wire clip.
Clutch-type closure mechanism.
Posts very deeply and securely.
P51-style folded steel nib.
Sold to me as an extra-fine, but I’d say it’s closer to a fine or medium.
Injection molded plastic.
Shown in orange.
Available in red, blue, white, black, and turquoise.
Standard international cartridge or converter.
Compatible with long international cartridges.
Can store a second short international cartridge in the barrel if so inclined.
I haven’t tried it, but I’m willing to bet that one could eyedropper this pen with some silicone grease.
After my last huge post and a rather rough semester, it’s probably time for something a bit less esoteric. A simpler pen, a simpler review.
Jinhao pens tend to be fairly well made and they tend to more-or-less work out of the box–all for a decent price.
At first blush, the 51A looks like another Parker 51 clone. It’s even named the 51A.
The internals of the 51A are actually completely unique, at least compared to a Hero 616 or similar–pens that are literal copies of Parker’s design. So the 51A, in passing, looks very much like a Parker but it is superficial only. Jinhao didn’t just buy a bucket of nondescript 51 clone parts and cobble a “new” pen together.
The only reason I’m sticking-up for a $12 pen is because its reputation as just another cheap P51 ripoff isn’t fully deserved. This pen wrote out of the box. The same cannot be said about a lot of modern pens, both below and well above this price range. Yeah, it is clearly inspired by the Parker 51, but so was the Lamy 2000, Aurora 88, Waterman Taperite, Montblanc 14, Esterbrook Phaeton 300, OMAS 361, and . . . so. . .on. That’s not a measure of a bad or good pen–whether it writes or not is. And the Jinhao writes.
That’s not to say Jinhao hasn’t outright copied old pen designs–they absolutely have, and continue to do so. This just isn’t a great example of that practice.
And I am definitely not saying this pen is better than, or even equal to, a Parker 51. It’s not. But I don’t think its trying to be, either.
The 51A is very light. The metal cap shifts the balance rearward when posted, but it isn’t that heavy and it posts deeply and securely, which mitigates the balance shift. The cap operates on a clutch mechanism like a Parker 51 and it works fairly well. The clip does what it is supposed to do with little drama.
The pen’s body is wood–I think this one is peach wood, or it was sold to me as such. Apparently peach wood wands, amulets, and so on are believed to keep evil spirits at bay in Chinese culture. At least according to Wikipedia. I thought that was a neat tidbit and it would make sense to use peach wood to make things one would be carrying on their person. In any case, the wood wasn’t exactly smooth out of the box, but I polished it a bit with some micromesh. Now it is smooth and organic feeling and aging rather well. Of course, there are a bunch of different materials available besides wood.
It fills with a cartridge/converter system. Jinhao uses a system that is vaguely patterned after the standard international system and people have had success making standard cartridges and converters fit. The pen did come with a Jinhao-branded converter so I haven’t had to mess around with trying to make other converters work.
Interestingly enough, this model can optionally be purchased with an open nib, if one likes the pen but prefers a larger nib instead of the hooded design.
For the price, this is a decent pen. The fit and finish is good enough, the pen writes, and the 51A line has some interesting options. I think this is a nice beginner pen or a good choice for someone who likes the aesthetic but who does not want or cannot get a Parker 51. I think there are a few better choices out there for this type of pen, but there are many that are far, far worse.
For the price, the fit and finish is acceptable.
The pen will always live in the shadow of the Parker 51. The brand as a whole isn’t exactly known for its innovative design and this pen is no different.
It’s a pretty dry writer.
It feels really cheap. The wood is super thin and feels fragile. The capping mechanism works how it is supposed to but it feels like you’re dragging a brick through a gravel parking lot the whole time. Little details like that. On the other hand I think I paid $12 (shipped!) for this pen and the price has dropped since then–so like I said, probably acceptable for the price but don’t think for one minute you’ll get a pen on par with a Parker.
There really are a million alternatives. Just find one that suits you at the price you like. I do not recommend Hero pens, but the following are closely related and great alternatives. In general:
Parker 51. Yep, I’m still that guy–save those pennies and find a user-grade aerometric Parker 51. You’ll never need a different pen in your life, you can give it to your grandkids when you die. The P51 will live happily ever after that. I’m not even a Parker guy and I believe it–these are good pens with an entire industry built around ensuring that they are in use for another 80+ years.
Kaco Retro. A relative newcomer, and a pen that cannot truly be called a knock-off P51. These are cool little pens and easily my favorite non-premium option in this list. Such a whimsical, cool design with performance to back it up. Only $5 or so more than the Jinhao and worth every penny. Highly recommended.
Wing Sung 601. This is still the best outright P51 clone, in my opinion. Wing Sung, like Jinhao, likes to copy designs but they built a better pen than Jinhao in this case. Around $10 more than the 51A.
Wing Sung 618. Still a weird design, but still an interesting pen. $10-$13 more than the Jinhao.
Clutch-type, metal cap.
Parker 51-style folded steel nib in fine.
The pen can be purchased with an open #5 nib instead.
Various plastics and other materials are also available.
Cartridge/converter system (technically proprietary but close enough to standard international.)
This is an exceptionally exciting post for me–one that is several years in the making. I want to review the original Aurora 88 and all of its descendants because I have an example of all of them (with three exceptions that I’ll get to). I also have some cool documents and paraphernalia I wanted to share, too–partly because I’m an Aurora fanboy/nerd, but also because the English-language information available on these pens is lacking.
I have two main sources of information that I’m citing. The first and most important is Leticia Jacopini’s book La Storia della Stilografica in Italia 1900-1950, Volume One. I own a hard copy of the book, but both volumes are available for download on her website. Her works are the single best resource on Italian fountain pens in English bar none, change my mind.
The second source was an unbelievably detailed post from 2009 by the user “diplomat” on the Fountain Pen Network, here. I’m not a member of FPN–they never bothered to respond to my email for membership–but I have to give credit where credit is due. edit: okay, I’m a member of FPN now, on good terms, as of December 6th. They underwent an extensive site upgrade and users being unable to register was a known issue. I won’t hold it against them.
Before getting into more individual detail, I wanted to cover a few more similarities here to avoid repeating them numerous times. The 88, 88K, and 88P are all piston fillers. They will always have to be restored to working order when you get them, even if the seller claims the pen is in working order (it’s not, I guarantee it, or it won’t be for very long in the best case scenario). One can trust some restorer/sellers like David Nishimura or Mike and Linda of Indy Pen Dance to restore these prior to selling them, but the vast majority of sellers, especially on eBay or similar, will not bother with them. While the process is not hard, in principle, the threaded piston head is incredibly fragile and will usually crumble to dust during the restoration. I recommend that you send these to a pro for restoration. It would be awesome if someone with the know-how could figure out how to 3D print these pistons–then restoring them would be a trivial task akin to replacing a sac on a lever filler. (If you figure out how to do it, I’ll happily buy a dozen of them.)
The oldest 98’s are also piston fillers, but the mechanism is completely different and made of more durable, modern materials. These typically will function okay without a lot of drama.
Newer 98s, the International, and the new Duo Cart pens all use Aurora’s cartridge/converter system, which is readily obtainable.
The rest of the pens are cartridge filled and were never intended to be used with a converter–converters didn’t exist. The pens use old Aurora Biflux cartridges, which are obsolete and not made anymore. By sheer coincidence, Platinum-brand cartridges and converters will mount on these older pens. Because they were not meant to fill via a converter, filling them in such a manner can be fiddly, but it can be done. One could also refill the vintage Aurora cartridges, but I have chosen to retain my cartridges as they are for the sake of collecting.
Because I collect Aurora fountain pens, I incidentally also collect Aurora ballpoints and merchandise more broadly, so I’ll be including that information as well. A quick note on vintage Aurora ballpoints: modern-day ISO G1-style refills (a la the Schneider Express 225 or Aurora’s own Wagon refill not Pilot’s G1!) are dimensionally identical to Aurora’s old ballpoint refills except the modern refills have a plastic tail. Sometimes they fit without modification, but one can also trim the tail back to get them to fit. As far as I can tell, all of Aurora’s pre-1970 ballpoints use the ISO-G1/Wagon refill, at least until they adopted Parker’s standard of refills for all of their pens. Even today, the Wagon refill is used in Aurora’s skinny ballpoints, so they are available.
No matter what anyone tells you, the original 88 was not a flex pen. It just wasn’t, pure and simple. The nibs on the early 88’s were quite responsive, maybe I’d go so far as to call them soft, but only if they are equipped with the soft nibs in the first place. Aurora offered 17 nib choices on 88s, and while most of them are, indeed, of the soft extra fine, fine, or medium variety, not all of them were. The nibs on all but two of my pens are downright rigid. I use the term “soft” to differentiate Aurora’s old-school standard nibs from their stiffer nibs throughout this post. I do not recommend these pens for users looking for flex–go get a Waterman 52 or a Mabie-Todd Swan. Hell, even a Sheaffer Jr. with a Junior nib is a better flex pen. I’m serious. You’ll be disappointed. Now, if you’re looking for a bouncy, responsive nib that can add a little bit of flair to writing, you’ll be in luck.
Finally, that Aurora feedback that us Aurora people gush over? Oh yeah, that’s here in droves. And I love it.
The 88 was designed by Marcello Nizzoli and released around 1946. The pen is simple in its elegance–a round, cigar-shaped pen made from black celluloid and featuring a metal cap. There aren’t a bunch of different finishes for the 88, but there were many options for the caps, including gold plate, Nikargenta, chrome, sterling, rolled gold, and so on. Mine is a gold-plated cap, which seem to be the most popular option. Again, the 88 fills with a piston and has a nice, functional ink window. The section of the pen, as well as the piston knob, are black ebonite.
Apparently there were also all gold-plated pens and solid gold pens, but I’ve never actually seen one.
The star of this show is the nib. Most of the early pens were equipped with either a soft fine or soft medium nib, indicated by a colored dot on the end of the pen–which was missing from mine. Only specialty nib grades were engraved on these pens, which leads me to believe that this pen is a standard issue, soft fine.
It’s gloriously feedbacky and super responsive. I cannot really describe it. It feels like a vintage Aurora in the best way possible. I know I said don’t flex these pens, but just look at this:
That is with practically zero effort. It is fantastic.
With user-contributed serial numbers and a lot of speculation, users on Fountain Pen Network (again, I’m not affiliatedLOL JK guys) generated approximate dates of manufacture. My 88, using their list, was likely manufactured around 1948, give or take.
The 88K was released around 1953, with some overlap in production. The pen itself is dimensionally identical to the original 88. The biggest non-aesthetic change that Aurora made was they began to manufacture the 88K’s section and piston knob out of celluloid.
The 88K was available with the same cap options and nib options as the 88. I actually have seen pens that were entirely gold-plated, unlike the 88, so I know those exist.
My pen is equipped with a hard fine nib. It’s rigid, smooth, feedbacky, and wet.
My 88K came to me new old stock in a box labeled FIAT. It was likely a corporate gift that sat in a desk somewhere for 65 years before coming to me, along with all of the sweet retro paperwork!
My 88K was made around 1955.
Next came the Aurora Duo Cart in 1954, which was revolutionary in its own right. This pen was an early example of a cartridge pen, mostly aimed at school kids. Aurora used the sections right off of 88’s in an attempt to cut some costs, so these pens write just as well as full-fledged 88’s. The pen used the dual cartridge carrier–seen above–and when the user was out of ink they were to discard the empty cartridge and flip the carrier around. An ink alarm feature–a tiny ball on the end of a tiny chain in the pen’s barrel–reminded the user to get a new cartridge. This feature is more annoying than useful and was omitted in Aurora’s later cartridge pens. Modern users are forced to find a way to disable this alarm–I cut the nipple end off an empty international cartridge and placed it over the turning knob of the pen’s converter to act as a spacer to keep the alarm from driving me nuts.
Unfortunately, my 88 Duo Cart is in rough shape–tons of cap brassing, the clip is loose and floppy, and the jewel on the end of the barrel was obviously super glued into place at some point. But it writes. The nib feels very similar to the hard fine nib on my 88K; Aurora did not engrave the nib grade on these pens, so I’m left guessing once again.
The pens were available with a couple different plastic bodies and either black or red ebonite sections. I don’t know what Aurora’s serial number methodology was, but I get the sense that this pen was a very early 88 Duo Cart.
This pen is kind of cool. It’s aesthetically unique and different from the rest of the family–it’s a little blocky and chunky, and the short cap just works, in a weird way. The pen also changed the way people used fountain pens–cartridge/converter pens are the most prolific type now, and this was one of the earliest, commercially successful cartridge pens, along with the Waterman C/F that was introduced in 1953.
The 888 was a more grown-up version of the 88 Duo Cart and was released around 1956. It was a unique design, not just the section off of a more expensive pen made cheaper. It made use of the Duo Cart’s cartridge system with the ink alarm feature.
The nib on this pen is a K13, which is stamped on the included warranty card and engraved on the pen’s section. Once again, I have no idea what the K nibs are supposed to be. The tipping material on this pen is not shaped like the K nib illustrations on the above documentation, but the nib is ever so slightly up-swept. Regardless, this may be my favorite nib out of all of these pens. It appears to be a fine and is slightly more rigid than the soft nib on my 88, but far more responsive than the hard fine on my 88K. It is perfectly tuned and an absolute joy to write with.
Of the cartridge converter pens I own in this family, this is by a wide margin my favorite, and is probably in the top three of my favorite vintage Auroras. The pen is very light, well balanced, and has a long, comfortable section. Plus it writes like a dream.
Unfortunately, people living in Italy during the late 50s were not as enthusiastic about this pen as I am and it was not the hot seller Aurora hoped for. The 888 was only made until 1959 or so; mine has a late-ish serial number and is probably a ’57 or ’58, if I had to guess.
The Firma (Italian for “Signature”) was released around 1957 and is an interesting, but often overlooked variant. Desk pens were far more popular in the past than they are presently.
The Firma uses Aurora’s Biflux cartridges just like the Duo Cart and 888, but it did not make use of the cartridge carrier or the ink alarm–I checked, the double cartridge carrier does not fit in the pen. I am not sure if they decided it wasn’t necessary for a desk pen or if they were already in the process of phasing the system out.
The nib is a gloriously juicy medium and very pleasant to use. It is at this point that I noticed the pens start to feel much more “modern.” The sections and bodies on these newer pens are obviously plastic–not celluloid–and the nibs start to feel stiffer and are not as responsive. It’s still a good writer and it is nicely balanced, as desk pens tend to be.
The pen came with a thick glass base and pen trumpet–which looks like a rocket ship or something. It feels very, very late 50’s.
The 88P debuted around the same time, circa 1958 or so. It is widely considered to be the pinnacle of the 88 family of pens–it was made entirely in celluloid, the cap–which came in the same options as every other 88-type pen except Nikargenta–was the most finely engraved. I will admit that the 88P feels more refined than the 88K and much, much more modern than the 88–which would have been considered a good thing in 1958.
My 88P is a later model, as indicated by its lack of serial number. Aurora stopped serializing the 88P in 1963.
Unfortunately, as nicely finished as the 88P is, it debuted right as ballpoints and cheaper fountain pen options were growing in popularity. Even so, Aurora managed to sell well over a million of these beautiful pens before they ceased production sometime in the 60’s.
The 888P was the natural evolution of the 888 and started production sometime in 1959. Early models may have included the ink alarm system, but mine does not. The pen did make use of the Duo Cart cartridge carrier system, though. The pen is entirely plastic and uses the exact same cap as the 88P. The section is interchangeable with the section of the Firma.
My 888P is heavily worn; the section engraving is barely visible and it is covered in light surface scratches but it does not appear to have been abused or left in some cellar somewhere.
At first, I was least impressed by this pen. It seemed to me that Aurora was just trying to cut costs with this model (using the same parts, cheapening the materials, etc.) and I was just adding it to the collection for the sake of completion. But the more I look at the way it is worn, along with the fact that the pen came in the original box with an old box of modern Aurora cartridges tucked inside, the more I realize that it tells a story of a pen that was heavily used and well-loved. A pen put away once the last ink cartridge was used up, but not before the owner tried one final time to use the new line of cartridges. Someone loved this pen. That’s part of the appeal of collecting vintage pens.
The 98. The final evolution of the 88 proper. This is where Aurora really tries to engage in the modern age with something completely new.
The 98 was released in 1963, and keeping with the tastes of the time, the pen was thinner and blockier. It’s still a piston filler, but the pen uses modern, durable plastics.
My 98 happens to be a sterling silver model in a set with a ballpoint. It was a corporate gift for someone working at Alitalia–the largest airline in Italy. I think that’s pretty cool. The deep blue velvet clam shell box is housed in a pinstriped cardboard outer sleeve.
I love the 98. I think the design is clever and the pen is slick. It’s a nice size–not too fat, not too heavy. The pen writes well, posts well, and feels good in the hand. Despite being made of silver, it’s only a gram heavier than the 888P. And it writes well–it’s a smooth, toothy medium that feels good. Granted, the piston design would be called a captive converter and scoffed at today, but at the time there was no such thing as a captive converter, it was just a piston filler–converters for cartridge pens were just sort of starting to take off when this pen hit the market. The pen only holds 0.9mL of ink.
But what makes this pen awesome is the influence it had on Aurora’s future pens. This pen introduced the Riserva Magica concept, which Aurora still uses. And we still see design elements from the 98 floating around in Auora’s modern lineup–the Style series comes to mind. The 98 was also a transitional piece; it bridges the gap between the thicker cigar-shaped pens of the past and the thinner pens of the 1970s. I think it’s a really interesting pen.
At some point, Aurora stopped making the Riserva Magica 98’s and was only churning out cartridge/converter 98s. There was also some overlap with another series of pen called the International, which is, as far as I can tell, a cartridge/converter 98 but made with cheaper materials. The pen I have isn’t vintage per se, it was released in the early 2000s as part of Aurora’s Archivi Storici series–the story goes that Aurora found some new-old-stock parts, slapped some pens together, and sold them. So this is the Archivi Storici model 016, a new/old Aurora International:
This is also the generation of pens in which Aurora began using the Parker standard of cartridge/converter, which would have been in the late 60s or so.
I like this pen quite a bit; it was the third Aurora I purchased and the one that got me interested in vintage Aurora pens. Unfortunately, it’s also the last retro pen that I own that is a direct descendant of the granddaddy 88. I considered discussing the Hastil, but it’s not related to the 88 in any way. Similarly, the modern 88 doesn’t truly belong here either.
What does belong in this discussion, however, is the modern rendition of the Duo Cart. It’s pretty easy to trace their lineage back to the 88.
I already talked about the 2017 release of the modern Duo Cart here. I won’t drone about the 2019 version, except to say that it kept all of the good parts of the 2017 version but fixed the bad parts. It’s a solid, modern day pen.
There are few more models floating around that probably belong on this list that I’ve overlooked, as well as a few that I’m aware of that are worth mentioning that I don’t have examples of. In the 1960s, Aurora replaced the (old) Duo Cart with the updated Aurora 2Cart, which gave rise to the Auretta family of school pens. Those are extremely collectable in themselves. Finally, there is a model called Per Lei (For Her) which was a line of Aurora 98s without clips, sometimes with tassels on the caps. These were ladies purse pens, and while I think they’re lovely, I just don’t have any on hand.
Asking me to identify which is my favorite is like asking me to identify which of my kids are my favorite–I love all of them. If pressed, I could limit the list to three (pens, not kids)–the 88, the 888, and the 98–but I couldn’t rank them. The 88K makes the list sometimes, too, but I think that’s just because it was a white whale for me–I had a heck of a time finding an 88K for a non-insane price to add to my collection.
I suppose the real question is “why?” Why would a young Midwestern man, who neither speaks Italian, nor has any Italian heritage, who’s never even been to Italy, be so interested in an Italian pen company?
A pen is just a stick that makes marks on a page. A free ballpoint from the bank is realistically the only writing device one would ever need. A crayon picked up from the floor of Applebee’s accomplishes the same practical task, too.
But sometimes you just have to listen to your heart. I believe Dan Smith called it “feeding your soul” in one of his videos back in the day. Aurora feeds my soul.
Anyways, that’s the story I’m sticking to.
Vintage Aurora 88
Friction fit, postable.
There were a bunch of options out there.
14k semi-hooded, soft fine.
17 options available. Almost all of them that survived are fine or medium.
Black celluloid body with ink window. Section and piston knob in black ebonite.
My wife bought this pen for me for Valentine’s day several years ago, so the Duragraph has sentimental value to me. I am behind the game with this pen and there isn’t a lot for me to add that hasn’t already been said about it. It’s quite popular.
First, the nib. My pen doesn’t have the original Conklin nib on it–I did consider putting it back on for the review, but ultimately decided against it. Conklin used to use Chinese nibs on their old pens, apparently switched to Bock at one time, and have since switched to JoWo. My pen was produced during the Chinese to Bock transition time, so I have no idea who made the original nib, but it wasn’t that great. I switched a spare 14k JoWo extra fine nib into the pen, and new Duragraphs should have JoWo nibs on them anyways, so it’s still a fair comparison.
The pen has a classy, vintage-inspired feel to it. For the price, it feels well-built. The hourglass shaped section is very comfortable in use and the pen is light and balanced towards the nib, so it’s nice for longer writing sessions.
My main complaint about the pen, other than the so-so nib, is the cap band is crooked or not installed correctly. It bugs me, but is only a minor aesthetic issue.
The cap technically posts, but it does not do so deeply and the cap weighs as much as the pen, so posting it makes it very long, cumbersome, and back-heavy. Thankfully the Duragraph is long enough to be used comfortably while unposted.
This model is kind of cool, sentimental value aside. It’s available in a bunch of different finishes with a nice nib lineup and is attractively priced. It is a good choice for those new to fountain pens, intermediate users, or anyone who likes the way it looks.
Comfortable to hold.
The nib was not so hot out of the box–functional, just not great.
The cap band is off on mine.
Why the hell can’t this pen accept long standard international cartridges? Huge fumble on Conklin’s part. (I mean, they fit, but they get stuck in the barrel and the user has to dig them out.)
About 1 turn to remove.
Not exactly postable.
Originally a stainless steel medium Conklin #6 nib of unknown origin.
This one is a #6 JoWo 14k gold nib, in extra fine.
Modern pens should have #6 Conklin branded JoWo nibs.
Currently available in extra fine, fine, medium, broad, 1.1 italic, and the proprietary Omniflex nib.
Cracked ice acrylic.
Available in a bunch of finishes.
Standard international cartridge/converter.
No long cartridges and don’t try to carry a short cartridge in tandem in the barrel. They feel like they’ll fit and then get stuck. It makes a hell of a mess trying to dig them out. I try these things so you don’t have to.
The pen does come with a threaded converter. Mine broke, but threaded converters are always nice.
Ink capacity for standard international converters and short cartridges is around 0.7-0.8ml.
There are a million decent sub-$100 pens that could be considered instead, including other Conklins, but most of them don’t share the Duragraph’s vintage feel. Because of this, I tried to pick alternatives that are flat tops, similar in price, or have that “retro feel” about them. In no particular order consider:
Some of Penbbs’s options.
Aurora Talentum, Tu, or Style.
Esterbrook Estie–it’s not a flattop, but the concept is similar.
Jinhao Centennial. I’ve seen this one referred to (lovingly, perhaps?) as the JinhaoFold because it obviously takes some. . .inspiration. . .from the Parker Duofold.
Pelikan Souveran series. The m600 or m800 are probably closest in size and shape.
Usual bias alert: I collect Aurora pens. That Aurora logo means I’m emotionally invested at baseline, but I always challenge myself to be objective when writing about Aurora Pens.
I don’t usually get into matte black pens, but this one caught my eye.
The Talentum is the “entry level” pen in Aurora’s upper tier. It uses the same nib unit as their more expensive pens but in a less expensive cartridge/converter format. Actually, it’s not uncommon for users who want an extra Aurora nib unit to just buy a Talentum as the pen is not that much more than a spare nib ($396 vs. $316 street price.)
That said, the Talentum isn’t just a cartridge/converter 88 or Optima. It’s a cool pen in its own right.
First off, the pen is a great size and shape. It’s well balanced towards the nib, and long enough to use very comfortably unposted. It posts extremely well, but becomes a bit back-heavy. I prefer to use this pen unposted, but the option to post the cap is always welcome.
I like the matte resin body; it has a subtle, grippy texture and is comfortable to use for long writing sessions. The matte finish on the trim is not durable at all, however. The finish on the ring on the end of the grip section has flaked-off entirely, and in other places it’s simply scratched off under normal use. The metal underneath has a shiny ruthenium or polished hematite appearance, though, so it’s not terrible–on the contrary, I love the way this pen is aging. I do know that some people would really hate that though, so it’s important to point-out, and it sort of cheapens the feel of the pen a bit. Nit picky? Maybe.
Here is a proper nit-pick: I don’t like the way the inside of the cap is finished where the metal finial is connected to the end of the cap. I think Aurora could have done a better job–polished it better or covered it with a plastic inner cap or something. It doesn’t impact the writing or performance of this pen in any way. One can only see this if one is looking inside of the cap with a bright flashlight.But I noticed it, and I cannot un-notice it. There’s no way I can photograph this in a way that makes sense, but it bugs me. Maybe it is a minor qualm, but this is not a cheap pen and I have very little tolerance for tomfoolery and corner-cutting in pens this expensive.
The star of this show is the nib, however. The nib is unique with its matte finish. I’ve had no issues with the nib’s finish unlike the trim rings, and I was not able to find any examples on the internet of the nib’s finish being defective, so that’s good. This nib is an extra fine; it is rigid and precise and the ebonite feed provides a very generous ink flow. This is how I like my extra fine nibs. Mine was purchased from nibs.com and John Mottishaw tuned it a bit, so this isn’t exactly how it came out of the factory. Keep in mind that tuning and grinding a nib with any finish other than gold–not just this matte finish–will reveal the raw gold color underneath. This is how I know he ground this nib a bit before sending it. I don’t mind because this pen is a sweet writer, and it’s not like he ground a bunch of the finish off. I am just pointing it out. Nibs.com will, of course, not tune your pen, if requested.
I love the Talentum model. It is a superb choice for users who prefer its looks or prefer cartridge/converter pens. I would, however, recommend the gold or rhodium trim pens for users concerned with the matte pen’s durability.
Sweet looking pen.
Writes really well. Aurora’s pens typically do, in my experience, but tuning by a nibmeister like John Mottishaw always helps.
Full sized and comfortable. Lovely balance. This pen is meant to write.
The finish isn’t durable.
I recognize that most of the cost of this pen is in the nib, but this pen is still pricey for what it is.
Screw cap, push to post.
1.25 turns to remove.
Available in matching resin or metal caps.
14k Large Aurora proprietary nib unit with ebonite feed, shown in extra fine.
Available in yellow gold, rhodium plated, or matte black finish.
Nib units screw-out and are interchangeable with like Aurora pens.
Commonly available nib grades are extra fine, fine, medium, and broad. Specialty nib grades include BB, Factory Stub, Factory Italic, and oblique nibs (OM, OB, OBB,) along with the Goccia EF, F, and M nibs. Not all retailers carry specialty nibs, so potential users will have to search for them (and pay extra).
I know for certain that Oblique Fine and reverse obliques (OFR, OMR, OBR, and OBBR) were available at one time, but I’ve only seen them on vintage pens from “nib testing” sets. Writers interested in those may be able to special-order them, however.
The nib grade’s availability depends on the trim. I seriously doubt one can get the more exotic nibs in the matte black finish.
Resin body. Available in matte black (shown), black, and burgundy. There is/was a yellow Talentum as well.
Aurora proprietary cartridge/converter.
Converter capacity is 0.8mL.
Aurora cartridge capacity is around 1.2mL.
Aurora’s system is patterned after Parker’s, so those probably work. I haven’t tested them.
Aurora’s own 88 and Optima are good choices. The 88 is closer in size, the Optima is closer in shape.
Aurora Tu is also a cheaper choice from Aurora.
Parker Duofold Centennial.
Sailor Pro Gear (especially the Imperial Black finish, if one is after the all black look.)
Conklin Duragraph or Jinhao Centennial are similar in size and shape, on the less expensive side of things.
This pen has been reviewed ad nauseam, so this is going to be short. I’m mostly doing it for the sake of completion on my end.
If you have your heart set on this pen, buy it. In my experience, Pilot’s nibs are pretty true to size, so if you want a fine, buy a fine (or whatever.) If you want a fine and buy a medium, it might be too fat.
Mine had an over polished nib out of the box and barely wrote. This is pretty strange for a Pilot. Mine was originally a medium nib; I’ve since reground a bit finer. I used my Pelikan m1000 nib as a reference, as Mike Masuyama had tuned it for me, and now my 823 writes like a million bucks. I could have taken advantage of Pilot’s excellent customer service, but I didn’t feel like it.
A few things worth mentioning: this is a hefty pen–it does have a big metal rod running through it. I think its proportions are a little strange because the pen has the length of an oversized pen, but not the girth. It’s longer than a Pelikan m1000 when capped, so pocket carry in a shirt pocket isn’t optimal. Posting the pen throws the balance in a weird way. The dimensions are just strange on this pen.
Some people do not like the ink shutoff feature, but there are videos on how to disable it. Personally, it’s not that big of deal to undo the blind cap a bit to open the valve in everyday writing, but it is a huge boon when traveling. This is one of my favorite pens to travel with because it holds a bucket of ink (2.2mL!) and is virtually leak-proof with the cutoff valve engaged.
Overall, it’s a good pen. It didn’t blow me away, but it is a very practical piece.
Cool filling system. Let’s be honest, most people who are going to buy this pen do it because it’s a vac filler.
Huge ink capacity. The largest capacity of any self-filling pen I own, let alone a cartridge/converter pen.
Mine needed work out of the box. What the hell, Pilot?
It takes some finagling to make use of the pen’s entire capacity; there’s plenty of videos on how to do this. It’s not that hard, but the more fiddling it takes to fill a pen the more likely one is to have inky fingers.
It sort of has weird proportions, at least to me. Too skinny for its length, and not in “super balanced comfy desk pen” kind of way. Short, stubby section. Long and back-heavy when posted. It’s comfortable enough, I just think it could be better.
Screw cap, push to post.
1.75 turns to remove.
14k gold Pilot #15.
In North America, it’s commonly available in fine, medium, and broad.
If buying from Japan, one has access to Pilot’s entire nib lineup except the music nib, as far as I can tell. Soft fine, fine medium, soft fine medium, soft medium, double broad, coarse (sort of like a 3B nib), posting, waverly, stub and falcon.
Injection molded resin.
Available in amber or smoke (shown) in North America, additionally there is clear demonstrator available in the Japanese market.
Vacuum filler with ink shutoff valve.
Measured total ink capacity is 2.2mL. A typical fill is a bit less than this.
Vintage pens sometimes use the vac system, most notably Sheaffers.
TWSBI Vac 700 series pens.
Visconti pens with the “Power Filler” system.
Penbbs makes some vacuum fillers. They have several models.
The Carène is fairly unique among modern pens with its inset nib. I am a fan of streamlined pens and I appreciate the aesthetics of this pen. Carène is the French word for hull–as in the hull of a ship–so the name makes sense.
The snap cap is very similar to the Lamy 2000’s cap. It has lugs that engage the cap and lock it into place very securely. Unlike the Lamy 2000, the lugs are discrete and unlikely to bother anyone. The pen caps with a satisfying *click* and posts deeply without impacting the balance of the pen. It also sports a functional spring-loaded clip, which is a nice touch.The body is lacquered brass, so the pen is a bit heftier than the average resin pen. My pen is the Marine Amber finish, and the lacquer job on it is very smooth and aesthetically pleasing. Black, blue, and red finishes are also options, and there are a number of other metal bodies and cap styles available.
My writing experience with the Carène has been basically positive with no problems with the nib out of the box. The Carène’s 18k gold nib units are commonly available in fine and medium, but one can still find extra fine, medium, broad, and sometimes factory stub nibs. My pen is a fine and is very rigid and smooth with moderate wetness.
I did have some other issues with the pen, though. For one, I feel like the end of the pen’s barrel should align with the nib. It’s not a deal breaker, but it bugs me. To be fair, I always use the pen posted so I don’t have to look at it but I know it’s not aligned. Technically there is a way to align this–the user can undo the piece that retains the threads on the nib unit, flip the threads, and adjust them until the barrel aligns the way the user wants. But I’m stubborn and don’t want a work-around. I want it correct. Interestingly, not every pen suffers from this; I’m guessing that the Waterman factory just applies/machines the threads willy-nilly without thinking about it to save costs or whatever, so some pens come out aligned while some come out a little weird.
Expensive Waterman converters kept cracking on me, specifically along the lip of their openings, causing ink to leak everywhere. Technically Waterman uses a proprietary cartridge/converter system that is very similar to the standard international system, so the user is often forced to replace their converter with a Waterman converter that costs twice as much as a standard Schmidt or similar. I found a generic Chinese converter that fits, and I haven’t had a problem since. I do not know if it was an issue with my pen or Waterman’s converters, but it’s worth pointing out. Despite the Carène’s use of a (technically) proprietary system, it is still close enough to use standard international cartridges–including some long cartridges. The user may also place two short cartridges back-to-back inside the barrel for greater ink capacity.
Finally, something about the design of the Carène makes it more susceptible to ink splatter and other inky weirdness compared to other modern designs. Storing the pen in a pouch and not jostling it about mitigates a lot of these issues but, again, it’s worth mentioning.
The Waterman Carène is often overlooked, likely because it’s simply too expensive at around $240. Simply put, the Carène floats in a very strange place in the fountain pen world–in between the usual “step-up” pens in the sub-$200 range, but still below the luxury level. Potential users can track them down for much lower prices, but one would have to really want one as they are just aren’t carried at as many retailers anymore. I think it’s somewhat of a shame because if it were around $150, this pen would be a verystrong competitor among intermediate-level pens. At $240, this is a fairly meh choice, especially with the weird issues I encountered. I paid much less for mine, so I don’t mind so much; had I paid full MSRP, I’d be rather upset with it.
Good writer out of the box.
Technically it uses a proprietary system, but it’s close enough to standard international to make it work. Sometimes.
I had weird issues: barrel misalignment and cracking converters.
The user is (maybe) stuck using Waterman converters that cost twice as much as commonly available standard converters.
The MSRP is simply too damn high.
Snap cap. Push to post.
Carène 18k nib units.
It’s easiest to find fine and medium nibs, but extra fine, broad, and factory stub nibs are around.
Marine Amber Lacquer over brass.
Many other finishes are available.
Waterman cartridge converter. Basically standard international.
I measured a 0.8mL ink capacity with my (non-Waterman) converter.
Some long international cartridges fit just fine. Some don’t.
I was able to fit two standard international cartridges back to back in the barrel–one inking the pen, one in reserve. Mileage may vary though, depending on the size of one’s specific cartridges.
Of course if one’s into cartridges, Waterman long cartridges are cheap, available everywhere, and perform fine in the pen.
Look, I like the Carène. Even so, and I hate to say it, all of these similarly-styled options are better pens for less money: