The Pilot Fumi Raku

Found on a Weekday Lunch Hour

 “Why aren’t these sold in the United States?”  I asked the older Japanese woman behind the pen and stationery counter in New York City’s midtown Kinokuniya bookstore.  I was holding a Pilot Fumi Raku ballpoint in nanbutetsu (“southern iron”), whose barrel resembled the texture of a cast-iron tea kettle, its grip made of bright red briarwood.  The combination was uniquely, immediately attractive, by sight and sensation.

She replied quietly and politely.  “I believe they are too small, and they do not weigh enough.  Americans like big pens, heavy pens.”

Pilot Fumi Raku

Pilot Fumi Raku in Nanbutetsu

I’m the impulsive owner of a Pilot Knight that feels like a dead-brass mistake every time I hold it — I could empathize with her observation.  Heavy pens bring to mind thoughtless gifts, items that you’re meant to receive but never use.  The Fumi Raku felt like a counterargument to that, right in my hand — light and balanced, fit.   I felt like I was being let in on a secret.

Not From Around Here

In that, I haven’t been proven wrong about the secret part, at least for Americans: though images of these pens abound, Pilot Fumi Raku’s are all but impossible to buy online, with the exception of through Rakuten, that ubiquitous middleman for direct-from-Japan dealers.  To have no authorized US distribution is a shame, in my opinion, because the Pilot Fumi Raku is one of the most remarkably high-quality, high-value (though not inexpensive) pens I’ve ever come across.

Fumi Raku logo

The Fumi Raku logo, which no other Pilot pen seems to carry. Zoom in to see that it’s actually the English letters combined.

Pictures, in this, case, do a modicum of justice. The Fumi Raku embodies hyper-modern, yet somehow timeless  aesthetic.  Textures are immediately pleasing and the visual contrast of matte barrel to brilliant metal trim are in all the right places.  It’s a genuinely unique design.

There’s a thought-outedness to nearly everything about the Fumi Raku. The refill is accessed from a joint rendered all but invisible within the metal trim. The clip acts spring-loaded though from what I see it’s likely a single piece of metal, and the clipping action is among the strongest, yet easiest I’ve ever encountered.  The pen is balanced and proportionate in hand.

Briarwood grip

Another close up of the symbol side. The briarwood grip is a pleasure to hold. The pen separates at the metal that splits the section from the barrel.

Writing is done by oil-based Pilot BRFM-30 refills (BRFM-10 refills in a finer point are also available): they are simply the most reliable, smoothest, best-writing ballpoint unit I’ve ever used. Write tiny, write loopy, write on nearly any kind of paper, including slick-coated receipts that give my Lamy ballpoints fits — these Pilot refills can do it all.

From visual inspection of both refills, Pilot’s Dr. Grip refills, widely available, seem to be the same size and may work in a pinch.

The Fumi Raku, In Use

The day of that conversation at Kinokuniys, I left with the nanbutetsu. If there’s a single regret I have about adding the Fumio Raku to my collection, the lack of a fountain pen to match must be it. However I’ve found that a certain kind of Bauhaus complements perfectly…

Pilot Fumi Raku with Lamy 2000

The common with the uncommon – Pilot Fumi Raku with an XF Lamy 2000. A go-to travel pair for me, as the Pilot will write on nearly any paper, and the Lamy can write for up to five days on one fill

Not long afterward, I bought the Touki (“pottery”) in white with an oak barrel, to match yet another Lam from my collection —

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I don’t have the camera to show it, but there are subtle, circumferential striations in the white barrel. I think this echoes the swirls in wet clay which eventually result in a clay pot…

Intending another German-Japanese alliance (a terrible pun, I know)…

Pilot Fumi Raku in Touki with Lamy CP1 PT

The pair that will never be – a Lamy CP1 PT with the Pilot Fumi Raku in Touki. The “threading” of the metal in the PIlot complements the ribbing of the Lamy body almost uncannily

However, my wife, not someone not usually in thrall to pens, soon appropriated the Touki for her journal writing. For her, the pen is a perfect combination of striking to look at, pleasurable to hold and easy to use.

And in fact, wherever I’ve used the Fumi Raku, sharp eyes have always spotted it and admired.  If ever in New York City, Kinokuniya is definitely worth a stop.  And the Pilot Fumi Raku is definitely a pen worth trying, and buying, when there.

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The Pen Boat, or How I Paralyzed This Blog But Have Lived to Tell About It

Fountains on the right side, ballpoints on the left; an Art Gum eraser as a flimsy but forgiving divider

A restart.

Perhaps I intimidated myself by resolving to write about my collection by the order in which I acquired each pen.  That required me, in the first place, to remember that order.  The person I think I am requires me, in turn, to remember that order exactly, and the possibility of posting a mistake, or correcting the mistake, brought with it too convenient an excuse.

Above is the pen boat, one of the reasons for my disorganization, but not the entire reason. It’s formally used to serve bread, but for me it casually houses most of my collection, at least the part of it that I’m using at the moment.

Who can guess some of the makes and models?

Who can guess some of the makes and models?

It’s roughly organized between ballpoints and fountain pens; obviously never organized enough.  It’s a rough way to house pens — could you guess that there’s several thousand dollars worth of pens in that jumble of two stacks?  You would have to have a good eye, or you might have to be a collector, I think, as not enough shines to give its real value – something that happens too often in life.

I don’t like the scratches that some pens get from being stored this way — and for that matter a pen that scratches too easily, or wears them too easily, might be a kind of pen that I don’t buy again.  But a pen with wear is a pen that’s lived…

And I like the reaching and not knowing, somewhat, what I’ll lay my hands on next.  As often as I get I want, I am also often surprised at a pen I’d forgotten, at one I took for granted in good way or a bad way, at an unwitting victim of my own evolving tastes.

Here’s to restarting this examination.  I’m suddenly full of ideas, as full as this is pen boat is, with pens.

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Art Brown International Pen Shop, 1924-2013

Art Brown - GMaps Street view 080713

A ghostly Streetview image of Art Brown International Pen Shop in its last known location.

When I lived in New York City, I could have found Art Brown International Pen Shop blindfolded.  Squarely in the middle of the grid that is midtown, they were impossible to miss.

They moved in 2008 or 2009 to what I thought, foreshadowing, was a way-too-blingy all-glass façade one block south on West 45th Street.  Nevertheless, I relished long walks to the shop at midday, leaving behind my office job for an hour.  I could browse, occasionally buy, and keep myself topped up with notebooks.  Walking down the Avenue of the Americas on a business-day noontime is no one’s definition of fresh air, but stepping into Art Brown, oddly, was.

Art Brown Pen Shop closed on Friday, August 2nd, with very little warning.  The news reached me through a blooming e-mail trail of shock and surprise from members of the Big Apple Pen Club.

I clicked down through the messages, picking up fragments of firsthand accounts. Although I left New York only 18 months ago, this is a huge nostalgic flare to memory — one way, already, that the city will never seem the same to me.

What do I have in my collection that came from Art Brown International Pen Shop?  Into my drawers and cases I went, into my holders and wraps.  Here’s the tangible legacy I found:

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I made sure to catch the most flattering daylight…

Modest pens, all of them, collectively representing less than $1,000 out the door.  They are “users,” as pen folk call them.  All these pens have heavily seen journal or story-drafting duty.  Because they’re all fine pens, however – and this is why you choose them – none look any worse for their wear.

Lamy Dialog 1

Lamy Dialog 1

The earliest pen there is at third from left in the group photo, and above.  A Lamy Dialog 1 from 2003, purchased on a weekday where I wasn’t working.  My wife and I were shopping for wedding party gifts, and I bought the Dialog “at the groom’s discretion.”  We used this pen to sign our marriage license and I carried it in the jacket pocket of my wedding suit.  

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The most recent purchase – and one of the most heavily used, as evidenced by the dirty nib – is this Lamy 2000, a gorgeously rich-writing extra-fine.  This Lamy was one of those impulse purchases made over a lunch hour — I must have been having a not-so-nice day at work.  

By the autumn and winter of 2011, I was halfway gone from New York City already.  Our decision to relocate to the West Coast was no longer a question of “if” but “when.”  This pen made the “road-trip” rotation, with me in the pen slots of my messenger bag as we drove across the United States.

One note: for all my love of Art Brown on this post, I do remember haggling with the Art Brown sales assistant on the Lamy 2000.  The store had the frustrating but shameless New York-y habit of baiting and switching between online prices discounted 20% but showing, in-store, the full retail price.

I’m going to try and have reviews and personal histories of each pen individually in the future.  Just wanted to get this post out there as an in memoriam to somewhere I will miss returning.

IMAG1236

Namiki Falcon (soft) M nib, purchased from Art Brown International Pen Shop

New York was a city that, until August 2, 2013, could boast of three or more destination-worthy brick-and-mortar pen shops.  I will mention how Fountain Pen Hospital thrives on Warren Street for bling, brands, and killer deals.  Stevdan Stationers in three locations around Greenwich Village makes for an awesome treasure hunt of new old stock.

Despite how I believe enthusiasm for writing instruments and writing remains vibrant — just in more virtual forms, like this one — I don’t think any American city can now say they have more than two storefronts.

Art Brown was a classic New York place I loved for as long I could, and won’t forget, any more than I’ll ever stop being a handwriting type, or a New Yorker.

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Autobiography with the Pilot Vanishing Point

Vanishing Point

The latest of many Pilot Vanishing Points I’ve owned

At the San Francisco Pen Show in October 2012, I had the pleasure of meeting Detlef Bittner, from his eponymous shop located in Carmel-by-the-Sea, CA.  He immediately spied the Pilot Vanishing Point in my pocket, which started a conversation about the infallible utility of this particular pen.  He invited me to write about the “VP” for his blog at www.bittner.com

I’ve lost count of how many Pilot Vanishing Points I’ve owned in my life, but at any given moment I only owned one. Why? Because the Vanishing Point is one of the only fountain pens in my collection that I’ve never stopped using. Any pen that’s always used will be, inevitably and always sadly for me, lost. The history of the Vanishing Points that I’ve lost reads like a capsule autobiography.

I purchased my first Namiki Vanishing Point immediately after college graduation. I noticed it exactly because it didn’t look fancy.  It had a sharp, utilitarian yet subtle design that made it, at first glance, indistinguishable from a ballpoint. It was my first fountain pen, and proved as reliable a writer as ballpoints. This Vanishing Point wrote thousands of words to a screenplay which, though unsold, almost took me to Hollywood. I remember traipsing from cafe to library and back, Vanishing Point so securely in my pocket that every pair of pants I wore eventually frayed at a corner of the right front pocket.

It was lost after about three years – probably so secured to a pair of pants that I unknowingly left it with a laundry or dry cleaner’s.

I purchased my second Vanishing Point immediately afterward, and I used this one daily for five years.  It notably helped my wife and I buy a car – I still have the book listing dealer quotes, makes and models.  I lost that pen on or just off a bus that we rode on to pick up the vehicle at an out of town dealer.  I knew that it fell out of a too-shallow pocket. I even convinced my wife to drive our new car back to the bus stop later that same day.  We drove slowly around the parking lot, eyes scouring the pavement like a search party.

Needless to say, I threw away those pants when we returned home and never bought that brand again.

My third Vanishing Point accompanied me in a short corporate career – this time in its current style, larger and perhaps flashier but just as useful. Coworkers noticed this one mainly because of its gorgeous black “Carbonesque” lacquered pattern on the barrel. I prefer this finish out of all the current colors because it gives a pleasing texture in hand reminiscent of holding something covered in fabric. This finish is also bulletproof, resisting scratches either from drops or being carried side-by-side with other pens.

This Vanishing Point went its own way in the world after another five years when a second bottle of wine over dinner made me forgetful. I still hope that the server or busser was a writer, perhaps even became one because of the pen. The very next day, I went to a pen shop. “I’ve lost my Vanishing Point,” I mentioned to the salesperson as I purchased a twin of the one I lost, “so I need to buy a Vanishing Point.”

Such was how unconsciously I’ve come to consider the Pilot Vanishing Point not just as part of my pen collection but an essential tool for my life. I consider it the ideal pen to give to someone new to fountain pens, as its mechanics mimic non-fountains to a unique degree.  Using the clip as a guide, the body of the pen is intuitive to properly orient for writing.  The nib forgives most writing styles and nearly any kind of paper I’ve ever used.  This is a pen of enduring design which should never do wrong to the user. No Vanishing Point I’ve ever used has ever leaked or stained me, never dried out in reasonable storage, and has always come to life immediately upon upon clicking it open.

My latest black Carbonesque has listed driving directions for a cross-country drive, and has written into a journal by campfires. Most importantly, this Vanishing Point accompanies me on a new career as a full-time writer. It’s already seen thousands words, and looks still ready for many thousands more.

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Victory at the Swann Auction

World War II (?) – era poster for Swan Pens

I attended an outcry auction of fine and vintage pens at The Swann Galleries in New York City, mid-September 2012, an irregular event in the world of pens.  Among the attendees was Paul Erano, who assigned me to write about the auction for the PENant publication of the Pen Collectors of America.  An edited, call-’em-like-you-see ’em version of the same should appear in print with the next issue, Winter 2013(?).   That article will include some terrific i-photos of the pens and the auction exhibitions taken by my friend Michael D. Gately, who did yeoman’s work as a photographer while I indulged my mania.

For posterity and vanity, I’m including my original, prose-ier version below, with two of my own photos. 

I wanted to write a “real” article about my attendance at the exhibition and auction of Swann Galleries’ sale #2285 of Fine and Vintage Writing Instruments, which took place on Thursday, September 13, 2012 in New York City.

I wanted to write something factual about the hard work involved to assemble and display the 400 lots of modern and vintage pens offered, including one of the largest extant, complete collections of Chilton pens.  I could have written about my admiration of surprisingly working-class 1930’s-era Montblanc Rouge et Noirs; the stunning Aurora retractable Asterope and white-celluloid Etiopia from about the same time, all pens I fascinatingly held and likely might never hold again.  I could have discussed how much I learned about vintage Pelikans, Parkers, Watermans and pre-World War II maki-e from the PENguin’s Rick Propas and Swann’s Marco Tomaschett.

A real article would marvel at auctioneer Nicholas Lowry’s deft juggling of live bids, phone bids, order bids and online bids via http://www.ArtFact.com.  It would describe how the auction seamlessly used Swann’s admin assistants and even the mail room guys, who blithely proxied on lots that must have been several times their likely salary.  A whole article alone could profile the 40 in-person attendees, a competitive, entertaining fraternity of enthusiasts, collectors, wheelers and dealers, some of whom I later got to know at a post-auction dinner in a Manhattan theater-district trattoria.

I wanted to observe, remain aloof, be a critic.  But no matter how many pages of notes, how many stuttering, stopping and starting drafts I’ve written, this isn’t that article.  All because on the inevitable whim, I registered for the auction and held in my hand, for the better part of the auction’s three hours, a blue and white paddle, #114.

And I bid on something.  And I won!

Victory started the day before, when I arrived for two sessions of exhibition hours.  The Swann Galleries are located in an airy loft on the sixth floor of a Flatiron office building.  I spent hours poring over two large glass cases that held the lots.  For someone accustomed to pens in precious-looking, flattering pen shop displays, the intimidatingly crowded side-by-side I found at Swann seemed to assume I should know something about what I was looking at.

However, on display were more history, variety and unfamiliarity than I had ever seen.  Marco and Rick were patient as I asked to see one pen after another, each placed on a black velvet cushion for in-hand review.  I concentrated on the sixty lots of modern and limited edition pens: I reacquainted myself with a Rotring “1928,” a limited edition made by Visconti, that I had passed up at the time of its release in 2003.  There was also a 1995 banana-yellow Wahl-Eversharp in a taxi motif that would sell astronomically, rumored because it came boxed with a tiny model taxi.

Victory for me was contained within this group of pens, though I didn’t yet know it.  I noticed the Pelikan M200 demonstrator first because it was simply one of the few pens in the auction I could realistically afford. It was also familiar to me, as my collection, so far not concentrating on Pelikans, does include a current-generation Tradition M200 that I use heavily.  It appealed to me also because, aside from a preference for fine tipping, I have accumulated a working collection of demonstrators over the years.

In the evening, I attended a gallery reception hosted by Rick Propas for the Big Apple Pen Club, which drew out a small but intense group of members, associates and friends for finger sandwiches and white wine.  With Joshua Lax, a fellow BAPC member, we went from case to case, looking at pens, sharing what we knew about each.  Josh was thrilled at the variety of preserved celluloid in the collection of Chiltons.  All the early Montblancs were interesting as they are rarely seen together in such numbers and served as a reminder that the the brand wasn’t always the luxe conglomerate it is today.  Close up, we loved the steampunk brass snap of the Asterope’s nib cover, and the subtle but unfaded Fascist Eagle on the Etiopia.

The little bird in question

Josh asked if there were any pens I was looking at with an acquisitive interest.  I showed him the Pelikan.  He noted the dome cap’s archaic but functional esthetic that’s no longer used by Pelikan – the dome mechanically secures the replaceable clip with a visibly threaded reinforcement.  He also noticed “Made in West Germany” etched into the cap band, which dated the pen to the early 1980’s.

Josh couldn’t have been a better salesman, and my hope of Victory was cemented.  The little bird wasn’t an intrinsically valuable pen relative to many other, and it may not be all that rare at the moment.  But it is interesting, and therefore became worth something to me.

From the next day, the auction itself, I have kept an audio transcription.  Several times in the weeks since, I’ve cued it up to 29:05, at which moment I hear the gavel fall after brisk bidding on a gold-capped Pasha de Cartier that quickly climbed, like the other 99% of the lots, into a stratosphere well out of sight for me.  My lot of interest was considerably humbler, and I can hear myself on tape fumbling for the paddle.  The auctioneer briefly described what I was now considering my Pelikan, and opened bidding at $50.  I bid $60, anxiously.  There was competition from behind me at $70.  I hesitated a moment, as I was already brushing my limit, but bid $80 anyway.  I waited the proverbial eternity.  Even listening now to the recording makes time slow for me.  The auctioneer searched the room, asking for $90.  He looked at the phone bank next to him and a second bank at the rear of the room, asking for $90.  He glanced toward the young kid slouched at a laptop who monitored online bids, asked once more for $90.

Sold for $80 with another clap of the gavel that still gives me goose bumps.  After the buyers’ premium of 20%, came to a grand total of $96.  The recording reads 29:35 – completed in thirty seconds that felt like multiples of that time.

Victory was a charge through me.  I’ve won and lost pens on EBay throughout the years I’ve been collecting.  Winning at Swann felt nothing like that.  Obviously, an EBay auction counting down at my office cubicle doesn’t get me congratulatory whispers, glances back or pats on the shoulder from colleagues.  More significantly, however, an EBay auction is also not the accumulation of the previous twenty-four hours’ experience.  It’s not the communal and human experience of talking through decades of expertise; it’s not sitting in a room with other collectors who were as pleased to meet me as I was to meet them.

The catalogue notes a second sale scheduled for the spring of 2013.  I’ll be there.

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The 4 Color Pen (An Introduction)

The object of early desire.

I have been a pen collector as long as I have considered myself a writer. There is no “almost” to qualify that. My first intellectual memories are of writing stories for elementary school. I drafted those stories in pen before I typed them, months before we were allowed to graduate from a pencil or type anything – and I had graduated myself to mechanical pencils some time before, anyway.  I hoarded fine-point pens because I appreciated how I could write more compactly, so I taught myself to spot them unwanted in the bags and cases of classmates – and to this day, every ballpoint I own has a fine point refill.

One of my other first memories is shoplifting a Bic 4-color pen from a local supermarket when I had no money to buy it. I was helpless before the appeal of its size relative to other pens, the design flourishes of the Bic-ball at the cap end and its garish blue and white barrel. At every office job I ever held, I never used a pen casually taken from the supply room, instead treasure-hunting for unusual or better ones from stationery stores, pen shops and the Internet. Even today, most any receipt I sign, any list I make, any writing I draft is with a Lamy, Waterman, Sheaffer, Pilot or Platinum pen in hand. Favorites are kept handy in a repurposed bread boat on my desk, and dozens more are stored away.

In the formal parlance of the trade, I am technically not a collector — not a “completist”, that is, a collector who deliberately accumulates completely of a make and would not think of marring any examples with actual use. Instead, I am more a user, allowing my preferences and tastes over the years to determine what I acquire. I simply kept every pen I have used (though I have lost countless pens).

But I dont think I’m akin to the owner of a jazz-age Rolls Royce who drives it to the mall. There are few other types of collecting that more seductively invite the collector to use his or her objets d’art. And historically, pens are first utilitarian and secondly decorative. I have taken this philosophy to heart.  As a result, I have an organically acquired collection of modern fine pens, collected on no other basis other than I preferred to write with one or the other at a given moment.

It’s a collection intriguing mainly to me – but in decades to come, who could say?

On this blog, I’ll present my collection, one pen at a time, gathering what I can of its history, trying to articulate my own memories of acquisition and current or former use.  A lot of the pictures will show scratches, imperfections, lack of polish – especially true of the pens “in the boat,” in active rotation in my notebooks, bag or pocket.  I’ll also do my best to include history of the pen where I can, though I think there’s a dearth of design provenance – most modern brands are part of a conglomerate, and even boutique pens don’t put a premium on recording their history.  A lot of that history is deduced and parochial, and a lot communally suggested and hearsay, but out of all of it you can usually find a truth.

4-Color Truths

Let’s just see what Google pulls up about this: If you want to be a collector about this, 4-Color pens can be printed in honor of the G8/G20 conference, for Lady Gaga or redesigned thuggish and formidable looking appropos our age of terror.

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