The Chinese have not been producing fountain pens for as long as the Japanese, but have had a big impact on the market, mainly because they are able to sell their pens at almost unbelievably low prices. But it would be wrong to write off all Chinese pens as being, cheap, nasty and ‘Chinese copies’ of better brands. After all, many long established western pen brands have outsourced manufacture to China. Furthermore, producing designs which are broadly similar to existing brands is not new or confined to the Chinese. After Parker launched the famous Parker 51, many others followed the trend for ‘shielded nibs’. As has been noted in the Japanese section, many Japanese pens adopt similar shapes to European brands, such as the ubiquitous ‘cigar-shaped’ pen. As they say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
The Chinese pen market can be classified into the following broad types:
- Outsourced supply to western pen makers
- Original designs
- Pens following established design types
- Very close copies of other specific pens
- Outright fakes, designed to deceive
So why can China produce pens at such low prices? Experts who have studied the Chinese economy have concluded that it is not just a simple case of mass production combined with low labour rates and a favourable exchange rate. What adds to the equation is that the Chinese state subsidises many of the inputs required by its various industries, in particular raw materials such as metal and electricity needed for manufacture. This policy was not adopted to make fountain pens cheap, but this market benefits along with the more economically important ones. Ultimately this means that in this case, western buyers of ‘luxury items’ are being subsidised by the generality of Chinese tax payers, which may not make for good economics.
It is has been noted by many that even the cheaper Chinese pens can deliver surprisingly good quality, but not always. If the Chinese cut corners, it seems to be in quality control, so buying Chinese pens can be a lottery. Luckily, in many cases, it is possible to replace poor Chinese nibs with quality nibs from Germany. It is best to avoid gold plating, as it is likely to be very thin and wear off easily. Some acrylic pen bodies can develop hair line cracks and this can cause leaks if the pen is a piston or vacuum filler, or an eye-dropper model. On the other hand, some Chinese makers have produced designs in acrylic resin bodies just as attractive as pens from elsewhere.