The Year in Review

Given the time of year, I thought it was a bit pointless to try and push out another long analysis of the pen market. Instead, I’ll jump on the navel-gazing bandwagon and reflect on what were the big developments in 2015, why they mattered, and what might grab our attention in the coming year. 

Pens

The greatest impact in the FP market this year was undoubtedly from Twsbi. I’ve already gone on about them — ad nauseam — but still believe they are doing more to reshape the market than any other brand. The Eco was much-hyped and a hugely popular release; as I predicted, they’ve put a lot of effort into resolving their quality control problems and the pens are now featuring in a lot of recommendations for beginner pens. The recent release of the Vac Mini shows they aren’t resting on their laurels, either. I suspect they have more in the pipeline but we probably won’t be seeing any new models for quite a while. 

Although he hasn’t generated the attention that he deserves, Shawn Newton gets big props this year for making the jump to full-time penmaker (congratulations, Shawn!) but also for his new Shinobi demonstrator design. It’s the kind of clean, modern design that I suspect the bigger brands would have loved to produce. This kind of work shows the kind of potential that Newton has, and I hope to see more of it in 2016. Props also go to Pilot for the design of their 2015 LE Vanishing Point. The Twilight was an absolute sensation and seemed to be exactly what a lot of VP enthusiasts were after. 

On the other side of the ledger (and perhaps more controversially) I think the most overrated releases of 2015 were the Montblanc M, Pelikan M805 Stresemann, and Noodlers Neponset. Both these pens came out and generated a lot of excitement, but neither really seems to have lived up to expectations. Once the M was in the hands of users, it seemed to disappoint: the pen was small, it could only take the absolute smallest of aftermarket converters, and the nib didn’t seem terribly impressive. 

The Stresemann did better than this: it sold quite a few units, but many of them quickly reappeared in the secondary market. I’m at a bit of a loss to explain why this is: perhaps a lot of people were enticed by the photography but found the design a bit underwhelming in the hand? I must admit, I’m not really sure what to make of Pelikan right now. They’re busy coming up with a bunch of releases — M805 Stresemann, demonstrator, burnt orange, the upcoming Vibrant Blue; plus the M600 pink, the M200s, and Classics — but it also seems like the quality control on their nibs is slipping. Maybe they’re trying to boost sales too quickly, and things are slipping through the cracks?

I won’t go into much detail about the Neponset, as we’ve been through it all before. But there’s a pen which was launched with all the attention and excitement that our community can give — and were met with reviews that ranged from disappointment to frustration to outright anger. While the pens are still available, I don’t know if anyone is still buying. 

Inks

J Herbin’s Emerald of Chivor might just be the most popular ink release. Not just of 2015, but ever. There seemed to be genuine pandemonium as folks saw the preview images online and tried to source bottles; they were, for the most part, pretty satisfied with what they got. After Diamine’s release of the Shimmertastic inks, I suspect that the glitter ink market is saturated and we won’t be seeing anywhere near as much excitement for future products. 

We also saw the rise and fall of Bungbox inks. Out of nowhere, these inks became hugely popular and totally overwhelmed the small Japanese retailer. They shut down their international sales, then reopened them with a more expensive and lower quality product. Not surprisingly, a lot of buyers lost interest at that point. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with them in 2016, whether they will try to recapture the community’s interest or not. 

It also seems like Montblanc really stepped up their LE ink operations: this year alone, they put out JFK Navy Blue, Permanent Grey, Poppy Red, Tolstoy Blue, Twilight Blue (Blue Hour), Pink, and Golden Yellow arrived just last week. Interestingly, most of these seem to have been quite popular with the online community — even those who are somewhat hostile towards the brand. I wonder if they’ve recognised inks as a way to reach the broader FP community, and whether we’ll see them keep up the same pace next year. 

Community

I was very pleased to see the launch of two regional Facebook groups in the last few months: Fountain Pens Australia (co-founded with Yagan Kiely) and Fountain Pens UK (founded by Ian Hadley). For those of us outside the US, these communities give enthusiasts a chance to meet and engage with each other, and feel a bit more included than we otherwise might. It’s been a wonderful experience for me, and I’d be happy to help anyone looking to set up their own local group. (Just get in touch).

Goulet Pens have built their whole business around engaging with the community through social media, and it’s been interesting to see them embrace Periscope. Personally, I find the way they use Periscope to be unusually intimate — chatting while they are relaxing at home, late at night, it’s something you would only otherwise experience with close friends.

This year, we saw other retailers start to use social media far more effectively in competing with the Goulets. Brian Anderson of Anderson Pens made the jump to full-time pen merchant (congratulations, Brian!) and has been experimenting with Periscope and Youtube, while Lisa Vanness of Vanness Pens has made a serious effort with Instagram and Twitter. But my personal favourite is Liz Chan of Wonder Pens, who has really mastered the art of blogging about life as a pen merchant. (My partner particularly loves the pictures of Liz’s son, Caleb, and has called him the cutest baby in the world.)

While I’m on the topic of social media, I want to give a shout-out to Bana Sikca Yaz, author of the wonderful Write to Me Often blog. This is one of my favourite blogs and we haven’t seen an update since September (though the author is still active on Instagram). I’m hoping this is just life getting in the way of blogging, and we’ll see her back in action in the new year. 

2016

I’ve been thinking long and hard about what is getting me excited about the new year, and I have to be honest and say that there aren’t any products on the horizon which have me feeling much anticipation. I’ve heard Visconti have a few new models in the mix, but their 2015 releases have generally underwhelmed me. Pelikan have a new M800 on the way, as well as their Aquamarine ink, Montblanc will have their usual LE pen/ink releases, and Lamy has the 50th anniversary of the iconic 2000. Maybe I’ll get more excited as the brands leak some information about what is coming our way. 

We’ll also find out what’s happening with the two troubled Italian brands, Delta and Omas. News about Omas should come through early in the year (and we’re all hoping that the current owner doesn’t choose to shut them down — although Brian Anderson just posted that they’ve a new US service agent, which we might interpret as a positive sign) while it might take some time to see what’s up with Delta. 

Putting aside the brands, I’m more excited about what’s happening in the community than anything else. Brad Dowdy’s decision to become a full-time stationery nerd should free him up to pursue some new ventures, and I can’t wait to find out what’s up his sleeve. A few stalwarts of the community have gone full-time this year but nobody springs to mind as an obvious candidate to make the jump in 2016. 

I’m also really excited that I’ll be able to participate in my first pen meets in the new year. If you haven’t heard, I’m spending the Australian summer in Manila and the Philippines has a wonderful pen community who have been super welcoming so far (particularly Jose Dalisay, one of the Philippines’ most celebrated authors). After that, I’m hoping to participate in a Sydney meet-up in March before returning to Manila for Easter and another meet in April.

But to wrap up this post and this year, I hope you all have a very happy Christmas! I’ll be back in early January and am eager to see what the new year brings.