I was very surprised by the blog article assignment that store owner Leena chose for me this time. The past week had been exceptionally busy because some of our staff was out, so, on the eve of my work from home day, we still hadn't had time to settle on a new topic. On Wednesday morning I texted Leena reminding her that I needed to decide right away so I could select the products I'd be focusing on and gather them to bring home with me. Instead of picking one of my suggestions, she replied, "How about the top 10 pens of 2022?" I was flummoxed. "Top in what way?" "How about Laura's top 10 pens? You choose." Whaaaat.
What an exciting and scary opportunity! How could I plan it in just a few hours? That was insanity. But, at the same time, how could I turn it down? I wrote back, "That sounds fun!" Maybe I'm crazy, but my immediate reaction was that I wanted to try it. I told my colleagues Joy and Aurora, and they were both skeptical. Aurora said I should tell Leena I couldn't do that topic on such short notice, that it is the kind of thing you need to think a lot about and plan over time. I felt the same way, but, still....
A little while later, the store phone rang and I answered it. It was a customer from Vermont who had read my article on trying all 15 nibs available on the Pilot Custom 912, and he had a few questions. I laughed and said, "Actually, I'm the person who wrote that article, so maybe I can answer them!" We had a fascinating conversation, and he told me how much he likes how "subjective" my blog is. From his perspective, the "subjective experience is neglected" in pen and ink reviews, and he finds it valuable to read my personal perceptions, tastes, and opinions. He compared my writing to gonzo journalism, which immediately resonated with me. I am definitely not as wild as Hunter S. Thompson was, but I do like to strike a balance between communicating pure facts and telling a story, sharing my own experience. After I hung up the phone, I knew I had to rise to the challenge of being spontaneous and choosing my ten pens by instinct.
My one year anniversary of working at Pen Boutique will be November 3rd, so I decided that my top ten should simply be my personal favorites from the past twelve months at the store. I would not include some of my all-time favorites like the Pilot e95s and Pilot Falcon, but instead focus on my experience of the past year. I would select pens I actually own (either because I bought them or was given them this year), and also pens I admire and would like to own.
I had other work I needed to focus on, like helping customers and making videos about new pens that we had just received, but about an hour before the store closed for the day it got quiet and I walked around with my Maruman Mnemosyne notebook and my trusty Hexo, looking into the display cases and jotting down the pens that spoke to me. I've been a fan of the very portable A5 size Mnemosyne notebook since Leena and Raj's daughter Shriya told me how much she likes using hers for school, and it was perfect for this purpose because the stiff black plastic cover and smaller 5-3/4'' x 8-1/4'' size makes it easy to write in while standing up.
I was surprised by how easy it was for me to get started. As I looked into our display case for each brand, I knew which pens were special to me. Sure, there are many, many pens that I would recommend to customers based on their needs and preferences, lots of favorites that are beloved by our regulars and my colleagues, and gorgeous limited editions that are works of art with prices in the thousands to match. But, my tastes are my own, and I was choosing pens from the past year that I would most like to own and use on a daily basis.
I selected eight of the pens right then and there, wrote their SKUs in my notebook, and, when the store closed for the day, grabbed a bag and went across the hall to our stockrooms to collect my selections so I could get started writing and taking photos the next day. I intentionally left a couple spots open so I could think about it a little longer before finalizing my list, knowing I wouldn't need to finish the whole article in one week. When I got home with my bag, I had never felt so excited about taking out all the pens and looking at them. These were my picks.
My list is now complete, but I realized that talking about all ten pens in one article is too much. It was starting to feel like I was writing a novel, and that's a lot to read all at once. So this week I'll start with the first three, and then release a new episode each week until I have shared them all. Pretend this is one of those stories that are serialized in magazines.
The first pen on my list was my Hexo, of course. I had chosen the Hexo almost randomly for a blog experiment because it's relatively inexpensive, so, with Leena's permission, I was able to take one out of stock and make it my own pen to use over time in a real-world situation. I ended up quickly falling in love with it, and wrote extensively about my experience in one of my most successful blog articles. After the article came out in June, Hexo sales have more than doubled and we sold out several times. It was so gratifying to see this happen! I still use my Hexo almost every day in the store, and I love introducing it to customers, who often want one as soon as they pick it up, too. Shriya always teases me, "You and that Hexo!" Every time I rush to the stockroom to grab a Hexo for a customer who decides to buy one, I feel a little giddy.
I've already written a lot about the Hexo, so I'll try not to rehash my other article too much. But, just to summarize why I love sharing Hexo with people:
1) The feel: I am not exaggerating when I say that Hexo has the most comfortable hold I have ever experienced. I noticed it right away, and I continue to appreciate it every time I pick up the pen. The thick, gently curved grip section is simultaneously smooth and soft, with an organic feel that has just the right amount of give and provides traction for your fingers so they won't slide. Although the pen is stockier than any of my others, it doesn't feel too large in my hand, and the balance is perfect, both with the cap posted on the back of the pen and with the cap set to the side. The thicker body paired with supremely lightweight and strong aluminum is relaxing to hold and encourages me to loosen my grip so my hand doesn't cramp during long writing sessions.
Not everyone has the same size and weight preferences, of course, but it has surprised me how many people agree with me when they pick up my Hexo. I love asking customers to try it and watching their reactions, which, more often than not, result in another Hexo sale! (Although I use a Hexo fountain pen, the rollerball and ballpoint versions have been big hits, too! Some people even buy more than one.)
While they tease me about my ever-present Hexo, my colleagues love the feel, too. Fana, who normally only likes heavy pens, decided she would make an exception after she borrowed my Hexo to write some notes that we were brainstorming for a future blog idea one Saturday. I was astonished by her Hexo praise, because she has very strong opinions and is never afraid to voice her true feelings about a pen.
Another time, Winnie, who was back from college for the day, asked, "Can I use your Hexo?" when she needed to quickly write down a script for one of our videos. Of course I said yes, then watched with pleasure as she exclaimed about how smooth the nib was and how enjoyable it was to use. Even though she doesn't usually write with a fountain pen, she loved it right away, and I started wondering if I was going to have trouble getting it back!
My friend who has a hand tremor from Essential Tremor disorder also tried my Hexo and was amazed by how comfortable and easy it was for him to use. While the grip section doesn't force your hand into a specific position, the angled Hexo barrel does subtly guide your hand into a comfortable and ergonomic hold as the flat sides rest lightly against your hand. He loved feeling the nib glide across the page. Hexo for the win!
I always recommend Hexo to customers with hand issues like arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome, but everyone can benefit from an extra-comfortable pen that isn't fatiguing to write with. Using my Hexo is always a pleasure, especially when I pair it with its favorite inks, Sailor Sei-boku and Sailor Sou-boku.
2) The price: We sell the Hexo for $44, so it's not a cheap pen, but it isn't "next level," either. At under $50, it would be a reasonable first fountain pen, or a nice pen to add to a growing collection. It's also in the perfect price range for an everyday pen that you can use at work, at school, or on the go, where you want good performance but wouldn't be devastated if the pen were to suffer an early demise. I recently had a customer who asked me to recommend an alternative to his Montblanc that he wouldn't have to worry about while traveling but could still use his Montblanc ink cartridges. I suggested the Hexo, since both brands use standard international cartridges. He immediately loved it and bought one!
3) The reliability: I have been using mine continuously since late May, and I don't baby it. I am a lot more careful with my other pens, but I usually just throw my Hexo in a zippered pouch along with other random stuff I need in the store, including a small spiral notebook and my keys! I don't use a pen sleeve to protect it, and I let random people try it all the time, but, after five months of use, it still looks great and writes perfectly. Not once has it skipped, hard started, or gotten ink on my fingers. It's always ready to go, with no nib creep, no scratchiness, and no drying up or clogging. Hexo is a wet writer, so for an optimum experience choose your ink accordingly. A few of the inks I've tried in it have been too wet and the line has looked too thick and dark, but it seems especially compatible with Sailor inks and I love to see the beautiful shading! I pair my Hexo with a converter (only $6 extra), so I can use any ink I want.
(Inks in the photo are Sailor Sei-boku and Sailor Kiwa-Guro. My pen has a few light scratches from rubbing against my keys, but I did not retouch this photo in any way, so you can see how well the sturdy anodized aluminum has held up!)
4) The appearance: Hexo isn't a flashy pen or one that I'd stare at and dream about owning because of its beauty, but I do really like the streamlined, tapered, angular design and the subtle and sophisticated metallic colors. It looks sleek and modern, like a piece of furniture, electronic device, or car that I'd buy. The more I used the Hexo, the more I grew attached to its appearance and realized how perfect it is for me. I especially love the rose color, but the others shades are nice, too. I do still wish Faber-Castell would come out with some more colorful options, though. I want a frosted orchid Hexo!
My second pick was obvious to me because I've been mildly fixated on this pen for months and I look at it a lot, as I often interact with our Sailor display when I'm working in the store. I like to keep the Sailor case looking especially nice because it's one of the first things customers see when they come into Pen Boutique; plus, I love the beautiful colors, and I love showing Sailors to people because I've written three blog articles about them and have many favorites that I can talk about. (You can read the articles here: Episode One, Episode Two, and Episode Three.) The Sailor display cabinet is accessed from the back, via a sliding door from within the area where sales associates spend most of our time, and is illuminated both by light shining through the store's front door and from the lit case. Every time I look into that case, I notice Stormy Sea and admire it.
I haven't written about Stormy Sea in any of my articles, but it's the one I keep coming back to when I think about which Sailor I would like to own. Why is it special? Well, it's the color. I'm not even a blue person, but Stormy Sea's blue sucks me in and drowns me. It's a rich, complex opalescent topaz blue with very slight hints of green. This isn't one of Sailor's sparkly pens, but it's not a solid color, either. The resin has a special luminosity, a subtle translucence and depth. If you look at it in good light, you can see sweeping swirls that glisten like ocean currents.
The complexity of this color is not noticeable at first glance, but I love its subtlety. It's a very, very sophisticated and elusive effect.
I love looking at both the 1911S and the larger 1911L Stormy Sea pens in the case, and I'm happy with the size of the smaller 1911S in my hand, but, if I were to choose one of them to buy for myself, I'd pick the 1911L for its 21K nib. I came into the fountain pen world through Pilot and I'm used to the more flexible feel of Pilot's gold nibs, so the 14K Sailor nib on the smaller 1911S and Professional Gear Slim models provides too much feedback for me. I know many Sailor fans love this stiffer, precise feel and the audible feedback sound, but for me it's a little much. The 21K nib on the 1911L and Pro Gear Standard, on the other hand, has just enough bounce to make it pleasurable for me to use, so, even though the larger sizes are more expensive, I'd pay more to get the softer nib.
The 1911L is a great size that feels comfortable in the hand of both men and women, and, although I'm fond of small pens, it definitely doesn't seem too large to me. I prefer it unposted, but it's good either way.
I couldn't decide on a blue ink to match this unique color, so instead I selected Colorverse Andromeda, a beautiful and fascinating sheening magenta that stands up to Stormy Sea's complexity and is a much more interesting pairing. I think they have a similar feel, and the luminosity of the ink is very apparent with this medium nib. The pen comes with a nice converter so you can have fun experimenting with bottled inks, and also takes proprietary Sailor cartridges. I still am not 100% sure which nib size I'd choose if I were to buy a Sailor, but I do love Japanese mediums, and the line width seems to suit this pen. I also love Sailor's medium-fine, though, and am fascinated by their zoom nib! What do you think? Which Sailor nib is your favorite? And do you have your own Sailor dream pen?
Ystudio is a Taiwanese brand that we just started carrying a few months ago, and as soon as I saw their Bihex Rollerball boxes I got very excited and couldn't wait to open one. The design on the boxes appeals to my taste so much, I was a little afraid that the pens inside couldn't possibly live up to the packaging, but I had to find out, especially when I saw the name of one of the colors, "Glamour Evolve Absinthe." What does that combination of words even mean? I don't know for sure, but I imagined a pen that was both glam and futuristic and evoked the color, mystique, and alleged effects of absinthe. That's pretty much what I found inside, although I think it's unlikely that using the Bihex will make me hallucinate.
I'm usually not that into rollerballs, but I love this pen. The faceted surface catches the light in ever-fascinating ways and feels extremely satisfying to turn back and forth in your hand. The pen is described as "scalene double hexagon" in shape, which means it's composed of two hexagons that have sizes of unequal lengths, resulting in 12 beautiful ridge lines.
YStudio's signature material is brass, and they have put it to elegant use in the pen's clip, which is "shaped through a delicate architectural concept that has carefully carved out every tiny angle and surface." It does have a very architectural look and is interesting from every angle. I think admiring the shape of the clip may be my very favorite thing about this pen. I am also extremely attracted by the unusual shades of metallic green and rose in the Absinthe version, and I think the combination of these colors is perfect together. The Blue Gin and Marsala wine colors are very well chosen, too, and each Bihex has its own distinct personality.
The pen as a whole is made from a combination of aluminum and brass, so it's very strong and feels substantial in the hand despite its slimness, but it is not overly heavy. Because ystudio pens cannot be posted (an intentional choice that's part of their design aesthetic) and a lot of the weight is in the cap, it's much lighter when you are using it to write. I appreciate how satisfying it feels to hold the capped pen, but am happy that it doesn't tire my hand when I'm writing. The precision, balance, and engineering are exceptional, although this pen is not without quirks. It feels like you've joined a secret club when you figure out that you have to turn the grip section clockwise to open it and put in a refill. This is completely weird and counter-intuitive, but once I stopped struggling and unscrewed in the correct direction, the unconventionality appealed to me. (Note that you also have to remember to go against instinct and turn the opposite direction when screwing the pen back together! In practice, this is not as obvious as you'd think.)
The grip is a very comfortable size for me (both length- and girth-wise), is not slippery, and doesn't have transitions that rub or dig into my fingers. I have a pretty tight grip, and some metal pens hurt, but not this one. It's a snap cap, so there are no threads, and the pen re-caps after writing with an extremely gratifying click.
As for the writing itself, the Bihex is smoooooth. The refill that comes with Bihex is a black German Schmidt metal tube 5888 ceramic roller in fine, so it's easy to find refills and you can switch to blue or red if you prefer, or try medium or broad if you like a thicker line. A few Saturdays ago, one of our favorite regulars was in the store and I remarked about the Bihex in her pen case. She took it out and showed me that she had replaced the rollerball refill with a Graf von Faber-Castell fine-liner refill because she prefers a thinner, more precise, and less flowy feeling line. Awesome tip! She had me try it, and it does feel great that way, too. You can also refill this pen with the Schmidt 888 rollerball, Aurora rollerball and fineliner, Faber Castell rollerball, and Visconti rollerball refills, so there are lots of options!
I'd love to own one of these elegant, nonconformist, and, yes, glamorous pens. At $125, the price isn't out of reach, so maybe I will.
Come back next week to read about more of my favorite pens from the past year, including some I actually bought!
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