The Refinement Phase: On Establishing a Pen Rotation and Stable “Collection”

By Michael W. Harris 

I am a collector by nature.

Top tray in my large pen case. A few empty slots for some custom pens.

Over the years, I have collected pretty much all the sorts of things that people collect at one point or another: baseball cards, coins, stamps, comics, various types of books, CDs, vinyl, DVDs, Blu-rays, and so on and so forth. And today, it has extended, in a “relatively” small way, into watches, knives, and bags.

However, knowing that I am both an obsessive collector and also a person of limited means, when my growing fountain pen obsession begin to accumulate at a rapid pace, I quickly moved to set limits on said collecting. But the new, shiny “acquisition phase” of any hobby is tricky. You are learning your tastes, what you might like to collect, and also just trying to learn about and experience all that you can while also having fun.

For me, early on I “decided” that I would focus on two brands: Pelikan (the maker of my first fountain pen) and Pilot (for some reason the Japanese brand that I latched onto first, no idea why, but maybe because it was a name that I was familiar with). However, that failed amidst my completist nature, the sheer scale of the company histories, and the fact there was no way I, and my librarian salary, could hope to ever have examples of all their pens, even if I focused on just one of each of their main models.

So, I continued to cast about, trying to set limits, devise systems, etc. However, without realizing what was happening, I was also figuring out what I liked to use and how I used it. How many pens did I like to carry and for how long? 3? 6? Go by month, week, until a ran out of ink in what I was using? And what about pocket pens? Did those actually get used or were they just cute?

And then there were inks…

Of course, after trying to set strict limits on pens, I decided to try ink collecting because it was “cheaper,” and I would focus my collecting on inks from Montblanc and Papier Plume. This did not last long because it was just another rabbit hole whose bottom could never be reached. I had to face the fact that whereas with comic books and my beloved Fantastic Four there was a theoretical “end” (unless I wanted to track down every stray appearance), there was no such end with pens or inks. Just more research and endless scouring of eBay and other internet listings. However, collecting swabs of ink samples was something that was fun and cheap. I would limit my ink bottles to certain colors ranges and only buy samples to swab in order to save for the truly big purchases (hello, Nakaya!). Furthermore, I would refine my pen and ink collection and also establish a way to actually use all of them.

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Before I get to the meat of this post (my “system”), I should provide a small amount of backstory of my interest in the hobby (some of which I have covered previously).

As I said earlier, I have always been an obsessive collector, bordering on OCD and autism in my ability of focus and get stuck on an idea or notion. It is something that seems to run in my mom’s side of the family, so I at least come by it honestly!

So while my actual falling down the stationery rabbit hole did not begin until around early 2018, I acquired my first fountain pen in May 2013, and as far back as I can remember, I was always picky about what I wrote with and on.

There are probably four key pieces of stationery that are important to my “origin story:” Pentel P205 mechanical pencils, Unibal Signo 207 rollerballs, felt tips markers for regular writing, and Mead Composition notebooks. All of these would be my preferred writing tolls at one point or another in my life, and I still have some lying around by my desk to be deployed in a pinch.

The Pentel pencil especially was my “lucky test pencil” for a number of years. The 207 was the first pen I would seek out when buying pens at the store and make sure I that had around for use, and the felt tip pens and Mead books were a constant tool for notetaking in college…and for writing bad poetry with.

The fact that I can still remember and even have these tools around is sign enough that the inevitability of my decent was assured.

So, what shifted me to fountain pens and pushed me into the actual hobby? Well, the gift of that first fountain pen in May 2013 was a beginning. This was followed with the purchase of a Lamy Studio and Retro 51 Hex-o-matic mechanical pencil. However, none of these really stuck around my carry kit because I was just so enmeshed in digital workflows, and even though I still preferred doing many things by hand—editing, outlining, notetaking—I just did not click with fountain pens, though every so often I would pull out the Pelikan and Lamy, ink them up, and give it another go.

One of these times happened to be the summer of 2017, a pivotal time for me for many reasons. I was trying to write more by hand in general and was working on drafting notes for a manuscript about archives and information (a still ongoing project), not to mention that in the years since graduation I had become a librarian, working in special collections and archives, and was becoming more appreciative of the history of writing and printing in general.

So while at work the Retro pencil was getting use (no pens in archives!), I was trying to use the pens more. And that summer I happened to have them on me while at the wedding for a friend from undergrad, where I reconnected with another friend who happened to also be a fountain pen user and he gave me some helpful and friendly nudges.

However, it was the almighty YouTube algorithm that was the final tipping point. All of my watching of EDC content, including the Wood & Graphite channel (RIP), finally served up as a suggestion a Goulet Pens video (their tour of the Lamy factory) and I was off to the races.

*          *          *

Gasp!! Ballpoints!!

So, after buying, selling, trading, gifting, and being gifted well over 100 pens, trying and failing at setting limits or developing a collection development policy (like a good librarian) it does feel like this my collecting and use strategy is reaching its final form. However, it is still evolving in small ways, and in the past month I have had to adjust some things to accommodate a purchase or two. However, there was also a reason that was rooted in how I felt about pens that I found I was not excited to use or was not reaching for—a sure sign it was time to move them on. So, while the plan adapted to these decisions in a very natural way, and I am certain that I may eventually sell or replace some of the pens I currently have, the overall shape, size, and configuration of the collection is fairly well set.

And that shape is, in very broad strokes, a collection made up of smaller 3 pen sets constructed around some sort of theme. And while mostly unintentional, most of these sets also ended up having one “vintage” pen in them as well.

There are exceptions, always are, to all of these rules, like my small gathering of vintage pens, my collection of Franklin-Christoph Model XLV pocket pens, and how some of the three pen sets sometimes have a fourth pen…a ballpoint! Something that helped out with my OCD because my big pen chest has trays of 13, a number not divisible by three. This was also aided by my lucky purchase of matching FP and BP of the Parker 75 Lapis Lazuli and a 1960s OMAS Ogiva Extra in blue resin.

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My “Perfect Carry”

It may seem premature to be declaring my collection as “settled,” especially while there are still empty slots in my pen boxes. However, unlike earlier attempts, the three-pen sets also have the advantage of also identifying the pens for my weekly carry: I rotate sets. Every week I clean out the three pens I had used for the week (regardless of ink levels, a way to force me to also use my inks as well), and then I also ink up one XLV at the beginning of each month with a cartridge. And so far, about 3 months in (as of writing this), the system is sticking.

Right about now, you might be asking yourself, what are these themes/collections? Well, that is what I am going to start documenting on this blog, going through each of them and telling the story of my pens, because, when I go to sell pens or have been making up these collections, that has been my focus: what stories can I tell about them? You see, this blog—and the notebook that I am writing the rough drafts of these posts in—is also a document for my collection and whoever I might leave it to when my time on this earth ends. Pens, as I have talked about before, are not just use tools for use, but also exist and travel through time in a way that few other objects for collecting do. Comics, baseball cards, etc. mostly are one off things that are read, looked at, and put away, but pens are tools that are meant to be used just like any other type of tool. In this way, they remain useful for many, many years. Pens are tools and heirlooms. They have meaning to be passed along.

So, below you will find a list of the collections I have identified and I will attached links as I write the posts. Things may still change, but most of them are pretty well set at this point and I look forward to sharing my pens and their stories with you! Also, if you want to take a glimpse at my collection, the categories, and my future acquisition plans, check out my Google Doc.

  • Holy Trinity
  • Perfect Carry
  • Parker Posse
  • Nippon Blues
  • St. Louis Trio
  • Italian Blue
  • Visconti Squadra
  • Edison Exclusives
  • Custom Crew
  • Pelikan Flock
  • Team TWSBI
  • Travel 3
  • Nibbage
  • Franklin-Christoph XLVs

There are also two sets that currently exists somewhere in between my main collection and my “loaner/starter/other” pens. I will also discuss them and how these two “motley crews” came about.

  • Ménage à trois 1
  • Ménage à trois 2

There is also my small gathering of “vintage” pens that I’ll discuss.

  • Vintage musings

Finally, there is the ever elusive single pen set that is the “grail” pen. I may never be able to buy this, but I will discuss what my top contenders…

  • The Grail

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