For many, the prospect of a fully custom pen is both alluring and daunting. With so many options the process seems fraught with danger, and the reassurance of an off-the-peg alternative, liberally reviewed and photographed here on the forum, turns the 'maybe' into an eternal 'maybe next time'. So here I will attempt to remove the mystery from the process, to shine a light on these three well-known if enigmatic makers, and to give a holistic and subjective overview of the process and the final pens. Maybe then I will help push a few of you over the edge into the abyss.
Romillo Nervión, custom Nakaya, Hakase Rosewood, Hakase Buffalo Horn
A friendly and knowledgeable contact is crucial, both in easing anxiety and assuring that there are no misunderstandings along the (sometimes long) way. Yet, oddly, it is the experience with the most scope for error that has proven to be the most rewarding, and then by a large margin.
Hakase is a tiny company located in Tottori, a middling city in the north of Honshu, Japan's main island. If I say that its locale is known only for its pears and a sand dune, perhaps you will understand how remote Hakase is. Mr. Ryo Yamamoto is the proprietor and, now that his father and patron has retired, also the maker of Hakase's pens. From what I understand, he speaks little-to-no English, and yet...
My three experiences with Hakase have been absolutely without flaw. Mr. Yamamoto's infinite patience, his pride in his products, and his devotion to his customers, has shone through in every interaction, no matter how minor. Questions were answered almost instantaneously (via Google Translate but, miraculously, still comprehensible), often including comparative photos of great skill, as well as personal guidance and impressions of the options under consideration. The little questionnaire (filled out once and then kept on file for future reference) asked for certain writing specifics and preferences, as well as a writing sample, and was always mailed back anew upon receipt of an order with an exact to-scale picture of the expected pen. Ryo even allowed my second pen to jump the queue to ensure it arrived in time for my birthday...
Aftercare has also been sublime: a new nib was ground for me to match my pen (as each pen is constructed entirely by hand, it was necessary to send it back in its entirety to ensure a clean marriage between section and barrel); turnaround from Israel to Japan and back again was barely three weeks.
I have had less contact with Álvaro Romillo at Romillo, but so far the signs have been good. eMails were usually promptly serviced (with a few lapses), and answers have been friendly, open and comprehensive, though they lack the overwhelming thoroughness of Mr. Yamamoto at Hakase.
So where does this leave Nakaya? Not very high, unfortunately. I have had several experiences with Nakaya, both personally and through Classic Fountain Pens in California. Whereas Hakase exemplifies that friendlier nature of the Japanese national personality, Nakaya inhabits the realms of the introverted side. Even as a repeat customer, several exploratory communications with the company in Tokyo were politely rebuffed; a request for more details about the urushi craftsmen in Wajima (a town I was to visit as my latest pen was being produced) was ignored. It is no coincidence, therefore, that upon undertaking a custom design, I chose CFP to act as middle-man.
Romillo size 9, Nakaya ruthenium plated F, Hakase F, Hakase F
Scope for Customisation:
I suppose this is the most important issue, for what is the definition of a 'custom' pen? Of the three, only Romillo is entirely made by hand, the other two relying on certain parts sourced from other manufacturers. Needless to say, this limits their creative scope somewhat.
On considering a Romillo, I asked Álvaro what existed within the realms of possibility. His answer: the daunting "anything". I am not sure this was meant literally (I doubt I could order a telescoping piston without footing the bill for the necessary R&D upfront), but in dimensions and furniture, it seems that anything goes. He was even open to custom end-buttons, clips and nib engravings too, although strangely not to any material bar ebonite. A celluloid model has just been added to Romillo's website, so perhaps that is about to change...
Nib, feed and filling aside, Hakase have been more than willing to alter their signature pens. Mix-and-match details from their plethora of designs, as well as a (new) choice of 14k golds or sterling silver, all to create your pen, then have Mr. Yamamoto tailor the dimensions and details to suit your taste. Materials are limited to those traditionally utilised by Hakase, but the canvas proves vast: celluloid, ebonite, various exotic woods, buffalo horn and even turtle-shell for those more adventurous, and possessed of deep pockets.
With Nakaya, alterations are limited to the surface: the garnish rather than the meat. One must first choose a basic design from those already offered by Nakaya (or, as in my case, allow them to suggest one), and then work from there. Even then, there are seemingly arbitrary limitations: a request to include western text on the pen was quietly refused, as was a second nib and section. Pedantic and pointless, especially when undertaking such a project at such an expense.
You can find my thoughts elsewhere, but it goes without saying that one orders a custom pen for something more than brand image. More, even, than objective attributes. A handmade pen should sing in an ineffable manner alien to an object spat out by machine. It should not necessarily be without flaw, but those flaws must be evidence of the divine fallibility of man rather than lax quality control or the inadequacy of design.
It is here that the Nakaya absolutely fails. It is a beautiful pen, a fantastic pen even and, imbued with so much personal resonance, I love it dearly. But it is a (relatively) mass-produced product with very beautiful embellishments. I do not pick it up and feel it was made for me, that it embodies some indelible connection between the craftsman and I. I do with the other two. Even the nib: yes, it is a good nib. Great even. But it is the work of John Mottishaw and is comparable to any of the other Nakayas or Platinums that I own, all on off-the-shelf pens and no poorer for it.
The Romillo is the complete antithesis. It would not exist were it not for me, and everything about it screams 'anachronism' in the manner of an heirloom film camera or a car with a manual transmission. It is the very definition of what a custom pen should be - not a single part outsourced or produced by robot, and that nib is quite simply a marvel of character and grace. How a cottage manufacturer on Europe's periphery can do what the big boys cannot is beyond me, and for many that nib and that nib alone will pronounce the Nervión the absolute and uncontested winner here. I would not argue with that conclusion...
But it is not mine. In my humble eyes, Hakase is the master of the custom pen. Everything, from the communication to the ordering to the blissful agony of the wait is exactly what I want the experience to be. The choice of materials and styles is comprehensive, and the skill exhibited in the manufacture (the threads are cut by hand!) is peerless. Yes, for some Hakases will forever be hobbled by the Pilot nib, feed and filler, yet the proof is in the writing and Ryo Yamamoto has still succeeded in translating my desires into nib form (three times on three separate pens) better than any nibmeister, let alone manufacturer. Yes, other Pilots in my collection may share the 'same' size 15 nib, but none dream to compare upon the page.
I am happy to own all three and would consider none a mistake. But were I to only have one, there would be absolutely no doubt: Mr Yamamoto and Hakase would be the one to receive my only order.
Edited by mongrelnomad, 15 September 2014 - 05:38.