BY DON FLUCKINGER • Loupes look pretty geeky to the uninitiated. But most vintage fountain pen collectors will tell you that it only took one bad buy to convince them to drop the $20-$50 for a decent loupe.
What kinds of things are you looking for? Richard says that the main things are surface damage — nicks or scratches not visible to the naked eye — as well as missing iridium, cracks, and scratches on nibs. Furthermore, loupes assist in reading imprints, hallmarks, and the 1/10 12K GOLD FILLED and similar marks on metal caps.
“We’ve seen pens that people brought us at shows after having bought them,” he says, “only to discover when I look at the pens that there’s missing — or no — iridium, or a cracked or bent nib.”
I’ll add one that I’ve missed for lack of a loupe: hairline cracks on cap lips. Basically, the pen-collector school of hard knocks teaches you what to look for when buying a pen. Once you know that, a 10x loupe reveals what the eye can’t see.
Collector Dennis Ryder examines a Hundred Year Pen before he lays his wallet on the chopping block. (Photo © 2007 RichardsPens.com)
|Basically, the pen-collector school of hard knocks teaches you what to look for when buying a pen. Once you know that, a 10x loupe reveals what the eye can’t see.|
You have several choices, and I’ll outline the pros and cons of each below:
The $5 flea-market special. That’s what I’d used for several years until a gemologist friend gave me a BelOMO, discussed below in detail. It’s good enough for government work, especially for a quick few minutes here and there and not an afternoon of getting up-close and personal with pens. A lot of antique malls have these generic loupes, and they almost never cost more than $10.
Schweizer or Eschenbach lighted hand loupes. Richard says a lot of pen collectors swear by these loupes.
Bausch & Lomb. For $40 and postage — or more, if you shop around — you can get a fine, U.S.-made loupe. It’s probably the standard, and the most well respected brand of loupes outside of…
Harald Schneider. So here’s where we meet my gemologist friend, David Fortier. He’s a partner at Tip Top Gem, and you can check out his blog here. He tells me that Schneider loupes probably are the best in the world — and a gemologist is only as good as the loupe he’s toting — but he says that, “At $300, the Schneider is probably only a millionaire’s toy.”
BelOMO, the new player. Fortier (photo below left, shown on the job examining a stone with his BelOMO) got this whole conversation started by giving me a loupe, the BelOMO. Made in Belarus, these loupes are put together at an old Soviet military factory in conjunction with Zeiss Ikon, the famous German camera lens maker. For the record, the plant made optics for spy satellites in its previous incarnation, adding a touch of James Bond intrigue to the proceedings.
Gemologists care about color a lot more than pen collectors do, so their loupes must correct for any chromatic aberration in the lenses. Their loupes also need to be corrected for spherical aberration to best evaluate inclusions — defects — in stones they’re about to purchase.
“Inclusions can represent not only the difference between a synthetic or natural ruby, but these inclusions can help a trained gemologist differentiate between an African ruby or a much more expensive Burmese ruby,” Fortier says. “We like for the inclusions to look like they really look and not like they would appear in a funhouse mirror. It can mean substantial differences in value.”
Fortier uses BelOMOs in his work. The lenses are aligned spot-on — an eyestrain preventer, he says. Their adjustment for chromatic and spherical aberration in contrast with the competition, he admits, is up for debate, but a lot of gemologists agree that the BelOMOs are at minimum as good as Bausch & Lombs, if not better. They’re also bigger than most other loupes.
“The larger diameter lens makes the field of view larger; I have been told that it also makes it more expensive to manufacture,” says Fortier. “Had the Cold War not built such a nice facility it would be an expensive little gadget.”
And, to boot, a BelOMO loupe costs half of what a Bausch & Lomb would typically set you back.
While a lot of pen collectors probably have developed their own loupe techniques, what do the newbies need to know?
Get a 10x loupe. 10x is the magnification you want; 5x is well-nigh useless, and 20x usually is too much.
When viewing things through a loupe, position your hand so that the knuckle of your thumb (the one that is holding the loupe) is resting on, or even embedded in, your cheek.
One little caveat on the BelOMO: If you get one, epoxy the screws in place or treat them with permanent thread lock. Fifty thousand gemologists can’t be wrong — take their word for it.
Keep both eyes open when looking through a loupe, as looking through a loupe with “the other eye” closed causes eyestrain pretty quickly. Apparently, in some parts this rule is taken to an extreme.
“At the Asian Institute of Gemological Sciences in Bangkok,” Fortier says, “they will strike you if you close an eye.”
And he’s got first-hand knowledge of that as he attended classes — and plans to attend future classes — there.
Further Reading: The Illustrated Guide to Antique Writing Instruments, 3rd Edition, by Stuart Schneider and George Fischler
Now you know how to choose a good loupe, go out and buy one — and then use the thing. If you need a handy reference book, here's a good one. Richard considers it a field guide, and he takes it along when he heads for the fleas in Hollis and Rowley.
|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.|