In late June of this year I noticed a thread here on FPN offering a discount of $150 on a custom made pen, if only the purchaser would write a review of the pen - good, bad or indifferent - after its receipt. If that makes me a paid reviewer, then so be it. I've owned a couple hundred pens over the past 20 years, have a few less than a hundred now, old and new, mostly (but not exclusively) on the nicer side, and have a fairly good idea of what I like and don't like in a pen. These pens intrigued me, the offer even more, so I took a look at the website of C.E. Levi Pens and fell in love right away with the Nox (Latin for night, or darkness).
I emailed Cameron Lewis, who is about as nice, responsive and accommodating a person as one could ever hope to meet, and began a dialogue about the pen I would like to have built. Turns out each pen he constructs is entirely custom (Cameron said: "Since all of my pens are hand made one at a time, the dimensions vary from pen to pen. Throughout the process the only tools used are a manually operated lathe, a hacksaw, files, and sandpaper. Nothing is automated. Every pen is made one at a time. All of them cut, shaped, and trimmed in slightly different ways that make every pen unique."). The Nox series comes in a small and a regular size (mine is the regular), but this is not like buying a Montblanc 146, where every one is precisely the same as the others. There are no exact standards for these pens, only a range within they usually fall, the idea being that each pen must match the desires of its future owner as well as the vintage nib to which it will be fit.
And here's another great concept - the nib - you get to pick your own. I must say this à la carte nib idea is the thing that put me over the edge, that made me decide to order my first custom made pen. Cameron said he has a fair pile of vintage nibs and that I could pick just about anything I wanted, though the more rare or unusual nibs would be slightly more money. I have a particular fondness for flexible nibs, and for stub nibs. Turns out vintage stub nibs are a fairly rare commodity, less so are flexible nibs, so I opted for the latter (being my preference in the first place). Cameron cast about and turned up a few nibs that might work, then emailed me with descriptions and prices of each. After a few emails I decided on a nice, flexy Swan No. 2 nib around which he would construct my pen.
I had already told him about my desire for a slightly larger version of the regular Nox, so we worked on dimensions and approximate weight, and then he began. About two weeks later, he emailed me with an update - he had made a change to the internal design of his button filler which permits more ink volume, and wanted to test a prototype and then incorporate the new design into my pen. How about that - design changes on the fly, and the customer benefits! Oh, in case you were wondering, no photos were taken during the process - Cameron spends his time (day and night, I think) at the lathe, not with a camera. Once he was happy with the new design, Cameron emailed to say he would soon be making the section and fitting the nib and feed to it, then he would test it to be sure it was satisfactory.
Here is where it gets interesting. The nib was NOT satisfactory, at least not to Cameron's liking. He worked with it for a couple or three days and could not get the feed to be consistent. He emailed me right away with his concerns, and also with an option for another nib, but said he would be willing to scrap the whole thing and refund my money if I wasn't happy with the change. Well, we know how that turned out, because you are reading the review. The new nib - also a Swan No. 2 - was fit to the section and feed, tested, and found to be A-OK. Then I got pictures, then it shipped - less than thirty days from the time we started corresponding. In fact, it would have been sooner but I told Cameron I was going to be out of town for a couple of weeks and there was no need to rush mine through.
Well, that's a lot of lead up, and I hope you skipped it if you wanted to get to the real review, which follows.
I'm a fan of the French author Antoine de St. Exupery, have read just about everything he wrote, and appreciate very much his "Principle of Simplicity", elucidated in the following passage from his 1939 novel, Wind, Sand and Stars"
... Have you ever thought, not only about the airplane but about whatever man builds, that all of man's industrial efforts, all his computations and calculations, all the nights spent over working draughts and blueprints, invariably culminate in the production of a thing whose sole and guiding principle is the ultimate principle of simplicity?
It is as if there were a natural law which ordained that to achieve this end, to refine the curve of a piece of furniture, or a ship's keel, or the fuselage of an airplane, until gradually it partakes of the elementary purity of the curve of a human breast or shoulder, there must be the experimentation of several generations of craftsmen. In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away, when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.
It results from this that perfection of invention touches hands with absence of invention, as if that line which the human eye will follow with effortless delight were a line that had not been invented but simply discovered, had in the beginning been hidden by nature and in the end been found by the engineer.... (emphasis mine)
When I first saw the Nox, I didn't immediately think of St. Exupery's Principle of Simplicity, but slowly it dawned on me that what compelled my attention with this pen was its lack of adornment; an elegance achieved by virtue of simple design, where every form is based purely on function, and appearance is a culmination of efforts to maximize function. I don't want to bore everyone here with philosophy, and if you could see all my pens you would immediately label me a hypocrite, for I own a number of pens which are simply beautiful, and some which are quite "adorned". Yet, I can't stop liking the Nox; St. Exupery's concept of simplicity of design, of discovering "elementary purity", is what I see in this pen.
dcpritch's Nox. Photo courtesy of Cameron Lewis
Ebonite and bronze rods from which the Nox is made. Photo courtesy of Cameron Lewis
As you might guess if you read the quote above, I appreciate simplicity of design, and also simplicity in materials. There are only four materials involved in the making of this pen: German ebonite, used for the barrel, section and cap; bronze for the filling system and connecting parts; brass for the cap of the button filling mechanism, where your thumb goes; and gold for the nib. The bronze cap band, with its brushed finish spaced by an inset polished portion of the same solid piece, appears at first glance to be made of wood. The cap band design is mirrored in smaller scale at the rear of the barrel, where the blind cap attaches. The flat tops of the cap and barrel are cut precisely, without being harsh, and are polished on the tops. The raw, unfinished ebonite of the cap and barrel are tactile yet smooth, and are very easy to grip. I asked Cameron to make the section flared, which he did perfectly. Dimensions: 5-1/4" or 134 mm capped; 5-1/8" or 130 mm uncapped - does not post; .50" barrel diameter; .52 cap diameter. The weight of this pen is 30g, and its exceptional balance makes it seem quite a bit lighter than one would expect. For comparison, a Namiki metal Falcon weighs in at 33.5g; a Nakaya long Portable Writer at 30.7g, and a Pelikan M1000 at 32.7g.
When you find a craftsman who makes every part of a pen by hand, and he is good at his craft, there is a high expectation that the quality of construction will be of the highest order. The Nox does not disappoint. Every part of this pen (other than the vintage nib and feed, around which the section is crafted) is made in Cameron Lewis' shop using his lathe and hand tools. A prior review of the Small Nox by Doug C mentions "the machining is perfect" and a review of the Colossus by retro50 describes the "Absolutely beautiful precision machining"; indeed, it is. I can describe for you the effortless motion of unscrewing the cap and blind cap from the barrel, but until you experience it you will not understand how machined bronze can feel like it has a teflon coating - simply amazing.
Cameron Lewis' workshop and lathe. Photo courtesy of Cameron Lewis
FILLING SYSTEM: 10/10
I love the button filling system on this pen. Maybe I am amazed that a guy somewhere up in Canada, working from his own small shop, can create his own button filler entirely by hand from a solid bar of bronze. Or maybe I just like the simplicity of the mechanism. Either way, it works fantastic: moderate pressure on the button, fills quickly, holds a bunch of ink. If there is a criticism, it would be that it holds too much ink, as I am more accustomed to small sacs and converters which run out of ink quickly, enabling me to change inks or pens in my rotation. On the other hand, this pen hasn't left my rotation since it arrived at my door, and won't in the foreseeable future, so I guess I can't even manufacture a criticism on this point.
I described above the process we went through to pick a nib, and I couldn't be more happy with the result. I like flexible nibs, but I use this pen at my office, so I really wanted a pen I could use all day without effort; I didn't want a wet noodle that might flex when I didn't want it to, or would be hard to use when taking quick notes. The Swan No. 2 that Cameron found for me is a perfect combination of flexibility and usability. And, he worked on the feed to make it flow flawlessly whether writing quickly or slowly with flex.
I like to think that if St. Exupery were alive today this is the pen he would own and use. This is as perfect a pen as I could hope for. It was a joy to work with Cameron and be involved in the process of making a one-off pen that was actually for ... me! Design, Construction, Filling System, Nib are all exceptional by any standard. I can't take off a single mark, so in my opinion the Nox is a perfect 10!
Edited by dcpritch, 14 September 2011 - 19:02.