PICKING up a hand-made, gold-trimmed fountain pen is different from grabbing a two-bit ballpoint. You don't tear open a cardboard-and-plastic blister pack. Instead, you open a fancy box that runs to leatherette or suede cloth. Gently, now. The pen in this box costs about 300 times as much as your 98-cent felt-tip. I took three pens for a ``test drive.''
The Parker Duofold Centennial ($300) combines a classic 1920s design with 1980s penmaking technology. It uses ink cartridges and comes with a converter for using bottled inks. The Duofold I borrowed looked as if it were carved out of blue marble. Trimmed with gold, like all fine fountain pens, it has a solid gold nib. It felt good in my hand and worked flawlessly.
The Montblanc Meisterst"uck 149 (also known as the Masterpiece or Diplomat) is a jet-black, gold-trimmed pen you fill from an ink bottle. It lists for $295. The cigar-shaped pen is thick, weighty, substantial. As I wrote my first sentence with it, I felt as though I were writing with a knackwurst. But by the time I lifted the gold nib at the end of the third sentence I was hooked. To write with a puny ballpoint or felt-tip seemed, by comparison, like writing with a stick of uncooked spaghetti. The big pen seemed to become a natural extension of my hand.
The Pelikan Souver"an (or Sovereign) 800 ($275), another sizable pen, is a hefty, solidly built tool with an ebony-black or green-and-black barrel and gold trim. The internal plunger mechanism that draws the ink into the barrel is made of brass. The flexible gold nib glided across the paper seemingly without effort, leaving a clean black line of writing. This is the pen that felt best in my hand and was the most comfortable to write with.