A new pen!

I first heard of the Visconti pen some months ago when I was working hard on my last book.

It is the normal way of things for a writer. You would not believe the inventive ways by which an author can avoid writing. There is research, there is reading other people’s books to get a flavour for what is being read by other people, there is fetching a coffee, chatting to the postman, calling parents, friends, brothers, and irritating them with the fact that you’re desperately seeking any displacement activity that will save you from writing the next book.

This day, I was looking at Cult Pens’ website, and found the Visconti.

Now, I am an author. I have little in the way of decent expenses and equipment, but one thing I can claim for is things to be used for writing. And I like that.

There is nothing, nothing whatsoever, as appealing to me as sitting with a blank sheet of paper and writing. With a few outline sketches and scrawls, I can plan out a book, and it’s much more enjoyable than bashing keys on a keyboard.

Some years ago I went to Conway Stewart and proposed to them that they should design a new collection, perhaps to call it the Detection Collection, and work in collaboration with crime writers to create new pens. It was a success, and the Michael Jecks Pen was the result. Soon there will be more.

The Michael Jecks Pen.

The Michael Jecks Pen.

I love the Michael Jecks pen, but I dare not take it out with me too often. It could be damaged, it could get lost, and that would mortify me because my Author’s Prototype is literally irreplaceable, so generally I always used my first Conway Stewart pen, a Churchill.

Black resin Churchill, and my lovely Drake in silver.

Black resin Churchill, and my lovely Drake in silver.

It’s a great pen. It writes well, and I like the size and weight, but there are some problems with it.

The first issue for me is, after using it a lot in recent years, it has grown a little scratched. Nothing massive, but where I have carried it in my pocket, the edges have been rubbed and marked. I work two days each week at Exeter University for the Royal Literary Fund, helping students to write more effectively, and I do need to carry a pen with me all the time (I hate biros and won’t use them). I have to travel to give talks and sign books, and doing this scratches my poor old pen. I can, I know, get it repolished, but then it would only get scratched again. Why bother?

There is, however, another, more serious problem. Over the years I have used my Churchill a lot. Recently, I was researching a new character in the Devon and Exeter Institution, and had to write ten pages of A4. To do that, I had to refill the pen twice. Fortunately I had my travelling inkwell from Visconti with me, and that was enough to keep me going, but it caused a certain amount of frustration. There should, I felt, be a better way of working. I ought to be able to find a pen with a larger capacity. Not an eyedropper, because that is a surefire way to acquire smudges and stained fingers, but a pen with significantly more capacity than a standard piston or converter pen.

For me, as a serious writer, such a pen was essential. That was why I began to look for a pen that would fulfil my requirements, and  because I was looking at Cult Pen’s site, idly looking at the newer versions of my Visconti Travelling Inkwell, I found myself staring at their Homo Sapiens.

The latest three manuscripts for proofreading with my Visconti on top.

The latest three manuscripts for proofreading with my Visconti on top.

I should state here that my version is the Bronze model. This is different to the Steel model, which has a different filling mechanism (please see the Note at the bottom of this review).

The Homo Sapiens is a good size. For me, it fits the hand perfectly. I don’t like to cap my pens – mainly because I always worry that capping will scratch the barrel – and without the cap, the Homo Sapiens sits comfortably on the web between thumb and forefinger.

Its weight is well balanced. It is nothing like as heavy as, say, my Michael Jecks Conway Stewart, but it’s a little more than my old Churchill, which is a little over light for my taste. And here I should mention the material it is made of.

The adverts make a lot of this. It’s composed of a mixture of lava and, I have read, some form of resin or rubber. Some say it is basaltic lave from Etna, some say it is 50% lava. I don’t know and I care even less. I would imagine that lava alone would make for a cold and highly brittle material. This isn’t. Whatever it is that bonds the lava in this pen, it is lovely. It is instantly warm to the touch, and has a rock-hard feel. However, after carrying it in my shirt pocket, I was appalled to see scratches all over the cap. And not small ones, either, but large, silvery blotches smeared all over it. Mortified to have damaged my beautiful new pen, I rubbed the marks and was delighted to see them disappear. Later I realised that the shirt I’d been wearing had a hidden zip-pocket inside the main pocket, and it was the metal zip that had made those marks – not because the metal had marked the pen, but because the pen had rubbed and eroded the metal zip!

The feel is good, the robustness is a delight. The adverts say that it won’t be affected by heat up to too hot to touch, and it is certainly rock-hard. This pen will not be damaged in normal use. I will never have to worry about scratches. However, some people may not like the matte effect. I do. There is one other aspect which I adore. Under very bright lamps or in sunlight, the pen glitters. There are tiny flecks of mica, so it seems, within it.

Not very clear in this light, but you can just see the little flecks of mica in the barrel.

Not very clear in this light, but you can just see the little flecks of mica in the barrel.

When you first look at the pen, the material appears bland. It is not black, but more a kind of very deep grey. Depending upon the light, it can appear to be a tinted with blue or brown – it reminds me a little of the deep black of my old Bernese Mountain Dog, an almost black, but with hints of brown. Either way, it most certainly is not pure black.

Even with the matte appearance of the lava mix, the pen itself is not a dull-looker. With two bands of bronze on the cap, a third, larger band on the barrel, which holds the words “Homo Sapiens”, and a spacer at the end, this pen looks glorious. The clip too is made of bronze, and has the distinctive Visconti curve. Apparently this is made to emulate the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, where Visconti is based. I’ve never been there (sadly), so I can’t vouch for that. It does look, I think, elegant – but that’s not the point. My only concern with a clip is, that it’s strongly sprung to guarantee that I won’t lose the pen (as I did with a Graf von Faber Castell Perfect Pencil some months ago, which slipped from my pocket). I was pleased to find that the spring behind the clip is certainly strong enough to hold this pen in the pocket. I have worn it in my pocket every day for about the last six weeks and have never had a concern about it falling out, even with thin shirt pocket material.

The clip, showing the beginning of the patina forming.

The clip, showing the beginning of the patina forming.

I should just note here that the bronze is not lacquered or treated in any way. The bronze discolours or, as the salesmen like to say, “develops a patina over time”. In the past, I understand Visconti did provide a cleaning cloth with the early pens, but they don’t any more. However, I confess I rather like the discolouration. It makes the clip look distinctive, and I think makes the pen look more like the working tool it is. It isn’t a pretty Mont Blanc or Yard-o-Led: this is a functional writer’s workhorse. There is one thing that intrigues me, however, and that is that the clip and bands are supposed to be all bronze. Yet it is only the main pocket clip that tarnishes. All the bands on the cap and barrel seem to be unaffected. This could be because they are all handled more regularly, I suppose, but I’d have thought that the flat top surface of the clip would also be rubbed regularly and wear away the patina. I have no axe to grind here, but I thought it was interesting.

Another thing I really, really like about the Homo Sapiens is the opening mechanism.

Yes, most people will look at me like a twit for saying that, but this is just a delight to use. Most pens, obviously, use a simple screw thread or a push-fit. My Cross pens are all push-fit now. In the past, they used a strong spring to clip the cap to the body, but in recent years they have moved to a simple inner sheath of plastic that grabs the section. This seems fine, until you go to a black tie dinner and the pen falls out of its cap in your jacket, as I learned to my embarrassment. I don’t trust plastic inner sleeves any more.

A screw is safer, but it has the disadvantage of taking time to open. I know this is a small matter, but there are times when it’s an irritant to have to turn the barrel one and a half or two times just to remove the cap.

The Visconti’s system is a kind of cross between a bayonet and an interrupted screw. In the cap is a spring-loaded cylinder. As you push the section of the pen inside, this cylinder pushes against the section. On the outside of the section you can see geometric slots cut at an angle. In the cap itself there are lugs that match them. Thus to close the pen, you push in the section, and twist 1/5th of a turn clockwise. To remove the cap, you push in and rotate it 1/5th of a turn anticlockwise. It’s quick, convenient, and a delight to use. I have seen one review that claimed this was a failing in the pen, because he found the pen kept uncapping itself in his pocket. I can only say this is not a problem I’ve experienced.

So, getting down to the nitty gritty, how does it write? It is deliciously smooth and silky. I love my Conway Stewarts, and I would not say this is dramatically better, but the nib (a medium) is very soft to use, and lays down a reliable, clear line without  ever skipping. It starts as soon as it is laid to the paper, and so far hasn’t failed once. Even when writing for extended periods, it just keeps on going.

Just a beautiful nib.

Just a beautiful nib.

The nib is a curious one: it’s made of palladium, which is one of the few metals, like gold, which is valued in carats. Unlike gold, it is a slightly firmer metal, and for that reason the nibs are made of 23 carat palladium. That should mean that the nib will be even more resistant to corrosion than many gold nibs, apparently. Since I regularly clean my pens it won’t be a problem. The thing I really like most about the pen is that there is a great amount of variability in the thickness of the line. It’s not a flex pen, but I do like to use inks that give shading, and I write (I guess) a little harder on the downstroke than sideways. This nib, without effort, gives me an almost stub-effect on my writing. It is purely because of this that I am writing a little more slowly than before. It is just a delight to use. The Conway Stewarts are good pens, with gorgeous nibs, but I do prefer this.

However, as well as writing smoothly and beautifully, the best thing for me is, it keeps on writing. The bronze version has a wonderful “powerfiller” mechanism inside. This is an odd system to me. If I get the details wrong here, I apologise, but it’s worth trying to explain. So, as far as I can make out from my researches: the barrel contains a cylinder with parallel sides. At the bottom, near the nib, these sides flare. Inside the cylinder is a piston, fully sealed, which slides up and down the cylinder. To fill it, you hold the nib in ink, and pull up on the end cap. It pulls on a titanium rod that draws the piston up. That does nothing to draw up ink, though. The ink is pulled in when you push the piston down. I know it’s counter-intuitive, but as you press the rod back into the pen’s barrel, the pistol is creating a vacuum behind it. As it reaches the flare in the cylinder, the vacuum is released, and sucks ink up into the void.

Some people have got very confused with this. Personally, I love it. I will have to measure the precise quantity of ink that it draws, but it is a lot more than my old cartridge-converter pens – probably about double their capacity. Certainly I haven’t been able to run it dry yet while writing, and fortunately it works superbly well with my Visconti Travelling Inkwell.

The clever magnetic top that allows initials, precious stones or anything to personalise the pen.

The clever magnetic top that allows initials, precious stones or anything to personalise the pen.

There is one last thing I must mention. When I received my pen, I was delighted to see that instead of the Visconti logo in the top of the cap, Cult Pens had taken the time to replace it with my initials. Visconti has a wonderful system called the “my pen” system, whereby the cap can be personalised to every owner in this way. You can have either initials, a semi-precious stone, or signs of the zodiac. It’s entirely up to you. That little touch for me, added to the appeal enormously.

So, in short, it is a highly robust pen, constructed from material that is thoroughly scratch and heat resistant, strong and robust. The nib works beautifully – it is as near perfection as I have yet found. I find the appearance very attractive and interesting – there really is nothing quite like it. The ink reservoir is much larger capacity than others I have tried. I really like the system for removing the cap, the strength of the cap’s clip, and the overall weight and balance.

For anyone who writes a lot and who is looking for a solid, reliable pen for everyday use, I would happily recommend the Homo Sapiens. You can find more details on it here: http://www.cultpens.com/acatalog/Visconti-Homo-Sapiens.html

I should add here that I am writing a weekly diary piece for Cult Pens over on their website at http://www.cultpens.com/blog and that they are sponsoring my writing. However, this review is based on my own use over six weeks and my own opinions. I hope the review is some help to others considering new pens.

NOTE: All the comments above are specifically related to the Homo Sapiens oversized pen in bronze. The models in steel and the shorter pens do not use the wonderful powerfiller system, but instead use a simple piston filler. This will, I am sure, be plenty adequate for people who only want a pen for occasional note-taking or shorter writing, but for people like me who need more capacity, I’d recommend the bronze oversize every time.

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