Finding Value

A discussion on reddit yesterday demonstrated that there’s some confusion about the idea of value, so today’s post is going to explore the concept in more depth, look at how value is derived, and what implications this has on manufacturers.

First, we’ll recap why value is important: it is value that helps us to decide if a purchase is worthwhile. When we look at a pen and its price tag, value is that invisible measurement in our mind that allows us to say something is a great deal or totally overpriced. It’s not a comparison to other pens and their prices but a single comparison of the price and what we’re getting for our money.

Value itself comes from the enjoyment and satisfaction that we take from owning or using a pen. Enjoyment and satisfaction are deeply subjective: your sense of enjoyment cannot be fully understood by anyone else, let alone critiqued or judged. It’s possible to have different opinions on even the most basic factors – whether gold is better than steel or a piston better than a converter – so it’s not possible to have any kind of objective measurements or opinions about a pen.

It’s also not possible to talk about actual vs perceived value, as all value is perceived: there is no innate, objective, actual value for us to measure. In more technical terms, value can be understood as how much you would be willing to pay for a pen, and there’s no objective way of saying a certain number is how much you should be willing to pay for a pen. It is also context-dependent: while you might value a Pilot Vanishing Point (VP) quite highly, an identical second one will not be as valuable, and a third even less valuable again. Alternatively, a Pelikan M600 might be something you value very highly – unless you already have an M800 and M400, and know that the M600 is not going to be particularly different. So even two users with identical tastes but different collections will find themselves valuing pens quite differently.

Our final factor is also hugely important and possibly contentious: your financial situation. We won’t go into too much detail on this now as it deserves a full post, but it’s important to note that your willingness to spend on a pen does depend on the alternative uses you have for that money. If you only have enough money for rent or a pen, the value of the pen would be much lower than someone who has equal desire for it but more financial resources. But we’ll discuss this further another time.

So now we’ve defined value, how do we derive it? In my experience, most pen folk fall roughly into two categories: enthusiasts and collectors.

Enthusiasts seek enjoyment from the performance and convenience of the pen, people who actually use their pens day in and day out, and sometimes like to take them apart to tinker or just see how they work: true users of the product.

Manufacturers therefore have a clear incentive to create high-quality products and compete for these buyers by offering a better product at a lower price. Twsbi is the best example of this – a manufacturer pushing down the price of good-quality piston fillers, and continuously innovating – but Pilot also stand out. Its no surprise the brands that are the most innovative or have the best quality at low prices are so wildly popular amongst enthusiasts.

On the other hand, collectors are less concerned with performance and derive satisfaction from scarcity or uniquity; this may come from a particular, rare pen, or from a collection that is itself unique. They are much less likely to actually use or tinker with the pen (as that would diminish its value – this seems to be more common with high-end collectors with a lot of value to use than the other end of the market). My favourite example of this is a reddit post with a collection of every modern demonstrator – staggeringly impressive.

For manufacturers, the incentive here is to create objects that are diverse and scarce but share a single theme or motif. Examples of this kind of thing are the special and limited editions that are released by some of the top-end brands: Montblanc’s LE pens (eg the Patrons of Art or Great Writers series) are probably the best-known examples of collectables, but you could arguably place Nakaya’s urushi creations and Pelikan’s maki-e pens into the same categories. Although quality still matters enormously, form becomes more important than function.

So value is the subjective measurement of how much we’d be willing to pay to own a product, and value can come from either the pen’s performance and usefulness or from its design and scarcity. Hopefully this has made the concept more accessible for you and, as always, I’d love to hear any feedback you have!