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The cost of ink – what gives?

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?

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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

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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!

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8 thoughts on “The cost of ink – what gives?

  1. I’m not sure the logic of this piece necessarily follows.
    1. Big range of ink prices on a per mL basis
    2. Price differences not justified by shading, sheen, or flow.
    Therefore perhaps its some mind game played by ink manufacturers, reinforced by packaging.

    I think both of the premises are faulty:
    1. There seems no obvious reason why you would compare inks on a per mL basis, especially if you are unlikely to use the full bottle of ink in a short period. It is not unlike comparing pens by their length, and complaining that more expensive pens aren’t necessarily longer — it’s a basis for comparison but not necessarily a useful one.
    2. Those qualities seem more aesthetic rather than measurements of the ink’s performance or value. Some prefer a saturated ink, others prefer an ink with plenty of shading. Some prefer a wet ink, others a dry ink. I don’t see why one set of user preferences would lead to a higher price.
    To me, price differences emerge from features which are valuable to buyers generally. For instance, bottles from which it is easier to fill (e.g. Caran d’Ache, Diamine, Montblanc, Iroshizuku), aesthetically pleasing bottles (J Herbin, Iroshizuku), product quality control (J Herbin, Iroshizuku, definitely not Noodlers), etc.

    My view is that behavioural explanations should be a last resort. They assume that human behaviour is consistently irrational and often assume that we cannot learn from mistakes (i.e. we would keep buying the more expensive but inferior product, even if we were vaguely aware that it did not offer value for money). I think these assumptions are only reasonable if we have exhausted rational explanations for any observed behaviour, and we’re certainly not at that point when it comes to ink values.

  2. +1 JD’s intelligent post.

    Also consider that, for most people, ink is not a big component of the overall cost of the hobby. If you use your pens for writing, you would be hard pressed to use more than 1ml per day on average. Towards the high end of the price range around 50 cents per ml that might work out at $100-150 per year for a really heavy user of fountain pens.
    For some, the possibility of reducing this to $40-60 saving perhaps $75 will make a difference. But for many the extra $6 per month will not be noticeable.
    For a user, the difference is small. And if you are a collector then your value assessment is already different and you know you *need* that fancy limited edition ink.

    1. Now, if you use your pen for drawing you can use a 30 ml bottle every week… that skyrockets fast ifyou use expensive brands.

  3. I think comparing the cost per ml among brands is a very clear way to demonstrate the point of the article. There are inks that are much pricier than others, and they also tend come in very fancy bottles, as was pointed out. If the fancy bottle and the high-end foofoo name brand is important to you, then by all means, buy the most expensive ink out there. If you want good value for an also great ink, then go for the Noodler’s or similar. I use Noodler’s ink and have every since I got back into fountain pens several years ago. I have had some pen pals who were somewhat snooty about my choice of a low-cost ink, as if it were somehow inferior and some even claimed that Noodler’s could damage pens. Whatever. I don’t spend a fortune on my pens, either, so there. It’s all about priorities. I have plenty of perfectly good, even great, lower cost pens and I love my Noodler’s ink. I put my money into other hobbies that can drain my bank account. Everybody has something that they want the best they can afford, and for some it’s pens and ink. To each his own, I suppose.

  4. From the Chemical Industry’s point of view, price per mL is peculiar because consumer chemical products carry a HUGE markup. For a product that consists of a dilution of at least 20:1 with water, the cost of the liquid itself should be below ten cents per 35 mL. (Even if the liquid were a high-end organic solvent and the additives cost $200 per pound, the raw materials cost of 35mL would be under twenty cents.) This explains why you saw no substantial quality differences among the swatches: it makes no economic sense for a manufacturer hto skimp on the quality of the raw materials. Caran d’Ache pays at least sixty cents for the bottle alone–and that’s if they’re sourced from China. The cap costs seven to twelve cents, the label five (as it’s probably sourced locally). Add the cost of the little color-printed cardboard box and the packing boxes (partitions alone generally run more than the boxes), and you can appreciate that the customer is really paying for everything BUT the ink! Why do the German and Japanese inks cost more than the American and Eastern European brands? Overhead mainly. The German government makes more per bottle of Caran d’Ache ink than Caran d’Ache does! Small production batch sizes also increase costs. Props to Noodler’s and J Herbin for the wide variety of colors offered. Why doesn’t the market force a narrower price ratio than 4.5:1? Allan’s point, that for most customers, the price difference is only a few dollars, and a bottle can last a really long time.

  5. I appreciate this comparison.

    When I look for ink, I’m concerned with it’s characteristics and performance. I couldn’t care less about it’s packaging. If I can find a cheaper ink that fits my criteria and in the color I like, why would I ever pay more for a premium package? What’s more, apparently, an exorbitant price tag doesn’t necessarily equal a better performing ink.

    Thanks for illustrating some differences between several orange inks and brands.

  6. I find that swabs of inks don’t really translate to the colour coming out of a pen – especially one with a fine nib. Also, it tells you nothing about the writing experience – dry, wet, saturation etc. As has already been mentioned, the cost per ml of ink isn’t terribly different between the inexpensive brands and the premium. When writing a letter, the cost of fountain pen friendly paper or card plus the postage renders negligible the cost of even the most expensive ink. So, obviously, I am one of those happy to pay for a premium bottle of ink. Writing with an ink is only part of the joy; the process of filling from the bottle is also an aesthetic experience. I don’t always choose to fill my pen(s) with those expensive inks as it comes down to what I feel like at the time. By the way, for Americans, Noodlers is cheap – as a non-American, Noodlers is one of my more expensive purchases due to the cost of postage, and here it competes against the likes of Mont Blanc and Edelstein.

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