When talking about Chinese pen brands, names like Wing Sung, Hero and Jinhao have always been in the spotlight. Yes, they are big names with decades of history—both Wing Sung and Hero were among the 1st-tier companies that went public in the early 90s, and Jinhao has an extra focus overseas. But for now, the elephant in the room for Chinese stationery market is none of them, but a corporation called M&G.
What is M&G?
It is a stationery conglomerate whose business practices cover almost everything in the realm of stationery, from the student pens to office supplies to high-end stationery retailing. M&G has been grabbing the lion’s share of the writing instrument market in mainland China for years, thanks to its affordable gel ink pens and capable distribution networks. As a result, the M&G is the biggest one among the four publicly traded stationery companies in China. (Oh, I almost forgot to mention that the Hero and Wing Sung withdrew themselves from the stock market entering the 2000s due to bad performance.)
The founder of the original company, Mr. Chen first started an OEM stationery factory for the Korean market only to see his client went out of business in the aftermath of the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Later he started a brand that means “Sino-Korean Morning Light” on paper, with a design department set up in Korea. The company later got rid of the “Sino-Korean” part of its branding and replaced it with the branding currently in use.
The headquarters of M&G is located in the heartland of the industrial area that also accommodates the factories of companies that make Lorelei and Wing Sung (Green) pens. But unlike any of the other factories there, the shipment in and out the M&G’s yard could only be carried out by an army of container trucks, and the sheer amount of new products invented by the company is jaw-dropping: in 2016 alone, 2,262 new items were developed and made.
Why didn’t I mention it before?
The answer is twofold: firstly, the company always outsourced its fountain pen products to the factories around its headquarters in a perfunctory way; secondly, during the past decade most of their gel ink pens lack spirits and could in no way challenge the authority of Uni-balls and Pilots.
I have to concede that I consumed dozens of M&G products when I was young. The load of homework that had to be done on paper which is incompatible with fountain pens pushed me to the gel ink pens, and M&G has an unbeatable value proposition for that task: cheap refills with needlepoint option, endless colorful barrel styles that guarantee at least one that fits your taste. But their ergonomics were bad, and the build quality was unable to hold as the time went by. I can still recall the days when the pens could suddenly stop writing or drop the balls off the tip when I was concentrating on my writing. Thus, I always picked up the Uni-ball UM-100 that costs ten times more at the time for examinations that matter.
Ever since college, the M&G brand slowly faded away in my life, and it seems to me that I am saying goodbye to these fast-consuming gel ink pens.
Then M&G hired BMW Designworks …
Last October I came across some online resellers in China bragging about the so-called M&G pens designed in collaboration with the BMW China. It was a dubious claim since there is no reason for BMW to partner with a mass market stationery brand similar to Bic. But my curiosity for these pens only arose after seeing more pictures of that collection— their exterior designs were unequivocally way better than all the previous M&G products.
After digging into the company’s catalog and annual report, it is clear to me that the company hired BWM Designworks, BMW Group’s international design studio headquartered in California, to pump some fresh blood into its ultra-simple line, a young member in the gel ink pen empire.
At least six models of pens designed by Designworks were rolled out last year, but among them, the very pair (AGPB1901 and the AGPH3701) that features a streamlined body molded from high-density resin indeed is the best. The company called such material the Triple Density resin, and it is also used in other pens in the ultra-simple line. Each of the Triple Density pens I picked weighs more than 25g (0.88 oz). Yes, same weight as a Kaweco AL Sport with a clip or a Pilot MR! In effect, they feel like warm aluminum in hand.
I have been using and babying them for a week, and was planning to get an in-depth review of at least of one of them. However, somehow I think it might be a better way of reviewing gel ink pens if I come back after using up at least one refill. Therefore, I would only present you with some basic facts and visuals of this pair of industrial masterpieces.
The Capped Model: AGPB1901
The AGPB1901 features a long and handsome body that looks great no matter which end you attach the cap to. It is hard to find a single word to describe how the barrel was shaped; I would call this body form a natural mixture of semi-triangular and semi- rectangular facets. The barrel of this model comes with five different color options and are all lacquered, though a gun matte finish is also available in China and absent in M&G’s global catalog. Don’t forget that clip, which is full of the touches you’d see in a real BMW car.
The refill of AGPB1901 looks the same as the ones I consumed a lot, following the Chinese national standard QB/T 2625. It is a refill thinner than a Uni-ball’s UMR-5, and its ink capacity counts half of the latter’s in my experience. As for writing, I have to say it still starts out one degrade inferior to a veteran UMR-5 since the tipping point is not as sharp/ prominent as the Uni-ball’s, thus resulting in an all-time scratchiness.
The UMR-5 doesn’t fit this barrel, and I am already on the way to hunt down a better replacement after this factory refill.
The Retractable Model: AGPH3701
The AGPH3701 shares the same body style and material with its capped cousin, but what sets it one step ahead is its retractability, which is more convenient in use and also opening the door for refills.
My basic requirement for a retractable pen is that the refill would not wobble inside the cone during writing, and all my AGPH3701 pens meet this one perfectly. The factory refill here is also better than the capped model. It is a refill similar to other mainstream retractable refills that come with a thick barrel and a spring-loaded pen tip. A refill like this is a welcoming signal for me to use this model. What’s even more promising for the 3701 is that a Jetstream refill could be easily modded and swapped into this excellent barrel! The only remaining question for the AGPH3701 is the durability of the finish and clip during everyday carrying and usage.
Where to buy?
Both of the pens could be purchased easily from AliExpress for less than $3 each. And currently, the AGPB1901 is also up for sale on Amazon.
It has been a while since the last time I felt exhilarated by a gel ink pen made in China, but the M&G really shows off its willingness to change this time by investing into good design and novel material. Though the refills of these two models are less excited than their bodyworks, I heard that M&G is also reiterating their refill formula under various sub-brand names. That’s good news. I am planning to use more of new M&G pens in the coming month to get a better understanding of the company’s direction, and god, I just can’t stop looking at the blue and red variants!