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Vintage Conway Stewart pens

Conway Stewart no. 77 pen in red herringbone, with matching no. 34 pencil (c1958-1963)

In my pen-collecting habits, I am more of what is called an "accumulator," grabbing anything that strikes my fancy and fits my finances at the time, happily unencumbered by any hobgoblins of consistency. I do make an effort, however, to seek out nice Conway Stewarts wherever I go, and have begun to build a nice collection of them. They have simply exquisite plastics, and they are famous for the high quality and writing ability of their gold points; however, what attracts me most may be the company's eccentricity.

Vintage advertisement (c 1940) for Conway Stewart pens and pencils
(from http://www.prog2kill.com/ConwayStewart/)

The venerable Conway Stewart pen company of London was founded in 1905 by two gentlemen named — what else? — Garner and Jarvis. According to legend, Conway and Stewart were a team of music-hall entertainers of Edwardian times, and Garner and Jarvis apparently adopted the pseudonyms for their travels around the sceptred isle (this was not the only connection between English vaudeville and the fountain-pen industry). For many decades, Conway Stewart made a variety of functional and attractive pens and pencils, focusing mainly on the middle of the market. They were not the most prestigious of English penmakers (that honor probably goes to Onoto De La Rue, the pen of English kings) but they did very well in their chosen sector, and also made pens for other makers (including Relief-Esterbrook) and other markets (most famously, the LeTigre pens offered in the Benelux countries on the continent).

The collectible Conway Stewarts are those made up through the mid 1960s, when the company finally abandoned its long-time association with colorful plastic patterns and staked their fortune on cheap, quasi-disposable pens; unfortunately, they couldn't compete with the experts in this field (like Biro and BIC) and finally went under in the mid-1970s. This isn't the end of the Conway Stewart brand, however, as you can read elsewhere on this site.

Meanwhile, let's stay midcentury and look at the classic Conway Stewarts you are most likely to find in your searches. Since C-S model numbers are pretty confusing, we'll take a "morphological" approach instead:

A grouping of earlier (late 1930s to mid 1950s) Conway Stewarts, with pointed hard rubber derbies and washer clips: no. 388 in rose marble (top), no. 475 bandless in black (middle), no. 388 in black (bottom)

Styles

Although the lines were more diverse both in the early decades and in the waning years of the firm, midcentury Conway Stewarts generally came in two distinct styles:

Colors

Did I say colors? Yes, indeed — you can find Conway Stewarts in basic black, but they are in fact somewhat rare compared to the profusion of brightly colored plastics for which the company is famous. In addition to basic marbled shades, some of these colors and patterns have acquired "standard" nicknames which you'll frequently see in online advertisements:

We shouldn't neglect to mention the famous no. 22 of the mid-1950s, with its hand-painted floral design over white casein, and a greek-key cutout cap band; these were easily the most ornate of vintage Conway Stewarts. I've also seen a particularly vivid Le Tigre (made by Conway Stewart for the Belgium-Netherlands-Luxembourg market) with a translucent barrel decorated in colors that would've put Peter Max to shame. Every time you think you've seen everything the brand had to offer, up pops some other more outlandish example.

Conway Stewart 58s (top to bottom): Cracked Ice, blue marble,
solid black, blue herringbone, and gray cross hatch. These pens were made betwen 1949 and 1963, and typically sold for 30 shilings in the home market.

Trim and markings

All postwar Conways had the same basic clip shape, although in variable lengths (sometimes within the same model). The levers are usually of stamped brass, and (like the clips) are a weak spot in nearly all models; be careful not to damage them, as they are rather difficult to replace (thanks to the many variations in design used by the company).

Some of the very cheapest models had no cap bands, or else used very narrow ones; midrange models (like the 27) might have a single wide band, while Duro models (like the 58) frequently got the narrow-wide-narrow three-band motif that Conway began using in the 1930s long before Montblanc decided that it was one of their own trademarks.

Three no. 27s, top to bottom: Blue cross hatch, red cross hatch, and gray cross hatch. The 27, made between from 1949 and 1963 was similar in size to the 58, but less expensively trimmed and equipped.

Model designations

Although Conway Stewart used model names for many of its pens ("Dinkie", "Duro," "Dandy", etc.), by the 1930s it was moving toward a numerical system for all of its models (the number is usually stamped near the main imprint on the side of the barrel). You might think that this would make for a more orderly catalog and a better definition of which models were better than which, but you'd be wrong. The Conway numbering system is completely and happily unencumbered by any sort of logic or consistency.

Nevertheless, some models do stand out from the sea of digits, and most of these are from the postwar years:

The no. 58 is the classic postwar Conway Stewart, with the "Duro" appellation that the company applied to its top-line pens (this appears on the point, as seen at left). In contrast to earlier models (like the no. 388 seen above), the no. 58 looked very much like contemporary UK Parker pens.

The no. 77 was a later and even more Parker-like shape, again a Duro model.

The no. 27 is the same size as the 58, but less expensively trimmed and not a Duro.

The no. 85 is a short non-Duro pen from the 1950s; the no. 85L is a longer, slender version of same (natch) but with a bit fancier trim.

The no. 100 is Conway's top-line pen from the 1950s; oddly, it came only in black, but is much girthier than the typical Conway Stewart, and has very nice Duro trim.

The Dinkie models continued into the 1950s; these are very small pens (too small for me to use). Most early Dinkies were designated no. 540.

Conway began using solid-color cast plastics in the 1960s, and at the same time went in for gimmicks like semi-hooded points and aerometric fillers. These pens turn up fairly often, but are not as collectible as the classics (although Conway Stewart completists will want to have them). During this period, Conway Stewart also produced the Fybriter, the UK's first fiber-point ("felt-tip") pen.

The no. 85L ("long") was made from 1957 to 1963. Top to bottom: blue marble with gold veins, green marble, blue marble, and solid black.

Glitches

Conway Stewarts are generally in pretty good shape when you find them, but there are some things to look out for.

Levers on some of the pens are often rather weak and can get sprung or bent; worse, Conway Stewart seems never to have made the same lever twice, so replacements can be difficult if not impossible to find. If yours has a failed lever, you can remove the lever and use the pen as a "coin filler" (using a dime or some other small thin object inserted directly into the lever slot). This might not be something you'd want to do, however, with a rare or especially well-maintained pen. It might be possible to reinforce a sprung lever, but this would be a job for a specialist.

Conway Stewart no. 85 in pink marble with gold veins, made 1956-1957.

The trim on the less expensive models seems to have gotten a microscopically thin gold plating, which is nearly always badly worn or "brassed." You can keep these parts looking bright with polish (to remove the brass oxidation), but in doing so you will inevitably wear away more gold. It's questionable whether these pens would be worth the cost of removing and replating the trim. The 58s and other "Duro" models seem to have much heavier plating (or gold fill) that holds up well.

Conway Stewart is known for having made barrels and caps from casein, a plastic derived from cow's milk. Casein absorbs water and can lose its shape, so soaking such a pen can destroy it. Altough I believe that most of pens shown on this page were made from celluloid, I have no way to know for sure. Unless you can verify that you don't have a casein Conway Stewart, it's best not to soak it.

I have noticed a tendency for some Conway Stewart points (generally non-Duros) to develop small stress cracks that go outward from the breather hole at an angle; the breather hole is supposed to prevent such cracking, but it seems to happen anyway. These cracks can affect the feel of the pen, and in extreme cases could spread and split the point. If it were me, I'd not want to use such pens very heavily lest the crack be opened further. I imagine that these cracks can be repaired by a specialist, or else replaced by a point from a parts pen (the latter probably being far less expensive).

Old and new: vintage model 58 Cracked Ice (bottom) pictured with the newly reissued model 58 in Heather. The difference is most obvious in the point and section of the two pens.

The Verdict

Original Conway Stewart pens are almost all highly collectible. They came in an amazing array of colors and patterns, and they are very sweet writers with responsive gold points. Prices are somewhat variable and not as high in the US as, say, the rarer Parkers and Watermans, but they are moving in that direction (particularly for the rarer patterns such as Cracked Ice or Tiger Eye).

Online dealer sites and auctions are a popular means for US collectors to get their hands on Conway Stewarts, as they were not widely sold in the US during their heyday. You'll also find plenty at the typical pen show.

Maker Conway Stewart
Origin UK (England)
Production 1905 - c1971
Type Lever fillers (mostly)
Point 14k gold
Construction Plastic (celluloid or casein) barrels and caps.