(This page revised December 21, 2014)
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This article is a slightly revised version of one that first appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of Stylus magazine.
“Oh, too bad, it’s got an IPG nib.” How many times have you heard that? Or perhaps you’ve said it yourself, after which you’ve put the pen back in the display case and moved along to the next shelf or table. As with so many other situations in which one acts on a preconception, you might just have made a major mistake. But you might equally well have saved yourself some major annoyance. Let’s see why.
What is “IPG”? It’s merely a colloquial abbreviation for IRIDIUM POINT GERMANY, an imprint used on steel nibs. This imprint supposedly identifies a nib that is tipped with a hard tipping alloy, usually osmiridium or Plathenium, and it implies that the nib — or at least the tipping material — was made in Germany. This is nominally a good thing, because Germany is generally considered to be home to a number of the world’s best nib makers. Indeed, the IPG nib in the first photo here was made in Germany by JoWo, a company that is making well-deserved inroads into the fine pen marketplace. (JoWo is actually Germany’s oldest maker of steel nibs, having been doing so since 1853.) This nib is mounted in a Bexley Elegancia, and it’s well made and properly tipped and finished: one of the best steel nibs you’ll find anywhere.
But imprints can be deceiving, and there’s the rub. You can find the IRIDIUM POINT GERMANY imprint on Chinese-made steel nibs ranging in quality from (occasionally) very good to (mostly) very poor. (Some of the cheap Chinese nibs found in kit pens appear to have little or no tipping material of any kind.) Use of this imprint, although clearly deceptive, is not technically unlawful because the imprint does not state MADE IN GERMANY. Similarly, some Italian pens bear nibs imprinted ITALY but made in Germany by Bock, Europe’s foremost maker. As for the presence or absence of iridium, that’s a moot point because most modern tipping materials don’t contain the stuff anyway. (It’s an element, like gold or iron, and it’s incredibly rare. Most of the Earth’s iridium came from the meteorite that finished off the dinosaurs.) We use the word “iridium” today to mean any tipping material; ruthenium and platinum are the principal components of these alloys.
Many of the cheaper Chinese nibs have an obviously Chinese motif, such as a five-petaled flower (as in the first of the side-by-side photos below), as part of the imprint. This is an unmistakable signpost telling you that the nib is Chinese, but is it an equally valid indicator of a poor-quality nib? Fortunately, or sadly, depending on your point of view, it seems to be a good sign that the nib is thin; soft in a bendy way, not nicely springy; and tipped poorly if at all. A growing number of pen makers who start from kits are coming to realize this fact and are looking around to find nibs of better quality that they can swap into their pens to replace the junky ones. Many of these conscientious craftspeople are turning to JoWo (represented in the United States by Brian Gray of Edison Pens), and some of the better kit manufacturers have already begun providing JoWo nibs in their higher quality kits.
So how can you, the prudent consumer, avoid the chaff and get to the good stuff? This is a good opportunity for you to sharpen your observational skills. If you do not already own a good 10x hand loupe, buy one. In my experience, the best brand that won’t cost more than a good pen is the BelOMO triplet, made in Belarus and often found in the hand of a geologist or a rock hound. Another good choice, rather more expensive but also very good, is the Hastings triplet from Bausch & Lomb. Avoid the under-$15.00 loupes you can find at antique malls and on many online suppliers’ Web pages; these cheapies have poor optics that distort the image.
With a loupe in your hand, examine the tips of nibs you like. Look at the smooth ones and see how they are shaped and finished: nicely rounded, brightly polished, and devoid of sharp corners. Then compare the IPG nib you might be considering. Look for uneven shaping, stingy size of the tipping pellet, sharp corners (sometimes knife-like), poor alignment, and other signs of a lack of quality.
Look, too, at the nib’s imprint. On a German-made IPG nib, the imprint will be clean, clear, and sharp (as in the second of the side-by-side photos above); JoWo’s imprints look almost as good as the design on a coin. A cheap nib will have a rough, shallow imprint that might not even be complete.
And there you have it, a brief lesson to guide you on the way to bettering your pen collection at less cost than you might expect.
As an illustration of just how deceptive some imprints could conceivably be, it was rumored in the 1960s that goods bearing the imprint MADE IN USA and imported into the U.S.A. were actually made in the very real town of Usa, in Ōita Prefecture of Japan. Whether the rumor was true or not, it serves to illustrate the deceptive intent of imprints such as IRIDIUM POINT GERMANY when used on nibs made in China. (It was also rumored that the city of Usa had been renamed just for the purpose of “legitimizing” such deception, but that part of the rumor is definitely false; the town has borne the name Usa since at least the 8th century CE.)
Astronomers refer to the meteorite that finished off the non-avian dinosaurs as the Chicxulub bolide, for its having struck the Earth near Chicxulub, on what is now the the northern shore of the Yucatán Peninsula. The bolide, estimated to have been 6 miles (10 km) in diameter, released an amount of energy equivalent to 100,000,000 megatons of TNT. Dust and ash blown up into the atmosphere by the impact settled all over the Earth in a layer more than an inch (2.54 cm) thick to create what geologists call the K–Pg boundary, marking the end of the Mesozoic Era’s Cretaceous Period and the beginning of the Cenozoic Era’s Paleogene Period. Most of the planet’s supply of iridium came from the bolide and is buried in the K–Pg boundary.
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