Style and Design: Items and Icons fountain pens

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For most of us, the very mention of fountain pens conjures up images of ink-stained hands and smudged copy books from first attempts at joined-up writing. But signing your credit card bill with a flourish of a 14ct gold nib makes a much better impression than a bashed up Biro that has been sitting around for months. Fountain pens, as they are known today, were first introduced to the market by the New Yorker L E Waterman in 1884, though some less practical models were in existence in the 18th century, most notably that which belonged to the French mathematician Bion, covered in hard wax. The actual components of fountain pens have not changed dramatically over the decades, with most advancements being made in materials and the method of the supply of ink to the nib, such as vacuum pumps and cartridges.

In theory, and in practice, old pens can work just as efficiently as new pens, if they are looked after properly. Buying old pens is not just the preserve of collectors and connoisseurs, they are an investment and don't tend to lose their value as modern pens do. A Waterman snake pen from the 1890s was sold by Bonham's recently for pounds 16,400, which was an exceptional price: there are cheaper alternatives. By and large, it is cheaper to buy a Twenties Parker Duofold pen than a modern version, or to get a 1930s Sheaffer celluloid decorated pen for around pounds 240. The main thing to take into consideration when buying an old pen is condition; after that, it's really down to your preferences for size, nib widths and design. There is no hard and fast rule of what collectors look for: some have been known to collect only green pens, others sets of pens, or limited editions. One thing is for sure, the image of President Reagan and President Gorbachev signing the historic INF Treaty in Washington in 1987 wouldn't have seemed so momentous if they had been signing their names with Biros.

From bottom, 1-7: UHF pen transmitter, pounds 600, from Spymaster, 3 Portman Square, London W1 (0171-486 3885); Parker Duofold fountain pen in red jasper, pounds 220, available from department stores and all major stationery retailers; Watermans No.7 (1928), red rippled fountain pen, pounds 185, The Battersea Pen Home (as before); Parker 75 (1966) sterling silver, Cisle design fountain pen, pounds 135, from The Battersea Pen Home (as before); Conway Stewart No.58 (1954) lilac marbled pen/pencil set, pounds 155, from The Battersea Pen Home (as before); Lamy Aluminium fountain pen, pounds 18.95, Liberty (as before)

Smooth runners, old and new; from top, 1-7: Yard-O-Led sterling silver fountain pen, pounds 205, Liberty, Regent Street, London W1 (0171-734 1234); Alfred Dunhill AD2000 carbon fibre fountain pen, pounds 575 (for stockists, call 0171-290 8600); Montblanc Meisterstuck mini Mozart fountain pen, pounds 295, from the Montblanc Boutique, 60-61 Burlington Arcade, London W1 (0171-493 6369); Montblanc Meisterstuck silver pinstripe solitaire fountain pen, pounds 579 (as before); Graf von Faber-Castell fountain pen in Pernambuco wood, pounds 320, from The Pen Shop, 199 Regent Street, London W1 (0171-734 4088) and branches nationwide; Conklin Nozac (1935) grey/black striated fountain pen with nickel trim, pounds 185, from The Battersea Pen Home (0171- 652 4695); Sheaffer Balance (1930) brown striped Radite fountain pen, pounds 245, The Battersea Pen Home (as before)