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Modern Chinese pens

Hero 166 (lacquered brass, 12k point, aerometric filler), c 2002

Whenever you hear an expert rattle off his or her list of the major pen-making nations of the planet, you seldom find China on that list. Why should this be so? After all, in the near-total lack of foreign competition, China must have made skeenteen gazillion pens just to satisfy its huge home market. Where are they?

Blame it on geographic or linguistic isolation, or maybe on a doctrinaire Marxist-Maoist government that until the last twenty years or so all but prohibited business development, luxury goods, and foreign trade as trappings of evil Capitalist Imperialism. Or, you could attribute it to the rather crude and pedestrian finish of the earlier products, or their (ahem) derivative designs (most were copies or pastiches of contemporary Sheaffers and Parkers).

Things are different now, and a new generation of Chinese penmakers (many based in China's 'business capital' Shanghai) are working hard to get their products into your hands. Helping them in this effort are novel designs, vastly improved quality and finish, and above all (or below all) rock-bottom prices. If you like to collect interesting modern pens, you may still have an opportunity here to own some very rare and distinctive pieces without cashing in the 401K.

Even if you're not particularly interested in Chinese pens now, you may soon be. In addition to the "native" brands mentioned here (and several more from Taiwan), the Chinese are already making pens for European and American manufacturers, and the quality of work combined with the low production costs suggest that this "outsourcing" will become more widespread in the future.

The go-to guy for Chinese pens is Norman Haase of http://www.hisnibs.com/, who uses his Asian business connections to bring back lots of product from Hero, Genius, Duke, and other companies that aren't as yet very widely distributed. Norman also appears at many pen shows, where you'll have a chance to see and try these pens for yourself.

A couple of notes on Chinese pens:

Some of the pens on this page are home market models, bought for me (really, given as gifts) by a friend who was traveling in China. She claims to have gotten an 80% discount over what were probably already very low prices, so I'm going to have to recruit her as a consultant the next time I go shopping. I've not seen these specific models offered Stateside, but they are fairly representative of what you can find in the USA.


Hero pens

Dating back to 1931 (when it was established as the Huafu Pen Factory), Shanghai Hero Industry Company is the principal fine-pen maker in China today, and is the operation behind some of the more well-known Chinese pen brands like Doctor, Wing Sung, and (of course) Hero. Like any good Asian "horizontal" company, they also make lots of other products, from stationery and office supplies to gas cookers, windows for houses, and baby grand pianos (under the 'Strauss' brand). Getting back to pens, however, you can still find many fine Hero pens for under $50 at http://www.hisnibs.com/, including the popular, um, "homages" to the Parker 51; these offer a very high performance-to-price ratio and are often close enough to the originals to fool the inexperienced. Others at the low end of the range look ready-made for promotional imprints, and also make great inexpensive gifts for newbie fountain-pen users. Hero also offers more upmarket pens in lacquered or plated brass or in finer plastics, some with solid gold points.

Hero model 50 red lacquer fountain pen

Hero 50 pen

I picked this pen out of a 'bargain bucket' at a recent pen show for all of three bucks, along with a couple of other interesting cheapies; once I put an international-style piston converter in it, I found that it wrote like gangbusters, so it was easily the best return on the money that I made during that show.

This pen, I've since been informed, is from the Hero Model 50 range of sturdy entry-level metal-barreled fountain pens. It is roughly is similar in size and shape to a Parker 75, although perhaps a bit more straightsided. It has a conventional looking plated steel point rather than the solid gold "hawkbilll" found on 75s (and on the pen below this). Only the discreet Hero flower trademark on the clip and the point identify this pen; there's no other nomenclature. The finish is a very eye-catching candy apple red lacquer with plenty of tiny gold flecks. The lacquer isn't as smooth as it might be, but then if it were it would cost a lot more than it probably did when new (and certainly more than what I paid for it!). Norman Haase sells this pen and gave it the apt moniker "Ruby Ice."

Hero 166 "music pen"

Hero 166 with inner and outer boxes and factory seal.

The dazzling gold-foiled inner and outer boxes threaten to overwhelm the product, but once you get the pen out of the wrapping it offers not a little dazzle of its own. This looks to be the Hero 166, which came to me direct from China.

Hero 166

The barrel, cap, and section of this all-brass pen are predominately finished in silvery-white, with a soft and subtle pearlescence. The subdued gold-tone belly band carries the nomenclature "HERO," "166," and "12K," flanked by musical clefs (including, for some reason, the less-often-seen tenor clef). I'm not sure what these musical motifs signify (other than mere decoration, perhaps), since the point is not the sort of super-broad chisel type sold on many music notation pens.

The clip is very substantial, and carries mostly the same satiny gold tone, but with a glossy accent strip in the center. The cap is surmounted by a derby that is tastefully decorated with curlicues and the Hero trademark. The point is solid 12k gold, in a shape like that of the Parker 75 (and it crimps onto the feed in a manner similar to the Parker pen), but with fancier two-tone decoration bearing the Hero flower trademark and "12K/2000" (maybe 2000 was the year of manufacture?). The point writes somewhere between fine and medium and has impressive flex for a Chinese pen; it does not "adjust" as did the old 75, but if you unscrew the feed you can pull out a very formidable looking collector assembly in what looks to be hard rubber.

Remove the barrel and you find a long, fixed aerometric filler unit with a clear plastic sac (no cartridges for this baby).


Duke Pens

Shanghai G-Crown Fountain Pen Company, or Duke Pen (or, to use their mouthful of a full name, German Duke Lux Pen GmbH), looks to be some sort of Chinese-German partnership, with advanced manufacturing technology and design help coming from the European side of the house (read on to see my guess as to which particular Germans are involved here). Their pens are distinctive in design and high in quality, and the line includes both low priced pens (offered under the Uranus brand) and exotic art pens as well as middle-priced pens (some with solid gold points). Duke uses some plastic in some of its pens, but its forte is metalwork, including milling and enamel. The company's website reveals a vast array of designs almost completely unseen this side of the Pacific, and they have also made bespoke (custom) pens for important government and diplomatic events. Their line of gift boxes alone is more diverse than most companies' entire lines of pens.

Duke HBF "Ruby"

This particular pen, unless I miss my guess, would be the HBF or "Ruby" model (that's what the belly band says, and there's a little red jewel (which, according to Duke, is an authentic ruby) at the top of the derby). It's made from brass with a very smooth and deep glossy black lacquer finish. The cap is fancifully decorated to resemble an old fashioned filigree; it seems to have been done by careful relief carving or milling, and no machine marks are visible.

Under the cap (which posts at either end with a satisfyingly precise feel, no rattles or sharp clicks) is a black plastic section with what looks like a barleycorn chasing for good grip; just forward of this is an unusually-contoured point marked "22KGP," presumably for 22k gold plating; I'll have to take their word on this, since the color is very pale (although with much more luster than simple steel). The point is polished to a smooth high hard gloss, not always found in Chinese pens, and has a delicately-etched Duke crown trademark and a fan or sunburst motif. The nibs are visibly large, and the pen writes rigidly and smoothly, just a bit finer than a medium.

Further examination of the Ruby's point yielded a clue as to the identity of Duke's German partner; this point looks identical in it shape and fittings to the points found on the final models of Elysée pens distributed by the German firm Staedtler during the latter 1990s (Staedtler is much better known for their technical drawing instruments and supplies, and would certainly have the money and the technology to back Duke's operations). These Elysée pens, like the Duke products today, were highly regarded for the quality of their lacquer and metalwork. Since one of the final Elysée models was a Chinese-style dragon pen, it may well be that Chinese production began even before the Duke name was coined.

The pen was shipped with a standard piston converter, and looks as though it will take International cartridges. Duke, like Hero, seems to understand the sales appeal of a fancy box: the Ruby came packed in a handsome and sturdy light gray soft "pleather" gift box with no paperwork, apart from a little paper seal glued on the satin lining, and an unusual hologram sticker on the outside bearing some Chinese writing and a photo of a person's face (evidently an anti-counterfeiting measure of some sort -- go figure!).

This pen is a solid and reliable writer; although made from metal, it is not heavy or overbalanced. The lacquer finish seems to be quite hard and durable, and so should survive the test of time. Plus, not many pens in this price range can boast of a cap 'jewel' that's an actual jewel!

Duke Columbus

Duke Columbus, 14k point, lacquered metal barrel (c 2004)

One of the more unusual pens in Duke's diverse lineup is this model, known as the Columbus. Like the recent Stipula Iris and the Namiki/Pilot Vanishing Point, the Columbus is what you might call a "clip-forward" pen, with the clip mounted just behind the point so that it sits right under where most people's index fingers would go when writing. This design configuration is used so seldom as to suggest that it isn't a favorite with the buying public, so Duke may be taking a bit of a risk here. Still, the pen's unique style and solid construction should appeal to many despite the unusual clip placement.

Duke did not go off the deep end with the decoration (as they are sometimes wont to do), and instead let the pen's unusual simple shape and beautiful metal-and-lacquer work speak for itself. The barrel is made of copper, engraved with long chevrons of a contrasting raised-pebble texture, and well coated with a rich blue lacquer that picks up the color of the copper for a slight purplish tinge. The short flared cap and the tail section (which is the filler knob) are done in nickel plate; when removed, the screw cap can be screwed onto the back of the pen for secure, rattle-free writing. The Columbus is not a large pen by any measure, about the size of a Parker 51, so despite the all-metal construction the pen is not excessively heavy for continued use (and may appeal to those who prefer a bit of heft in their pens).

The Columbus has a smallish but well-made 14k gold point with what I would call a fine-to-medium nib. The point is highly polished and carefully engraved with the Duke trademark, the 14k hallmark, and a fanciful "rainbow" design. Duke didn't plate the point (as some makers might have been tempted to do), so the yellow color makes a nice contrast with the nickel plate on the surrounding trim parts. The feed is a plain design in good old-fashioned hard rubber.

The Columbus is a piston filler; it's piston has a very smooth action, with none of the "drag" one associates with German-style pistons; at a guess, I'd say that the inside of the metal barrel is slicker than the plastics normally used in piston-fillers (one of these days I may take the pen apart to find out how they did it). Also, unlike Montblancs and Pelikans (et. al.), the Columbus' filler knob does not move away from the pen as you turn it; this combined with the lack of an ink view feature makes it hard sometimes to tell whether you're filling or emptying (but this would be a problem only the first time you use it, and a rather minor problem at that).

The Columbus comes in a princely gift box with an unusual blue crackled texture; inside this box (which is nearly large enough for its own zip code) is a nice presentation tray, under which is a secret compartment (I love those!) hiding a leather pen pouch embossed with the Duke logo.

As I noted, the strange placement of clip and cap threads means that the Columbus probably isn't for everyone. You may find the clip rather uncomfortable since it sits right where your index finger would go; you have the choice of simply resting your finger on the clip, or moving it off to one side of the clip. If you're more daring, you can do as I did and gently grasp the point with fingers and a soft cloth, and then rotate the point through 180 degrees to get the clip completely out of the way (this did not appear to loosen the point, and the pen has not leaked nor misbehaved since this adjustment). In any case, you should have little trouble adapting, since the Columbus writes so smoothly that you don't have to wrestle with it very much. I found that the Columbus works best with a fairly fast ink, like most blues or blacks.

Uranus (Duke) 311 'Blue Confetti'


Uranus 311, current production

Another Duke Pen product, this one purchased from Norman Haase at the 2004 Philadelphia show. The Uranus 311, or 'Blue Confetti' as Norman aptly calls it, is one of the smallest fountain pens you can find these days; it's so small that it can't even swallow a cartridge, and so has a fixed aerometric filler under the removable barrel. It's the perfect size for slipping into a checkbook or organizer, and the lacquer finish (silver and silver-blue speckles over black) is not particularly smooth (probably by design, since it has a palpable texture), but looks like it will hold up pretty well under such treatment.

The 311 is no cheap plastic gimcrack; it appears to be as close to 100% metal as you can get (only the feed and filler parts appear not to be metallic). The solid, rigid construction keeps the tiny pen from feeling lost in your hand, and makes you want to do some serious scribbling. The satin-textured steel point has simple chasing and clever deep cutouts on either side, which don't prevent it from having a nail-rigid, fine-lined stroke, good for writing on multipart forms. The aerometric filler is not high-tech, but it is dead-out reliable and very easy to use and keep clean.

Norman sells this pen at an insanely low price, making it an excellent choice for a gift for prospective fountain pen users, or a good small knockabout pen.


Chinese calligraphy brush set

Traditional Chinese brush set in wooden chest, c 2004

OK, these aren't fountain pens. Heck, they aren't even pens at all, they're brushes. Nevertheless this beautiful set contains examples of the traditional tools used in China (and elsewhere in eastern Asia) for many centuries in the subtle combination of writing and abstract painting that is known as Chinese calligraphy (or, for the Japanese, Sumi-e). This is a complete kit, in fact, lacking only paper and a bit of water. I received this set as a gift from a dear Chinese friend.

The two brushes are traditional in design, with decorative cloisonné-like shafts and brightly-colored string loops at the end (for hanging them on a rack to dry). One has what I was told are wolf-hair bristles (which are stiffer and good for linear strokes), and the other apparently has goat-hair bristles (softer, for shading effects). As delivered, the brushes are stiffened with starch, which one removes (through soaking in lukewarm water) before use. In use, the brushes are gripped gently in the fingertips (so they can be manipulated easily just by moving the fingers slightly) and held perpendicular to the paper; you don't put your arm or hand on the paper, and the paper has often come off a roll, so you usually need paperweights of some sort to keep the paper in place as you paint.

A traditional embossed and decorated Chinese ink stick is included; you grind this stick into the slate pestle or ink-stone (maintaining a good Zen-like meditative frame of mind) then add water to get a permanent black ink. Two blank onyx-like lion-headed dies or "chops" are included; you can have your name or some other message carved into the face of the chop, and then use it with the red paste ink to sign your work. The set is rounded out with a decorative porcelain water-dish and brush rest, and the whole assemblage is nicely packaged in a beautifully lacquered and decorated wooden chest lined with a velour-like material in a bright, lucky Chinese red.

Wolf-hair (top) and goat-hair (bottom) brushes, with black ink-stick.

Calligraphy sets like this one are popular as gifts (as well as among collectors), and this set is probably what you might call "mid-range;" less expensive sets might be boxed in brocade-covered cardboard, while more expensive ones might have more brushes and inks. You can find these sets for sale on the online auctions, or from curio or art-supply dealers online.


Beijing Huhero/Chaifa Playboy pen

Chaifa Playboy Pen (by Beijing Huhero)

Back in the dear, departed days of dear, departed Mao Zedong, Playboy merchandise would have been just about the last thing you'd have expected to find in a Beijing emporium. Of course, on the other hand, I do hear that the Chairman was a bit of a Ladies' Man, and his notorious fourth and last wife Chiang Ch'ing, before ending her career as one quarter of the hard-line post-Mao Gang of Four, began it in pre-Communist Shanghai as a film actress.

Be that as it may, we're way beyond the days of Marxist puritannicalism; what we have here is a licensed Playboy product, manufactured by the Beijing Huhero company (of which I can find little information) and distributed by Chaifa, Playboy's Chinese merchandising licensee. It is packed in a clever box that folds up to look like a book, and comes with a bilingual (Chinese and English) instruction booklet and a small, nicely-engraved certificate with what looks like a serial number and the familiar bunny-head trademark. The instructions tell us, in charming "Chinglish," that "...PLAYBOY represents a most valuable living philosophy of dignity, being talent, noble-hearted and the leader of fashion" properties I hadn't heretofore associated with the brand (except maybe for the fashion part). The instructions also tell us "It is important to use only Playboy fountain pen ink," but my dealer is out of stock just right now. There are no retouched pics of naked women anywhere about. In researching this page, I searched the web for Playboy fountain pens, but could only find some rather chintzy-looking examples, nothing nearly as nice as this one.

It's obvious from the picture (particularly from the derby and clip and the stepped barrel end) that this pen would like very much to be a Pelikan 800. Such "imitation" is very common, and not only in China; in this case, it may be only a venal sin, since the makers do not try to pass it off as the genuine article. Besides, if you're going to copy, you may as well copy from the best, I say.

The pen is made from smooth black lacquered brass, and the barrel gets the "woven carbon-fiber" look (actually just enameled on) that has become so popular of late. Inside is a piston converter of standard design (stamped with the Playboy name and bunny head), and the pen looks like it would take international cartridges as well. The point is about as big as they were able to stuff into this pen; it's made from steel, with two-tone 22k plating featuring some scrollwork and a tasteful two-tone bunnyhead (there's another bunny in a little jewel atop the derby). I've dipped this pen, and it writes a medium line with rigidity and commendable smoothness.

Like all big brass pens, this one is fairly heavy and a bit overbalanced for me; it's actually much heavier than its slightly larger German lookalike (which itself contains quite a few brass parts for heft). Otherwise, it seems to be a quality piece, nicely made, with promise of good writing performance for any Chinese Playboys (or Playgirls) who decide to add it to their shirt pockets.