At Gentleman’s Gazette, we have a deep appreciation for all fine accessories. From the neck and bow ties we sell in our online shop, to pocket squares, cufflinks and business card cases; there really is no limit to our love for well crafted, sartorially-savvy products.
One accessory that is dear to our hearts are fine writing instruments, and with that said, we are proud to introduce you to our new series on pens. In the past, we’ve discussed fountain pens on occasion, even publishing a very in-depth and comprehensive guide on Pelikan fountain pens.
To kick off this new series, we’re going to begin by focusing on ballpoint pens. Something, that many pen aficionados often dismiss as being subpar to that of the other styles including fountain pens and even rollerball.
However, I am inclined to disagree with the majority of these critics. While ballpoint pens are certainly not as special as fountain pens, they do have their merits which I’ll discuss in this segment.
I remember as a child thinking to myself that ballpoint pens must be a relatively recent invention. I’m not sure why I thought this, but I’d like to guess it was due to their increased popularity in the Canadian grade school system. While fountain pens continue to be used in parts of Europe; they haven’t been in the North American school system for many, many years. In fact, I recently had a heated discussion with the administrators at my son’s school because cursive writing was removed from the curriculum. As a writer, I’m sure you can appreciate how upsetting that is to someone like me.
Nevertheless, thinking that ballpoints were a recent discovery was wildly incorrect. In fact, they’ve been around since the nineteenth century, and really haven’t changed all that much since they were first created.
The first patent for ballpoint pens was issued on October 30th, 1888, to a gentleman by the name of John Loud, a leather tanner, who was working feverishly to create a pen that was capable of writing on leather hides. Using a very small steel ball, held together by a socket, he tried, unsuccessfully, to create such a writing device. Unfortunately, his efforts failed miserably and without being able to foresee a commercial use for his invention, he let the patent lapse.
It wasn’t until the early 1900s, that the re-development of the ballpoint pen was attempted. Surprisingly, the idea caught on rather quickly, and soon patents were being filed the world over. Despite these many failed attempts to perfect such an instrument, the amount of patents filed proved just how commercially viable the idea was capable of being. The initial problem that inventors had was they seemed incapable of being able to successfully deliver the ink evenly and both clogging and overflow were the two most common problems associated with the first ballpoint pens. If the sockets were too tight, not tight enough or the ink wasn’t the perfect consistency, it was rare that the ink would reach the paper without soaking through it. It wasn’t until inventors began to understand the use of pistons, capillary action and springs that solutions would begin to form. Of course, another aspect that required some learning were the laws of gravity and how the pen was affected when moved from vertical to horizontal positions.
In fact, it wasn’t until a Hungarian newspaper editor by the name of László Bíró became so frustrated with his fountain pen, that ballpoints took a successful turn. Bíró noticed that the ink used in his newspaper dried very quickly which left the paper smudge free unlike the ink in his fountain pens. He decided that he would try to make a pen that used the same type of ink that they used in the printing of the newspaper. With the help of his brother, a chemist, he developed a viscous ink that he placed in a ballpoint pen.
It was this radical idea that successfully paired a well-suited ink to a ballpoint mechanism that not only prevented the ink from drying inside the ink reservoir, but also allowed an evenly controlled ink flow onto the paper. Bíró filed his patent in 1938 and history was made.
By the early 1940s, Bíró and his brother left their jobs and along with a friend named Juan Meyne, left Germany for Argentina to form a ballpoint pen company. They filed new patents in ’43 and created a pen called the Birome – a name still used today in lieu of the “ballpoint” in many countries including Argentina. The design was so flawless and simple to use that the British forces licensed them and began issuing ballpoint pens they called a “Biro” to the Royal Air Force pilots.
Seemingly overnight, the success of the more versatile ballpoint pen was imminent. Not only was it useful for people on the ground, but aircrews from around the world adopted them as standards since they didn’t leak in the same way fountain pens did at high altitude.
As more and more pilots began using ballpoint pens, word spread throughout all the forces battling in World War II, causing the new style of pen to become globally popular. By the end of the war, companies lined up around the world in an effort to produce their own designs of this innovative pen. By 1945, Eversharp, a mechanical pencil designer, teamed with Eberhart Faber to license the Birome pen rights for sale in the United States.
At the same time, a man named Milton Reynolds was traveling in Buenos Aires and came across the Birome pens. Realizing how lucrative the opportunity could be back in America, he purchased a number of them and returned home. Rather than seeking permission and licensing the rights for the Birome, he instead altered the design enough that he could bypass any legislation. He founded a new company called Reynolds International Pen Company and beat Eversharp to the market, debuting this new, innovative pen at Gimbels department store in the heart of New York City. Called the Reynolds Rocket, he sold the pen for a whopping $9.75 and was immediately successful selling out his inventory in rapid fashion. Unfortunately, Reynolds had competition by the name of Marcel Bich, a gentleman who also introduced a ballpoint to the market in the 1950s. This pen, licensed from the Argentina design, was called Bic, and although initially unsuccessful, they managed to overtake the market when they launched an ad campaign with the tagline “Writes The First Time, Every Time!”.
As quickly as Reynolds ballpoints became popular, the sales peaked within two years due to Bic’s heavy market saturation. Within the same year, Reynolds company folded as the interest in ballpoint pens subsided.
Understanding that there was still a potential market for the pens, a company called Paper Mate capitalized on Reynolds failure and bought the rights to make ballpoint pens which they began to sell in Canada. Wanting to lower the cost, they created new inks and began advertising the pens to banks in order to call them “banker approved” in their commercial advertisements. In 1954, another company by the name of Parker Pens released what they called a ‘technologically advanced’ pen that featured a tungsten-carbide ball bearing in the pen. Priced between $3-$9, they sold millions of pens over the next decade. As Eversharp began to fail due to these advancements, Parker purchased their pen division in a rather hostile takeover.
Today, ballpoint pens haven’t changed much and are available in both the standard disposable, as well as refillable models. While you can easily procure a Paper Mate, Parker or Bic ballpoint pen for just a few dollars, other fine writing companies such as Montblanc and Pelikan have began introducing luxury ballpoint pens, handcrafted from semiprecious materials.
Benefits of Ballpoint Pens
There are a number of intrinsic benefits to using a ballpoint pen in lieu of a fountain, fineliner or rollerball pen. While I personally prefer fountain pens due to their artistry, history and personalization; ballpoints have become my daily carry in the breast pocket or my briefcase. Of course, I still keep a fountain pen for use at home and the office.
One of the biggest benefits of using a ballpoint pen is that you don’t have to worry about unreliable ink. They rarely leak in comparison to their counterparts, they don’t smear like other styles and they dry very quickly. For someone on the go, they are ideal since you can write easily and painlessly in virtually any environment. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they rarely ghost or bleed through the paper.
Another big benefit is that, with a ballpoint, you don’t have to hesitate when handing it to another person. Fountain pen nibs are very specific to the user and must be worked-in. Lending your fountain pen to another person can cause the nib to deviate making it more difficult for you to use afterwards. Ballpoints on the other hand can be handed back and forth between you, your associates, or just your spouse or children. It makes them ideal when you’re on the go with other people or even at home and in the office. I’ll never hand my fountain pens over to another person, but I have no qualms with lending out a ballpoint.
If those benefits weren’t enough, one that’s really important to me is that ballpoints are ideal for people who are left-handed. If you’re left-handed like me, you know all too well how upsetting it is to end up with a black palm from smeared ink. Unlike fountain, rollerball and fineliner pens, ballpoints dry very quickly making them far less likely to end up on your hand or smeared on the paper.
Ballpoints are also very useful to artists and people wanting to achieve interesting effects one wouldn’t normally associate with a ballpoint pen. The ability to stipple and cross-hatch can be used with a ballpoint to create half-tones. Artists especially love ballpoint pens for the ability to create the illusion of form and volume. The pen can be used to create very sharp lines that can’t easily be achieved with a brush, and when finely applied to the paper or canvas, an artist can even create airbrush-styled artwork or even art that has been mistaken for photography. Many famous artists have used ballpoint pens in their work, most notably Andy Warhol and Lennie Mace.
Limitations of Ballpoint Pens
Of course any fountain or rollerball pen user will argue that the flow of the ink isn’t as smooth with a ballpoint pen. That is, for the most part the biggest limitation next to the ability of the user to shade which causes certain parts the letter to be thicker than other sections. This is a technique that can only be done with fountain pens and not with ballpoints or rollerballs.
Another limitation is the ballpoint’s reliance on gravity to coat the ball of the pen with ink. Due to the gravity factor, most ballpoint pens can’t be used to write upside-down. However, a company called Fisher pens in the United States did develop technology which resulted in what’s commonly referred to as the “space pen”. Space pens used a more viscous ink with a pressurized reservoir which allows the user to write in zero gravity and in some cases, underwater. These pens have been adopted by NASA and other space agencies for use by astronauts while in outer space. Unlike the standard ballpoint pens, the reservoir of a space pen is sealed which eliminates leakage and evaporation.
Another major limitation of ballpoint pens is their lack of consistency. This isn’t typically an issue with the more expensive ballpoint pens, but moreso with the cheap, bargain bin brands. Often it’s difficult to get the ink to start flowing or to maintain the flow. This incredible inconsistency can cause significant issues for people who rely on their pens for professional, time-sensitive use. I remember working as a waiter in my teenage years and hating when my pen just wouldn’t write the order down. Often it would skip, fade or simply not work. Of course, with the less expensive pens another issue is the quality of plastic used in the casing. Often the clips will snap, caps will change shape or the shaft itself will fall apart. These limitations can be avoided by investing in a high quality pen however.
Types of Ballpoint Pens
There are two categories of ballpoint pens and two types within those categories.
The first category is of course the basic, inexpensive ballpoint pens that you can find at any grocery store or gas station. The second category is a much more refined and elegant fine writing instrument made of precious metals and other rare materials. Within these two categories the two types of ballpoints you’ll find are disposable and refillable, as previously mentioned.
Refillable pens allow the entire ink reservoir to be replaced when empty. Unlike the ink cartridges/converters for fountain pens, these reservoirs also contain the ballpoint itself and the socket. Generally you won’t find the refillable option in the cheapest, bargain pen ballpoints, but more-so in the mid-range and fine writing range of pens.
Basic Ballpoint Pens
Usually made of an inexpensive plastic, these pens often have a separate cap and clip that covers the tip when the pen isn’t in use. They’re often sold in packs of multiples, usually starting at five or ten pens, all the way upwards of hundreds or thousands per package. Many companies like hotels and car rental services will use this style of pen for branded giveaways with their logo or contact information on the shaft of the pen. They come in various colors and some differ in materials or type of oil-based ink, but for the most part they are relatively all the same. They will typically retail for just a few dollars per pack and can even be found easily at any dollar store.
Mid Range Ball Points
These pens are made of slightly higher quality materials. Still often made of plastic, you can also find them in metal. Just like the less expensive variety, they often come in packs with the only difference being that they are usually sold in smaller quantities of two to four pens per package. Of course, you can also find them in larger quantities. Just like the less expensive pen, these are often used for marketing by companies and are branded with their logo or trademark. In most cases the companies giving these away will be a professional service as opposed to a larger organization. Many Realtors, accountants, law firms and banks brand these pens as giveaways for clients and prospective customers. Years ago when I worked as a trader, we often gave these pens away to our clients at meetings or included them in new-client gift baskets. Just like the cheaper pens, they too come with caps, but also come in a retractable style that employs a spring or screw mechanism for retracting the tip. The cost of these pens range slightly more than that of the standard ballpoints. They can be found for just a few dollars each, upwards of twenty dollars.
Fine Writing Instruments
This is my favorite style of ballpoint pens. Call me a snob, but I like my pens to match my other accessories and pulling out a plastic Bic at a meeting next to my Fort Belvedere business card case just doesn’t look right. Sure, I use the less expensive variants, but when I go out, I always carry a fine writing ballpoint either in my pocket or my bag. Not only are they smoother and easier to write with, but they match my other accessories.
Typically these pens are made of very high quality materials such as precious resin, platinum, rhodium, silver or even gold. They are most often made by hand or in small batches by heavily regulated machines. Usually imported from Germany or other parts of Europe, there are also some that can be found from parts of Asia as well as the United States. These pens offer a much smoother writing experience and generally contain a higher quality ink. Just like their less expensive counterparts, they sometimes come with a cap, but usually offer a retractable nib in the majority of cases. They range heavily in price but usually start at around the $30 mark and go upwards of a few hundred or even thousand for limited editions.
How to Purchase a Ballpoint Pen
For those interested in acquiring a ballpoint pen they can be proud to carry and not just a disposable plastic piece of junk, there are few things that one should take into consideration.
I had the opportunity to interview Armen Darakjian, owner of the renowned Darakjian Jewelers in Michigan. Of course, I took the opportunity to pick his brain about what people should look for when buying their first fine writing instrument.
Of course, the first thing you’ll want to consider is price. If you can’t afford or justify spending $500 on a pen there’s really no point in even considering one at that price point.
However, Darakjian and I both agreed that sometimes, you really get what you pay for.
An authorized Montblanc retailer, Darakjian said “price doesn’t matter per se, but you may consider this: Montblanc has a team of craftsmen that have been designing pens for decades. Hundreds of craftsmen at Montblanc conduct a 15-point test before any pen goes to public. It’s important to look into unique designs, fine details and life of a writing instrument when questioning price”.
Of course, that’s not to suggest that you can’t find many well-crafted ballpoints at a far more reasonable price. There are many ballpoint pens produced by companies like Sheaffer, Parker, Lamy, Pilot, Waterman and Cross that will last a lifetime, look resplendent and work flawlessly.
“For your first fine writing instrument make sure it’s something you will use, and use often”, says Darakjian. “That way you can assess what factors you like and what you don’t and in what direction you want to go”.
According to Darakjian, some of those factors worthy of consideration are whether you want a bold statement of success, a creative non-conventional impact, or something that’s understated elegance. By determining what look you’re trying to achieve you can then narrow down the pens you want to consider purchasing.
Of course, despite being one of those people who spends a small fortune on pens, I had to ask Darakjian how one can really justify spending a significant amount of money on a pen. After all, the Bic pens from Walmart writes too.
“They absolutely both write”, says Darakjian, “but your feet can take you the same place a Ferrari does. It just depends in what style you want to get there.”
I’ve personally had the ability to try many different ballpoint pens from the hotel-branded ballpoints found in the rooms of Holiday Inn and Best Western chains to fine writing pens from some of the companies listed above.
For those with higher budgets, I highly recommend the ballpoint pens by Montblanc. I was recently sent a Montblanc Starwalker by Darakjian Jewelers. The Starwalker range of ballpoints, like most fine writing instruments by Montblanc vary in price based on the pen and the materials used. After taxes were in, the one I was sent totaled just over $750, although Starwalkers can be found as low as $200 on eBay and Amazon.
The pen itself is immaculate. It’s the smoothest ballpoint pen I’ve ever used and offers clarity like no other with its replaceable Montblanc ink reservoir. It’s a sturdy and well built pen made of black precious resin (a fancy word for plastic) and ruthenium. There’s no plastic on the pen and its floating Montblanc emblem makes for a superlative finish to an otherwise already perfect pen.
For a slightly smaller budget, I recommend the Classic Anello ballpoint pen by Graf Von Faber-Castell. I was sent the black version of this pen by well regarded retailer Paradise Pens. Anello, which means ‘rings’ in Italian is an Ebony wood and platinum ballpoint pen that retails for a modest $375.
An exceptionally well made pen, it’s smooth to write with and flawless in its consistency. It’s a rather unique pen, but is absolutely my second favorite ballpoint pen that I tested, or really have ever tried. I especially like the spring-loaded clip which makes it easy to secure to a pocket or a pen slot in my briefcase. Unlike my other pens, it doesn’t have the limitation of having to be forced over the holding fabric since it opens wide and then clips on. Another feature that I really like with this pen is that, unlike the Montblanc and many other ballpoints, it clicks when the pen is fully opened and retracted. While this doesn’t sound like much to the average pen user, it’s a nice feature to know that your pen won’t retract as you write or that an extra turn won’t unscrew a section of the shaft. It’s a really wonderful ballpoint and I’ve received many compliments on its appearance.
One company I always recommend is Pelikan. I especially like their fountain pens because they’re as well made as many Montblanc pens and yet less expensive in most cases. In addition to their fountain pens, they also offer a selection of ballpoints and all of them are exemplary. This is a great way to get a high quality fine writing instrument at around the $200 mark.
For the $50 – $100 range, I really recommend looking at any of the pens by Waterman, Shaeffer, Pilot, Cross, Lamy or Parker. Professional writers are very particular about their pens and I know many writers who swear by these brands. I have personally owned pens by all but Waterman.
For anything less than $30, my first inclination is to recommend Faber-Castell. Don’t be confused by the name. The $375 pen by Graf Von Faber-Castell is not the same brand. Faber-Castell, although the same company, is the basic pen manufacturer, whereas Graf Von Faber-Castell makes their fine writing instruments. Many pen companies have two separate brands, a perfect example being Pelikan which even makes basic highlighters. The benefit of buying a Faber-Castell ballpoint is that although it’s not the same brand as the more expensive variant, it is still well made. This won’t be a pen that you’ll hand down to your children, but it will last you at least a few months to a couple of years. I stock my desk at the office with these pens and they haven’t let me down yet. My father, an artist, has often commented on how smooth they write. You simply can’t go wrong.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to our series on pens. A good pen is an accessory that will write the story of your life. It will sign your name on some of the most important documents of your life. From wills and testaments to mortgages and bills of sale, there is no tool or weapon stronger than the pen. Stay tuned for our upcoming fountain pen and rollerball guides.
What’s your favorite pen?