The Holy Grail of Pens

What is your holy grail?

If you were a connoisseur of Scotch, it could be the 1926 bottle of Macallan Highland Whisky produced 92 years ago, aged for 60 years in a sherry cask, and sealed in a one-of-a-kind bottle hand painted by Irish mural artist Michael Dillon – it sold at Christie’s last December 2018 for a staggering world-record price of US$ 1.6 Million. On the other hand, if fast and furious cars were your passion, you might be interested in the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, only 36 of which were built between 1963-1964, and widely regarded as the last true road racer before the development of current technical and safety regulations. Sotheby’s recently acquired one with the original engine, transmission and Series II body, which could potentially sell for US$ 48 Million.

And how much more would a Patek Philippe 5270P Perpetual Calendar Chronograph in a platinum case with a salmon-hued dial, currently valued at nearly US$ 200,000, fetch amongst the cognoscente of grail watches? Only time will tell, it seems.

As for shoeheads seeking the best in terms of aesthetics, designer, material, the “collab,” the zeitgeist of the times, and overall sneaker history, it could be the US$ 715 “The Kennedy,” New Balance’s Frank Rivera-designed, nautically themed riff on the previous 999 model, and named after JFK. Or how about the US$ 50,000 “Jeter,” the Nike Air Jordan homage to retired baseball pro Derek Jeter, only five pairs of which were reportedly made in 2017?

In 1946, William T. Youmg founded W. T. Young Foods in Lexington, Kentucky, and made “Big Top” peanut butter a market-leading product until the company was sold to Procter & Gamble in 1955. Produced by the Hazel Atlas Glass Company, these footed goblets had a diamond design that gave them the look of upscale and premium crystal, when in fact they were inexpensive tumblers re-used by housewives as ice cream and sherbet cups.

According to medieval legend, the “holy grail” was a chalice first used by Jesus during the Last Supper, and later by Joseph of Arimathea to receive His blood on the cross at Golgotha. Originally from the Old French “graal” and ultimately from the Latin “gradalis,” meaning “flat dish, or shallow vessel,” the grail was said to possess the power to heal wounds, deliver eternal youth, and grant everlasting happiness, and was therefore the object of a storied quest among knights of Arthurian lore. In the 1989 film “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade,” the search for this mythical cup leads the intrepid adventurers to a tomb where dozens of false goblets conceal the true one, and the hero who chooses a simple pewter cup over the other jewel-studded chalices realizes that the “holy grail” is really a humble, unobtrusive vessel.

Amongst vintage bottle collectors, the elusive Halili Beer is considered one of the holy grails. Manufactured by a brewery owned by Bulacan Governor Fortunato Halili, it was short-lived and bought out by competitor San Miguel Brewery. Bottles of Halili Beer are rarities in the market, and recent auctions placed its value at over Ps 40.000.
Funko, Inc., a NASDAQ-traded firm that makes licensed pop culture collectibles, has been introducing vinyl figurines and bobbleheads since 1998. For devotees of the Dark Knight, the “chase” Funko Pop figure is the Batman (Blue Metallic) exclusive released at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con, with the current market value of this 480-figures-only edition at US$ 1,100. A similar limited-issue Batman (Patina) released in 2012 currently retails for US$ 510.

The opinions are no less diverse amidst the fanatics of fountain pens. Posts on the Fountain Pen Network Philippines (FPNP) site on the subject of holy grails reveal a wide-ranging view of even the very definition of the term. A representative sample proffered by one enthusiast includes: limited edition, precious metal, famous designer, gifted by someone dear, ahead-of-its-time technology, elusive and unobtainable, used by a celebrity, legendary, and even the Maria Kondo-ish “sparks joy.” However it is characterized, most scribblers agree that the coveted, crowning piece in any collection is the result of an obsessive, extended and difficult quest to attain something that is uniquely personal, and which, once acquired, will never be disposed, and may in fact be taken to the grave.

In a quick (and decidedly unofficial!) survey of holy grail choices posted in FPNP over the last six years, some 25 fountain pen brands and over 60 models were cited, demonstrating the broad variety of personal preferences in grail writing instruments. From the relatively inexpensive entry-level pens like Lamy Safaris and Pilot Metropolitans to the limited issues like the Montblanc Writer’s Editions and Parker Duofolds, from the Chinese Jinhaos (recently derided as “trinkets” but just as quickly pilloried as the view of a snobbish ignoramus) to the Italian Viscontis – the predilection for pens was sweeping, inclusive, and all-encompassing. Certainly, Montblanc and its Agatha Christie stood out as a real favorite, but by no means was it a dominant choice; the Pilot Vanishing Point and the Pelikan Toledo held their own, along with many other brands.

A illustrative sampling of holy grail fountain pens from FPNP members includes: Parker Duofold, Sailor King of Pen, Platinum Procyon, Omas 360, Pilot Metropolitan, Montblanc 149, Waterman Carene, Montblanc Rouge et Noir, Sheaffer Targa, TWSBI Diamond 580, Pelikan Toledo, Lamy Safari, Visconti Van Gogh and Montblanc 146 Ramses II.
Kasama Una, the first fountain pen to be produced in the Philippines, recently released a limited edition (no more than 20 pens) of a Hammered and a Ringed bronze pen that are clearly destined for collectible status. Its rarity, singularity and provenance are guaranteed to make it the object of a quest in the very near future.

In 1960, my father gifted me with a Wearever fountain pen. I did not know it then, but Wearever Pens was founded by Jewish immigrant David Khan, who decided to make low-end pens with gold-plated nibs in the 1920s. From 1950 to 1962, Wearever would produce the economy-priced “Pennant” with its signature clear plastic feed that allowed the writer to see the flow of ink. Unbeknownst to me at the time, this was the model of the instrument that I used to write my homework and to take quizzes in grade school, a distinct, if idiosyncratic, habit that stood out in class with a plenitude of Bic ball pens, but was nonetheless a defining moment in the start of my appreciation of fountain pens. Sadly, with the demands of rapid note-taking in high school, and my as yet underdeveloped propensity to keep and collect everything, I eventually lost track of my Pennant, and I can only assume that a house maid, oblivious to its future significance, literally swept it into the dustbin of history.

The Wearever Pennant, shamelessly promoted as “the pen that panicked the public” because of its low price point, came in the typical mid-century hues of black, burgundy, red, gray, green and blue. Apart from the clear flow feed, it also featured an “overfeed” on the nib in some models, which was intended to keep an uncapped nib from drying out. These specimens were obtained from FPNP vintage pen collector Guia Bengzon.

And so, while I do have a Wearever Pennant (three, in fact), it is unlikely to have been my actual pen in 1960, one that therefore remains a holy grail that is to be perpetually pursued. The question is often asked – if a grail pen is defined as elusive and unobtainable, is it something that one can only aspire for, but will never find? And assuming one does acquire it, does it then cease to be the object of one’s desire? More to the point, does a holy grail fountain pen actually exist?

Perhaps it is the journey, and not the destination. Some have captured their dream pen, and some are still on the prowl. “Success is counted sweetest,” wrote poetess Emily Dickinson in 1864, “by those who ne’er succeed.” If you have yet to find your holy grail fountain pen, keep following that star of your glorious quest. And if any one asks why, just say, like Everest mountaineer George Mallory, “Because it’s there.”

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