The good and the bad… but at least they’re not ugly.

19 02 2022

Late in 2021 my family asked – as is traditional at that time of year – what I’d like for Christmas. Christmas fills 50% of the occasions (my birthday being the other) that I’m allowed to ask for pens and not cause a reflex reaction of an eyebrow (or two) being raised in some small degree of apoplexy.

It’s well known that I have “a thing” for pens in matte black – ideally with all black furniture and a black nib too. They’re colloquially called “stealth” style… or as Mrs E. calls them “oh, I see you’ve got another black pen to go with all the others”. But they are all different in their ways, as we shall see if you care to peruse further, dear reader….

So, mid-February, and Cult Pens in the UK finally received the stock to fulfill the orders they’d pre-sold in December and shipped on to the eagerly waiting QE here in Canada. I received a pair of “stealth” pens that are very different from each other indeed.

First up is a Parker IM from their achromatic range… the matte black option of course. I’ve got a soft spot for Parker, even though they are a very different company under Newell Rubbermaid. Gone are the days of elegant understated quality, and in are the money grabbing margin junkies that have bought out (or even relaunched) some of the great marques of the fountain pen world.

The neat box that the pen comes in displays the royal warrant emblems showing that both Queenie and Chaz are users of their wares, but then I recall Rentokill also displays the same, so it’s no big deal in and of itself.

Royal warrants – Parker IM packaging

Turning the box around, and I’m shocked to discover that the IM is manufactured in China, and not, as I’d naïvely assumed, Nantes, France (long gone are the Newhaven days)! I read on the great Parker history resource ParkerPens.net that production largely moved to Shanghai when the Newhaven factory closed in 2010.

Global supply chains

Now, please don’t get me wrong – I have nothing inherently against items manufactured in China: it was merely unexpected. Many western brands have either moved their manufacturing operations to China or have contracted companies already established there to provide manufacturing for them. Either sub-assemblies or entire products. Indeed my own employer, a well known American brand, produces high quality, high complexity technology, supplied to an international market, and makes it in a plant in Shanghai.

There is nothing inherently poor quality in either materials or fabrication merely because an item is manufactured in China. But the opportunity is undeniably there if a company is looking to shave some money out of the cost and increase its margins. But let us continue…

The achromatic IM was a gift suggestion, based on little other than the fact it was all black and made by Parker. I was pretty confident that it would be a middle of the road “office pen”, nothing fancy, but a good solid offering from a favourite vendor. Opening the box, I was neither shocked or amazed. It was totally adequate, secure and fuss-free – so far exactly as anticipated. Having been caught out on previous occasions, I took the precaution of lifting the bed that the pen rested on and found the anticipated proprietary Parker blue cartridge hidden there.

Initial impressions were good. The pen is – as advertised – achromatic, with a matte black finish to the metal cap and barrel and slightly more glossy black furniture. There’s a flat finial on the barrel, and a slightly domed one over the clip, which whilst being unmistakably “Parker” feels a little cheap and is a stamped arrow on a folded metal clip. It seems functional though, and there are no sharp edges to snag your clothes if you do use the clip to secure the pen.

The cap rim is also more glossy metal and is stamped with two rings and the Parker logo and name. In addition there is the manufacture-date stamp; in this case “UII”. This translates to 2021, Q2, I believe.

No longer able to contain my inquisitiveness, I popped off the plastic-lined cap, which is secure and shows no play, and found the section and nib to be a little smaller than anticipated. The nib’s quite wide at the shoulder, and the feed is broader than 5mm, but it’s generally in that #5 size range so common in smaller pens. The section is smooth plastic, but comfortable to hold and not overly slippy. It is bookended by black steel bands at both the barrel join and the nib collar, continuing the rather tasteful muted black on black design. Overall – a handsome, smallish pen. Cult Pens gives its dimensions as 137mm long capped, 117mm uncapped, 152mm posted. 12mm wide, 9.5mm at grip… and I have no reason to doubt their measurements.

Parker IM – the business end

I then unscrewed the section from the barrel. And here things began to descend a little…

This is far from a premium pen – I believe the selling price was ~CA$80 – but not cheap either. It’s only a few dollars less than the ubiquitous TWSBI Diamond 580ALR can be had for, and that’s a well regarded piston filler. However, I was utterly horrified to discover that Parker don’t supply a converter with the IM. Given that they have a proprietary size which forces you to buy their own converter at an additional cost, this felt like a simple money grab. Why not just add a few dollars to the asking price and include it? Needless to say, I’ll be syringe-filling old cartridges until I inevitably finally cave and shell out for a Parker converter at some future point.

The plastic of the section continues up to form the threaded collar for the cartridge/unsupplied converter and though there’s no external sign on the smooth section, there are clear seams on the threads and collar. I’m not sure if I’m annoyed at the lack of quality to the finish, or impressed that they seem to have completely avoided them on the visible external parts of the section.

Oddly – I’m reminded of the last house I owned in the UK. It was built in the 1930s, and when we had some rewiring done, it involved lifting up the kitchen floorboards. Underneath, where nobody would reasonably ever be expected to see, was some beautiful lattice brickwork to support the tiled area above that would originally have supported a heavy Aga-style stove. This oozed quality to me because it showed just as much attention to detail in the hidden areas where nobody would ever check, as it did in the visible areas.

Here I got the opposite vibe – this smacked of cut corners and penny pinching. The smooth section showed the technical capability to remove all manufacturing blemishes, the seamed threads demonstrated a lack of willingness to do so. Much worse though – these plastic threads screw into the metal threads of the barrel, and already there is an accumulation of white swarf from the wear on the soft plastic from the unscrewing/re-screwing of the barrel. So far, the joint remains firm and slop-free. I hope it remains so.

At the end of the day, this is not a bad pen, and it writes perfectly adequately. But it’s just not that good either! For an order of magnitude less money I have acquired the similarly styled Jinhao 95 – with frankly better build quality.

Jinhao 95: image from Amazon.ca

And also (I did tell you I had more than a few “stealth” pens!) the Jinhao 85, with a suspiciously similar Parker-esque clip.

Jinhao 85: Image source AliExpress

Then there’s the Hong Dian 517D. These are all in the ~$10 range if you buy directly from Chinese vendors such as on AliExpress and I would argue demonstrate at least as good build quality. They’re all-metal construction, come with international standard converters and nibs that are definitely on par with that offered by Parker in its IM.

Hong Dian 517D: image source AliExpress

To be clear – these are all Chinese manufactured pens (I didn’t include my Lamy Studio LX which is more expensive)… and they’re better than the Parker. So it has nothing to do with manufacturing location or manufacturing capability. In my view, at the price point Parker is commanding for the IM, it should be able to offer a much higher level of experience, whether that is as simple as including a converter or using better nibs. I am sad to say that in my view, the achromatic IM simply is just an “also ran”.

So let’s move on to something good…

A while back I treated myself to a Narwhal Schuylkill Fountain Pen in Porpita Navy. Supposedly a limited edition, but they still seem to be available. It was my first piston filler and I fell in love. I now own a few, and I love the sheer volume of ink those pens can hold. When I saw Narwhal were introducing a range of ebonite pens of a somewhat chonky girth – the Nautilus – I asked for one for Christmas. There are now several options, but initially there were two all-black models with matte black or antique brass finish. I selected the black-on-black option – the Cephalopod. (All their pen models reference sea creatures). Though I’ve enjoyed my Schuylkill, I found its F nib a little too fine for my taste and selected a medium this time around. And I love everything about it.

It’s a sizeable pen, for sure, but the ebonite is surprisingly light, without feeling flimsy or cheap. It really evokes those vintage pens from the early days of fountain pen design. The whole pen is polished to a high gloss, and it’s difficult to imagine this early plastic is essentially the same material as a car tyre!

Narwhal Cephalopod (colour photo!)

The general design attempts to evoke a somewhat victorian vibe for the Nautilus, as the name would imply. The ink view is provided by 3 port-holes, trimmed with black metal. This is matched by a similar plain black metal cap clip, a simple metal curved finial on the cap to echo the curved ebonite blind cap on the barrel and finally the metal band separating the barrel from the blind cap.

See that ink slosh around…

The rim of the cap, on the other hand, is highly decorated with wave motifs and the name NARWHAL stamped twice on it.

Decoration on the Cephalopod cap rim

The cap comes off with two full turns, for those of you who care for such details. This reveals a gorgeously decorated #6 nib, complete with the Narwhal logo. On the Cephalopod model, the nib is black, and in my case was a lovely wet writer – a joy to use.

His nibs…

Now this is not a cheap pen in absolute terms (~CA$140)… but I believe it is great value, and punches well over its weight. It arrives in a simple but elegant presentation box with a magnetic closure to the lid. It is made entirely of ebonite, which we know from experience can last 100+ years in a pen, if not overly abused. It is handsome and well-made. The nib unit can be removed for easy cleaning of the innards as well as a thorough cleaning of the nib itself. Should disaster befall the nib, it is easily replaced with any number of alternatives from Narwhal and others.

Now – this pen does not fit the same place in the usage curve as the Parker IM, but of the two, I would most heartily recommend the Narwhal. As my North American friends are wont to say “your mileage may vary”…