Last year, with a gentleness I didn’t know I was capable of, I coaxed my best friend into overcoming her lifelong fear of lipstick, helping her choose colors for herself, teaching her how to apply and blot. In late January, an oblong package from her showed up at my door. It was the TWSBI Diamond 580ALR, a sleek but hefty fountain pen with an aluminum grip and a finely engraved metal nib, the kind that needs to be manually filled with ink from a bottle. “If you love color this much in makeup, then you’ll love this” were my friend’s somewhat cryptic words accompanying the gift.
I’ve spent much of my life being ridiculed for my troglodyte-like insistence on writing everything — to-do lists, story drafts, edits, notes to myself — by hand. In my formative years at a cordoned-off boarding school in a hillside town in India, internet access was strictly forbidden, so until around 2010, I handwrote exams and communicated with my parents and one close friend outside of school by writing several-page letters in an ugly, illegible scrawl. I took a pugnacious sort of pride in my foul handwriting, making teachers and professors (and parents and friends) despair over my Es that were not differentiable from my Rs. But it took only a few strokes on a page to notice that the TWSBI fountain pen somehow instantly gave my script an innate dignity, no matter how ham-fistedly I put pen to paper.
Writing with a tool as hefty as this is what I imagine coasting in a luxury car at full speed on the Autobahn must feel like. TWSBI is an offshoot of a Taiwanese company called TaShin Precision that once manufactured everything from writing instruments to Lego parts. The 580 is a love letter to the internet’s fountain-pen obsessives, with every detail — from the metal used in the piston to the grip of the pen’s body — crowdsourced from their input. It uses engraved German stainless-steel nibs that come in a variety of sizes, from a needle-thin extra fine for those who prefer their strokes slim and elegant to a broad nib for those (like me) who like their scrawls thick and bold. My favorite, however, is the 1.1 Stub, an angled nib that produces the most elegant italics with just the lightest pressure from my hand, gliding across the paper with a smoothness and flow that belies its very reasonable price. Built for the tinkerer, each pen comes with a little plastic nib and piston grease, which are meant to encourage the writer to take apart and reassemble their instrument while cleaning it and ensuring its longevity.
In their care and maintenance, fountain pens demand a certain discipline. But in return, they transform even the dreariest of written tasks into a joyful experience. Now I spend most mornings with my head bent over a row of ink bottles arranged by color, slowly flushing yesterday’s ink out of the pen before filling it with a new one and wiping down the nib with the unshakable concentration of a suburban dad tinkering away at that car he’s been restoring for years in his garage.
As my friend suspected, the colors of the various inks I’ve bought are far more interesting to behold than any shade of lipstick. My grocery lists, written in Pilot’s Iroshizuku Yama-budo ink, a vampiric blackish blood red, could be confused for the Magna Carta. Written with J. Herbin’s Émeraude de Chivor ink, the reminder to “Scoop the cat’s litter box” shimmers with golden flecks, making the unglamorous chore appear, at least on paper, slightly more glamorous. The silvery storm-cloud gray of Sailor Studio 123 ink flowing through the TWSBI’s nib makes pages of meeting notes, no matter how angrily taken, seem more like an ancient love letter. The TWSBI Diamond 580ALR was my gateway into what has since become a fountain-pen obsession, one that has led me to acquire a small arsenal of pens from different makers across different continents. But not even the Visconti Voyager or the Sailor 1911L, considered aspirational in the world of collectors, can match the impeccably smooth flow of my beloved workhorse.
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