BY DON FLUCKINGER • Whether you collect vintage or modern fountain pens, sooner or later you’ll run into a Bexley, and you’ll covet it. The appeal of Bexley pens across several hobby groups is no coincidence, because Bexley isn’t like the major manufacturers — the company was started by a collector and it caters to collectors’ foibles.
|In 1993, as his gift to the collecting community, Howard Levy started his own fountain pen company.|
One day about a dozen years ago, Howard Levy — a collector from Bexley, Ohio, a Columbus suburb — looked around and noted that many manufacturers of the classic American pens he collected were no longer American or, worse, were no longer in existence at all. Sheaffer (today, French-owned) and Cross were still here, but companies like Wahl, Esterbrook, and Conklin were long defunct. Two formerly powerful brands still in business included Waterman and Parker, but their pens have been manufactured in Europe for quite some time.
So in 1993, as his gift to the collecting community — and to see if he could pull it off and maybe make a profit — Levy started his own fountain pen company.
“We thought it would be kind of interesting to see if there was a market for a new, U.S.-manufactured luxury pen,” Levy says, “and fortunately it’s been quite successful.” Nine years later, the company is still flourishing, with its pens sold in more than 100 stores around the world.
The inspiration for Bexley’s fountain pens — and their matching rollerballs and ballpoints — comes from the vintage American beauties. Like a lot of collectors, Levy finds Parker pens of the 1920s to 1950s the most desirable of the classics. Before starting Bexley, he collected Parker Duofolds, Vacumatics, and “51”s. Bexley pens have model names such as “Equipoise” and “Deluxe” that hark back to fountain pens’ golden age.
|The 1998 Bexley Fifth Anniversary limited edition evokes the lines of the Parker Duofold’s predecessor, the Jack-Knife Safety Pen — something true collectors can appreciate.|
“You look at the Bexley Originals, and Bexley Deluxes, and the Gold Line — they all have design elements of Parker products [from the golden age],” Levy says. “Other lines of ours have attributes of Waterman, and others have attributes of Wahl.”
Yet Bexley pens are not replicas; rather, they’re new pens that would have looked perfectly at home under glass at a 1930s drugstore counter, alongside the Parker Duofolds and Sheaffer Lifetimes of the day. Bexley crafts some pens from traditional materials such as Ebonite (hard rubber), while modern plastics are used in several model lines, to gorgeous, colorful effect — similar to their Art Deco predecessors of the first half of the twentieth century. The Bexley economy line, the Continental, utilizes aircraft aluminum in a nod to the 1950s, but that’s about as high-tech as Levy gets.
Most Bexley pens have gold nibs and are large, as collectors go for “oversized” models, new or old. On eBay, check the disparity in price between a Parker Duofold Senior and Duofold Junior in roughly the same shape and color — and note that to us high-tech, new-millennium writers accustomed to thin ballpoints, a Duofold Junior feels huge. Yet collectors will pay two, three, even five times as much for an oversized pen, and Bexley gives them what they want.
Like other modern manufacturers catering to the collector crowd, Bexley makes a few limited-edition pens. While some collectors love limited editions and others despise them — favoring utility and eschewing rarity for rarity’s sake — Bexley’s Fifth Anniversary pen (1998) can only be considered a modern classic, a work of art that happens to be limited to 500 pens worldwide. The Ebonite pen recalls the Parker Jack-Knife Safety Pen popular around World War I and features intricate chasing in barrel and cap, as well as nice finishing points such as a solid gold nib and clip.
Most Bexley pens have a cartridge/converter filling mechanism, a relatively recent fountain pen technology. In the golden age, of course, “self-filling” mechanisms such as lever-fill, button-fill, piston-fill, and several other brand-specific filling schemes like Conklin’s “Crescent-Filler” ruled the day. Self-fillers require more maintenance, and as we all learn when picking up “bargains” at flea markets and Web auction sites, many can’t be user-serviced.
Some pen collectors love the romance of old-style filling mechanisms; filling their pens “the old way” is part of their ritual as aficionados. Some members of this particular faction of pendom will tell you that the cartridge/converter mechanism renders a pen soulless. There are even more hardcore purists out there who would claim that pens today are merely poor copies of the antique originals, because back then, fountain pens were made to be used every day, and now that’s not the case. Levy vehemently disagrees, at least with respect to his own Bexley pens.
“The product that is manufactured today is just as good if not better than those products which were manufactured forty to seventy years ago,” Levy says, citing the improvement of materials and techniques since the golden age. “We manufacture our products to be used.”
Bexley is still very small, compared to the titans of the industry such as Parker, Sheaffer, and Waterman. In fact, an average production run of Bexley fountain pens is a few thousand; a Bexley limited edition contains a few hundred pens. Compare that to the Montblanc Marcel Proust, a limited edition “restricted” to 22,000. In effect, every Bexley pen is a limited edition, because the manufacturer is a small company, a tiny fish in a little pond.
“It’s very difficult when you don’t have the capabilities and resources to do the amount of advertising [bigger companies] are able to do,” Levy says, “but it’s also nice when you get a loyal following of collectors and you have a lot of nice things said about you.”
Like those scrappy Anaheim Angels — who knocked off the San Francisco Giants and their monster payroll of past MVPs in the 2002 World Series — Howard Levy has earned his place in the world he occupies. He now helps like-minded small companies such as Jim Hickman’s Newman Pens get a leg up in the hobby.
Because he started out as a collector himself, no doubt Levy will be fondly remembered among collectors for decades to come. It would be fitting if all of Bexley’s small-run models (limited or not) became as highly sought after as the vintage Parkers and Sheaffers are today. Like us, he’s got a true appreciation of fountain pens as writing instruments: First and foremost, they are to be used. And, oh, by the way, people collect them as well.
“They’re a fashion statement; they’re utilitarian pieces of art,” Levy says. “Lots of different people have different reasons [to like them]. They’re collectible. I just think they’re a lot of fun to use.”
Further Reading: Day Trips Columbus: Getaways Less Than Two Hours Away (Day Trips), by Sandra Gurvis
As he was born and raised in Ohio, Don has always enjoyed hanging out in Columbus. When visiting for more than a pen-show weekend, however, he also knows it's centrally located for a number of great side trips.
|Freelance writer Don Fluckinger lives in Nashua, New Hampshire, and is the son-in-law of Richard Binder. His articles have been published in Antiques Roadshow Insider, The Boston Globe, and on the Biddersedge.com collectibles Web site. Please note: Any opinions stated in this column are Don’s alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Richard Binder or this Web site.|