Around six months ago, I published a series called Taxonomy in which I tried to map out the competitive landscape for FPs and identify which brands were offering users the most value for money. Some things have changed in the meantime and today, we’ll update the list and have a look at who is doing what in the market.
You can find the four parts of the first Taxonomy series here: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV. The se posts explain the different tiers and go into more detail on some of the brands and their positions.
In the last post, I called Twsbi the most innovative and interesting brand in the market and that opinion still holds. The Twsbi Eco has been well-received right across the community and there don’t seem to be any QC concerns surfacing as yet — but the real test will come now that schools are going back and the pens start having a real workout. If the quality holds up, Twsbi have themselves a real winner.
Looking ahead, the Vac Mini is said to be close to its debut (although this isn’t the first time I’ve heard it said) and I’m interested to see the features, pricing, and where it fits in Twsbi’s product line-up.
Despite plenty of hype at its launch, the Noodlers Neponset has basically disappeared, with only seven mentions on reddit in the last six months. The majority of reviews seemed mediocre at best, and the general feeling was that the flexible music nib and uncertain quality was not worth the price tag. The brand’s relentless focus on price management seems to have reached a point where users would simply prefer to pay more and receive a reliable product. But that seems unlikely, as Tardif calls price rises ‘unconscionable’ in his latest video. Strangely enough, that is exactly the word I’d use to describe a company making a product as dodgy as a Noodlers pen.
Visconti’s had a busy six months: they’ve launched the Classic, the Opera Metal, the Millionaire, and the Speakeasy. The Speakeasy's celluloid and the surprisingly tasteful use of marble for the Millionaire shows off just how creative and innovative they can be, both in design and materials, and justifies their place in this category. On the other hand, the business case for the Classic is a total mystery to me and the Opera Metal might just be the ugliest thing on the market. It’s hard to believe that the same company came up with the Divina Elegance — one of the most beautiful pens on the market — also came up with the black-and-lime monstrosity.
In my experience, most Italian brands are quite hit and miss with their designs. Visconti gets more hits than the other Italians and has built its reputation on those (few) successes, but the new models have not generated much impact in the online community. I’ve heard that they have more releases planned for 2015, and I’m sure they are hoping something lands which fires some excitement and enthusiasm.
As I mentioned on the podcast, Cross have really impressed me with their new models and managed to bring themselves back into contention. The decision to use Sailor nibs on their Peerless model must have been a difficult one internally, but it has placed their pens back on the radar of serious FP people.
It’s exciting to see one of the established brands recognise the opportunities presented by the growth of the community and invest in designing and producing a new range. I suspect the other established brands — e.g. Parker, Sheaffer, Waterman — are watching to see if this works out for Cross, and success may mean that they consider reviving their ranges. I hear Cross have more planned and am eager to see where they go.
I thought long and hard about whether now was the right time to move Franklin-Christoph up from the Competitive category. While I don’t quite think they’re quite on the same level of innovation as Nakaya or Visconti, it’s obvious that their new models are inspiring a lot of love and attention from the community — particularly their Ice finish and the Masuyama nibs — and that they are putting a lot of time and effort into experimentation.
Gossip from the DC Pen Show suggests that they have been sampling some new products, styles and colours, and if these are on par with previous releases then it’s not hard to see them being upgraded. Franklin-Christoph have my attention: expect to see and hear more about them from me in the future.
Faced with an innovative competitor pursuing them at the bottom end of the market with a cheaper, superior product, Lamy have responded by introducing a new model: the €350 Imporium. Soon to be available in Germany, it sports their standard gold nib, a cartridge/converter filling system, and an interesting ribbed design.
It is not immediately obvious to me who this pen is aimed at, but the price (and recent promotion of the CP1, another high-end model) makes me wonder if Lamy have decided not to invest in fighting the Eco with a Safari refresh, but are instead shifting their focus upmarket. One thing is certain: they sure can’t design pens like they used to.
I don’t have much to say about MB, except that the new Montblanc M is generating attention from people who usually steer clear of the brand. Some of it is positive, some of it is negative, but it is getting noticed. I’ll be watching to see how well this sells and if the buyers are the usual MB crowd.
In the last few months, Montegrappa released the limited edition Q1. Despite it’s gargantuan price tag (US$10,000), I found the Q1 exciting as it suggests Montegrappa is investing in some innovative internal mechanisms that may eventually find their way into more affordable, consumer-grade products. Even a successful innovation can take years to come to fruition, so I’m not expecting anything soon — but the Q1 is a clear sign that they are committing a lot of resources into innovation, and that’s a great thing to see.
Unlike Lamy, Pilot has decided to fight to keep it’s turf at the beginner’s end of the market, and introduced a range of new colours to it’s Pilot Metropolitans. It’s a small change but one that will make a difference to buyers at this end of the market. The introduction of stub nibs for the Vanishing Point is another sign that Pilot is listening to buyers and broadening its appeal, particularly outside Japan.
The big three (Pilot, Platinum, and Sailor) are extremely insular and the international market often seems an afterthought for them. I’m hopeful that Pilot might be embarking on a deliberate strategy of changing this and engaging with the North American market, and that it might lead to some interesting new products (or pricing) in the future.
After months of delays, Esterbrook finally released it’s long-promised Abraham Lincoln pen. Available with a gold-plated medium nib and converter, it’s available exclusively at Fahrney’s Pens for the entirely reasonable price of $556. If that’s not a sign of Rob Rosenberg’s business prowess, I’m not sure what is. Also released recently were the Nostalgia series, based on the original Esterbrook’s Dollar pens but priced somewhat higher ($80), made in China, and with nibs engraved ‘Iridium Point Germany’. Maybe an expert collector like Brian Anderson could let me know if the original Dollar pens were made in China?
I can’t think of a single example of a company with as much contempt for its customers and brand devotees as Esterbrook. It strikes me that most of these products are conceived and sold without any thought about the marketplace: about what potential customers might want or what else they can get. It is depressing, and I can only hope that this becomes a cautionary tale for anyone else seeking to revive a much-loved brand.
One of only two brands to be downgraded in this update, Staedtler built themselves a range of stylish, modern, high-quality pens and then priced themselves completely out of the market. With their FPs starting at $200, it's no surprise that their big push into the US market has not been met with much success. And while I'm hopeful that they can get it together by the end of the year, it would require them to reduce MSRP by at least 50% (perhaps more) and I'm just not sure I can see that happening. Unfortunately, I don't have much hope that Staedtler will stay in the market for the long run.
Waterman released their new ‘Ombres et lumieres’ collection in the first half of the year, accompanied by a decent marketing push. There’s nothing really wrong with the designs but they are still too expensive for what you get: for US$130 and up, a steel-nibbed, cartridge/converter pen. It would be nice if Waterman’s product team spent some time looking at the other products available at those price points, and asked themselves if they really, honestly thought the Hemisphere ($130) was a better buy.
Note: I’ve had several emails from readers asking why particular brands aren’t included. Some brands are on my radar but I don’t have enough information on them and their buyers (e.g. Bexley, Conid) and custom pen-makers (e.g. Newton, Scriptorium) operate in a separate market. While there is some substitution between the retail and custom markets, I would say the two are indirect competitors at best, and it wouldn't be appropriate to include them here.