Everything changes with the times. Even items as inherently archaic as fountain pens respond to fashion and technology, albeit at a glacial pace. These alterations can be for the good, the bad, or sometimes just to save a few bucks at the factory. Today’s lesson in evolution finds us gazing at the products of the historic old Italian firm of Omas. That name is an acronym for Officina Meccanica Armando Simoni and the somewhat eponymous Bolognese firm was founded in 1925. It remains one of the grand dames of the pen world continuing to innovate along with paying homage to the past with a varied product line. In the last few decades many of their pens were of a design that mimicked the pre-war glory days of writing instruments. Classic and understated models like the humbly named Paragon conveyed the special Italian sense of style. That certainly was not an exclusive pursuit as Omas introduced many models of extreme modernity sometimes by guest designers. The Tokyo and more recently the Emotica show that taste for the unique and futuristic.
If there is one thing that comes to most minds when Omas is mentioned now it’s the lovely celluloid they use on their top tier pens. One of the earliest plastics celluloid is still unrivaled for deep, luminous patterns and a warm, comfortable feel. After a period away from that material it returned in 1991 for the introduction of the Arte Italia line. These came in a wide range beautiful colors and styles reminiscent of their classic models (and of the Wahl Doric as many will point out.) One of the most sought after colors in these pens was arco, a brown and cream that brings to mind glowing wood. Many people consider an Omas in arco a grail pen (one that is coveted above others) because of this striking appearance.
In 2000 Omas was bought from descendants of its founder by LVMH (Moët Hennessy • Louis Vuitton S.A.) a luxury goods group that is known for ultra high-end products such as those indicated in its name. A few years later in 2005 a major redesign of their upper range of pens occurred which broke from their previous vintage look. Two new models replaced and bracketed the position the Paragon held in the Omas hierarchy: A new Paragon that is larger and has more bling and a Milord which is more comparable in size and looks to the old Paragon. The former has a large nib, bright metal section, large engraved cap band, inset cap-top “O”, and a new wide roller clip which makes it more ostentatious than before. Modest in comparison is the Milord which has a body colored section and smaller nib. Both pens have a more strongly tapered and chunkier appearance then what they replace but are still recognizably Omas with faceted sides and continuation of trademark celluloid.
A little while ago a friend gave me a leaky Milord to repair and I got a look at the new Omas construction. Since I also had on hand an example of the previous generation Paragon I decided to put it to use as a benchmark to see what has changed. I discovered an awful lot has changed. The entire filling system and construction of the pen has been thoroughly revised in the new model. Upon inspection it seem like Omas has taken a step back from elegant simplicity. This reminds me of the golden age of fountain pens when manufacturers were competing to see who could find the most complex methods for simple jobs in order to generate impressive engineering blather for advertising copy.
Let’s take a look at the picture above to get an idea of what I am talking about. In it you’ll see the old Paragon (top) and new Milord (bottom) and what they are made of (you’ll want to click the image for a larger view). The older pen is the straight forward piston filler and similar to many vintage and contemporary writing instruments using that system. You can see there are only a few important parts including two cylindrical pieces, one with the seal on the end; a barrel; a filling knob; section; and nib/feed assembly. Simply put the barrel holds the ink and a piston travels lengthwise to draw or expel such. More specifically it works because the shaft that carries the piston seal is a hollow spiral and can freely move up and down but not twist. Into this meshes a threaded rod connected to the turning knob at the barrel end which can only rotate. If the knob is turned that rotational motion creates linear motion on the seal creating a vacuum to fill the pen with ink. Some pens reverse what shaft is the outer and inner (as in the Milord here ) or change the part lengths but the principle stays the same.
So if the standard piston filling system is reliable and often used (Montblanc and Pelikan among others have utilized it for decades) why mess with it? I’m not sure but Omas did on their newer pens with a flourish of complexity. Take a look at the disassembled pens and you can see more parts for the new Omas then the old to illustrate that point. On the outside the celluloid section of the Milord has gotten much longer and friction fits to the rear portion. It doesn’t look all that ink tight with such a joint but luckily it doesn’t have to be. That’s because the mysterious long clear tube in the picture is what really holds the ink now when slid into the pen. Yep, it’s a barrel in a barrel which makes the visible celluloid part just window dressing. The image below shows that the functional components can work independently from the pretty outside bits as a pen. It’s similar to what is called a “captive converter” which is a removable converter (often used in cartridge fill pens) permanently put into place and passed off as a piston filler. What we have here is kind of a jumbo version of that which sniggers down into the celluloid wrapper and is retained there to create the final pen.
If you go back in time this actually is very much like a Tibaldi pen I fixed a few years ago which had a remarkably similar inner structure (see pic below.) I wasn’t too fond of the filling system then and I’m still not now. Besides being complex it seems delicate which increases the chance of a malfunction. A weak point in both I noticed was that the inner barrel is made of a brittle plastic which can develop stress fractures. The tight fit of this in the outer cosmetic barrel means it is submitted it to a lot of pressure when being removed or replaced thus the fractures. Lastly when you reduce the diameter of the tube holding ink such as done by the double wall we have a smaller ink capacity then in an equivalent sized standard piston filler.
I sound pretty negative but are there any upsides to the new design? I can think of a few possibilities starting with the fact that the celluloid is protected from any ink discoloration due to exposure. Not a problem I often see but it is a consideration. Also there is insulative value in having two barrels even without airspace between them. This could mean that rapid warming and cooling is slowed and so the ink doesn’t expand and leak out as easily when the pen is full. Yes, this may be a bit of a stretch. Lastly, and of concern to the manufacturer, it may be more economical to make a pen this way. The inner barrel could be simpler to produce since it’s not celluloid and has rougher finishing. Also repair is made much easier when a cheaper internal structure can be swapped in and no expensive celluloid needs to be touched.
I only have conjecture about why the change in construction was made but I do know that the old style Paragon is the pen I’d prefer out of the two. Both in looks and function I think it is superior. That’s not to say the new Milord or Paragon will not be a good pen with a long life. We’re not talking an accident waiting to happen so in all likelihood it will give good service. However, I do like elegant design in an expensive pen so just call me old-fashioned.