This is a pen review, but it's also, I hope, a good story.
It starts a couple of months ago, when I was idly poking around in some of the FPN forums that I don't often visit. This time I was loitering in the "Pen Photography" forum, and I happened to notice a post from Hari317, an FPN member in India, offering to assist one member with the purchase of an Indian ebonite pen.
Well, I had previously admired photographs of those pens, and I was, frankly, charmed by the marketing-free craftsmanship and tradition of these small Indian pen makers. I had even contacted one of those small companies, hoping to arrange the purchase of a pen, and was disappointed to learn that this company simply wasn't set up to handle sales to U.S. customers.
On a whim - fully expecting that dozens of others members would already have responded to the offer - I dashed off a quick PM. And I was surprised and delighted, a few hours later, to find out that fortune had smiled on me: I would have the opportunity to buy one of these handmade pens.
Within a day or so, I was browsing through a PDF version of the catalog of the Ratnam Ballpen Works, manufacturers of Ratnamson Pens and gold nibs - a catalog that included a reproduction of a letter from Gandhi himself praising the company's products. I found all of the ebonite models interesting, but I ultimately decided on the Supreme, the company's large flagship pen. The reasoning was simple: this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and I wanted to give myself the experience of using the very best pen the company had to offer.
While the decision was mine, it was arrived at in a series of conversations with Hari. At first, I considered a bandless, clipless pen. Hari spoke with Mr. Ramanamurthy at Ratnamson, who advised against that option. I agreed, finally specifying a clip model with a 14K cap band. What about color? The catalog showed the Supreme only in black, but Mr. Ramanamurthy kindly consented to make my pen in mottled green-and-black ebonite.
That was only the beginning of the process. What point style did I want? What width? Did I have a handwriting sample for the nib maker to match?
Consulting online nib width charts, I settled on a 0.65mm - 0.7mm point (the width of an Omas medium). And I took advantage of an unusual option offered by the company: my first name would be hand engraved on the nib, making it uniquely mine.
Does that sound like a mechanical ordering process? It was anything but. It was a series of lively discussions with a fellow pen enthusiast who obviously shared my deep regard for traditional pen artisanship. At no time did I think of this interaction as a mercantile transaction, the mere purchase of a writing instrument. I thought of it as an ongoing conversation with a friend.
And that ongoing conversation led, finally, to the arrival on my doorstep, several weeks ago, of a very special pen. I thank you for your patience with the preamble; here, finally, is the review of that pen.
I've bought all kinds of pens over the years, from unassuming school pens to over-the-top limited editions, and they've arrived in all kinds of packaging - from blister cards to wooden coffins that would have done justice to the mortal remains of a Gilded Age robber baron. But the Supreme is the one and only pen whose packaging gave the impression of having traveled, through some time warp, directly from the early years of the twentieth century.
Unlike some contrived, elaborate reproduction of vintage-era packaging, the Ratnamson packaging is simple, functional and utterly unpretentious: a dark blue velvet zippered case, with the pen secured inside by an elastic band.
Completing the "vintage" feel: a printed (and removable) sheet attached to the outside of the case, displaying the company name and address, as well as a few care-and-usage tips:
Use fresh water to clean the pen. Do not use hot water. Do not separate the nib from the pen.
These admonitions would not be out of place in a 1910 fountain pen instruction sheet; in fact, the inside cover of early Waterman boxes was sometimes printed with a similar caution: "Do not remove the gold pen [nib, in early twentieth-century nomenclature] from the holder."
Photo 1: The Ratnamson case, resting on a photocopy of the company's catalog
Photo 2: The case open
The elegantly guileless presentation conjured up the traditions of artisanship we associate with the days of handmade pens. In an era in which many "fine writing" companies aspire to be lifestyle brands, it is refreshing to encounter a company that is so triumphantly secure in its identity as a pen maker.
The appearance of the Supreme fully supports the packaging's evocation of true hand craftsmanship. This is a pen that could have been made in virtually any decade; only the gently rounded cap top and barrel end (as opposed to a flattop configuration) betray the fact that this is not some miraculously preserved 1910 relic.
The ebonite (ah, the smell of freshly-lathed hard rubber!) is glossy, and the green-and-black mottling is rich and beautiful. The gold-filled clip and the 14K cap band are the only accents, lending just enough brightness (Mr. Ramanamurthy was right!) to forestall monotony. The cap sports two proper, functional vent holes.
Continuing the vintage theme: a paper band around the cap, hand-lettered with the model name (visible in the photos). If you've ever seen or owned a NOS early ebonite pen, you will surely have seen similar bands, often printed with model name (or number) and price. (The band has since been removed; I've got enough HR pens with dark bands where the price used to be!)
Photo 3: The Supreme, capped...
Photo 4: ...and uncapped
The pen comes by its name honestly. This is a very large pen in every respect: 5 3/4" capped, 7" posted, ~3/4" maximum barrel width. By way of comparison, I've photographed the Supreme alongside some of the larger members of its new family: from top to bottom, a Pelikan 1000, a Mont Blanc 149, and a Dani Trio Densho. In the hand, the Supreme is instantly warm and friendly. It has the inimitable lightness and "living" feel of ebonite.
Photo 5: A group shot
One design detail that is particularly welcome: the wide gripping section. While the photo of the Supreme in the Ratnamson catalog shows a section that flares outward at the very end to meet the nib (in the manner of later Sheaffer O/S Balances), but my pen sports a section with a pronounced, thick "step" at the nib end (in the manner of Sheaffer O/S Flattops or early O/S Balances). If anything, the circumference of the Supreme's section is greater than that of those vintage pens, and the result - in combination with the agreeably thick barrel and the pen's overall light weight - is remarkably comfortable. Ergonomic success can be achieved through many different designs; sometimes the simplest are among the very best.
Unscrewing the Supreme's cap - which takes a fair number of turns - is a vivid tactile reminder that this is a brand-new pen, fresh from the craftsman's bench: the threads, at first, were rather tight. In just a few weeks, they have begun to work themselves in, and are much smoother in operation. I'm confident that this breaking-in process will continue.
The Supreme's nib is arguably the most interesting feature of an already interesting pen.
First, the shape. As I hope the attached photos show, the nib has a definite "vintage" shape. To my eye, its broad shoulders and short tines are reminiscent of the great Sheaffer and Parker nibs of the 1920s. (The nib is also every bit as thick and sturdy as a vintage Sheaffer Lifetime - a true rarity among modern pens.)
Second, the engraving. This is unmistakably a handmade nib. If your personal preference favors the intricate perfection of a Visconti or a Mont Blanc nib (and I also find those nibs stunning!), then I can imagine that you might be disappointed here. This is very clearly a piece of metal that has been worked by real tools held by real hands. Bearing, as it does, the engraving of my own name, this nib would be very special to me under any circumstances. But having acknowledged that fact, I can honestly say that I find the evidence of honest hand work utterly captivating for other reasons. When I look at the nib, I feel a direct connection to the craftsman who made it.
Photo 6: A close-up of the Supreme's nib (and my name)
Third - of course - writing performance. I haven't measured, but my eye tells me that I got the precise width I requested; the nib puts down a true medium line, suiting it to a broad range of writing applications. Tipping is ample and symmetrical, without any hint of the syndrome I have come to think of as "BBB": Bock Baby Bottom. As one would expect, given the nib's shape and thickness, there is no flex. The nib transmits a bit of pleasant feedback as it moves, in the fashion of a good Aurora nib, but there is no scratchiness. (I find Aurora nibs to be the most "vintage" feeling of modern nibs, and I would categorize the Supreme's nib similarly.) The feed is ebonite - my overwhelming preference.
A pen with such vintage character deserves a filling system to match. The Supreme is an eyedropper-filler, and it holds a seeming gallon of ink. After I flushed the pen, I filled it with Mont Blanc Racing Green - a good match, I think, for the black-and-green of the ebonite. Following the recommended practice for Dani Trio eyedroppers, I also allowed the feed to soak in the ink for a minute or two. The pen has been a faultless performer ever since, with no skipping or hesitation. This pen was designed and made to be a writer, and it does not disappoint. Weight, size, ink flow, nib...all combine to make the Supreme a comfortable, fatigue-free performer - as ready for a quick note as for a lengthy letter.
Cost and Value
I don't mean to sound coy or evasive, but I can honestly say that "cost" and "value" don't seem to apply here. That's true of all of my most special pens, both inexpensive and costly: from the Alpha Pen (my first Sheaffer school pen, still going strong) to the custom Nakaya desk pen that was a recent, and very special, milestone gift. Or to put it another way: for me, the value of this pen - using the word in every sense of the term - relegates considerations of cost to the realm of irrelevancy. Let's just say that the pen was very fairly priced, and let it go at that.
If this pen had no "backstory" - if it were merely a pen that I happened upon while trawling the Internet - it would still be a wonderful pen. For me, it evokes many of the things I value most highly among fountain pens: tradition, hand craftsmanship, integrity of materials, etc.
But there is a backstory. This marvelous pen, because of the way it came to me, also celebrates many of the things I value most highly in the fountain pen hobby: friendship, shared enthusiasm, community, so much more. It has assumed a very special place in my collection, and I will treasure it always.
Hari, I am so privileged to have the opportunity to own and use this pen - and so very happy to have the opportunity to thank you, here, for all your kindness.
Edited by Univer, 28 February 2008 - 11:12.