Can ink make you a better person?
Ink. It’s an interesting part of my fountain pen obsession because for me it’s just as much about my interaction with it before it hits the paper as it is after the fact. When I first started seriously collecting ink it was really all about the final color, dry time, and extras like shading, sheen and shimmer. That started me down a path of questioning some inks that were 2-5x more expensive than the “norm”. Was it something in the ink? What justifies paying for a liquid that costs roughly $2900/gal? Does it contain ground unicorn horns that increases the sheen? Or was it just good marketing hype?
When you look across the hobby, you see that from pens to paper, everything comes with some form of value proposition: is it gold or steel? is it easy or hard to find? made by the thousands or limited quantity? sent in a brown paper bag or meticulously curated by a Yeti from outer Mongolia? – you get the idea. While some or all of that may have some bearing on how we each justify a purchase, the ultimate justification is our own enjoyment of the item regardless of what others think. With that said I approached this ink cost comparison looking at the total package – branding, box, bottle, ink properties, and cost – even if a particular value mattered less to me.
I decided to contain the sample to orange inks as I had the best coverage there. Brands in the sample included Noodler’s, Diamine, Private Reserve, Nagasawa Kobe, Pelican Edelstein, De Atramentis, J. Herbin, Pilot Iroshizuku and my latest acquisition Caran d’Ache Chromatics. I also wanted to try and level the playing field for price as much as possible (i.e. Iroshizuku imported from a Japanese distributor costs about half what it does in the States even with shipping). The best way to do this was use Amazon for a benchmark even if they were not the cheapest as they carry all of these brands and have distributors from most overseas markets in their marketplace. The inks priced out on average as follows (USD):
Noodler’s: $12.50 – 88.7ml – .14/ml
Private Reserve: $11.00 – 66ml – .166/ml
Diamine: $15.00 – 80ml – .187/ml
J.Herbin: $11.00 – 30ml – .36/ml
De Atramentis: $13.00 – 35ml – .37/ml
Nagasawa Kobe: $20.00 – 50ml – .40/ml
Pilot Iroshizuku: $20.00 – 50ml – .40/ml
Pelican Edelstein: $22.00 – 50ml – .44/ml
Caran d’Ache: $38.00 – 50ml – .76/ml
Now if you just look at the ink cost based solely on the $/ml you’d be crazy to buy any Caran d’Ache ink when you could get almost five and a half times as much Noodler’s ink for the same price. But in reality it’s not just the price per volume for everyone – so I started looking at the inks not from a volume but from a characteristics angle.
Swatches were done using a 1/2″ automatic pen to allow for some ink pooling – I wanted to see how the ink acted while drying, color variation, banding, any shading or sheen, and dry time. The inks are in the following order below (L to R):
Column 1 – Noodler’s Apache Sunset, Noodler’s Habanero
Column 2 – Diamine Blaze Orange, Diamine Autumn Oak
Column 3 – Private Reserve Orange Crush, Nagasawa Kobe Tarumi Apricot
Column 4 – De Atramentis Jasmine, J. Herbin Orange Indien
Column 5 – Pilot Iroshizuku Fuyu-Gake, Pilot Iroshizuku Yu-Yake
Column 6 – Caran d’Ache Electric Orange, Pelican Edelstein Mandarin
What I was looking for was anything that set the more expensive inks apart but again, saturation, shading, and sheen were just as prominent in the cheaper inks as they were in the expensive ones. Did they flow better as the price went up? Nope.
So what was it? I came across an interesting article on research being done in Israel on how brands can affect you:
Ariely and his colleagues believe that brand names act like marketing placebos—a term originally used in medical science to describe how a patient who is given a sham pill or an injection of distilled water actually starts feeling better. Something positive happens in his brain. Luxury brands could also have the same effect on human beings. “They fool people into believing they are superior, and this belief proves self-fulfilling. And like placebos, expensive ones work better than cheap ones,”
So maybe the more expensive inks fool your brain into thinking you write better with them and that leads to better penmanship? An interesting idea for sure.
What it really boiled down to in the end was the packaging and bottle – there you could see a pretty drastic change in approach. The bottles and packaging on the lower end are about value – simple off the shelf bottle shapes and 4-color box art. As you get to the higher end inks you have much more interesting bottle designs and boxes that use expensive embossing, odd shapes, and complicated assembly to set them apart. The Caran d’Ache bottle and box was by far the nicest of the lot (even the cap has a solid feel and chrome trim to match the label and box colors). I have been in the web/graphic design business for 20 years, and so I can really appreciate the extra effort put into the bottle and packaging – I know how expensive foil dies are, and that bottle molds can run $5k-$10k. That said even I struggle to justify the difference in cost because while it’s really nice, is it five and a half times nicer? Maybe…but winning the lottery sure would make things easier!