The second half of 2018 has been a different era for the Chinese fountain pen makers. On part of the story is the offerings from highly anticipated and innovative brands like PenBBS released their well-curated products to the market as planned; on the other side, the questionable copycatting behavior some peculiar Chinese pen makers pick up again.
With the 2019 approaching, I think now it is the perfect time for me to say something about these brands. However, the best format to do it is not by writing another news piece, but instead giving my personal critique to the good ones and the bad ones (yes there would be the bad and ugly upcoming on this blog) of the pens from east. It also needs to mention beforehand that the sequence of the articles released under this topic does not represent my ranking of them.
One of the highlighted moments I came across in my observation of Chinese stationery industry is a brand called n9.
The n9 kicked off its stationery adventure by gathering a group of Red-Dot-winning designers and talented marketers probably two years ago. In this past April, n9 debuted the brand during an event held in the Forbidden City, with the endorsement from JD.com, one of the e-commerce giant in China.
The core tagline of the n9 is all about combining the traditional Chinese aesthetic sense with a modern and functional twist. “Refining the relatively pedantic and formalistic Chinese elements and unit it with contemporary writing instruments, thus creating products that are more appealing to younger generations,” that’s the first line of its brand mantra.
Their early offerings are the Taiji Series and YingYing Series, two aluminum fountain pen with a sales number estimated over 4,000— a remarkable number for a first-time fountain pen maker.
The Taiji Series
Taiji is a Chinese cosmological term for the “Supreme Ultimate” state of undifferentiated absolute and infinite potential, the oneness before duality, from which Yin and Yang originate. It is a popular idea that can be found in numerous China-related culture genres, especially if you are interested in Taoism or its martial art. The embodiment of Taiji is the yin-yang symbol—☯(Unicode U+262F), and from this symbol, the designers of n9 developed the look of the Taiji Series.
The dual facets on the round body are sublet and smooth, unlike the dramatic twist we have seen on the Pelikan Twists. The base material of the barrel and nib section is all aero-class aluminum, available in five colors. The branding element sits on the side of the cap with a good proportion. However, my only complaint is that at least for some variants sold on JD.com, their nib section didn’t receive such a Taiji-massage.
The n9 Taiji is price between 38.72-43.20 US dollars in China.
The YingYing Series
In the first glance, this is a slightly decorated model with a beautiful silhouette. And it ’s magnetic end finial that enables an addictive experience to post and fidget with it using the cap. But if you look into the name, clearly n9 has more stories to tell.
What’s YingYing? This name imposed a difficult question even for me who thinks to know many things about the traditional culture.
It turned out the name YingYing was picked directly from a poem by Su Shi, also known as Su Dongpo, a writer, poet, painter, calligrapher, and a statesman of China’s Song dynasty. The ancient adjective YingYing was used to describe the reflection from his teardrops when a flickering lamp shed its lights when he was finally apart from his friend (a man).
To salute the old poem, the designer of n9 focused on the lamp. Right behind the nib section, around the mail barrel, several clusters of pine needles were applied to the surface in like a gold embroidery. All of these pine needles are positioned in a way that mimics the glimmering wick of a candle lamp. On top of that, a similar pattern could be found on the nib.
Talking about the nib, both the Taiji and YingYing are using the same nib unit, and it was unclear to me in the first place which made it. After some research, the result is quite surprising: the nib is made by Ningbo Beifa Group Co, LTD, one of the leading mass market stationery maker in China.
Before this, Beifa is a name that seldom connected with a premium fountain pen. Though as a public listed stationery maker similar to the M&G, its gel-ink pen and ballpoints have been very successful during the past decades—Beifa’s gel-ink pen has won Red Dot Award several times, and it is also the strategic partner with Staples.
Actually, if you keep an eye on the international trading news, you must know the Made in China 2025 initiative, a program that first grabbed lots of people’s attention with the Premier Li Keqiang’s essential question that why China still rely on Swiss or Japanese imports to manufacture a ballpoint pen’s tip. It was Beifa who worked hand in hand with the Chinese steel industry and managed to produce the first 100% Chinese gel-ink pen. The company, who sponsored stationery to many international summits held in China such as G-20, even impressed the German chancellor Angela Merkel with its pens. (There is a lot I can tell about that part of Chinese stationery industry. If you are interested, just let me know. )
During the n9’s launch event in the Forbidden City, one of the management team of Beifa Group showed up on the stage to introduce the nibs that are used in n9’s fountain pen. Further research revealed that the company running the n9 brand is actually a wholly owned subsidiary of the Beifa Group.
Back to the nib. Well grounded 304 stainless steel nib with Iridium point. This is the phrases the company was using. From the product pictures and customer reviews, I can tell this nib is more on the dry side and looks, unlike any other Chinese fountain pen nibs we have encountered. As for the size of the nib, it may be a little bit smaller than a standard Schmidt #5 nib.
I was impressed. But apparently, the n9 has far more energy than any other original new brand in the pen world of China.
The Brocade Scroll in Collaboration with the Forbidden City
I am a heavy Android user, and I was impressed with the recent Xiaomi’s special edition of Mix 3, a ceramic sliding phone with 10GB of RAM and themed heavily around a beast called Xiezhi/haetae in the Forbidden City.
But Xiaomi was not the first one to realize the value of traditional culture symbols in consumer products, n9 released the result of its collaboration with the Palace Museum back in the summer.
The model name is 锦轴, which means the scroll made from brocade.
The Forbidden City is a big complex, but n9 picked the central axis of the palace as its main theme for this pen. Mind you that the axis of the Forbidden City is also the central axis of the city of Beijing. The n9 rebuild the most important ten of the palaces or gates that set on this axis by painting a gold silhouette along the full length of the pen body, beginning right from the underneath of the pen clip. As for the base resin, it seems to be more than a single color resin material but one with rich while sublet pattern. The company claims they curated the article in the propose to emulate the white marble used in the Palace. The metal cap band features the Propitious Clouds.
Besides the pen, a stationery gift set which includes a pocket notebook and a Washi Tape (yes, the Washi Tape originated from Japan), both are fully stocked with features like the chart of the Sexagenary cycle and the map of the Palace.
But the most intriguing thing I have found in the Brocade Scroll is the nib. It is not a Beifa nib, but a Schmidt #5 nib in silver finishes. It is a good nib, though, but why Beifa opted for a German nib when its central storytelling of the n9 brand is about original design? Provided with the customized nib in YingYing series, my best guess is that there might be some manufacturing problems there for the company to make a compatible nib for this flagship pen, which forced it to look outward for something is more premium but not too expensive. But I still wished they had chosen the gold tone nib during procurement. A matching gold nib could make this pen stand out more easily.
Compared with another prominent acrylic writer, Live in You’s Shiyou, the Brocade Scroll is sturdier, more substantial and fancier. With its 72 dollars gift set price tag, I can see clearly it will be a good buy.
Zoom out you’d find that the Brocade Scroll is another excellent example of the n9’s capabilities. With its parent company’s deep understanding of the stationery industry and deep pocket, n9 can release several amazing products in a relatively short period of time, which is not an easy task as seen in other smaller pen brands like Green Wing Sung or PenBBS.
Currently, the marketing positioning of the n9 set by the Beifa Group is to serve the domestic market of China, but it is only an issue of time for its pens to show up on the table of Western pen lovers.
In the end, here is a neatly-done brand video of the n9: