Avoiding the Pitfalls: A Graduation Pen Guide


Acme Rollerball Pen

Hey folks! Guest blogger Tracy McCusker is back again. This time with some great suggestions for graduation gift pen ideas with a step by step outline of what to look for and a list of favorites at the end. Take a look.

The graduation season is upon us.  Big box stores are sprouting pyramids of seasonal pen sets.  Pen shops, usually empty but for pen connoisseurs, welcome the flocking parents & loved ones looking for the traditional graduation gift: a respectable and luxe pen to signify success and future professionalism.

In my opinion, pens make for the best graduation gifts for high-schoolers, college grads, professional school grads and beyond.  Pens are more practical than similarly-styled “executive” items like watches, journals/planners or silver-cast desk stands which in this day and age are style/status statements your graduate may not share. As a parent of a graduate, what looks professional or managerial to you may look outdated or stuffy to them. Luckily, pens can successfully bridge the style gap between “old fashioned” and “stylish”. Even the most paperless adherent can use a good pen to prop up on their desk, or a pen/stylus to interface with paper and technology. A gift pen can embody any range of moods (restrained, luxurious, playful, flashy) that the gift-giver wishes to convey to their graduate.

Despite the burgeoning supply of pens at this time of year, buying a pen does not become appreciably easier during graduation season. The effusion of gift pens aimed directly at graduation gift shoppers if anything make the choice harder. With these issues in mind, I have cribbed a short list of pitfalls that you should avoid to help you select the best pen possible for your grad. And because what guide would be worth their salt without some suggestions, I will give a few suggestions at the end of the article.

 

1. Don’t buy a fountain pen. Do buy a ballpoint or rollerball pen.

If you read enough of this blog, you will know that I am the leading cheerleader for introducing writers to the joys of writing with a nib & ink. However, for a graduation gift, a fountain pen should be off the table. A fountain pen is an investment in time, money, and effort. Fountain pens require upkeep. They also have so many variables that relate to the nib & the writing style that the owner will need to keep in mind, you want to leave all of this baggage for a different purchase. For this purchase, give fountain pens a pass. If you see a fountain pen that has a style you can’t tear your eyes away from, consider buying the rollerball for your graduate instead.

 

2. Don’t shop by price. Do shop by form/function.

The biggest mistake I see when parents set foot in a pen shop for the first time is that they come in with a

Visconti Rembrandt Rollergraphic Pen

set budget (100, 200, whatever dollars) and ask to see pens at the maximum of that price range. Many will confidently exclaim to be taken to the most expensive pen in the store. This is a huge mistake! Not only will the most expensive pen be in the thousand dollar range (rather than the hundred dollar range), expensive does not automatically mean “better looking” or “better writing experience”. Instead, shop by the look and feel of the pen. Look at pens across a range of brands and prices. Try out a skinny Cross Century, a fat Waterman Expert against anything in the Monteblanc line.

If you are looking at pens in an online shop, there are usually guides that break pens by price and other categories (like unique pens or luxury pens). If you are using prices guides, make sure to look at more & less expensive ranges than what you’d ideally like to spend. You never know if the perfect gift may be more or less expensive than you imagine them to be.

Consider very closely what kind of function this pen will serve in the next few years. Will this pen be going to a high school grad who has years of note-taking and dorm-hopping ahead of him/her? Will this pen be going to a college graduate who is looking to go into high-status professional training for business or law? Will this pen be going with a college graduate out into the workforce? What kind of functions will be most useful for each of these scenarios?

 

3. Don’t buy a pen set. Do buy a single good pen.

Pen sets are aimed at graduate gift shoppers looking for a “dignified” pen at a low price. Although these pen sets appear to be nice to graduates who are used to using chewed-up Bics, pen sets are usually fairly cheap-looking affairs. They show their wear easily. While their prices might sway you into thinking that they are a good bargain, I am more wary of the fact that you are usually buying a second-tier brand (like Franklin Covey) that has put a mediocre (and rather bland) pen and pencil together. Pen sets that actually would be worth your money are generally expensive because they are two well-made pens (or pen and pencil) together. A good pen set could be hundreds of dollars more than you will be willing to spend.

Rather, a better use of your gift-buying dollars would be to research a single pen that has been well-engineered, and will still look classy years down the line. If you happen to find this pen in a pen set (Retro 51 has pen sets that are quite classy) and the price is right, then by all means.

 

4. Don’t buy a pen without seeing reviews.

Waterford Metro Rollerball Pen

Buying a pen online can be a tricky affair. Pens that appear fat/large/heavy online may turn out to be thin/small/light in person. Even experienced pen buyers can be surprised. A case in point: I have been buying pens for more than twelve years. When I picked up the Cross Sauvage for the first time in a pen shop, it was surprisingly light and small in my hand. I was, honestly, disappointed by it. I expected heavier and flashier, as most Cross pens fall on the extremes of thin/feather-weight or thick/lead-weight.

If you can, make a trip to a pen shop to view, hold, and compare pens. If a pen shop visit is out of the question, then look for pen reviews that compare the pen’s size and comments on its weight. Or, if you are dealing with an independent seller, ask questions about its feel/size compared to an average hand.

 

5. Don’t buy a pen whose refills will be impossible to find.

This “don’t” has become less important with time, now that online pen shops offer the ease of refill purchases for most to all of the major manufacturers. It is still a truism that Cross, Parker, Waterman and Monteblanc refills are the easiest to find in big box retailers like Staples. Other pen manufacturer refills may be harder to lay hands on. One of the important things to check is what kind of refills are used by the pen. Some second-tier pen brands use Cross refills (as they are actually manufactured by Cross for the mass market but put under a different brand to not tarnish the “luxury” Cross brand).  Certain brands of luxury pens like Libelle and Monteverde are compatible with Parker refills, and can easily be refilled.

But some brands that might be found at vintage pen sellers, or from second-hand retailers may be nearly impossible to track down. A vintage Cross may not be refillable with modern refills. Recife, a French pen brand that does not sell pens in the United States, refills are as common as unicorns. Handmade pens may have similar difficulty—unless the pen maker specifies what kind of refill he or she bases their pens on. Be very wary of “no-name” brands. If you don’t know what a no-name brand might be, do a quick Google search on it.

6. Don’t buy a pen that will be good for one circumstance.  Do look for a pen that will be at home in a range of circumstances.

A “one circumstance” kind of pen is a pen that is usually bright, colorfully, and “moody”—maybe it’s a good note-taker, but it doesn’t look particularly attractive. Or it’s beautiful enough to put on a pedestal but not practical enough to use. Or maybe it’s made from a novelty material (sewed-up leather, chain mail) that only the recipient can appreciate, but isn’t interested in using it in public. A good graduation pen will be one that will be functional for a variety of circumstances: taking it to an interview, using it to take notes, admired on a desk and in their hand.

This is a high order for a single pen to fulfill. It’s one of the reasons that graduation pen sets all start to look the same. A pen that can be used across a range of circumstances usually has a fairly restrained style: a lacquer body, a classic pen profile, chrome or gold appointments. Although I will normally advocate pens that off the beaten path, a graduation pen can be both classically beautiful and fairly unique.

7. Do consider one of the following pens.

This list is by no means extensive. How could it be? Your graduate will have his or her own sense of

Delta Vintage Deep Ocean Blue

style, and practical needs. Do take these into account when selecting a pen. But ultimately, remember, the choice is up to you. Nothing is more surprising and rewarding than a well-thought out gift.

Tombow Object. Good for note taking. Can stand up to abuse. Colorful yet restrained with good lines. Catches the eye with its clean, modern design. It is not a luxury pen. Its silhouette recommends a person is more interested in design, functionality, practicality than unnecessary luxury.

Tombow Ultra. Good for note taking. A step above the Tombow Object in terms of price. With its chrome body, it has more of the classic pen look/feel to it. However, it is clearly not a luxury pen. It appeals to someone who is interested in a pen built to last.

Waterford Pallas. Luxury styling. Fairly fat lines for a wide grip on the pen. Does not look like your average set pen. Available in a wide array of colors, from the tuxedo look of black/chrome to Tortoise shell celluloid patterns. (Currently over 50 percent off in the EE catalog)

Waterford Metro. The clip offers interest on this doughty pen, offered in “classic” Cross colors, like the flighter (silver body with gold appointments), and the black/chrome, blue/chrome combos. The blue/chrome is one of the most attractive of the line. (currently 20 percent off in the EE catalog)

Cross ATX. My personal choice of graduation pen. I’ve given at least ten of these away to friends over the years. Cross are easy  to refill, well-manufactured, able to stand up to decades of abuse. They look classic in any situation.

Delta Vintage. A classy, luxury pen that can be found for under a hundred dollars (for the ballpoint). It has a gorgeous marbled depth that would be at home in the hands of someone that wants to project confidence, taste, and power. (Currently over 20 percent off in the EE catalog)

Visconti Rembrandt. A luxury pen that clocks in around 150 dollars. Their arched clip is distinctive and sets them apart from the field. A Visconti is impossible to forget. The subtle resin in the Rembrandt means that it is a touch playful, even as its styling is at home in the most professional of settings.

I also recommend that you browse around this blog, which has buying advice aimed at other situations but may still yield good recommendations. Check out my previous gift buying guides for Christmas. Just keep in mind that a graduation pen has a different kind of weight attached to it—a quiet dignity, a sense of pride and hard work. A gravitas. Failing that, you could always buy your graduate an Acme pen shaped like a No. 2 pencil.

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