As with any niche interest, there is always the tug-of-war between going vintage or modern. This is especially true in the fountain pen world. This industry is inundated with modern and vintage pens alike. Given that pens “back in the day” were meant to last, the marketplace is bookended with pens from the turn of the 20th century to modern releases today.
With that, the question looms: When do you buy vintage and when do you buy new?
While more often than not it comes down to preference, there are some general rules to think about when deciding on where your money should go next.
Due to inconsistencies in early manufacturing, one will find that a vintage nib may have more of a toothiness to it versus modern counterparts. This isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, vintage nibs are often described as having more “character”. Modern nibs, which are the result of streamlined production, have a cleaner feel to them on paper with minimal tuning needed out of the box for most writers.
There is absolutely no doubt that modern pens are gorgeous, but there is something that’s nearly unattainable about vintage pens when it comes to design. The 1920’s are a great example of this. Think of this period: commercialized manufacturing, economic post-war growth, and a transatlantic dialogue in design such as the Art Deco movement all culminated into a perfect storm of new ideas and artistic styles. It was, in a way, a Cambrian Explosion of penmaking. Because of this, gold was used liberally, designs could sometimes be more playful, and there wasn’t an emphasis on cost-cutting margins, which meant that you could find some pretty unique options in the vintage market that are less uniform to today’s contemporary pens.
What kind of pen collector are you? Are you looking for the Holy Grail and then, when you purchase it, move onto the next one? Or do you want to flex your bank account and purchase a status symbol on the market today? Depending on the reason behind your pen obsession, you may veer more towards modern or vintage. Some vintage pens are just as expensive as today’s collectibles (or a lot more for those rarities!), but more often than not, vintage pens have the reputation of being junky, clunky, or flea market finds to the untrained eye. So if you want to flex big for the layperson, a modern pen may be your way to go.
Vintage pens were meant to last, but there was also a culture of longterm use and maintenance. We don’t really have that today. Modern pens, while made for longevity, often are designed to be a low-maintenance item with materials that reflect this. Vintage pens need more care. Whether it is the scratchy nib, or perhaps a hairline crack on the old and brittle celluloid, or a filling mechanism that’s hard to get right, a vintage nib may require more expertise and regular servicing than something you can buy off the shelf today.