EVERYBODY knows you can buy a fairly good ballpoint pen for a quarter or a felt-tip pen for a buck. So why do some people spend $25, $100, or $250 to buy a fountain pen? ``A fine pen is made to help a person write better,'' says Marilyn Brown, manager of the International Pen Shop at Arthur Brown & Bro. in New York. ``You can write all day and not tire. A well-balanced pen feels good in your hand. It lets you write with a gliding motion, with a freedom unlike any other writing tool.''
What kinds of people are buying fountain pens these days?
``Almost everybody,'' says Ms. Brown, whose shop carries pens ranging in price from $18 to more than $8,000. ``Our customers include everybody from firemen to doctors, from actors to lawyers, from diplomats to secretaries.''
Bruce Kelly, a physician practicing family medicine in Asheville, N.C., says that finding ways to make everyday tasks like note-taking more enjoyable helps him cope with a hectic schedule.
``When I'm taking or transcribing information from my patients,'' Dr. Kelly said, ``writing with my fountain pen somehow helps the day go a little more smoothly.''
Some buyers want a thicker pen; others choose a slimmer one. Some want a feather-light writing tool; others favor a heavy, solid pen.
``Writing with a fountain pen is almost like automatic writing,'' says Molly Pace, who works at Malaprop's Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville when not at college studying for a teaching certificate. ``It's as though your thoughts are connected to your hand and flowing through your pen.''
``I have a pen fetish,'' admits Ms. Pace. She uses her Waterman Executive - charged with black or (occasionally) purple ink - for writing letters and poetry. She says that the prospect of writing with a fountain pen makes it easier to face school assignments she'd just as soon not write.
Some pen fanciers select a lustrous black pen with discreet gold trim; others look for a pen finished in colorful lacquer, wood grain, tortoise shell, or gold or silver plate.
A well-made pen with a fine finish is more than just a writing implement, says Lisa Morrow, product manager at Pelikan, Inc. She describes Pelikan's hand-crafted, gold and silver Toledo model ($579) as ``a piece of jewelry you can write with.'' And this isn't even the ultra-expensive end of the spectrum, with its solid-gold, custom-made pens.
But you don't have to spend that kind of money to get a pen made with gold. Brown says that the nibs (points) of well-made but inexpensive fountain pens ($50 and under) are often made of steel covered by a thin layer of gold plate.
Better fountain pens ($50 and up) usually have nibs made of solid gold. It's the softness and flexibility of the gold that make a fine fountain pen write with a smooth, flowing, gliding feeling. Don't worry that the soft gold will wear down as you write. The pellet of the gold-nib pen - the tip that touches the paper - is made of a super-tough metal such as an iridium alloy.
Pen nibs come in point sizes and styles ranging from ``needle point'' to ``extra fine'' to ``oblique medium'' to ``extra-extra broad.'' Generally, people whose handwriting is small prefer a narrower point; folks who write with larger strokes (or who like to sign their name with a dramatic flourish) go for a broader point.
Zoe Rhine of Malaprop's recently earned her master of fine arts in creative writing from Goddard College. Ms. Rhine uses peacock-blue ink for writing letters. She changes to black ink for writing short stories, which draw on her passion for literature and psychology. ``I like writing with a fountain pen,'' she said. ``I like the way it feels and the way it looks.''
In this age of word processors and laser printers, why would somebody buy a pen whose basic design (though refined and enhanced by modern technology) is rooted in the 1920s?
``Today, there's an upsurge of interest in fountain pens,'' says Nancy Gaitz of Pen World, a magazine for pen collectors and enthusiasts. ``People thought that with the advent of computers, interest in writing instruments would decline. But people buy fine fountain pens to make a personal statement about writing - and about themselves.''
Brown agrees. ``People want to get back to the basics of writing.'' Besides, she says, ``You don't want to write an important letter or sign a major contract with a throwaway pen.''