Interacting with other watch enthusiasts, audiophiles and photographers - I’ve found that there are other interests and hobbies a lot of us share in common. Cigars, cars, scotch whisky, pocket knives, mechanical keyboards and the subject of today’s post - fountain pens.
Many of these interests are rooted in the appeal of ‘tools’ or are stereotypically “masculine” pursuits. Focusing on the ‘tools’ we love to collect and obsess over, you’ll find that most of them are nearly obsolete in daily life as there are now various alternatives that are more economical and efficient. Most people just use the free earphones their smartphones shipped with, or the keyboard that happened to be provided with their computer or the nearest available pen.
This shift in consumer demand and preferences has forced on the supply side to adapt and a few to survive by going niche, upmarket or both. So it’s no surprise that while a lot of these items may be rooted in being functional tools, they are today considered luxuries, with an equally great (or greater) emphasis on design and aesthetic appeal. (I’m going to leave aside the whole ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ angle for now).
Lately, I’ve found myself wondering where the balance between form, function, pricing and value lies. Obviously this is highly subjective but it is a question that every collector must contend with at some point. I am one of the few with the unique position of having to ponder this from both the supply (MING) and demand (all my other financial sinkholes) side.
Enter the Porsche Design Tecflex P3100 fountain pen - P3100 from here on for the sake of readability. The Porsche Design branding, while not as entrenched in collective memory as Montblanc, is still rather well known. Some consider it a parasite that mooched off the success of Porsche, while others see it as an interesting new design house with sufficient backing and branding pedigree to make it mainstream. For the most part, PD’s business model operates on them designing a product or collaborating with a well-known designer, subcontracting manufacturing to a renowned player in the relevant industry and then retailing it around the world. Naturally, this means that the adjectives ‘affordable’ or ‘good value’ are rarely associated with the brand - but does this mean that PD’s products are no better than snake oil? Not quite.
My particular sample of the P3100 is from the first generation and manufactured by Faber Castell in Germany. Almost anyone who’s been stationery shopping before has heard of Faber Castell - it’s a well respected brand within enthusiast circles and outside it. Even before unboxing, the expectations for the P3100 are high and there are no concerns of build quality or reliability. After all, one assumes that Faber Castell would not print their name on the box and publicly acknowledge their involvement if they were not confident in the end product.
First impressions remain just as positive when you first pick up the watch - it feels weighty in a reassuring manner. At a little over 50g - posted and inked - this is not surprising and plays very well into the human bias of expecting something expensive and premium to be weighty and solid. Even though I’m aware of this bias, I can’t help but be disappointed when I pick up resin bodied premium fountain pen and find the weight and balance lacking. So kudos to Porsche Design here for taking advantage of the bias without being disingenious. The pen isn’t just heavy, but also balanced and well-finished. A functional piece of art, if you will.
The Tecflex nomenclature is courtesy of the material/process used for the body of the pen which looks and feels like a weave. Under pressure, it does flex a little bit thought the matching rollerball and mechanical pencil exhibit much more flexing. Purely as a tactile object, it is very nice to hold… dare I say, fondle. If I had to find fault with anything visually - it would be the little ball detents on the finial. However, these are necessary for posting the pen without destroying the metal on the finial, so it’s easy to live with.
As expected from a fountain pen at this price point, the nib is an 18ct gold affair - rhodium plated to match the monochromatic colour scheme. The nib design has been kept simple, in fact there isn’t a visible breather hole, which I find oddly appealing. Maybe because it makes you take a second look at the nib during your first encounter as you try to figure out what’s missing. My unit has a medium nib and right out of the box it was smooth with almost zero feedback. It is demanding of the paper you use because the flow is wet and will bleed through easily. Moleskine paper for example is a no go - but it seems quite happy with the paper from Muji’s A5 notebooks (which sell for a ridiculously cheap USD $1.50 or so).
Zero feedback is unfortunately not my preference and I find European medium nibs to be…. a bit boring and dull. Each time I use the pen, I’m tempted to pull out the sandpaper and go to town on the nib. A stub or an oblique would suit this pen very well I think. However, I’ve always held back as I can’t seem to commit to a grind and don’t want to end up overgrinding the nib and making things far worse for myself.
At the start of this post, I rambled about value, pricing and whether function increasingly seems to follow form. I think the P3100 is a good product to explore these questions - it definitely places emphasis on design and is, objectively, not a cheap pen. However, at current market prices, I believe it represents fair value. I can’t find any glaring faults with the pen and have seen no reason to think that design decision have been made at the cost of functionality. I also think the build quality, finish and tactility of the pen lives up to expectations.
So it is possible for a design house to make interesting products that are well-built, genuinely functional and represent fair value (as far as any luxury good can represent fair value) - at least, in the case of the Porsche Design Tecflex P3100 fountain pen.