A long time ago in one of his videos, the pen reviewer SBREBrown said that there are people in it for the pens, people in it for the ink, and people who go nuts over all of it, or something to that effect. I tend to fall into the former camp–if I were cursed to only have one ink in my possession, I would shrug, stock-up on Aurora Black, and be done with it.
However, I also have an irrational love of all things Aurora, so when I saw a vintage bottle of Aurora Biflux ink, I knew I was doing my first ink review.
I’ve had plenty of vintage Aurora cartridges. Unfortunately, cartridges dry-up, so there’s really nothing to sample unless I wanted to puncture them and try to reconstitute them, which would probably be more of a mess than it’s worth. Bottled ink is less susceptible to this effect, and this particular bottle isn’t sealed, so I figured it would be fun to take a few milliliters and check it out.
I really wanted to compare vintage Biflux black to the much more popular Aurora Black, but this bottle is Bleu Reale, or Royal Blue. I’m not sure a bunch of pictures of black ink would be totally compelling, but maybe I’ll stumble on a bottle of Biflux Black some day.
I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this ink, honestly, because there isn’t any information on it–at least that I can find in English. Was this ink some legendarily cool ink, like Parker Penman Sapphire?
Spoiler: it’s not. It’s just a solid, work horse ink. Interestingly, it’s not anywhere close to what we’d call a royal blue today–I’d definitely call it blue-black.
A few more observations, in no specific order:
It’s a pretty wet writing ink. The pen I used for the review–my Aurora 888–is not exactly a dry pen, but the two go together very, very well. It’s almost like they were made for each other (they were. Sort of. The 888 never filled via converter. So assuming the cartridges and bottle ink were the same, then. . .)
This ink is incredibly well behaved. It works on basically every paper I’ve used it on, and functioned fine on the test papers–Hammermill paper notwithstanding.
The dry time is long, around 30 seconds. Perhaps this is a side effect of its wetness. It’s somewhat hard to judge these qualities because the ink may have changed a bit in the last 60+ years it’s been hanging out.
Shading is pretty standard. There isn’t much sheen to be had. I even sacrificed one of my last remaining sheets of the original formula, pre-shutdown Tomoe River paper and brought-out a super-secret Aurora friend that I can’t reveal yet–a combo that would certainly expose any neat sheening–and the results weren’t anything more interesting than a standard ink like Pilot Blue Black. There’s some there, but it’s not an ink those sheen-loving folks are going to go bananas over.
Water resistance is very good, at least as good as Rohrer and Klingner Salix–an iron gall ink. It really wouldn’t surprise me if this vintage Aurora ink was an iron gall ink, based on how it performed on paper, but I have no way of testing it. Interestingly, the box states that the ink only contains dyes and no harmful solvents–at least according to Google translate–so who knows.
Clean-up was fine. No issues. It didn’t dissolve my vintage pens. I didn’t use it in a modern a pen, but I can’t imagine it would hurt those, either.
So there we have it. If I were forced to only use vintage Aurora Biflux Bleu Reale, I think I would get by. I’m not going to make it a habit of using this ink, I’m afraid–it’s too cool having it in my collection–but it was a very solid ink in its time and just as reliable today, if a bit on the utilitarian side. Anyone looking for a similar ink could check out Pilot Blue Black–it’s way, way cheaper, easier to find, and overall very similar in appearance and performance.
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.)
The Pro Gear Classic–henceforth Pro Gear–is, basically, a 1911 Large with flat ends. Sailor isn’t the only brand that does that–the Aurora Optima is essentially a flat-top 88, for example–but something magical happens when a manufacturer flattens those elegant, round ends. By taking 14mm off of the total length of the Pro Gear, Sailor created a pen that fits perfectly in a pocket but feels just as substantial in the hand. This pen is beautifully proportioned.
It’s hard for me not to draw comparisons between the Pro Gear and the equally beautiful and perfectly proportioned Aurora Optima. They are quite similar in many ways, and while I generally find Sailor pens to be overpriced, the Pro Gear is still a lot cheaper than an Aurora Optima. Users that are not concerned about ebonite feeds, piston fillers, and such things may very well find the Sailor Pro Gear to be a suitable substitute for the Aurora Optima.
The pen fills via Sailor’s proprietary cartridge converter system, which is functional enough. For $80 more, one can purchase the Pro Gear Realo version, which fills via piston. My understanding is that the Realo version’s ink capacity isn’t that much more than the cartridge/converter pen–especially if one is using cartridges. In general, the major advantage of a piston filler is increased ink capacity at the cost of the pen being more expensive, more difficult to clean, and ultimately harder to service. Because of these deficiencies, I’m not sure I’d go with the Realo version of the Pro Gear, but I can see the appeal. Piston fillers are sweet.
The nib on this pen is an extra fine, and extra fine it is. Like I said in my 1911L review, I don’t like the way Sailor nibs feel–it’s as if they’re not rigid enough–and that makes writing with this very fine nib somewhat tricky. It takes a very light, delicate touch. This is likely what separates die hard Sailor fans from those of us who don’t get them. Users willing to master the touch required for this nib are rewarded with a heavenly writing experience: high precision with a perfect level of feedback. I like Platinum’s and Aurora’s nibs more, but I can appreciate what Sailor’s doing.
Simply forcing myself to write a single page with my wife’s Pro Gear has changed my mind a little bit. Sailor pens are well made and attractive, and they write beautifully. If I were going to give Sailor another chance, I’d probably go with a Pro Gear, and I’d take my time to learn how to write with the thing.
The Pro Gear is an immensely popular pen, so there really isn’t that much more I can add. I think I’m starting to understand the Sailor hype a little bit more.
I still think they cost too much. It’s still just a cartridge/converter pen. Sailor would have my interest if the Pro Gear were $200. They’d have my full attention at $150. But the street price is $272 and is approaching the price of custom pens, used/vintage Montblanc/Aurora/Pelikan/Montegrappa/OMAS/whatever. It’s good, just not $272 good.
The gray market price is much closer to what I think this pen’s worth.
Twist to remove. Push to post.
1.5 turns to remove.
Proprietary 21K Sailor nib. Either polished gold or rhodium plated to match the pen’s trim. Some models have a very pretty two tone nib.
Available in Extra Fine, Fine, Medium-Fine, Medium, Broad, Music, and Zoom.
Historically, specialty bespoke nibs were available. If one finds one for sale, it will likely be for a huge amount of money.
There’s a boat load of different colors of resin available for the Pro Gear.
Sailor’s proprietary cartridge/converter.
Capacity when filled with a converter is 0.7mL.
A piston filled-version called the Realo is available for more money.
I’m reviewing this pen through the lens of its current price for the sake of people considering purchasing it. This review would read much differently if YOL’s fountain pen prices hadn’t tripled over the past three years.
See my YOL Viceroy Grand Post for more information on the company. I gushed over YOL, how neat the company is, and how cool the Viceroy Grand is.
First, the good: the Standard is a classy pen and it’s a much more usable size than the Viceroy Grand. To me, this is the most practically sized fountain pen in YOL’s lineup. The Barleycorn finish is very nice and pleasant to the touch without being garish like the Victorian finish. I really like this pen.
It’s ridiculously skinny but long enough to accept standard international cartridges and converters–the user can even piggyback two short cartridges or utilize long international cartridges for maximum ink capacity in a relatively compact package. The pen works posted or unposted, but I like to post mine.
Unfortunately, I had issues with the pen. The nib, for starters, was a mess out of the box–over-polished to the point of barely working. It was a skippy, unpleasant disaster. I eventually sent it off to a nibmeister because of how awful it was. Bock strikes again. Also the cap is weirdly loose and the o-ring that prevents the section from unscrewing from the pen was absent. Those last two points are a bit nit-picky, and had the nib not been a disgrace out of the box, I may very well have overlooked them.
Technically, the nib on this pen didn’t come on the Standard out of the box–I switched my Standard’s nib with my Pocket model’s nib. Fear not, dear reader, for Bock had messed both of the nibs up, requiring professional help and marring my opinion of both pens forevermore. The Bock nibs on this pen and its little cousin were the final straw for me: I no longer buy pens with Bock nibs on them with rare exceptions and tell anyone who will listen that Bock nibs have serious quality control problems. Lamy, Pelikan, Montblanc, Aurora, Pilot, Sailor, Platinum, Ancora, Santini, Waterman, and Parker have figured out how to make nibs. Bock’s main competitor JoWo makes nibs that work. It’s pretty easy to get a $2 pen from China or India that works out of the box. Yet Bock nibs don’t, even on pens that cost hundreds of dollars.
YOL does have a great warranty and good customer service, in their defense, but I didn’t want to pay shipping back to the U.K. when there are great nibmeisters here in the U.S.
This brings me to the price of the Standard. When I bought mine in 2017, it cost right around £320, or around $400. That’s an acceptable price to me–if the pen worked–we are talking about handmade, sterling silver pens with 18k gold nibs, after all. But as of this writing, the Standard’s MSRP is well over £800, or around $1100. One may be able to shop around a bit and get it a bit cheaper–maybe even under $1000.
edit: Looks like Fahrney’s is carrying some YOL pens again for a much fairer price–no affiliation. That’s probably where USA customers will need to go for a YOL pen.
I mean, this pen is fantastic. $400 plus maybe $50 for nib work is pretty tolerable, especially considering YOL’s reputation, history, and eye for detail. But for $1100? No way in hell. Well, maybe if it wrote flawlessly out of the box, but that’s a very, very big maybe. This isn’t even the model that is chased by hand–the Victorian finish is more expensive. Even the price of the YOL Viceroy Grand has gone up by £77 from a year ago. For the record, YOL’s ballpoints and pencils, which I assume are their bread and butter, have not really increased in price to match their fountain pens, and Bock nibs surely don’t justify a 500 pounds sterling increase in price, so I don’t actually know what their deal is. Weirdly, the YOL pens exclusive to Smythson of Bond Street are significantly cheaper than their other finishes. Who’s coming up with these prices?
I really didn’t like writing this review. I hated it. I don’t want to slam YOL because I think the company is charming and making works of art. Yard-O-Led is still in my top five favorite pen makers. But I really, truly cannot recommend the Standard in good faith at its current price–and I’m quite fond of it.
Nice size, well balanced.
Too expensive, for what it is.
The cap is loose.
The thing barely wrote out of the box.
Small 18k YOL-branded Bock nib.
Fine, Medium, and Broad available.
Writing sample done with a nib that was originally a Medium but ground to a Fine.
Hallmarked Sterling Silver.
This pen is the Barleycorn finish.
Plain, Victorian, and (Smythson of Bond Street exclusive) Pinstriped finishes are available.
Standard international cartridge converter.
The pen has enough room to perfectly piggyback two short cartridges or accept a long international cartridge.
The current state of affairs in the world has kept me rather busy, but I am back with a review of the Aurora Optima.
Bias Alert: I love Aurora pens. I collect Aurora pens. I try to be as objective as possible when dealing Aurora pens, but I’m not perfect. That said, I am not compensated by Aurora or their North American distributor Kenro in any way, shape, or form.
These pens are named after the original Optima, Aurora’s top of the line pen from 1938 until 1945. There is some family semblance–they’re close in size, the cap bands from early Optimas are similar to modern Optimas, and both bear Aurora’s barrel embossing, but the similarities basically stop there. The original Optimas were vacuum fillers, and the modern versions have other functional and aesthetic differences.
The Optima can be had in six or seven different celluloid finishes, black resin with different cap options, the sterling silver Riflessi variant, and countless limited edition options. In many ways it still remains at the top of Aurora’s lineup, even if the 88 is widely considered the flagship model.
Functionally, the Optima is identical to the Aurora 88 and much of what I said about the 88 applies to the Optima as well. The Optima is a shorter pen–both capped and uncapped–but has the same girth as the 88. Even with its shorter length, I can use the Optima posted or unposted, but it feels like it should be posted. Writers with larger hands may find the Optima a bit too short to use unposted.
I have two versions of the Optima. The gray Nero Perla variant is a regular edition pen and has a lovely factory oblique double broad nib. The nib is very smooth but not especially forgiving. I generally prefer an obliquely-cut italic nib over a straight-cut stub nib, but that’s just me. I would caution potential buyers to try a cheaper pen with an oblique nib to make sure it’s compatible with their writing style before dropping the serious change for an Optima (and enduring the wait, as Aurora’s specialty nibs are generally made to order.)
My other Optima, and the one I actually purchased first, is the 365 Abissi Limited Edition model from a few years ago. Aurora over-hyped the pen and released doctored promotional materials; subsequently the pen was maligned on the internet. I won’t excuse Aurora’s snafu, but I was able to pick this pen up for a steal because of it. I will say that the Abissi material is quite interesting, even if it’s nothing like the promo photos: it almost appears black, but subtle colors and chatoyance shimmer and dance below the surface. It reminds me a lot of an especially deep lake near my home that I kayak often–it’s usually too dark to peer into its murky depths, but floating sediment and shapes glimmer in the correct light. Abissi is Italian for Abyss, after all. My photos here accentuate the glittery qualities of the pen a little bit more than what it typically looks like in person.
Both pens are extremely warm, soft, and smooth, as celluloid pens tend to be.
The Aurora Optima is well made and oozes class. It doesn’t feel as “timelessly modern” as the 88, instead staying true to its art deco roots. The Optima feels like a pen from the late 30’s, but made today.
Many beautiful options to suit any taste.
Pleasant, usable size.
Available with Aurora’s full lineup of nibs.
It is an Aurora.
It has the magic reserve feature but. . .
. . .it’s a pain in the ass to clean.
Optimas are very pricey out of the gate, but the price quickly escalates when special editions, precious materials, or specialty nibs get involved.
1.25 turns to remove.
Posts very securely.
14k or 18k Large Aurora proprietary nib unit with ebonite feed, shown in Fine and Oblique Double Broad.
Available in yellow gold, rose gold, or rhodium plated depending on the model.
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.
Resin, Auroloide (celluloid), or precious metal overlay.
At one time, I decided that I had to have every pen with a hooded nib and I had an affinity for oversized pens. Conveniently, the Sniper is both.
It is made to order in India by ASA. It took four months for my Sniper to be made, which sounds like a long time, but it is fairly quick for a handmade pen. It arrived in a lovely cloth pouch along with a free Click Falcon, which was an unexpected and pleasant surprise.
This pen is quite unique–like an enlarged cross between a Lamy 2000 and a Parker 51. Under the hood is a modified JoWo #5 nib unit, which allows the user to switch nibs, although the process is more complex than with an open unit.
The body is a matte black brushed ebonite, although ASA’s website has other options available.
Being oversized, the pen has a nice, fat section. This, along with its light weight, make for a comfortable writing experience. The pen technically posts, but it becomes hilariously long and somewhat unwieldy, so I don’t personally do that.
The clip is plain and functional. The fit and finish of the pen, overall, is quite nice–no seams or rough spots, the threads are smooth, and so on. The hood on mine is very slightly asymmetrical, which may really bother some people but I’m willing to give it a pass because of its handmade nature.
I personally wasn’t really impressed with the #5 nib, but it was acceptable out of the box. The beauty of JoWo nibs is that they are ubiquitous and cheap, so the end user can practice nib adjustment without fear of destroying some rare nib or replace them as they see fit. Like all hooded nibs, the hood has to be removed to work on the nib beyond a few simple adjustments, which adds extra steps to the process that may be fairly intimidating for beginning users. The customer service at ASA did impress me, though, so I’m sure they would be accommodating to a customer should they receive a defective nib. That said, the owners are fountain pen people so your pen gets tested before being shipped to you.
Because of the nature of this pen’s design, it can fill from a converter, but excess ink in the hood can get a bit messy, and the converter doesn’t really fill fully. This is not unique to the ASA Sniper–I have other hooded pens that suffer the same or similar issues. This is typically resolved by inverting the pen and expelling air from the converter then filling it again followed by a liberal application of a napkin for excessive ink. If the user prefers eyedropper filled pens or cartridges, this is a non-issue. Either way it’s worth consideration.
Finally, the cap doesn’t have an inner cap to speak of, so the nib dries out a bit when left unused.
Overall, I’m impressed by what I received from ASA, especially given the price–$58 shipped. The pen is quirky to be certain, but a great value, especially considering that it’s handmade and a semi-custom piece.
Unique, fun, customizable.
Nib was a little weird out of the box and working on a hooded nib can be a bit trickier.
One can fill the pen via converter in the traditional sense, but it doesn’t work that great.
The nib dries out when not used.
A very secure/borderline absurd four turns to remove the cap.
The cap isn’t practically postable.
Modified JoWo #5 nib unit.
This one is a Fine.
Presently only fine and medium are available on ASA’s website, but in theory any #5 nib could be swapped into the special unit, or any JoWo #5 unit could be modified to work.
This model is not really conducive to easy nib swapping, though.
Brushed black ebonite.
Other options are available on Asa’s website.
Long standard international cartridge compatible.
Eyedropper compatible. I measured a capacity of around 3.4mL.