The Ideal Graduation Pen
Several of my Pen Boutique workmates will soon be graduating from high school, and my nephew recently graduated from college, so graduation has been on my mind. My colleague Aurora mentioned to me last month that, second only to Christmas, graduation season is our busiest time of the year. It makes sense. A nice pen is the perfect gift to say, "Congratulations. I'm proud of you. Best wishes for the future!"
A graduation pen is usually an elegant and classic one that you hope the recipient will treasure. Many customers have told me that their first "fancy" pen was a graduation present, or that they had inherited a pen that their father or mother was given as a graduation gift. Sometimes a graduation pen will sit in a drawer, it's true... but when that happens, it is often rediscovered years later when the recipient is older and more mature, and the pen is then enjoyed and appreciated, and the giver remembered with love and respect.
Because of the nature of graduation pens, the ideal one has a timeless quality. It doesn't have to be expensive, but it should give the message that you feel the graduate is worthy of a serious pen that they will take care of. Should it be a fountain pen? It could be, but a rollerball or ballpoint is a safer choice because it is more likely to be used, unless you know the new graduate is already a fountain pen lover.
With the advice of my very knowledgable colleague Joy, I picked out our top recommendations for graduation gift pens. Joy is the one who reorders from vendors when our stock is low, and who talks to countless customers who call the customer service line asking for assistance, so she knows the tried and true graduation gifts. I chose a selection of rollerballs and ballpoints (and one fountain pen), but most of the pens I'm going to discuss come in numerous variations of color and style. They span a price range from under $30 to a little over $300, but most are around $100-$200.
Ballpoint, Rollerball, Fountain?
Before I get into my pen model recommendations, I want to quickly explain the differences between ballpoints, rollerballs, and fountain pens. If you already know this, feel free to skip ahead to the next section! Many people don't, and understanding the differences will help you select a gift.
(Left to right: a Waterman Expert ballpoint, Montblanc PIX rollerball, and Pilot Metropolitan fountain pen.)
A ballpoint is the kind of pen you are probably most familiar with. Ballpoints use an oil-based ink that has a slightly more sticky feeling and writes well on a multitude of surfaces. It rarely smears. Your typical disposable Bic pen is a ballpoint, but a quality ballpoint writes much more reliably and nicely than the kind you can buy at the drugstore. A fine ballpoint pen usually has either a twist or click mechanism to extend the writing tip. They contain refill cartridges that last a long time and can be replaced when the ink runs out. The refills are normally available in a limited number of different line widths (fine, medium) and colors (black, blue).
A rollerball uses a water-based ink and has a smoother flowing feel than a ballpoint. Many people enjoy this feeling more. You don't have to press down to write with a rollerball; it glides over the paper. The ink smears more easily because it takes a few seconds to dry, and it will smear if it gets wet. Because rollerball ink dries out more easily than ballpoint ink, a rollerball must be kept capped when not in use. The cap can be posted on the back of the pen when writing, or set aside on your desk, whichever feels better to you. Rollerballs use refills that look similar to ballpoint refills, but ballpoint and rollerball refills are not interchangeable. Like ballpoint refills, they are available in a small range of different line widths and colors.
A fountain pen uses water-based smooth flowing ink like a rollerball. When capped, the two pens look exactly the same, but if you come into the store you'll notice that we display our fountain pens with the cap off to show the nib. When buying a fountain pen, you choose the nib size (fine, medium, broad, etc.) and this controls the line width. A fountain pen must be cleaned periodically and refilled more frequently than a ballpoint or rollerball, so they aren't as convenient. If they sit unused for a long time, the ink dries out and they need to be cleaned and re-inked. You also need to replace the cap when not actively writing with the pen. Fountain pens use ink cartridges that come in many different colors, or are filled from an ink bottle, which enables you to use any ink color you want (the choices are almost endless!). They are more distinctive looking and can feel wonderful to write with, but they are also less reliable. Because there is so much variety between nibs (depending on brand, pen model, nib size, nib material, etc.), the look and feel of writing with different pens can vary greatly. People who are into fountain pens tend to love the whole experience of the looks, care, and feel of using the pen, but it's not for everyone.
One of the advantages of many of the pens that I've chosen is that they can be engraved. Engraving is especially nice for a pen that is given to honor a significant event like a graduation or new job. We offer engraving for $10 per line, but, for a pen to be suitable for engraving, it needs to have a plain surface (no patterns) and be made of shiny lacquer or of metal. The engraving is done on the cap section of the pen (even for a capless pen like a ballpoint). Each line can have 10-15 characters (this includes letters, numbers, special characters, spaces, and punctuation), and we can fit 1-2 lines, depending on the size of the pen. There are two options for font style: block and script.
All engraving orders need to be done over the phone (our customer service number is 410-992-3272) or in the store. Engraving can take between 6 to 8 business days, so plan accordingly. I'll note in each pen's description whether it can be engraved or not!
My top pick for perfect graduation pen is the Waterman Expert. The Expert is a very popular choice for those who need a beautiful and traditional gift, whether to thank a business associate or honor a milestone occasion. It's usually the first pen I show customers who come into the store looking for this type of pen, and most tell me it was exactly what they were hoping to find. Unless it is out of their price range, customers who see and hold the Expert say, "I'll take it!" Waterman writes of this pen, "A symbol of ambition and success, Expert's assertive and powerful silhouette infuses confidence into any occasion." This is the ideal message to convey for a graduation.
Waterman is a highly respected luxury pen brand that was established in 1884 in New York City by Lewis Waterman, an insurance salesman. Legend has it that the pen he was using at work leaked all over a contract he had prepared for a large policy, costing him his client, so Mr. Waterman took matters into his own hands and invented the first truly functional fountain pen, revolutionizing the pen industry. I love the symbolism of giving a Waterman pen to wish a graduate future success!
Waterman is headquartered in Paris, France, but is still owned by an American company, Newell Brands. All of their pens are high quality, with a solid, substantial feel, and a refined, elegant look. They come in attractive and sturdy Waterman Prestige gift boxes in the traditional Waterman blue, with a lovely flowing wave design on the hinged lid. The inside of the boxes are a pleasing soft cream colored suede fabric that contrasts beautifully to display the pen. I love the clean design of these boxes, with their precise corners and simple "Waterman Paris" written on top in gold.
I also love the lines of this pen: the tapered shape, strong body (neither too slim nor too thick), and angled end finial on the cap. The two metal bands (one wide, one narrow) are perfectly balanced with the rest of the pen and remind me of wedding rings. The interesting slit in the clip, allowing a glimpse of the pen color to show between the metal, lightens the look of the substantial clip. The overall feeling is both harmonious and powerful. This is an eloquent looking pen.
The Waterman Expert comes in rollerball, ballpoint, and fountain, and in a variety of color and trim combinations. The ballpoint tip extends with a smooth and decisive-feeling twist of the pen and writes with a nice blue fine line. The rollerball comes with its refill cartridge in the tray beneath the pen, and writes with a fine black line. (The refill cartridge is delivered with its small disposable cap on, to keep the water-based ink fresh until the recipient is ready to use it. It is easy to install and replace.)
Its snap cap has a satisfying and solid feeling, and clicks firmly into place both to cover the tip and when posted on the back of the pen while writing. The end finial on the cap is the perfect comfortable angle to press with your thumb and snap the cap into place! (I love this thoughtful design detail.) The pen has a nice substantial-feeling weight in your hand, and is extremely well balanced so it doesn't feel heavy even to smaller hands. It suits both men and women.
All Experts can be engraved, except for the designs with patterned caps. I brought home a black lacquer chrome trim rollerball, a black lacquer gold trim ballpoint, and a rollerball in the newly released L’Essence du Bleu design which is deep blue lacquer with Waterman’s signature wave pattern chiselled into the metal cap. L’Essence du Bleu pens are slightly outside the traditional graduation style (and they cannot be engraved) but I think they are extremely beautiful and would be perfect if you are the kind of person who likes to be a little different.
(L’Essence du Bleu is available in the Carene, Exception, and Hemisphere lines as well. These lines are also nice graduation choices, and the plain styles that don't have patterned caps can be engraved, just like the Expert. I especially love the Carene, but I chose Expert for my graduation recommendation because it's more traditional. I'll save talking about the Carene pens for a future edition of the blog!)
These are the pens I photographed for this article:
If you have a slightly higher budget for your gift, you'll want to consider the slim and stylish Montblanc PIX. The PIX model isn't as expensive as other Montblancs, but still has the name and reputation associated with the most famous brand in fine pens. Montblanc's very name carries the image of status and luxury, along with a history going back to 1906. Montblanc's trademark white stylized six-pointed snowcap with rounded edges, representative of the Mont Blanc snowcap from above, is instantly recognizable. A gift of a Montblanc never fails to impress and make the recipient feel very special indeed.
The PIX pen comes in both ballpoint and rollerball, and in several elegant colors. I brought home a ballpoint in black (current price is $256) and rollerball in blue (current price is $315). Both pens are made of lightweight gleaming precious resin with platinum plated trim and clean, Bauhaus architecture-inspired lines.
The pen is named after Montblanc's historical PIX trademark, introduced in the 1930s as an anti-counterfeiting feature on their pens. Some Montblancs have PIX stamped onto their cap band, as well as in a much less obvious place: the underside of the clip. I think the pixie-like name is kind of cute, and suits this slender pen, but I also love that its real meaning is serious and secretive, reminiscent of an acronym used by a secret intelligence agency.
The PIX is an ideal size and weight for smaller hands, and is also effortlessly transportable. You can easily carry your PIX in a shirt or suit pocket, and the styling is both timeless and genderless. The rollerball is slightly larger than the ballpoint, both in length and thickness.
This pen doesn't look out of place with the modern styling of cell phones and laptops, and is as at home in a coffee shop as it is on a desk or conference table. The rollerball version has the iconic snowcap logo on both the cap and end finial. Like the Waterman Expert, the rollerball features a snap cap and the ballpoint tip extends with a smooth twist. Each Montblanc is marked with a unique serial number around the ring of the pen clip to thwart counterfeiting, and comes with a booklet containing this number and the stamp of your authorized Montblanc dealer.
The PIX is a beautiful pen that will become an heirloom and conveys the message that you see a bright future ahead for the graduate.
On the other end of the graduation pen spectrum, the Pilot Metropolitan makes a wonderful graduation gift on a budget. A black Metropolitan fountain pen was my first serious pen, and I still love mine and use it all the time. You can never really go wrong with a Pilot Metropolitan. It's a well-built, quality design that will stand up to years of use, looks great, and costs under $30. The Metropolitan comes in fountain, rollerball, and ballpoint, and in a plethora of eye-catching colors and designs. I think the simple black version looks the most sophisticated, but for a younger graduate or one with a colorful personality, you have a rainbow of options. This pen suits any age and any gender.
(Pictured: Field Notes 56-Week Planner. This versatile datebook works best with ballpoints, rollerballs, and gel pens.)
The "rollerball" version of the Metropolitan actually uses a G2 gel pen cartridge, which writes with a nice fine line and has a great feel. Gel-based ink is vivid and even smoother than rollerball ink, but more water-resistant once it dries. The popular G2 refill comes in lots of colors including black, blue, green, red, and purple, and in both 0.7mm (fine) and 0.5mm (extra fine) line width. It's inexpensive and is easy to find at office supply stores.
The Metropolitan's streamlined, nearly symmetrical shape sets it apart and looks modern--almost futuristic, but timeless at the same time. I prefer the look of the rollerball and fountain pen version, but the ballpoint is also nice if you want a pen that activates with a twist and doesn't require removing a cap.
All three pens are metal, with premium brass matte finish barrels and polished stainless steel accents. The fountain pen and rollerball have snap caps. The fountain pen comes with ink cartridge and a simple squeeze converter so that you can use bottled inks. A nicer converter, the Pilot CON-40, is also available to buy separately if the owner ends up wanting one later. All Metropolitans can be engraved, revealing the brass material beneath the colored outer coating. (The turquoise pen in the engraved pens image above is a Metropolitan.)
Pilot Corporation, founded in 1915, is the largest pen manufacturer in Japan, and its pens range from the everyday disposable variety to beautiful works of art made with traditional maki-e lacquering designs. (These are marketed under their Namiki label, named for Ryosuke Namiki, the founder of the Pilot Corporation, originally named "Namiki Manufacturing Company.") Pilot is one of my personal favorite pen brands, and the Metropolitan is the perfect place to start when entering the world of quality writing instruments.
The Cross Townsend is another solid choice for graduation pen, along the same lines as the Waterman Expert, but slimmer and with a slightly lower price point. Like Waterman, Cross is a highly respected brand with a long history. Established in 1846, in Providence, Rhode Island, A. T. Cross Company is one of the oldest pen manufacturers in the world and is America’s first manufacturer of fine writing instruments. Founder Richard Cross, a jeweler, passed the business on to his son, Alonzo Townsend Cross, who, as the company's website eloquently describes, "shared his father's visionary outlook and soon began to revolutionize the writing industry with his patented inventions." Its headquarters is still in Providence, Rhode Island.
Cross has been an official supplier of pens to the White House since at least the 1970s, and the pens used to sign legislation are often given out as souvenirs to those who attend the bill signings. Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton all favored the Townsend model.
The Townsend comes in ballpoint, rollerball, and fountain, and in a number of colors and finishes. I chose the black lacquer ballpoint with rhodium trim, which we currently have on sale for $84. All lacquer finish Townsend pens can be engraved.
The Townsend ballpoint is a long, slim pen, with a similar weight to the equivalent Waterman but with a very different profile. Cross describes its shape as being inspired by "the graceful lines of 1930’s Art Deco design, with distinctive finishes, precious metals and the signature double band." It comes in a large and heavy black and yellow box with hinged lid and bold lion logo, and is elegantly presented on a bed of velvet.
My final pick for graduation pen is a delightful one because it comes in so many rich colors. I had fun recording an Instagram video in the store with soon-to-graduate seniors Shriya, Austin, and Winnie, and instructed Winnie to reveal the pens in this photo with a dramatic flourish, declaring that one of them even matches the colors of her future university.
The Ipsilon, which comes in ballpoint, rollerball, and fountain, can't be engraved, but I love the idea of buying a graduate a pen that is personalized in a different way and will always remind them of their school. I chose the rollerball in red resin because the colors are perfect for the University of Maryland, the state school closest to Pen Boutique.
This pen's bold lines and colors express the personality of an individualist. I like the shape of both the rollerball and ballpoint, and find the two-tone black barrel ballpoint with chrome plated cap section especially striking. The contrast between the shiny silver trim, textured brushed metal cap area, and gleaming black resin is very cool.
I also love the way Aurora describes the Ipsilon: "The pen created to become the everyday friend of those who study and faithful companion for those who work: this mission is carried out with striking success by the Ipsilon, the pen that is eye-catching because of its innovative design, full of personality and characterized by the exclusive Aurora designed 'Y' shaped clip." Perfect!
The Aurora ballpoint, unlike the others, clicks rather than twists to extend the tip, so it can quickly and easily be operated with one hand. The rollerball is another firm and satisfying snap cap that posts on the end of the pen with a good solid feeling.
Because the body of the Ipsilon is acrylic resin, this is a lighter weight pen than the Waterman, Cross, or Pilot, but it is heavier than the Montblanc and has a more substantial profile, with a barrel that is similar in girth to the Waterman and Pilot but with an interesting slightly oversized cap section.
It's presented in a strong and glossy outer cardboard box with a dropdown front that makes it easy to access the elegant plain black leatherette storage box within, decorated only with Aurora's logo embossed on the hinged lid. The pen is secured on a bed of black satin, and the outer box includes an enclosure with Aurora's excellent motto, "Il Segno di un Sogno" -- "The Sign of a Dream."
Aurora pens are made in Italy and the company was founded in Turin in 1919, so it, too, has a long international legacy. But this brand has what its American distributer, Kenro Industries, describes as a "traditional-meets-modern approach [that] gives them a broad-ranging appeal." As Kenro puts it,
Their pens are coveted not only by professionals and professors but also by Millennial bullet journalers and Gen Z influencers. Imagine! An Italian fountain pen backed by 100 years of history, now considered among the best pens for journaling and a cult sketch pen adored by current artists! Surely, a testament to Aurora’s unique flair for creating timelessly on-trend pieces?
The Aurora Ipsilon manages to look both collegiate and fresh at the same time, and each color variation has its own distinct personality. This shapely pen may be the perfect way to say "Best wishes!" to the graduate in your life.
I hope this article has helped you decide on a gift pen. No matter which one you choose, a fine pen is a thoughtful and memorable way to tell someone how proud you are of their accomplishments and wish them a bright future, wherever their path may lead.