Over the next few posts, we will be going into more detail about competition between brands/retailers in the FP world and I thought it might be helpful to start off by looking at the landscape in which that competition takes place: a breakdown of the different classes of fountain pens. This post is going to explain the tiers, how they differ from each other, and some of the notable pens and brands.
The five tiers we’ll be exploring are:
- Entry-level pens
- Intermediate pens
- Advanced pens
- Premium pens
- Collectors’ pens
This framework doesn’t cover everything; as the focus is on new everyday writers, some groups of pens – flex pens, like Noodlers pens or the Pilot Falcon, or pocket pens – aren’t included. Those products really fall into categories of their own and aren’t totally comparable with everyday writers. Not everything neatly fits the framework either. Some function like they’re in one category but are priced like they’re in another. This can be a good thing – like the Pilot Custom Heritage 91 – but it can also be a bad thing – like the Visconti Van Gogh.
We’ll also focus on what I call the prevailing market price. For those of us who buy online, the US is generally the place where the selling price is cheapest. But for some brands (such as Pelikan) selling prices in other countries are consistently cheaper, even with the additional shipping costs. This skews things the framework a bit: manufacturers and distributors price for the country they operate in. While this approach has worked well for decades, it’s not a smart approach in an online market. If there are substantial savings, people will happily import from other countries.
Our first tier is the entry level pens. These tend to be relatively basic – steel nibs, plastic barrels cartridge/converter fillers – and quite reasonably priced, with the market topping out around $50. The best value is the Pilot Metropolitan (around $15), with its metal barrel and high-quality nib; the overall quality is comparable to the Lamy Safari but the price sets it apart. The other contenders – Kaweco Classic, Monteverde Poquito, Platinum Plaisir, etc – simply can’t hold a candle to these two. The impending arrival of the piston-filling Twsbi Eco ($30, expected later in 2015) is likely to dramatically change this end of the market; in my opinion, it’ll edge out the Safari and force Lamy to reconsider the Safari’s position in the market.
At the upper end of this tier are some of the more expensive entry-level pens, such as the Faber-Castell Basic ($40) and Sheaffer 100 ($45), and the upgraded versions, such as the Lamy Al-Star ($40). This part of the market offers users some more choice but, in my opinion, is going to diminish in value over time, particularly as the price of pens in the next tier fall.
The next tier is the intermediate pens, those which offer higher quality and something more than the entry-level pens: demonstrators, special resin or metal barrels, piston fillers, or unique designs. Prices range from $50 up to $100, but the tier is dominated by the Twsbi 580AL ($60). Other notables include the Faber-Castell Ambition ($70), Lamy Studio ($80), Parker Urban ($65), and Sheaffer 300 ($80). The Stipula Splash ($65), a demonstrator which features a flexible steel nib, was recently launched into this tier but hasn’t attracted much attention yet. It will be interesting to see how it fares.
The third tier is the advanced pens, those which are (or should be) utterly reliable everyday writers, and range between $100-$200. While most of the attention is on the Pilot Vanishing Point ($140) and the Lamy 2000 ($160), the Pilot Custom Heritage 91 ($100) deserves to be the standout. The 91 is also available as a piston-filler (known as the 92) and is either a great deal or a terrible one, depending on where you buy: it can be imported from Japan for $140 or retails in the US for $220. Other stand-outs in this category are the Pelikan M205 ($100-150) and Platinum 3776 ($175).
While some of the premium Italian brands (Aurora, Delta, and Visconti) offer models in this range, I’m not sure why they bother: the pens are stripped-down versions of better-quality pens and simply can’t compete with the competition here. Worse than that, the users who buy these pens and are left disappointed by the quality are often put off the brands and focus elsewhere. If my first Visconti had been a steel-nibbed Van Gogh ($250), I probably wouldn’t have bothered with anything else they sold. For a premium brand, the decision to offer pens in this range is not one I understand.
The next tier is the premium pens, the brands that inspire lust (and hate) and where lifelong performance is the default expectation. Prices here start from $400 (an enormous jump from the previous tier) and range beyond $1000; these prices are high but so is the quality of these products. This range encompasses the flagship pens, the Montblanc 149 ($850), Pelikan M1000 ($750), Sailor King of Pen ($550), Aurora 88 ($500), and Omas 360 ($500). It also includes two of the finest everyday writers available – the Montblanc 146 ($650) and the Pelikan M800/805 ($600) – and some truly iconic pens: the Delta Dolcevita ($600), Graf von Faber Castell Classic ($450), Omas Milord ($550), and Visconti Homo Sapiens ($550). This is really the top level for any everyday writer.
Finally, the top end of the market are the collector’s pens: limited-edition pens like the Pelikan M1005 or Visconti Opera; the artistic pens like Nakaya’s urushi and Pelikan’s maki-e; and the series pens like the Montblanc Writers Edition. They extremely high quality but not necessarily designed for everyday use; most of the value is derived from the precise workmanship (like the urushi layers), the use of precious stones (Montblanc likes to throw in a diamond now and then), and from scarcity. Prices for the top end start from $1000 and there really is no limit.
These are our five product tiers for the primary market. In later posts, we’ll use these tiers to look at the position of different retailers and try to understand their strategy. Later on, we’ll also look at the secondary market: how pens depreciate or hold their value, pricing, and the trading process.