Comments on Fountain Pen Innovation

TWSBI Vac 700 with Montblanc Burgundy Red

TWSBI Vac 700

Dr. Deans, on the Fountain Pen Economics site, recently put together a Brand Taxonomy to categorize various fountain pen companies based on their competitiveness. He classified the brands based on their “…performance in the competitive environment.” The four categories are: disruptive, innovative, competitive and uncompetitive. The article is worth reading and provides more detail on the categories, but they are pretty self-explanatory. He’s since published an additional article about the disruptive and innovative companies but I wrote the draft of this article before it was published. I’ve added a few comments based on that article but I didn’t rewrite the whole thing. Hopefully this doesn’t make the article too disjointed.

How do my personal favorites fair on the list?

Sheaffer 300 - uncapped on standI own more Sheaffers than any other fountain pen brand and it’s a sentimental favorite. Despite this my search for it started at the bottom of the list. Sure enough, it’s in the “uncompetitive” list. Unfortunately I can’t argue that it’s wrongly accused. Only two of my twenty-three Sheaffers were manufactured in the last five years. While I like the Sheaffer 300 it’s only one pen and it’s neither perfect or unique. At best if proves Sheaffer can still make a good pen if they want to. The recent Sheaffers seem to get good (but not great) reviews but the lack of a large number of reviews indicates others are as uninspired by the pens as I am.

Franklin-Christoph Model 66Franklin-Christoph is the one brand I consider wrongly classified although I do admit that it’s one of my favorite brands and I own eight of their pens. He puts it in the “competitive” category with a note that it has the potential to move to “innovative.” I’d argue that it’s already innovative. I find their designs subtly unique and they have a recognizable design aesthetic. I do admit the materials aren’t fancy but they work well with the designs. Most (maybe all, I haven’t checked) of their fountain pens come with 20 nib options and their Mike Masuyama nib options are the best value in the business. I’m not aware of any other manufacturer offering so many nib options across their pen line.

They only sell through their website (and a couple pen shows) which probably holds them back. This may be by choice since their Mike Masuyama nib option may not scale well. (They’ve recently done some special editions for individual retailers.)

Edison Huron Grande Extra Fine Nib and R&K Blau-Schwarz LE inkEdison Pens is in the “Innovative” category. Edison is two companies in one. Their custom pens (the Signature Line) puts them in the “Innovative” category, no argument from me. The available filling systems may be based upon older designs, but they are unique among modern fountain pens.

Their Production Line, sold through retailers, has some nice material and designs. The build quality is excellent. But I’d still put them in the competitive category. I don’t argue that the company isn’t innovative, but I’d like to see that innovation trickle down to the production line. Overall I’d consider Franklin-Christoph as innovative as Edison Pens, much more so when the custom pens are ignored or cost is considered.

Edison Pens, unlike Franklin-Christoph, is active in pen forums and has a community built around their pens. They do group buys every year to make a Signature Line pen available at a lower cost.

I’m not sure what I think about the two “Disruptive” companies: Noodlers and Twsbi. They are certainly disruptive although personally I’m not particularly fond of either companies’ products. Despite this there’s no doubt Twsbi has a loyal following and many people love their pens. Both companies make low cost fountain pens, especially based on the types of pens they provide. Their prices are certainly disruptive.

Both companies also suffer from some quality problems. Noodlers pens have a reputation of needing tweaking to get them to work right (although my own pens have worked fine after flushing the manufacturing residue). Twsbi has redesigned pens to resolve design weaknesses. They make up for this by having terrific customer service.

While Noodlers ink has a bad reputation among some (Bay State Blue?) they’re the only ink manufacturer I know of that makes inks which such a wide range of properties. Maybe it’s just because I noticed Noodlers first, but it didn’t seem like permanent inks were so popular until Noodlers was making them. Is there a manufacturer with so many color options?

The business philosophy between Noodlers and Twsbi couldn’t be more different. Noodlers is very much a one man show. Twsbi involves their community early in the pen design and (I assume) takes their feedback when designing a product.

I don’t know much about Visconti but the other two Innovators (Edison & Nakaya) are both relatively low volume producers. Nakayas are high priced premium hand made pens. Their innovation seems to be having a viable company that makes only high-end pens. They have a narrow focus on Urushi pens. While not as expensive as Nakaya, the innovative Edison Signature Line are hand made premium custom pens. Like I said, I don’t see the Edison Production Line pens as innovative despite owning two of them. Does this mean innovation can’t scale? Or does the price of innovation in fountain pens mean the cost forces the market to be small? Or is the cost high because the market is small?

How do your favorite pen brands rank on the list? Do you agree with their placement?

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3 thoughts on “Comments on Fountain Pen Innovation

  1. Hi Ray,
    First off, I want to say that I appreciate you taking the time to consider my post so thoroughly. I’m humbled that you give it this level of attention and thought. My feeling about Franklin-Christoph is that they have a lot of potential and I certainly hope they become a much more more significant brand in the future. As tomorrow’s post will say, I believe they (along with Edison) are really the future leaders of American pen manufacturing. That said, their range to date is entirely C/C pens; well-made, to be sure, and certainly respectable, but I don’t feel any other brands considers FC to be a serious threat — yet. I’ve heard that they will be releasing a piston filler in the near future and I believe this could be a turning point for the company.
    Sadly one of your points absolutely rings true: the most innovative brands in the market (excluding, perhaps, Visconti) are not the biggest-selling. Production between all five of the brands probably pales in comparison to established companies like Parker or Sheaffer. But I think the community that is growing online is becoming much more discerning and looking for more bang for their buck, and we may see some chances in the future. Perhaps, anyway.
    And really, thanks again for this post, it’s a thrill to see someone engage with my posts in such a substantive way.

    –Jonathon

  2. Pingback: Wiser Web Wednesday | Pete Denison

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