My five favorites at the $50 and under price point were easy for me to choose. I selected the Pilot Metropolitan (retail price $31.77), Lamy AL-Star (retail price $47.00), Kaweco Sport (retail price $28.00), Faber-Castell Hexo (retail price $44.00), and TWSBI Diamond Mini (retail price $50.00). Some of these pens have slightly fancier variations that cost a little more, but the differences in price are minimal. They are all affordable, reliable, and appealing pens that bring me joy.
The photo above features a Kaweco Skyline Sport in Fox Red, a Faber-Castell Hexo in Silver, a TWSBI Diamond Mini in Classic, the Lamy AL-Star in Turmaline, and the Pilot Metropolitan in Retro Pop Purple.
The Pilot Metropolitan pens, also known as the "MR Collection," are sturdy and streamlined, with a brass barrel and ergonomic black plastic grip section designed to be slightly grippy so your fingers won't slip. As the name implies, they have a sophisticated and urbane look, with a sleek minimalism that's very versatile.
Customers who pick up a Metropolitan often comment on the nice weight (0.96 oz or 27 grams) and high-quality feel. The pens feature solid-feeling snap caps and contrasting silver-colored metal trim. The Metropolitan has a neutral and classic appearance that seems a little more serious than most other entry-level pens, but it's also available in bright colors and with playful patterns, making it appealing to a younger or more whimsical audience as well as a conservative one.
The MR Collection includes three different styles:
1) Minimalist designs that are completely solid colored with a matching shinier band (these include the plain black, plain gold, or plain silver) or have a band with a subtle pattern such as silver dots or gold zigzag. The plain black Metropolitan featured above is my own pen, which I've owned for five years. It was my first fountain pen, and it's still in great shape and writes wonderfully!
2) The "Retro Pop" collection, which features a coordinating band with an interesting pop art pattern on it. These are Gray Houndstooth, Green Marble, Orange Flower, Red Wave, Turquoise Dots, and Purple Ellipse (featured above with a calligraphy nib). I love the fun designs and nice colors in this line!
3) The "Animal" collection, which features a different animal print on each band: White Tiger (pictured above), Crocodile (black), Python (silver), Lizard (gold) and Leopard (violet). My favorite in the animal collection is the Tiger because that one has a pretty pearlescent finish that's different from the regular matte metal finish on all the other pens. It's subtle but quite attractive!
The Metropolitan pens' nibs are silver-colored steel and are available in Fine, Medium, or Calligraphy (a 1.0 mm stub). The stub nib isn't available with all the colors, but if you really like a certain color and want to make it into a stub, it's easy to swap the front sections between the different pens. (The Metropolitan nib isn't available for sale separately, so you'd have to buy two pens to do this.) Because Pilot is a Japanese brand, the Metropolitan's nibs write with a slightly finer line than "western" (European or American) nibs. My favorite nib for the Metropolitan is the medium. It's nice and smooth, with an excellent controlled feel. If you have small writing and want a very precise line, go for a fine.
The Metropolitan is a fairly dry writer, so be sure to choose an ink that is on the wet side so you'll get the best ink flow. My favorite ink to use in a Metropolitan is Pilot's own brand, although many others work well, too. I especially love the Iroshizuku bottled inks, which you can use in your pen with a converter (or by refilling your cartridges with a blunt syringe, like I do!) Iroshizuku is my all-time favorite brand of inks. They come in beautiful rich colors inspired by nature, and are extremely well behaved. Many of the colors have lovely sheen.
The Metropolitan comes with a squeeze cartridge converter to use with bottled inks, and you can upgrade to a nicer CON-40 converter. For greater convenience, you can also just pop in a Pilot or Iroshizuku ink cartridge.
In the photo above, you can see a disassembled Metropolitan with the converter that comes with it installed. Above the pen is the CON-40 converter (available for purchase separately) and the Pilot cartridge that comes with your new pen. Any of the Pilot/Iroshizuku refill cartridges will fit, including the assorted color pack designed for the Pilot Parallel pens. Pilot cartridges and converters are proprietary, so you'll need to stick to Pilot/Iroshizuku brand, although you can try any brand of bottled ink in conjunction with your Pilot converter.
With its classic cigar or torpedo shape, Metropolitan resembles many other well-known pens that are much higher priced, such as the Sailor 1911, Esterbrook Estie, Pilot Custom 74, 743 and 823, Diplomat Elox, Montegrappa Elmo, and Montblanc Meisterstuck. It's a great entry point to the world of fountain pens, and, depending on color choice, wouldn't look out of place in a suit pocket or a kids' pencil case.
The Lamy AL-Star has an unusual avant-garde design that didn't appeal to me right away, but, once I tried it, I loved it, and I now own several in different colors and with different nibs. I reach for my AL-Stars often because they are so functional, fun, and comfortable to use. The pen follows essentially the same form as Lamy's popular Safari, which was introduced in the 1980s and has remained a cult classic ever since, but the Safari is made primarily from very strong ABS plastic, whereas the AL-Star is a more premium lightweight durable anodized aluminum. (The "AL" in AL-Star signifies aluminum.) The Lamy Safari shares honors with Pilot Metropolitan as the pen most often suggested to beginners as a starter fountain pen, and I wholeheartedly agree that both pens are an excellent entry point. By the way, if you're wondering how to pronounce the German brand name, Lamy, it's "Lah-me" (rhymes with "Tommy") but many people say "Lam-ee" (like a baby sheep) and both variations are easily understood!
The AL-Star is slightly larger than the Safari (15.0 mm max diameter vs. 13.8 mm) and also heavier (0.69 oz or 20 grams vs. 0.53 oz or 15 grams), and I prefer the feel of the sleek aluminum to the plastic. The difference in size is actually quite subtle. If you stand the two capped pens side by side, they are the same height, but the AL-Star is a little thicker, and its cap sits lower on the barrel when posted on the back of the pen. (Both pens are quite long when the cap is posted, so I often don't post mine, but it's balanced and comfortable either way.) The AL-Star also has a brass clip instead of a plastic one, and a smoky grey translucent grip section that has more traction and allows you a glimpse at the inner workings of the ink feed. The two pens' caps and grip sections do not fit each other, although the grip is the same size (10.4 mm diameter) and they use the same converter and cartridges.
The Safari and AL-Star (and many other Lamy pens) also use the same nibs, which are available out of the box in Extra Fine, Fine, and Medium. You can also purchase spare Lamy nibs separately, and they are easy to switch. The nibs are available in both silver and black steel, in all sorts of additional sizes, including Broad, Left Handed, and (silver only) Calligraphy (1.1mm stub, 1.5mm stub and 1.9mm stub). You can even buy a two-tone gold nib for your AL-Star or Safari, although it will cost a lot more than the pen itself! My white Safari in this photo was upgraded with the Lamy Cursive Nib, which I love and highly recommend. My Lilac AL-Star is an Extra-Fine, and I like its nib a lot, too!
The pens do not come with a converter, but you can buy one separately for only $6. One cartridge is included with your new pen to get you started. The converter in this photo is intentionally incorrectly installed so you can see the little tab that sticks out. That tab is supposed to slide into a thinner channel that you can see next to the U-shaped notch that faces up. Installing your converter correctly will lock it into place and ensure a snug fit with no leaks. You'll feel a satisfying click as it snaps into place!
Like Pilot, Lamy cartridges and converters are proprietary, so you'll need to stick with Lamy brand, although you can try any brand of bottled ink in conjunction with your Lamy converter. I often use Sailor ink in my Extra-Fine AL-Star, and I like to use Diamine shimmer inks (especially the interesting ones included in Diamine's annual Inkvent calendar) with my cursive nib, which handles them with ease! Lamy Crystal or regular Lamy ink is a great choice, too.
I really like the AL-Star's contoured tripod grip section, which guides your hand so that you will hold it correctly and get good contact with your nib on the paper. If you have an unconventional grip, you may hate it, but, for me, it's very ergonomic and comfortable.
I always thought the clip was a bit weird looking, but it has definitely grown on me. It's very sturdy and utilitarian, and that's what this German engineered pen does best. I love to slip an AL-Star into the sleek pen sleeve that comes with some of the limited edition colors, and throw it into my bag so I have it with me wherever I go. It takes up hardly any space, and the pen is held securely in its case by the clip, yet slides out quickly and easily for a quick note or sketch.
Every year, Lamy releases a special edition AL-Star color. (In 2023, it was two colors, Lilac and Petrol.) Each is produced for a limited time, and they are fun to collect. Standard colors like Black, Purple, and Ocean Blue stay in the regular lineup. When I was writing this article, I fell in love with the 2020 special edition color, Turmaline, and decided to buy it, since we still have some left! I love how it looks together with my Lilac pen.
Whenever people see me out and about with one of my AL-Stars, they ask about the pen, and I show it to them gladly. I've had many people comment on how beautiful it is. That surprised me at first, but, yes... it's casual, approachable, reliable, a bit whimsical, avant-garde, quirky, cool... and beautiful, too, in a unique way.
The Kaweco Sport, another German design, is an inexpensive and fun little pocket pen that's simultaneously playful and utilitarian. When capped, it will fit in the palm of your hand, but, when the cap is posted on the end of the pen, the Sport expands to full size for writing. The pen's barrel and grip section are cylindrical, but the cap is octagonally faceted, a design detail I love. The facets feel nice if you lightly twirl the pen between your fingers, and also keep it from rolling away when you place it down on a flat surface. They also make the pen easy to grab on to, and catch the light in interesting ways, giving each surface of the pen its own highlights and shadows. It's a lightweight and economical pen, but the form and function details make it a great one!
The $28-$32 price tag includes all the injection-molded ABS plastic models, although Kaweco also makes metal Sports, which are much heavier and quite a bit pricier, as well as Art Sport pens made from turned acrylic released in special color patterns with beautiful coloration.
It's easy to get confused about the plastic Sport's different lines, so here's a quick rundown:
1) The Classic Sport is most closely based on the design of Kaweco's original 1935 fountain pen. Classic Sports have gold-plated steel nibs with matching gold colored details on the body of the pen. Their colors are timeless. The dark green pen in the photo above is a Classic Sport.
2) The Skyline Sport pens are very similar, but with silver detailing and silver-colored steel nibs. Some of their colors are neutral, like White and Grey, while others are more unusual and stylish, including interesting shades like Macchiato, Lavender, and Fox Red (pictured in the photo above).
3) Frosted Sport pens have a translucent body and silver detailing. Their nibs are silver-colored steel. The six pretty colors were inspired by fruit: Blush Pitaya (a starfruit), Fine Lime, Light Blueberry (pictured above), Natural Coconut, Soft Mandarin, and Sweet Banana.
4) The Ice Sport has been discontinued, but this was a transparent brightly-colored pen that came with a 1.9 mm steel stub nib and highlighter ink cartridges so you could use your fountain pen as a highlighter. We no longer have it in stock, but you can still buy the cartridges.
Kaweco also makes "Collector's Edition" Sports, which are part of the regular lines but are in limited edition colors, so they cost slightly more. These special colors come out once a year and aren't part of the regular lineup, so, once they sell out, they are no longer available. My first Kaweco was the 2022 Collector's Edition Iridescent Pearl Sport. The Collector's Edition pens say "Kaweco Collection" on the side, but otherwise they're exactly like the other pens.
My Iridescent Pearl Sport is a fascinating color that reminds me of the inside of an abalone shell. Yes, it's only plastic, but it's very pretty! It's also a tough little pen and I love how lightweight and portable it is. This is a true pocket pen and can be safely stashed just about anywhere. The screw cap is extremely secure and I never worry about throwing it in my mini backpack or bringing it on a walk through the woods in the rain.
Another slightly more deluxe variation on the Sport is the Elite Royalty line, a US exclusive collection. These pens come in a nice tin rather than the Sport's usual economical small cardboard box, and say "Elite Royalty" on the side in a fancy calligraphic German font with a small crown emblem. The pen itself is essentially exactly the same as the regular Sport, but the packaging and details make it special and add a few dollars to the price.
The variety of colors available in the Sport lineup is delightful, and the pen has so many different personalities, depending on which color you choose and how you accessorize it. Some Sport collectors like to swap caps, barrels, and even grip sections amongst two or more pens to make striking color combinations, and many people buy optional clips that can slide onto the cap and give your pen a whole new look and functionality.
The octagonal clip is available in two styles: a streamlined and simple version with clean, modern lines, or a "Deluxe" version with curves and additional ornamentation for a few dollars more. The simple style comes in Nickel-Plated, Gold Plated, or Black, and, for the vintage-looking Deluxe, you can choose Chrome, Gold, Black, or Raw Bronze. You can really change the personality of your pen with these clips, and they are also perfect for helping keep your pen secure in a storage case or clipped to a notebook or pocket. Most people choose a clip color that matches the trim on their pen, but you can also go for a contrasting clip for a two-tone look like on the classy Waterman Carene Deluxe Black/Silver with Gold Trim! I tried a gold clip on the Fox Red pen, and I like the warmth and richness it adds to the orangey-red. With the black clip, you could get a Halloween-ish look!
The slide-on clips are very secure, but they are easy to remove if you want to switch colors or return the pen to its original form.
The Sport is a great writer, available with nibs ranging from extra-fine to double broad. My own Sport is a double broad, and I love this nib on the Sport. It's not too broad for everyday writing, and is extremely smooth.
Spare nib units are also available in a variety of colors, styles, and materials, ranging in price from $15 for the simple steel nibs, all the way up to $210 for Bi-Color 14k gold. Calligraphy nibs are $15 for 1.1 mm, 1,5 mm, 1.9 mm, or 2,3 mm stub, and $34 for a twin nib. (The twin nib features three tines with a slight recess in the central tine. This produces wide and narrow parallel lines with each stroke, to create lovely scrollwork or shadow writing!)
You can get a converter that fits the Sport, or use standard international short cartridges, which are available from many different brands, including Kaweco's own cartridges, Diamine, Graf von Faber-Castell, Monteverde, Pelikan, Montblanc, and more. The mini converter doesn't hold a lot of ink, but it works extremely well, and I really like it!
The Kaweco Sport is not for everyone. Many people find it too small or too lightweight. It's 0.33 oz / 9 grams when empty, and the capped length is 10.6 cm / 4.2 inches, while the posted length 13.1 cm / 5.2 inches. At full length, the Sport is almost the exact same length as a Lamy AL-Star or Safari (with the Lamys' caps not posted). The grip section is considerably shorter than the Lamy pens' long grip, however. If you have large hands, you probably won't like it, but, for me the pen is comfortable, and I love how practical, playful, and portable it is.
The Faber-Castell Hexo isn't as well-known as the other pens on my list, but it's one of my favorite pens, and I've probably used it more than any of the others. I usually carry my Hexo with me in the store, and it's my go-to pen to show customers who are looking for an exceptionally comfortable writing experience.
I've already written a lot about the Hexo, so if you want to read an even more in-depth story about this pen, check out my original article, "My Unexpected Love Affair with the Faber-Castell Hexo." Suffice to say, I am not exaggerating when I declare 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.
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, and it's my pen of choice when I need to take notes at pen shows, because I know I'll feel at ease the minute I pick it up. Hexo is my comfort pen.
We sell the Hexo for $44, so it's not a cheap pen, but it isn't "next level," either. 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. A customer 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!
I have been using my Hexo almost continuously for over a year and a half, and I don't baby it. 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. I pair my Hexo with a converter (only $6 extra), so I can use any ink I want. My favorite inks in my Hexo are the Sailor Pigmented ones, Seiboku (a pretty blue with lots of shading), Souboku (blue-black), and Kiwa-Guro (black). They are waterproof inks with nano-particles that bond with the fibers of your paper, have nice sheen, and are incredibly compatible with this pen. A few of the inks I've tried in Hexo have been too wet and the line has looked too thick and dark, but try the Hexo with drier ink like Sailor, Pelikan, or Montblanc for a joyous writing experience.
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 other shades are nice, too. The deep Blue is especially attractive and sells out regularly, and the Bronze is an unusual suave mocha. The Silver looks sleek and futuristic, with its matching clip, and of course it's hard to go wrong with Matte Black. I'm still hoping Faber-Castell will come out with a Frosted Orchid Hexo, but, for now, the current colors are pretty nice.
I have to admit, I'm not usually a fan of demonstrator pens. I know many people love them, but their transparent bodies just don't appeal to me aesthetically. My TWSBI Diamond Mini is the exception, and I think it's because I love the look and feel of the faceted diamond texture on the barrel so much. I get a lot of pleasure out of gently turning the pen in my hand, holding the ever-changing surface lightly between my thumb and forefinger, watching the facets catch the light and reflect back nearby colors the way a diamond does.
Although it's not a pen that fits my usual aesthetic, I grew to love the Diamond Mini more and more as I got to know it. The big appeal of TWSBI (rhymes with frisbee) fountain pens is their piston ink-filling mechanism, and the Diamond Mini's clear body allows you to understand how the filling mechanism works because you can see it right through the barrel. I chose a broad nib for my Diamond Mini specifically so I could use beautiful shimmering inks (my favorite in my pen is Colorverse Hayabusa Glistening), and being able to see the ink helps me know if the shimmer particles are well distributed. I love turning the pen in my fingers to mix the particles when they settle to the bottom.
Being able to fill your pen directly from a bottle without needing a cartridge or converter is usually a feature only available in higher end pens, but TWSBI makes it accessible, and, despite its compact size, the Diamond Mini holds about 1.0 ml of ink. (Most cartridges hold between 0.7 and 1.2 ml.) It's easy to fill and very reliable.
The Mini isn't quite as compact as the Kaweco Sport (10.6 cm / 4.2 inches), but it's pretty small when it's closed, at 11.2 cm / 4.4 inches. Mini's cap is designed to be posted, and screws securely onto threads at the top of the filling knob at the back of the pen. When posted, its length is 13.9 cm / 5.5 inches (vs. 13.1 cm / 5.2 inches for the Sport). This length is very comfortable in my hand, and it feels well balanced. I love how secure the screwed-on cap feels. The Diamond Mini is a heavier pen than the Sport, at 0.69 oz / 20 grams when empty, as opposed to Sport's 0.33 oz / 9 grams.
The Diamond Mini is available in a few different versions, several of which break the $50 barrier, but the black-capped Classic and completely Clear models are both exactly $50. I actually own the TWSBI Diamond Mini AL in Grape, which has aluminum accents instead of plastic and is $10 more and slightly heavier, but that's okay. If I were to get another Diamond Mini, I'd go for the Classic model because I like the solid-colored cap, grip, and filler knob.
The clear plastic cap on my own pen isn't my favorite, because I don't especially like seeing the upper lining or little drops of ink that sometimes get stuck inside the cap, but I do like seeing the metallic purple grip through the cap, so, overall, I guess that's a draw.
If you love tinkering, this is the pen for you. Even if (like me) you don't, don't worry. Like other TWSBIs, its packaging includes a wrench, silicone grease, and manual with pictures that encourage you to take the pen apart and put it back together, but you don't need to do that unless you want to. When I first got my Diamond Mini, a TWSBI-loving customer guided me through the process just so I could have the experience, but I've never felt the need or desire to do it again.
TWSBIs use nice smooth JoWo nibs that are available in EF, F, M, B, stub 1.1 widths, and customers love owning them in a variety of nib sizes so they can use different TWSBIs with different inks and for different purposes. Broad and stub nib TWSBIs are especially popular for people who like to experiment with shimmer inks because they don't easily clog and because it's so beautiful to see your pretty ink glistening inside the barrel. Extra fine, fine, and medium are perfect as daily writers, and customers love keeping different ink colors in each pen, so they have a selection to inspire them as they go about their week. People love them as daily carry pens because they're compact, perform well, hold a lot of ink for their size, and aren't painful to replace if the pen gets lost, stolen, or damaged. If you do want to change out the nib, replacement nib units for the Diamond Mini are available in all the original nib sizes, for $20, and buying extra nibs is very popular with TWSBI owners.
The pen feels sturdy and has an intelligent and ageless look, neither whimsical nor stodgy. There's just something about it that's hard to pin down. It's an endearing pen with a lot of personality. It's nothing like the other pens in my collection, but I'm very fond of it.
I own many pens in the $100-$600 range, but the low-cost Pilot Metropolitan, Lamy AL-Star, Kaweco Sport, Faber-Castell Hexo, and TWSBI Diamond Mini are all still favorites in my pen case. Between these five pens, you have a world of colors to choose from, and shapes, sizes, materials, filling mechanisms, and nibs to explore for years, whether you're just beginning your fountain pen journey or looking for an enjoyable diversion along the way. Have fun and don't be afraid to experiment!
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