Note – This is not a review. I have no qualifications to “review” something like a pen show, as this was my very first one ever. A review implies a value judgment; a “goodness” or “badness” to the experience. As I am in no way qualified to judge this, I’ll simply offer my impressions, rather than evaluation.
I don’t recall how I heard about the St. Louis Pen Show. Probably the radio. But the opportunity to see a unique slice of humanity intrigued me, so I went. Plus, I remembered a story from years back when the radio journalist had visited a high-end pen store, interacted with a “pen presenter”, and got to hold a $38,000 writing instrument. So in the hopes of uncovering some rare jewel of experience, I went to the St. Louis Pen Show on Saturday afternoon.
This is a 4 day event. Thursday through Sunday. There are exhibitors of vintage and current-production pens. There are fountain pens, ball-point pens, and probably other styles I can’t describe. The vast majority of visitors are older, white, and really, really know their stuff. The exhibitors are probably equally split between professionals (new sales of pens, paper, and accessories; restoration services; ancillary products) and hobbyists (those who collect and travel to shows just for the fun of it).
There are demonstrations and awards presentations. There are bargains to be had, and unique finds to be uncovered. I don’t know whether I would have adequately identified either.
I asked questions. I asked what makes the difference between a $200 pen and a $500 pen. Some answers are that the smaller quantity of original production, the more rare it will be now and therefore more valuable. Excellent versus marginal condition makes a difference. Original materials make a difference. One pen I was shown came from the 1930s, and the collector said it was obvious that it had never been used. Such pristine condition makes it much more valuable.
The highest-priced pen I actually held was for $1,400. It was over a hundred years old. It had an octagonal barrel made of pearl. Quite unique amongst the many options of materials, and the fact that it had held up so long also increased its value. There were cheap ones, too, fountain pens and ballpoints from $10 or $15 new, and some vintage ones from $15 to $30.
I learned that there are many different widths of nib for fountain pens. These can run from EF (extra fine) through to BBB (triple-broad). And that these sizes are not standard, so a “fine” from one maker might be in between the “extra fine” and “fine” of another.
I asked, “What’s the great advantage of a fountain pen over a ballpoint pen?” The answer was, “Well, with a ball-point pen you get at the store, you can have any color you want! As long as it’s black or blue. Maybe red.” Point being, with a fountain pen, you are not limited to just the few standard colors that fill the aisles at Staples. One vendor said he had 27 versions of black. And over 1,400 different colors available!
I learned that there are dozens of mechanisms for filling the inkwell. Classic designs included things like eye dropper fill, creating vacuum with a thumb, a “pressed-coin” bladder, and others. Modern include replaceable cartridges and some kind of screw-thingy that meant you could fill quickly and without mess.
I saw a lot of very fancy pens that looked more like jewelry or works of art than writing instruments. I learned that pens have often been one of the few male jewelry pieces, similar to a watch. While women may be able to wear rings, bracelets, necklaces, and earrings, men have been limited. Watches are one way they can express themselves or set themselves apart from others.
There’s an industry magazine, full color glossy paper, with news of the goings on within the high-end pen world and advertisements for the new fall line. Designers are crafting limited-edition runs of these pieces (maybe as few as 30 or so) in order to create a scarcity that elevates the price. These pens become a status symbol, not a tool. You do not give one of these to your neighbor for him to sign the pizza delivery receipt.
After about an hour, I got overwhelmed. I did not go in knowing what I was looking for, so I was flooded with too much information. If I’d been searching for a specific kind of pen, or a specific kind of ink, or an appraisal of a pen from my collection, I think I would have been able to handle a longer time there. Because I would have been focused, and not distracted by so much of the bright and shiny around. Maybe if I’d had time to step out of the exhibit hall for an hour and take a class, I would have had a break and been able to go for another round. Or, maybe, if I just knew little about what I was doing, I’d have appreciated it more.
I think I’ll go back next year. It was certainly unique. And at only $5 for admission, I can’t say I wasted my afternoon. On the contrary, it was money well spent.