pen lovers may decry the ball point pen as a tawdry, cheap,
mass-produced device for grinding chicken-scratches into cheap
paper. "Ball Point" may even be considered "fighting
words" by some who read this article. However, I contend
that at least some ball point pens have class, style, and
even soul. I'll demonstrate this with five examples.
One measure of the Sensa's ability to capture our positive
attention and earn our respect was the way the Pentrace message
board erupted when rumors emerged of a fountain pen version
of the Sensa ball point. Another is the proliferation of rubberized
and/or ergonomic gripping sections all over the pen world,
from the Omas 360 and Cross Morph to the Sanford Ph.D and
a horde of "Bill Blass" pen sets available at low,
low prices in my local office supply warehouse. Perhaps the
truest measure is that a coworker, who dispenses with pretense
every day as she copiously annotates invoices, bills, statements
and accounts, bought one for herself. She carries it to and
from work every day in the presentation case that came with
the pen, a possibly unwitting parody of the way an 18th century
duelist would treat a pistol set.
With its macho name and extra-terrestrial family tree members,
the Fisher Bullet comes across as a good pen in a clutch.
The ad copy often makes the slightest possible mention that
the Bullet is also a good pen to put in a clutch! It's small,
tough, and with its cap closure it can't accidentally open
and mark up other stuff in a purse no matter how jammed the
line at the grocery store or Opera would get. And don't laugh
at that -- I have relatives who've played rugby and ushered
"Rigoletto," and they can't tell me which one left
them more bruised. I don't own one myself, but I know several
people who do. Admittedly most of them are in the science
fiction community, not the fountain pen community (not that
there isn't crossover!), but these hardy fen (fannish plural
of "fans") who scrimp and save to go to WorldCon
felt plopping down the bucks for a Bullet was worth it.
For two generations the Cross Century ball point pen has been
a favored graduation gift and the pocket-borne mark of middle
management. The refill, the twist-to-open mechanism and even
the shape and style have been emulated by others.
Let's dwell on that shape. That Deco-esque truncated taper
at top and bottom show this pen is "designed," but
it's not overdesigned like some "Limited Edition"
pens. It's not a flaunted understatement either. It's styled
just enough: No more, no less. It's a relatively slim pen,
too -- so it can accent, not distort, the attire of any executive
who might feel it necessary to show a pen. This pen means
business, even if it looks good doing it.
I confess I personally am a bit ambivalent about this great
pen. I'm not comfortable writing with one for an extended
length of time. That said, I must close with one more Cross
Century claim for having soul: A lifetime warranty that means
In my college days I was assigned a book about modern American
poets. Each chapter was devoted to a living, usually active
poet. There would be a picture, a brief biography, an interview
and a selection of poems. What struck me was that only two
of the more-than-a-dozen poets were shown with writing instruments.
In one shot, Ismail Reed (the only African-American in the
bunch) was seated in a book-filled office, facing what appeared
to be an electric typewriter -- the hard-working man of letters
briefly interrupted in his labors. In the other shot with
a visible writing instrument Nathan Tarn was standing in profile,
with a Parker Jotter clip clearly visible from the pocket
of his unwrinkled safari jacket.
We may decry the Parker Jotter as one of the leaders in the
mob that drove the Esterbrook into extinction, but it is a
solid performer whose slightly wider profile and push-button
operation have made it a favorite with folks looking for an
unobtrusive top-performing pen that's convenient for check-listing
and spot annotation. Shiny nylon and brushed stainless steel
may not be the height of esthetic expression, but the Jotter
is meant to do just that -- jot.
No, this isn't a joke. Pentracers outside the United States
may be confused by reference to this nationally notorious
pen, which, irony of irony, is assembled by blind people!
In fact, the only reason why I thought to put this humble
entrant on the list is because the office supply vendor my
workplace uses lets us BUY them! That's right -- we actually
spend money to purchase what is very likely the most stolen
brand of pen in America. They even sold them to us in BLUE
(which had the Navy and Marine vets I work with asking how
we got Air Force pens!). So, what did we get for less than
five bucks a dozen?
Metal pushbutton top. Black resin (plastic) top body. Metal
collar between the top and the lower section. Black resin
(plastic) lower section with a metal ferrule at the tip. Inside,
a brass ink tube. I admit the refill is different, the mechanism
is different, the resin isn't described as "precious,"
and instead of a snowflake logo the identifier on the pen
reads "Skilcraft-U.S. Government" on the lower section.
I'm not going to say right out the Skilcraft retractable is
the functional equivalent of a Montblanc ball point, but it's
fun imply that!
This pen, the staple of postal workers and government clerks
across the United States, is not guaranteed for life, but
it very likely is one of the least expensive pens designed
and built with the expectation that someone would use them
until out of ink and refill them. They're an incredibly hard-working
value, and in so far as a ball point pen can be said to have
"soul," I would say the Skilcraft pens have them.
They are clear evidence that, in the ball point pen arena,
inexpensive doesn't equate to inadequate.
list isn't meant to be comprehensive. I can think of plenty
of good pens I didn't bother listing. Some of them were situationally
appropriate, such as a yellow Lamy Safari ball point I saw
wielded by a "Racing Form" reader right after she
ordered her breakfast at an al fresco eatery near the local
Rotring is just one maker that has produced great inexpensive
ball point pens seldom seen in the U.S. Papermate's Profile
is a slightly slimmer competitor to the Parker Jotter that
deserves respect. For years the Pilot "Better Ball point,"
in both stick and retractable, was a friend's best bet for
long-lasting, low-fuss pink and purple writing solutions.
My fulsome praise of Skilcraft is not meant to detract from
the Bic Clic, even if it doesn't have a metal ferrule at the
point end. And then there's the Aurora Thesi.
We prefer not to use them, but there are plenty of good ball
point pens, even inexpensive ball point pens, that have the
class, performance and soul necessary to attract fans. We
should not let our love of nibs and bottled ink hide the merits
of a good ball point pen.