Ink-stained and loving it

published on page B2, MST Sunday, 11 Nov 2012

Mona Caccam was a university sophomore in 1986 when she saw a classmate carelessly put a Pilot 55 “entry-level student pen” in the back pocket of his jeans. He sat on it and cracked the cap. Mona, upon seeing that he was going to throw it away, asked for the pen and repaired it. “I found it romantic to be writing with a fountain pen.”

She lost that same pen and cried about it.  Her father saw her and gave her another fountain pen, a Montblanc 144, as a graduation gift.

More than two decades later, Mona—a technical writer based in Pasig City—still has her father’s present alongside dozens of other pens she has accumulated over the past five years. She belongs to a group of fountain pen enthusiasts in the Philippines, a thriving, growing community of collectors at a time when “writing” has come to mean stringing words together to make a coherent sentence or paragraph by pounding on a keyboard—or keypad.

Two celluloid Parker Vacumatics and a Parker 51 Demi Frankenpen. From Mona’s blog,

For fountain pen lovers, however, “writing” means exactly that: seizing a pen and letting the ink flow onto paper with one’s distinct strokes.

Entrepreneur and former pharmaceutical executive Chito Limson recalls that as a high school student, using fountain pains forced him to be more deliberate in his choice of words. Now, he says fountain pens “remind a person that there are ways of communicating that are more elegant than tweeting, shooting an email or a text message…”

“It’s a discipline that defines who you are.”

Different strokes

Fountain pens are different from ordinary ballpoint pens in two ways, explains MST columnist/GOCC employee Jenny Ortuoste in her blog, GoGirlCafe ( Fountain pens have nibs, which “come in gold, steel and other metal alloys, are generally pointed in shape and have a ball of iridium on the tip for strength.” FPs are also refillable with ink from a bottle, unlike ballpoint pens which you throw away once the ink is spent.

‘A Gaggle of Green‘ – ink bottles,

A business analyst from Michigan, Thomas Overfield, concedes that “fountain pens are in no way a practical modern convenience.” He is quick to add that they are, instead, many other great things.

A good fountain pen for Tom is one of moderate cost, high quality, and low bling. Mona looks at a host of indicators: “The quality of the nib. The ergonomics of it. The way the filling system is engineered. The ease with which a pen is maintained. The beauty in its body design.”

Chito talks about having some affinity with one’s pen on both the physical and emotional/ intellectual levels:
“The pen must fit your hand and grip well. It must not skip strokes or deposit large blobs of ink on your paper. A good pen connects with your heart and your mind and squeezes out the best and most creative thoughts.”

Scene from a January 2009 penmeet. Acclaimed writer, professor Jose Dalisay talks pens to fellow members. From Jenny’s blog, Gogirl CafĂ©,

Then again, fountain pens are only half of the equation. The other half is all about the ink. “The beginning strokes of the word start with a paler shade of the ink’s color and pools into a darker hue as you complete the word,” Chito says. This, one “cannot have with a ballpoint pen or a rollerball.”

Mona has steadily built her collection since 2007, but she prefers to be called a “user-accumulator.” In the beginning, she bought a lot of inexpensive pens from Recto and Binondo and on eBay. As her knowledge expanded through participating in online forums, she discovered the pen features that appealed to her and thus became more discriminating. Last year, she bought only four pens; this year, seven so far.

Chito mostly shops online —from members of the Fountain Pen Network, an international organization, stationery stores in the US (brick-and-mortar or Web-based), and eBay sellers from Japan, Singapore and Malaysia. Chito also says that the number of enthusiasts coming out of the woodwork here is an encouraging sign.

Jenny’s writing sample of Sheaffer Targa matte black on Kokuyo notebook, J. Herbin Lie de The ink.

According to Jenny, there was not much of a fountain pen culture in the Philippines when she became interested in them, even though she lists National Book Store, Luis Pen Store in Escolta, Office Warehouse, Fully Booked and office supplies stores in Recto near the university belt as among those selling fountain pens. Now there’s a specialty FP store called Scribe Writing Essentials at Eastwood Mall.

Do the pens get better as the price goes up? Thomas, who says the US is the best place to be a collector of vintage fountain pens, does not believe so. “The more you pay for a pen, the less you get.” Vintage pens, however, are “a different animal.  Rarity in numbers manufactured or difference from peers makes some pens worth as much as collectibles…The key is finding one that is properly restored.” Thomas has in fact acquired some skills restoring vintage pens.  “So I do buy broken pens and bring them back to life.”

These individuals’ love affair with fountain pens is not limited to the pens themselves, or even the ink. It is next to natural to also be particular with paper—yes, journals and pads, as well as storage paraphernalia to keep their collection in.

Kindred spirits

Leigh’s Halloween post: Trick or treat!,

Jenny credits the Internet for linking her with the now-expanding Fountain Pen Network – Philippines. Four years ago, while still a greenhorn at fountain pen collecting, she blogged about “the demise of one of my early Inoxcrom Jordi Labandas.” She soon received an e-mail from UP Professor Butch Dalisay, a Palanca Hall of Famer, inviting her to the first-ever meeting of FP collectors at his home inside UP Campus. This was in early July 2008.

Since then, the “pen meets” have been held more often and the group has expanded. They have created a Yahoo! Groups account (282 members) as well as their own closed Facebook group (125 members) where they talk about their acquisitions, ink hues, repair and storage techniques, and the like.

But nothing beats the “pen meets.” What goes on there? Mona says “We usually have lunch first. Then we bring out the pens we are currently using or would like to show. We try pens we are thinking of acquiring.
We also get to try different inks and papers. We buy, sell, trade. A fair amount of enabling goes on. We perform occasional small repairs.” She enjoys the camaraderie most of all—and the opportunity to indulge her geeky nature by being able to talk pens the whole time.

Another penmeet shot, from

“Members discuss experiences with their pens,” Chito adds. “[It’s like] Show and Tell for new acquisitions. Tips. Sales and bargains. Repair workshops.”

Thomas has in fact flown to the Philippines and has met many fellow FP collectors. “Pen collecting led to my meeting some of the finest people one can imagine…on the other side of the world.

Tom, Mona and Jenny also blog about their FP hobby, as does Leigh Reyes, a creative executive who has an extensive collection. Leigh takes her love for FPs a step further: she draws using her pens and posts these in her blog,

Different hats and ink-stained hands

Mona, Thomas, Chito, Leigh and Jenny may be passionate about fountain pens, but they have other hobbies as well. For instance, Mona knits and crochets, takes photographs, and writes. Thomas collects vintage watches and has recently obtained a certificate in horology (watch repair). He also enjoys photography. Chito is likewise into watches—and pocket knives. Jenny reads voraciously and is a prolific writer. She snagged first prize for the 2011 Palanca Awards – essay category.

Despite their other hats, they count themselves fountain pen lovers first and foremost. “Fountain pens are a throwback from the old days when people took care of their vocabulary, their grammar and the neatness of their writing on a page,” says Chito.

Tom, on the other hand, cannot find enough words to describe FPs. They are, he says, “an ancient tool, a twisted history, an obvious eccentricity, long artisanal endeavor, lovingly wasted effort, quirky engineering, worst charlatanism, silly trifles, ridiculous expenditures, a portal to past moments and a hand away from beautiful creation.”

Mona’s reasons are simple and to the point—“There is something satisfying about seeing ink flow onto the page.”

Jenny’s observations during the first “pen meet,” written in her blog, says it all: “I look around and see that everyone has ink marks—on their hands, forehead, temples. Leigh rubs my chin. ‘Ink?’ I ask, and she smiles. Caloy has a streak of green on the right temple; George, on the forehead. Butch’s fingers are a riot of color, as are Jay’s and Inigo’s. We are true FP fanatics, I think, the stains worn as an emblem of pride. No one tries very hard to remove the marks.”