The history of the Aurora 88 and his spawn
“Aurora” is an Italian name whose meaning is sunrise. Actually the regular ordinary name for sunrise would be “alba”. But aurora is a more sophisticated and evocative name, recalling the light breaking the night, and the beginning of a new start. That was possibly an immediate and evident choice in Italy in 1919, just a year after the end of the bloodiest war of all times, leaving open wounds in both losing and winning sides, and a country with an economy barely touched by the industrial revolution completely to rebuild.
But with today’s eyes Aurora is an even more apt name. After more than 20 years in which founder Isaia Levi managed to raise his pen company over many competitors (especially thanks to a clever and continuous marketing strategy, including ad campaigns and launching of sub-brands for different price positioning) the Aurora original plant located in the heart of the city was completely destroyed by the consequences of a bombing over Torino occurring on a summer night of ’43, possibly the toughest season of the city history, when thousands of citizens died under the allies fire.
In a rather quick fashion, and in an uneasy period, the company managed to find the funding to both rebuild a new factory from scratch (this time located in the city northside suburbs, next to the medieval Stura Abbey) and to design a completely new pen.
Ironically, it was because of the destruction and the ability to fund that Aurora was ready to stand up in the starving postwar market with a brand new product. Between a sea of lever filler or pens with the same pre war style, the 88 was there to represent the future and the hope for a new life.
Birth of a star
Aurora called Marcello Nizzoli1 (Boretto, 1887 – Camogli, 1969) a famous industrial designer, author of the Olivetti “lettera 22” between other works, to design this new pen. The design team started then from a blank page and had to face different choices:
- The first was whether to keep producing fountain pens or to switch to ballpoints. In 1945 the only ballpoint produced and sold in Europe was made by “Regia”, a Spanish company. It seemed that the ballpoint market was too young for the old Europe. The choice to bet on fountain pens will pay: on Europe the diffusion of the new tool will be slow: in France, e.g., the usage of ballpoints at school will be allowed starting from 1965;
- Second problem: how to create a watershed with the old FP production?
The U.S. Army, whose men and weapons freed Europe in the last months of the Second World War, brought over the old continent a completely new writing instrument. There was a story running about U.S. soldiers: everyone carried a weapon to kill and a fountain pen to write back home. This new pen was like no other previously seen: sleek, slender, curved, with a hooded nib to make the body of the pen continuous, made by a plastic body and a metal cap. It was called Parker 51 and it became the “model” to inspire the new Aurora.
The result was this beautiful pen we now call the “88”. The name itself was made to represent a change with the past.
Following the “rules” established by the Mussolini regime, Aurora was known to use evocative names derived from the Latin language, expressing some positive message of trust in the future: Novum, Superna, Optima… using foreign names was strictly forbidden in fact. “88” then was both a tribute to the inspiring model “51” and a breakaway to symbolize a new start, a new “Aurora” after the ruins of war and the event of the fascism era.
The Aurora 88, through different incarnations, sold in more than 5 millions and lasted until the 70s. It was indeed the most successful Italian fountain pen. In the 90s a new “88” was created, the same that is now on sale. Though the name and some general design reference is there, the new 88 is a different pen because of the technical characteristic and the target market in which it plays.
Following is the detailed description of the 88 family from its start until the end.
1946: Aurora 88
The original 88 was launched in the excited months following the war, at the end of 1946. Produced in the new plant of Abbazia Stura, it was discontinued in 1953 ca, to make room for the sister 88K. The pen had a black celluloid barrel (no other colors were available, for the non metal materials, throughout the entire life of the series), while the section and the turning knob were in hard rubber (ebanite).
The overall shape recall the Parker 51: it’s like a long and stout cigar. The section is engraved with the name of the brand and the model in an oval shape, and with the famous serial number. The serial number was important back then to tell one pen from another (since only one color was available) and it still is important now to help collectors to date their beloved pens.
The filling mechanism was a smooth piston filler with a large striated ink window next to the section. The seal on the piston was made of several rubber and felt alternated discs. The 88 was available with 17 different point sizes, in either stiff or flex nibs. To tell the size of the nib, a color code imprinted on a small cap on the back of the filler knob was created. The small cap could be removed to follow the change of the nib.
The pen was originally sold with a cap made of a nickel-silver league, called Nikargenta. Shortly after the now easier to find gold filled cap was introduced. Other variant of the 88 cap were the solid silver (that can be found with or without the clip) and the solid gold. Some of the solid gold caps have a small trapezoidal mark on the top of the clip. It is unclear in which period this mark was used. The clip itself was smooth and rounded, inspired by the Pelikan 100 pre war clip. To my knowledge the variants of the original Aurora 88 are the following (NB: some transitional model with the 88K cap can be found too):
- Nikargenta (Nk) cap (**2)
- Gold Filled (GF) cap (*)
- Chrome (Ch) cap (*)
- Silver cap (with and without clip) (Slv) (**)
- Solid gold cap (SG) (***)
- Complete GF pen and cap (CGF) (***)
- Complete solid gold pen and cap (CSG) (****)
Nikargenta is a special league patented by Aurora for the Aurora 88 model. It was marketed as “very expensive” from the company and used as substitute of the chrome or sterling silver. In fact nikargenta is brilliant as the sterling silver but without oxidation problem and it's an higher quality of finishing compared to the "normal" chromed trim. The nikargenta imprint is visible on the cap lip of the cap. The nikargenta treatment was finally abandoned because the high cost.
The 88 was sold in an original box: a metal (aluminum) cylinder with the section made after the same oval of the Aurora brand. Originally the box where in silver color, then they increased in size and sported a different color for different content: Silver for NK, blue for GF cap, red for the full GF pen, gold or pink for the sets.
Finally, the 88 had his mechanical pencil companion, which was smaller, thinner but with the same cap.
1953: Aurora 88K
The 88 turned 750.000 pieces sold in early 1952 and 1.000.000 at the end of the year. In 1953 a new model, called 88K, was launched on the market. Possibly the 88 and the 88K were sold in parallel for some time, however it is possible to find 88 with a serial number as high as 1,7 millions.
There are only small differences between the 88k and the 88:
- Section – it is questioned if hard rubber was dropped for celluloid, some says yes, some think that only the composition of the hard rubber changed – thus the blackest color; the oval mark imprinted on the section lost the Aurora name and showed only a big 88K (with the K larger than the 88); the section still bears the serial number but next to it there is the nib size imprinted;
- Turning knob – again made of celluloid, as the whole pen body; the color code at the bottom end is replaced by a small end cap (black);
- Cap: the more evident differences are in this part.
- Larger striped pattern;
- Black top insert (still the cap has a domed shape); the first exemplars had a metallic chromed cap, just like the original 88, now these specimen are more rare and command an higher price;
- Flat clip with black insert (the clip has a drop shape groove where the black lacquer is);
- Feed - The 88K model was fitted with a new laminated feed that supposedly better regulated the ink flow;
- Box – With the 88K the famous “tubes” used for the original 88 were discontinued. The 88k was produced a different box in red satin and signed 88k on a metal label;
- Piston head – the piston head of the 88K is made of plastic;
The 88K line kept the original models (GF, Ch, Slv, SG, CGF, CGS) except the nikargenta that was dropped because of high production cost and because the nickel coupled with the silver proved to be an allergen to many people.
The full gold version of the 88K is also know as the “Aquila 88K”. Leopoldo Aquila was in the business since 1930s as the Aurora distributor for the Naples region, and it is said that that particular model was especially requested by him. To fit the gold sleeve a new and thinner celluloid barrel was created, reinforced with a wide metal ring on top an a short metal knob to operate the piston. The classic striped ink window was visible underneath the metal band, but to glance at the ink level the user was forced to unscrew the gold sleeve. It is believed that only 3.000 exemplars of this particular model were produced.
The 88K was sold alone or in sets which included both a mechanical pencil and a ball point. On the two non fountain pens model, the brand name is visible on the cap lip.
1954: Aurora Duo-cart
Although not an 88 in the strict terms, the Duo-cart is part of the same enlarged family. The Duo-cart was introduced by Aurora to enter a new market area: the student pen. A new designer was involved in the project to keep on with the “tradition” started with the 88: this time is Albe Steiner3 (Milano, 1913 – Raffadali, 1974) turn. The collaboration between the famous Milan communist designer and Aurora will produce two Italian design awards for the pen box and the supply cartridges box of the Duo-cart. However, is it important to note that Mr. Steiner did not collaborate directly to the design of the pen itself, which is an evolution of the Nizzoli original work. Steiner was at time (1955 – 1962) in charge for the overall company image and was the graphic designer responsible for advertisement, package, counter stand and the overall corporate image4.
The Duo-cart had a colored celluloid barrel (in grey, black, burgundy or green) with a flat end and a hard rubber section (red/brown or black) engraved with the oval Aurora 88 mark upon the DUO-CART name. Opposite in the section was engraved a serial number, different from the one used by the 88 but with the same goal: to help students to tell the one’s own pen from the others. The clip was similar to the Aurora 88 but the cap was much shorter dramatically altering the proportions of the pen. The cap could be found in both GF and Chrome color.
That was because of the revolutionary filling system: in the same year of Waterman Aurora introduced a cartridge system in the fountain pen world. The long body could receive two plastic cartridges, linked by a metal tube. The end of the pen got inside a metal ball and chain: when there was only one cartridge left, the ball would sound (hitting the inner barrel walls) to alert the student to insert a new spare reservoir. The ball was chained to a small metal disc that was visible outside in the blind cap.
This design lasted until the late fifties and then evolved with different models until the Auretta, the school pen of thousands of Italians during the 70s.
1956 (ca.): Aurora 888
The Duo-cart proved to be a great success in the school market where the fountain pen still dominated over the ball point. To exploit this success to a wider audience Aurora launched the 888 model, aka the cartridge version of the 88K.
In a pen with the size and the finish of the “adult oriented” 88 range two cartridges represented a reservoir of 2,6 ml whereas the regular self filling pens would carry only 1,3 or 1,5 max of ink (data taken from an original Aurora ad).
The pen was clearly inspired by the 88K body but was thinner. The ring towards the end of the pen was missing (originally it separated the barrel from the fill knob) but the end shape of the pen was still ogival.
As the Duo-cart, the 888 featured the inner metal sleeve to keep two cartridges together inside the barrel and the metal ball linked with a short chain to the end of the barrel to inform the user that the spare cart was missing.
Further on it is interesting to note that the cap was shaped after the forthcoming 88P cap (see later for description of the 88P cap); an “export” version of the 888 was available with the “old” 88K cap.
1957 (ca.): Aurora Firma
Along with (or shortly after) the 888, Aurora introduced a desk pen based on the same concept. Desk pens were popular at the beginning of the XX century: a solid heavy base was holding a small plastic cup where the pen, originally a dip pen, then a fountain pen (possibly with the lever filler) could rest ready to write. The pen would have a longer barrel, which was designed to help balance and favor an easy catch and grip of the pen off from the desk.
The Firma was following these design cliché: a black, long and slender body was inserted in an 888 section, the barrel would hide the space for the two cartridge system. The stand was simply a black and squared piece of metal, circled with gold filling
1958: Aurora 88P
The original 88 did count more or less until 1,5 millions of models produced. The 88K would finally reach the 2,5 million mark. In 1958 was now time for the third generation of the glorious 88 – the 88P – to carry on the tray until the 3,8 million of specimens sold.
The 88P showed small differences from the 88K:
- Cap: was now flat on top with a circle black plastic insert. The striped pattern was larger than the 88 and 88K models; the clip remained unchanged from the 88K;
- Girth: slightly thinner than the 88 and 88K models (if you try to cap an 88P with an 88 or 88K you will not be able to go until the clutch);
- Versions: Some new versions were introduced with the 88P. The matte version in particular was introduced at the end of the life of the model (which was on 1964, a year after the introduction of the 98), and few exemplars are known. Also, it’s not possible to find a nikargenta 88P in my experience, and all the white metal caps are chrome caps.
A small batch of Aurora 88P was produced without serial number and today these pens are sought from collectors.
The Aurora 88 was sold in sets, this time coupled with a matching ball point.
In 2008 Aurora found some old parts from the 88P in matte finish in its vaults and released a specific model (022) on his “Archivi Storici” series reissue.
The 88P is very common to be found nowadays and represents a reliable fountain pen.
1959 (ca.): Aurora 888P
After the introduction of the 88P the name of the cartridge version 888 was changed accordingly. No major changes to the pen design occurred, because the cap was already in the 888 the one used on the 88P. The most evident modify was the end of the barrel, now ending flat and bearing a metal disc on the blind end (but still having the ball and chain trick for some time; this feature was dropped in the last exemplars).
Another curious characteristic of the 888/888P model is that the pens were sold “ready to write” i.e. with the two cartridges inside the barrel and the first one inserted in the section pin. Possibly that “trick” was intended to generate the thought that this fountain pen was as easy to use as a ball point, but of course this led in the first place to a number of damaged pens. In order to avoid major problems to the hands of the users, the Aurora 888/888P was sold with a plastic transparent hood that sat between the cap and the nib in order to protect the ink to spill and was supposed to be thrown away as a first thing after the purchase of the pen (the procedure is detailed in the paperwork found in the box).
Curiously, the 888 and the 888P were numbered in the same sequence of the original 88 series, with a serial number next to the section. Again, like the bigger brother the cartridge version share the nib size imprinted on the section.
1963: Aurora 98
The 98 is the last evolution of the glorious 88; it shoved the original design of Marcello Nizzoli well into the 70s5.
With the introduction of the Aurora 98 the changes (compared to the ancestor) were made more evident: no more serial numbers on the section or elsewhere, a redesigned slender and squared shape (especially visible on the hood of the nib), a new cap, new materials used, and – above all – a new filling mechanism.
Let’s now dig into these differences:
- Shape: following the 60s trend, the shape become more squared. The perfect cigar shape of the 40s was long gone, the end is squared, the section ends with an angled shape, the cap and the clip stressed the angles; finally the girth is much smaller than the already reduced 88P;
- Cap: small changes here. The more evident change is on the cap top: in the 88P the black plastic top was circled, in the 98 the black insert protrudes toward the clip; The name of the make/model made it into the cap lip for the first time; The section in fact still bears the Aurora classic oval logo, but this time there is only a new “re-styled” Aurora name;
- Materials/versions: Nowadays the most common version you can find the 98 is still the classic smooth black plastic (no more celluloid!) with gold filled cap with groups of five close small lines. But several other versions where sold, including a matte version, slowly introduced at the end of the 88P lifecycle, or a full gold plated version. Other common variants includes full chrome, full brushed metal, gold check pattern cap and black barrel;
- Filling Mechanism: that’s the biggest change after all. A new piston mechanism was introduced, including a hidden piston knob, a new ink window (too small, unfortunately) and a feature called “Magic Reserve”. Additionally is it worth mentioning that the 98 abandoned the 88/888 dichotomy: the cartridge version of the 98 still is called 98, other story with the “Internazionale” (see below).
A few more words on the “Magic Reserve” filling system are worth spending. The pen ends in a square step. If you press the blind cap, the piston knob pushes out, allowing the user to twist (as the normal use of a piston mechanism). When twisting is over and the piston head is fully extended inside the pen, the front of the piston go around the pin (last part of the feed, where the ink enter the section) pushing the last drops of ink (which are unable to enter the pin because are below the pin hole level) inside the feed. Additionally, the extended knob is a visual reminder that you are running out of ink. When you want to put the knob in its place, you have to untwist and click (several times, as per my experience…)
Another visible difference with the original Aurora 88 linked to the “Riserva Magica” feature is the ink window. The new design is of a circle ink window made of clear plastic, framed in a chromed or gold plated trim. The upper metal circle (next to the section) works as the cap clutch. Between the two metal rings there are six plastic “columns” that made the vision of the remaining ink even harder.
1965 (ca.): Aurora International
As previously said the 888/888P concept was dismissed with the introduction of the 98. The 98 itself came in cartridge version too, and an alternate version of the 98 called “International” was introduced too. It’s unclear to me the exact connection between the 98 cartridge version and the internazionale, but some induction can be done.
The “International” was marketed below the 98 and used cheaper materials and trims. The most recognizable difference from a regular 98 is the clip drop central engraving, which is black lacquered in the 98 and plain (same color of the metal) in the International. The typical International model easily found on ebay or elsewhere is the gold/black brushed version. However is possible that Aurora changed in time the “borders” between the 98 c/c and the International, thus creating some confusion.
1989: A new Aurora 88
The 98 was dismissed by Aurora sometime between the 70s and the early 80s, at the peak of the fountain pen crisis.
In the late 80s, when the fountain pen started to found a new “market niche” in the high level writing instruments range, Aurora introduced a “tribute” to his most iconic pen: the original 88. This was a completely different pen though, which only recalled the grandmother by:
- The overall cigar shape;
- The use of black plastic (though it’s not anymore celluloid) and metal caps (not always true);
- The shape of the clip, though it’s more close to the Duplex than the original 88;
- The existence of a piston filler model;
The Aurora 88 represents the imaginary “fil rouge” connecting the Italian post war writing instrument market until these days. As the brand name wanted originally to signify, the first Aurora 88 model was the rebirth of the hopes of people, represented in a modern design that now it is a classic and a reference that cannot be disregarded.
Through the years and the numerous variants, this model followed the study and the work of Italians of all ages, transforming its role from a daily workhorse to a precious object.
Today the fountain pen collector’s world is just starting to “taste” the post WWII panorama; however the Aurora 88 is increasingly popular on the normal selling channels. A reason for this is that the Aurora 88 is a pen with a vintage aura, a reliable working pen that has few competitors nowadays (Lamy2000 and… ?) and a beautiful object.
- Possibly the link between Nizzoli and Aurora was Giovanni Enriques (1905-1990), nephew of the Aurora founder Isaia Levi, which was Manager at Olivetti during the 30s and then owner of Aurora from the 1949
- The rating used is as follow: * standard model, easy to find; ** standard model, difficult to find; *** unusual/limited model; **** rare model
- In 1940 Albe Steiner founded the Milan based studio Graphica Foto where he and his wife Lica experimented with Photography and design. Over the course of his career, Steiner designed for Domus, Agfa, Pirelli among others
- How ironic that the image of Aurora, that only twenty years before was based on Mussolini regime symbols and slogans, was in the 50s in the hands of a man who, nephew of Giacomo Matteotti (a socialist victim of the fascism in 1924), was one of the leaders in the new left intellighenzia, collaborating to the most leftist magazines and newspapers and introducing in Italy a graphic style borrowed from the Russian avant-garde and the soviet constructivism.
- Again some reference says that Albe Steiner was the designer of the Aurora 98, but there is no decisive proof. The A.Steiner archives (see references) did not mention this work between those made by the designer while collaborating with Aurora.
- La storia della stilografica in Italia 1900 - 1950 (The History of the Italian Fountain Pen), Letizia Jacopini [Edizioni OPS, 2001]
- Aurora, Luca De Ponti [Editando, 1995]
- Bella e Fedele, Enrico Bettazzi [in Penna #43, 1997]
Torino bombings on 1940 – 1945: