Last Thursday and Friday we had a very exciting event at our store: a visit from Cary Yeager of Kenro Industries. Kenro is the US distributor for some of the most interesting and innovative brands that we carry (Aurora, Esterbrook, Montegrappa, Otto Hutt, Pininfarina, and ystudio), so when store owner Leena told me about Cary's upcoming visit, I knew right away that I wanted to write a blog article about it and share what it was like from my point of view. I hope you will enjoy this story featuring Cary's picks and insights, plus my own views on his recommended pens.
In the store, we started preparing for the event a few days before Cary arrived by announcing his visit on social media and making sure all our Kenro brands' displays were fully stocked with one model of each pen in each color variation. We are always receiving new products, and just as quickly selling those that we already have, so it can be hard to keep every display case up to date, and sometimes we have pens in our warehouse that we haven't been able to put on display yet. We knew customers would be coming in to specifically look at the Kenro pens, so we wanted people to be able to see them all and look at their details up close, hold them in their hands to get a feel for the size, weight, and texture, and have an opportunity to dip test the nibs.
When Cary rolled in on Thursday with his big purple hard-sided suitcase, he came equipped with materials to update all five levels of our Esterbrook cabinet, including new display trays and backdrop art. In addition to representing all the brands I mentioned, Kenro owns Esterbrook, so they design, produce, and sell Esterbrook as well as distributing it. While Austin and I helped customers, dealt with the day's new items, and worked on creating Instagram content, Aurora and Cary dismantled the Esterbrook display and made it look nicer than ever. We were all very busy working on our own tasks, so although I greeted Cary when he came in, and brought him through to the customer service area to see Joy, I didn't get to interact with him very much until the afternoon. I've only been with Pen Boutique since November, so I had just met Cary one time before, unlike Joy and Aurora, who have known him for years and were very happy to see him again.
(One little piece of our updated Esterbrook display. Photographing pens inside a cabinet is tricky!)
While I was on my lunch break, I told myself to be more assertive about talking to Cary! I got my opportunity when Shriya, store owner Leena's daughter, told me she wanted to record a TikTok video with him. I thought that was a great idea and encouraged her to go for it! I quickly finished my coffee and grabbed my Maruman Mnemosyne A5 notebook and Hexo pen so I could take notes while watching.
Shriya's interview with Cary was awesome--she asked him the same questions I was wondering about, including his favorite pen that we carry from each Kenro brand. I snapped a quick photo of the pens and wrote down what they were, so I could blog about them in this article later.
After Shriya's interview, all the teammates who were able to attend came into the store so Cary could teach us more about the Kenro brands. Austin, Shriya, Evan, Amber, Aurora and I gathered around while Cary showed us his zippered leather cases full of gorgeous pens and briefly discussed each brand. He shared cool details we might not already know, including telling us about the brands' latest innovations and products that would be coming soon. There was a lot of information to take in, so I took notes and asked a lot of questions!
Some of the pens Cary showed us hadn't been released yet, and others were ones we already carry in the store and are quite familiar with. I was happy to see my favorite Otto Hutt models, intriguingly lying beside a new brand I hadn't met yet: Pininfarina. We were about to start carrying this exciting Italian brand, and it was our first introduction!
My colleagues started oooo-ing and ahhh-ing over several of the unreleased Esterbrook pens, but Cary warned me not to share photos of those yet, so you'll just have to wait for them to come out. (Sorry!) They are very colorful, including their nibs! [Edit: they have just been released! They are the Northern Lights Camdens.]
Cary was very enthusiastic about all six brands, and it was thrilling hearing him talk. He started with ystudio, an exciting new brand we just started carrying a few months ago. Ystudio is from Taipei, Taiwan and has been in business for 10 years. Cary told us they love to do things differently than everyone else, a revelation that immediately piqued my interest, as I feel the same way! (I think a lot of us here at Pen Boutique do.) None of their pens can be posted, and this design choice is part of their aesthetic. The many-sided caps are made to not roll away.
Their current pens are all metal, highlighting the beauty of brass and copper. Cary told us that these pens are remarkably well-built and durable, and that, of all the ystudio pens purchased over the past two years, only two have been sent in for repairs. Wow! He also told us that they have the nicest converter (which he showed to us proudly), and all use a Schmidt nib. It's a push converter, not threaded, and he informed us as a point of trivia that Italian brands generally use threaded converters. Interesting!
Some of ystudio's pens are coated with lacquer coloring that is meant to gradually wear off with use and reveal the brass underneath, so that each pen develops its own personality unique to the user. I love this concept. They provide emery paper (a very fine sandpaper) in the package so you can accelerate this process and create a personalized brassing effect. My team mate Evan commented that the pen will look "experienced." Great description!
The un-coated pens, like the solid brass model of the Classic, also develop a look unique to the user as they patina over time, based on the amount of oil and acidity in your hands. The Classic has no clip, and has a click cap that Cary demonstrated with a grin, noting that it "sounds great!" (Evan agreed, "The click is very important.") I tried it myself at home later and can confirm: the click is remarkable.
Ystudio also makes unique portable pens and desk pens, rare in the modern fountain pen world. The portable pens are designed to be hung around your neck or attach to your bag with a leather cord. The pen that comes with a sturdy black maple protective case is designed so that the cap stays with the case when you open it. Very innovative! The desk pen comes with a beautiful matching stand (made of brass or copper) and has no cap. It is made to sit on your desk and be unsheathed from the stand when you want to use it. The stand acts as a cap for the pen when you aren't writing with it, and the ink dries out just as slowly as in a normal capped pen.
Cary's pick for his favorite ystudio pen was the solid brass model of the Classic (discussed above), so I brought one home to photograph and try for myself. This pen has a cool contrasting top and bottom finial in copper. I love the unusual minimalist design and the elemental look of the brass. I wish I could travel into the future to see how this pen will look when it develops its own unique patina after someone buys it and loves it! (You can also restore the pen to its original luster by wiping with brass polish, if desired.)
This pen has a gold-plated #5 Schmidt steel nib that is smooth as butter.
Ystudio's unusual design choices aren't for everyone, but if you love to try pens that are outside the norm, I can definitely endorse this pen. It has a nice solid weight (1.6 oz with cap, 1.0 oz uncapped) without feeling too heavy, and is extremely well balanced in the hand. You'll hate it you're one of those people who only likes thick pens, but I'm not one of those people, and the slim size feels very nice in my hand... similar to my Otto Hutt Design 04. Ystudio pens aren't that expensive, so this is a great brand to look at if you'd like to experience something new and different without breaking the bank.
Cary's pick for favorite Aurora pen was the Optima done in their own Auroraloid material. As is the case with all their pens, its nib is made in-house. This breathtaking pen has a 14K gold nib with an ebonite feed and piston fill. Cary commented, "Beautiful pen, beautiful clip!"
He told us that Aurora has been family-owned since its inception. It was founded in 1919 by textile merchant Isaia Lev, and its fountain pens are still manufactured in their original factory in Turin (Torino), Northern Italy. They make every part of their pens in-house under one roof, including making their own nibs from scratch, which is very old school. The Optima is machine cut and finished by hand, then its ebonite feed is soaked in ink for 24 hours in the factory so that it is already saturated when you receive it, because ebonite is a porous material and needs time to adjust before use. Your new pen will always have some residue from this thoughtful initial soaking, even though they clean it before shipping it out. The nib/feed sections are exceptionally easy to clean because they can be completely disassembled, as Cary dramatically demonstrated to us. This pen's clear ink window right below the comfortable flared resin grip is also a very thoughtful and lovely feature.
The Optima felt perfect in my hand and I loved its classic look and large beautiful nib. The marbled resin Auroraloid material looks like vintage celluloid, and I found the burgundy model Cary picked out to be especially breathtaking in the sunlight, where the true depth of color was revealed and the pen positively gleamed. We have the Optima in many other gorgeous variations as well, including some exquisite new colors that will be released soon and are available for pre-order.
I dip-tested each of Cary's picks at home with Aurora Blue ink, and wrote with them on Tomoe River paper in Yamamoto Paper's Japanese Paper Sample Book. (I am ELATED that we have this amazing paper sampler back on our shelves!) I chose Aurora Blue for my tests because Cary told me his favorite inks are Waterman inks, especially Florida Blue (now called Serenity Blue), along with Aurora Blue and Aurora Black. I was thrilled that he agrees with me about how great Waterman inks are (I wrote a whole blog article about it!) but since this is a Kenro-themed article, I wanted to use an Aurora ink. I have enjoyed Aurora Black (an incredibly deep, rich, smooth black) in my Pilot Metropolitan, but hadn't tried Aurora Blue until now. It is lovely, and is definitely an ink I will be returning to again and again in the future. Just one caveat: Cary warned me that these inks are hard to wash off your hands, which I did find to be true. I take pride in having inky hands, so I didn't really care.
Montegrappa is another fun brand to learn about, and has many things in common with Aurora but definitely has its own personality. It's an Italian company that was founded in 1912, and its products are still manufactured in their original factory in Bassano del Grappa, on the river Brenta, near Vicenza in the prosperous northeastern part of Italy.
Montegrappa has lots of themed pens that are tributes to elements of popular culture like Monopoly, Harry Potter, NASA, and Lord of the Rings. (They also make extremely nice inks.) People are sometimes surprised by the prices of these pens, but part of what makes them expensive is that you are paying for the brand trademark (Harry Potter, etc.).
The themed pens are very well done and are extremely cool, but my favorite Montegrappa pens are "about writing," as Cary puts it. These serious pen lovers' lines include the Elmo (named for Heinrich "Elmo" Helm’s design from the 1920s), the Ammiraglio, the Extra 1930, the Miya, and the ZERO. I still remember Cary showing us the ZERO Cityscape in "Meteor Shower" during his store visit on November 18th, a couple weeks after I first started working at Pen Boutique. I immediately fell in love with that pen and have been admiring it ever since. I took this photo that morning.
Cary showed us a beautiful striated material they call "Montegrappite," an artisanal resin made in-house that is used in the ZERO series. I can't wait to receive the new Art Deco style Elmo 02 pens also made from this material. [Update: We just got them in, as I mentioned above! Yay!]
(More fascinating Montegrappa color combo samples!)
Cary's "favorite pen" choice for Montegrappa was the Elmo 01 Ambiente Kaleido, made with recycled resin. Every one of them is completely unique because of the mixture they make it from, and they use a #6 JoWo nib, branded for Montegrappa, of course.
He also pointed out that their clips have a wheel on the end to make it easy to get in and out of your pocket, a design feature I have always admired and especially love.
To create the Elmo Ambiente Kaleido, Montegrappa collaborated with Smile Plastics, a Welsh studio specializing in innovative architectural surfaces, whose client list includes many of the leading names in eco-conscious design and fashion. This beautiful material is translucent and resembles the brightly colored and continuously changing patterns in a kaleidoscope.
Once again, I loved the feel of this pen and how it wrote, and I would happily own one. It has a nice weight and balance both posted and not, and a girth that is neither too slim nor too thick in my hand. Most of all, looking at all the colors makes me happy.
Montegrappa's current pens that have steel nibs all use revered JoWo nibs in standard JoWo nib sizes. JoWo nibs are among the best German-made steel nibs available today and they are used by many of the finest pen manufacturers, including Diplomat, Edison Pens, Montegrappa, Rosetta, Rotring, Stipula, Waterford, and many others. Montegrappa also uses a threaded German Schmidt converter and their fountain pen, rollerball, and ballpoint styles all match the "Parker Style" Schmidt.
I've already written an in-depth blog article focusing on Otto Hutt, so I'm not going to talk quite as much about this brand, which I love very much. Please read my other article if you haven't already. It's one of my favorites! I did learn some new things about Otto Hutt from Cary, though. "Otto Hutt" is properly pronounced sort of like "Auto Hoot." They are very German and exact (I knew that, of course; it's evident the moment you pick up one of their precisely engineered pens), and they have made their pens in-house for over 100 years. Cary revealed that Otto Hutt actually makes entire brands for other brands, and that most major brands with pens over $500 have worked with Otto Hutt for parts. Woah. Although they aren't very well known in the US, they are clearly extremely respected in the fine pen world! Otto Hutt uses JoWo nibs made specifically for them.
Cary's favorite in Otto Hutt is the "really pretty" blue and platinum Design 04 Wave pen, and he commented that he loves that you can post it without scratching, even though it's a metal pen. I was extremely pleased by his choice, as I own a Design 04 myself (in a different color) and it's one of my nicest pens. The streamlined minimalism of the Bauhaus shape is perfect.
The thin threads in the Wave design appear simultaneously random and harmonious.
I have to admit, Cary's choice of the Blue Wave is even more beautiful than the pen I own. I especially love the way the light catches the design in the barrel. The shiny silver parts of the pen reflect nearby colors, as in this photo where the pen appears to contain red.
Look at that sparkle in the low illumination of an indoor room! Mesmerizing. This pen's steel nib is extremely smooth and quite wet, but also feels precise and has a little bit of "tooth." It's nothing like your typical hard steel nib and I have never regretted buying the steel version. The Design 04 is also available with an 18K gold nib, if you prefer a bouncier, luxurious feel and a little line width variation.
I'm not sure why, but I hardly took any notes on what Cary told us about Esterbrook! Maybe he didn't talk very much about this brand because it's already very well known and loved. The Esterbrook Pen Company was founded by English immigrant Richard Esterbrook in 1858, and was based in Camden, New Jersey. It was the largest pen manufacturer in the United States during its heyday, and thrived for a hundred years.
Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Lyndon B. Johnson signed legislation with their Esterbrook pens, as did John F. Kennedy. As the Esterbrook website recalls, "Famous Disney artist Carl Banks brought Donald Duck to life with an Esterbrook No 356. Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz used the No 914 for all his comics. All the while millions of students grew up learning to write using Esterbrook pens."
The Esterbrook brand slowly declined, and ceased operation in 1971, but it was revived in 2014 and acquired by Kenro in 2018. Esterbrook moved to the Kenro headquarters in Mineola, NY and is now flourishing again in its new incarnation. Esterbrook is a very playful brand that somehow manages to juggle both vintage appeal and a youthful eye for the extremely bright and colorful. Their modern pens include the Pheaton, the Camden, the small and cute Esterbrook JR (inspired by their popular vintage J pens), and the Estie.
They have fun accessories like washi tape, wine charms, pen nooks and book holders, and also make an adaptor that allows you to use vintage Esterbrook nibs in modern Esterbrook pens. These nibs were so widely used in the past and came in so many different styles that they are still very easy to find online or at pen shows, and you can even buy "new old stock" vintage nib units. These old nibs are very fun to try, and will work with the converter in the modern Estie pen.
Modern Esterbrook pens don't have quite as insanely long a list of possible nib choices as the vintage models did, but they do have a lot. They use a JoWo #6 nib, and we carry Extra-fine, Fine, Medium, Broad, 1.1 Stub, Journaler, and Scribe. The Journaler is a “medium stub grind, based on the vintage Esterbrook 9314M nib. The idea is that it’s smooth and friendly enough for everyday use, gives your writing some flair, all without being too huge for practical writing." It was created for Esterbrook by Gena Salorino of the Custom Nib Studio. The Scribe nib was created by nibmeister Josh Lax, and is Josh’s take on an architect nib. This nib "gives the writer the flexibility of fine downstrokes and broad horizontal strokes and can also be used in reverse for additional variation." These are both very cool nibs to try and I love that Esterbrook allows us the option of experimenting with unusual nibs like this at a reasonable price and without having to take our pens to be re-ground by a nibmeister.
(My team mate Ellen trying different Estie nib sizes.)
Cary told Shriya that Esterbrook is his favorite brand, simply because he has a hand in designing and helping manufacture them, including decisions about colors, which is a lot of fun. His favorite Esterbrook that we carry is the Estie Sea Glass with gold trim.
The Estie line is especially popular with our customers, too, and comes in a myriad of color variations, including some that are very sparkly! They are made from blended and turned acrylic with a high polished finish and feature a springy cushion cap closure that provides a secondary seal to ensure a wet point. These pens are available in both regular and oversized versions. Cary demonstrated to us how to post them securely: place the cap on the end of the pen and push while turning.
I agree with Cary that the Sea Glass variation is the most beautiful. It is also perfectly named.
I selected an Estie with a fine nib. Cary told me that his personal favorite nib size is extra-fine because he does a lot of journaling and writes really small. The fine nib was plenty fine enough for me and felt nice and precise. It was firm but not scratchy at all. Esterbrook's nibs are very true to size and there is a distinct difference between each nib size, unlike in some brands.
Cary also briefly showed us a very intriguing Kenro brand that our store didn't carry: Pininfarina Segno. I wasn't aware until Joy told me the next day that we were about to begin offering these amazing-looking futuristic pens.
Pininfarina is best known as a car design and body-making firm, and their headquarters are in Cambiano, Turin, Italy. The company was founded by Battista "Pinin" Farina in 1930, and they became world-renowned for their unforgettable designs for Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Fiat, GM, Lancia, Maserati, and Peugeot. They also design other sorts of vehicles like airplanes, yachts, and trains, and do industrial design, interior design, architecture, and graphic design.
When I asked Cary about Pininfarina later, he told me, "Starting from its roots and from the solid reputation achieved during 90 years of glorious history, Pininfarina has confirmed its role as standard-bearer of the aesthetic values of Italian design in the world. Today’s activities are focused on design (automotive and non-automotive), engineering services (product development, testing, prototype construction) and production of small series like pens or exclusive high quality cars."
Cary didn't choose a favorite Pininfarina pen during Shriya's interview, but I e-mailed him later to ask him if he'd pick one so I could include it in my article. He selected the blue Novanta, but we hadn't received one in yet, so he switched his choice to the blue PF Two. I'm secretly glad, because I love the PF Two and, weirdly enough, when I looked back at my old photos from Cary's store visit in November, one of the first photographs I had taken was of my hand cradling a blue PF Two. How I could have forgotten such a striking pen mystifies me, but I was overwhelmed with new information at that point, so I guess it's not so surprising.
PF Two may actually be my favorite pen of all the ones I brought home to try this week. Maybe I'm just dazzled by how cool and different it is, but I don't think so. While I had it at home, I recorded a video for Instagram showing off some of its attractive features including the great packaging. I love the sensuous sleek and streamlined shape with lines like an Italian racecar, the texture of its aluminum body, the shade of blue, the font used in the logo, and the way the cap slides off and on, settling into position on its own volition with a magnetic snap. My very favorite thing about the pen is the clip, which sits flush to the pen but will easily lift with a fingernail, pivoting so that you can attach your PF Two securely to a shirt pocket or the cover of a notebook. This clip is extremely satisfying and fun to play with.
The PF Two also writes like a dream. We only received one in the store so far, and it has a broad nib, which is extremely juicy and so smooth that I laughed out loud at the joy of writing with it.
Of all the pens I tried and loved, this was the one that made my heart beat faster.
Later in the afternoon after our training was over and many of the staff had gone home, I had the opportunity to have a long talk with Cary during a lull when the store was quiet. He's extremely nice and I learned a lot! The first thing you realize when you start talking to Cary is how much he loves pens and how knowledgable he is about them. Cary was a fountain pen aficionado long before he started representing Kenro, and his personal collection is filled with rare pens and custom grinds. He's been collecting for twelve years now, and established an identity for himself in the pen community as "Fountain Pen Day." He is still active as Fountain Pen Day and you've probably seen some of his great posts on Instagram.
Cary wears many hats in his role at Kenro. He divides his time between selling, website work, product development, shipping, and a lot of time on the road going to pen shows, stores, and events. It was so cool to hear about some of his worldwide pen adventures and the amazing masters he has met. Although I could barely comprehend some of the next-level details he told me, his enthusiasm is contagious and I immediately wanted to know more and learn more.
We talked a lot about his experiences at pen shows and how valuable they are. I have never been to a pen show, and, although I love chatting with customers one-on-one, I am actually a very introverted person, so I've never been sure how I'd feel in a setting like that. Cary assured me that most pen lovers are introverts and feel the same way, and that you just have to go for it (and make sure to take breaks so you don't get overwhelmed). Once you start talking to people, you find out that the fountain pen community is incredibly nice, and there is so much to learn from your fellow pen enthusiasts. He told me that some of the best parts take place after-hours, when you can just hang out with other show attendees, discuss pens, paper, ink, and accessories, and find out what others are excited about. The fountain pen community loves to share, and people often offer to show you their collections and let you try their pens, inks, and paper. I'm not sure when I'll have the chance to attend a pen show, but now it's something definitely I want to do!
I had a little taste of a pen show type experience the next day, when we had our Kenro store event. It was one of my most exhausting days at work, but also the most exhilarating. We started the day preparing for Cary's visit by making signs about our store specials and recording a video about the raffle we were offering for a silver Esterbrook Camden and fun Esterbrook swag.
When Cary arrived at 11:00 and set up his spread of pens, the Kenro brands fans began arriving, too, and we had a steady steam of great customers all day, including many of my very favorites.
The customers didn't just come to buy pens and inks, but also to talk. Many of them brought a pen case with pens from their own collections and had a great time showing them to me, to Cary, and to other customers, generously offering to let others try them. Everyone seemed to magically become instant friends, whether they had ever met before or not. I was "on" all day, chatting with everyone and asking if I could take photos.
Joy, Shriya, Austin, and I quickly posed for a photo with Cary that Liz, one of our favorite customers, offered to take. I have a wild look in my eyes!
I had Shriya and Austin by my side for part of the day, but they had to leave in the early afternoon, so I was on my own, with help from Joy and Renee R. in the back, who came up to the store to give me a hand at times when things got too busy for one person to handle.
It was intense, but I loved it! The store was full of such positive energy. Everyone was in a good mood, talking about their experiences meeting Cary at various pen shows, asking me about inks, buying new pens they had just discovered, and joyfully filling out tickets to try their luck with the raffle.
At the end of the day, we finally had a quiet half hour, and I was able to talk with Cary again and learn more about how he developed his career and what it involves. It was fascinating and inspiring. When I left work, I was wiped out, but proud of my stamina and very happy, looking forward to more discoveries in the world of pens!