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Moon Memorandum 02: Pens for the Particular
The only pens you'll ever need, from our singularly biased perspective
At last, a highly-request sequel to our earlier list of Notebooks to Adore & Destroy— this time, pen edition (!)
(Turns out, it takes a long time to study something so wildly unimportant and yet…meaningfully impactful when used day in, day out.)
[Aside: My friends have heard me tell this story ad nauseam, but I recently observed a woman having a John McEnroe-level meltdown in a homewares shop while trying to select a Moroccan rug. After traumatizing the employees with hyper-specific questions, she eventually burst into tears and wailed, “It’s not about the rug!” Fair enough.
And to this I say, at the highest level, It’s not about the pen! It’s about having a preference at all, about selecting something you pick up every day to act as extension and translator of your thoughts and ideas. So…can you just use the old ballpoint you got for free in the lobby of the Hilton Garden Inn you booked on points while driving through Ashland, OR? Uh….yeah, I guess. But if the idea of something slightly more personal speaks to you, then by all means read on.]
To start, a few high-level notes on pen lexicon:
Ballpoint, gel, and rollerball pens all use a small, revolving ball to dispense ink. As you write, the surface of the ball is exposed to the ink reservoir, thus coating the ball and continuing the flow of ink. Where these differ is in how the ink is formulated:
The Elements of a Pen (and Our Criteria for Judging):
Price point (most of the pens on our list ring up at under $3/each, with a few notable exceptions). If you’d like a hexagonal brass pen hand-forged by a Japanese ironsmith, a GUCCI ballpoint, or an archival ivory Conway Stewart specimen favored by Winston Churchill, be our guest. But we are way too irresponsible for that.
Weight (no heavy pens, ever!)
Size (How does it feel in your hand? And how does its weight distribute accordingly?)
Grip “ergonomics” (How does it feel, specifically re: texture, “grippiness,” and comfort?)
Ink viscosity/consistency (Does it skip, leak, blot, or bleed? What’s the dry time?)
What’s the width of the pen tip? (0.28, 0.38, 0.5, 0.7, 1mm are the most common.)
Needle tip (Craft Design Technology) vs. Conical (Muji gel pen)?
Is there a “wiggle?” (Ideally, no.)
Click vs. Cap
On a retractable pen, is it a satisfying click? Is it prone to sticking? Does it lock in place? (These are called “bolt action mechanisms,” if you are a pen nerd.)
Same qualities for cap, namely: How likely am I to lose it?
Vibe. (Key words: Smoothness, beauty and elegance, balance, ergonomic, minimal.)
Without further ado, the list in three categories:
A. Chic, Utilitarian Classics
The Joan Didions*, the Agnes B. cardigans, the pasta al limone, the dry martini with an olive…in other words, old trusties, standbys that never go out of style, and all very easy to acquire. (And yet…stock up because someone is definitely going to steal yours).
* Keep reading for Joan’s exact pen of choice.
B. Avant Yet Accessible Enough
You’ll likely need to source these online or at a stationery shop, but you’ll be rewarded for your effort with a more nuanced selection.
C. Esoterica (*And/Or Non-Qualifiers to the Above But Worth Mentioning)
Non-pens, indulgent classics, and the only pencil ever worth considering.
A. Chic, Utilitarian Classics
(All prices listed reflect accuracy at the time of writing.)
Pilot Juice Up - “Micro” gels, .4 mm, super smooth, exactly what you want it to be. (Editor’s note: My longtime fave to buy in bulk.) $9.08 for a 5-pack.
Pilot G2 - Preferred 0.38 tip (smoother and much less drippy/blotchy than 0.5mm). Straight to the point, precise, decisive. $18.49 for a 6-pack.
Pilot Precise V7 - Joan Didion’s preferred pen of choice, .7mm in black. (Editor’s note: I haven’t tried it but including here for the novelty. Will be testing it out and reporting back.) $17.54 for a 12-pack.
Pentel EnerGel RTX - Another gel pen pick with a variety of pen-tip sizes and vivid ink refill options. $21.97 for a 10-pack.
Sharpie S-Gel - Similar to the Pentel EnerGel but with a more “professional blue” ink varietal. $11.59 for a 12-pack.
Uni-ball Jetstream RT - Solid ballpoint pen for everyday writing. $10.29 for a 3-pack.
Sakura Gelly Roll - Beloved old school white gel pen that feels like the 90s. $9.72 for a 6-pack.
B. Avant Yet Accessible Enough
Zebra Sarasa Clip (vintage collection) - Editor’s note: This is my favorite pen. I cannot underscore enough that it’s all about the vintage collection and the breadth of subtle colors: silvery cement, mallard green, milky (Moon Lists-apropos) blue, cacao (why are there not more brown pens?!) and a satisfyingly smooth write. 10/10. If you take anything away from this list, let it be this pen. $6.10 for a 5-pack variety pack, or roughly $1.75/ea if bought a la carte.
Craft Design Technology Tradio Gel Pen (manufactured by Pentel) - Another perennial favorite. As a collaborator explained, “when this gets halfway through the ink cartridge, it’s like the sweet spot of your favorite haircut, two weeks out from a fresh snip.” Roughly $6/each.
Lamy Safari - Consider Lamy akin to the Moleskine of pens. They’ve been around the block, have retained a minimal design, are well-liked, and…German. The Safari collection is the staple line, available in ballpoint (check out this buttercream), fountain, and rollerball. More here if you care for a deep dive. Prices range depending on style, roughly $12-25/each.
Parker Jotter - Should a stainless steel pen be your thing. $12.85/each.
Kaweco - Docking this for price, but there is a lot to like with Kaweco, and they are beloved for a reason. Notable details include the smart sizing (specifically, the cap on the Skyline and Classic Sport models is placed on the back of the pen to extend the pen body; when closed, it shrinks down to an incognito pocket pen). Also, their color palette rivals the nuance of the above-mentioned Zebra collection. (ie: Macchiato and a Toyama Teal). Prices range depending on style, but start at around $25/each.
BL625 - A Japanese-branded Pentel pen, most easily acquired via AliExpress, with a needle tip that adds a bit of height and precision to writing. $13.34/each.
C. Esoterica & Not Exactly “Pens”
Paper Mate SharpWriter Pencils, 0.7mm - A must. If you don’t have a few of these floating around, what are you doing here?! The world’s most perfect pencil, and timelessly cool. Honestly this might be the coolest thing on this list. $9.60 for 36.
Pilot Fineliner — Sometimes you need a marker! Editor’s note: I also buy these in bulk, for thicker paper or when you really need a bold line. $14.87 for a 12-pack.
Pilot V Sign Pen Liquid Ink, 2.0mm - Again, sometimes only a marker will do. This one is even thicker than the above, but remains incredibly smooth, like a sophisticated Sharpie with less bleed. $9.90/each.
Pentel Tradio Pulaman - One final contender in the “is it a pen, is it a marker?” category. If I’m signing autographs, let it be with this—I bet it would also make a great sketching pen, but do note that it can be a little scratchy before you break it in. $5.50/each.
Faber-Castell e-motion fountain pen - “Elaborate guilloche engraving”…say no more. Starts at $50/each.
Caran Black Code - To quote one reviewer, “Now that you mention it, I love the simple elegance of the Black Code. It's like a sleeper pen...the BMW M3 of pens... looks like a fairly mild-mannered machine, until you use it. Then it's an absolute wolf.” Around $50/each.
Okay, what did I miss? Any other notable pen histories I need to know about? Do weigh in, if you’d like.