Sunday, January 10, 2016

A Review of Namiki Emperor in Vermillion Urushi

Surely, dazzled by the resplendent allure of a Japanese ED (with the concept of a shut-off valve mechanism), the lust for an urushi lacquered pen vis-a-vis plain ebonite ones (seemingly susceptible to lose shine and colour over time) did keep growing on me for some time, before I took this plunge! I have come to know of an unfortunate experience with a Sailor KOP in Ebonite and have felt that without urushi, ebonite just fails to complete itself. These glamorous reviews from shuuemura and rubyeyespenlover should be banned and blamed altogether for pen-monetary crises, which I kept visiting again & again. These reviews did make me aware of huge dimensions of the Emperor more towards a ‘at rest desk-pen’, with a reassurance of writing comfort. I will keep this review unrated, since beautiful things in life do not need logic or mathematics to impart you with joy. And yes, some call it the Elder Wand(Pen), some call it the Emperor. And yet, it's still called a Lacquer Vermillion Urushi #50 without rings.

So when I got dazzled for long enough, I asked Raul (Engeika/Pensindia) for an opinion regarding the Emperor vs Yukari Royale. Since most of our discussions these days refer to trade economics, Government taxation rather than any real pen discussions, he lazily took two to three days to check with Namiki and confirmed me back with the nib availability for both the pens. He did give me a discounted price (which I shall not discuss) for the Emperor model, more as a friend than a seller. I went ahead with it, because the production of Emperor pen without rings had been stopped by Namiki and it would become difficult to acquire a preferred nib-width. The beauty travelled from Japan and reached me via Pensindia Pune office in less than two weeks.


A JUMBO HISTORY OF 85 YEARS


In early 1930’s, the Emperor existed in the form of No.50 Jumbo. It was decommissioned a few years later. On one rare occasion as referenced here, Nomura securities (estd 1925) had a specially commissioned No. 50 Jumbo pen made for itself, with Dunhill-Namiki engraved (with the classic M-shape logo) in 1936, for distribution among its employees to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the company. Wow! how many companies would do that today?

Pilot reintroduced the pen in 1985 to tap the high margin market, as referenced here. The task was left to Sakai Eisuke to create a No. 50 Jumbo prototype based on the 1920s model. The initial model had a 14k nib with the 14 KARAT NAMIKI <NIB WIDTH> REGISTERED PATENT OFFICE 50 inscription, which later got replaced with a 18k nib carrying a similar engraving. 

These days it comes with Namiki’s standard Mt. Fuji inscription. The finish of these Urushi lines is obtained by using non-oil lacquer for the final coat and a polishing method called Roiro Urushi Shiage (Non-oil lacquer finish) as per Namiki. It’s done by rubbing the pen in raw lacquer after a special charcoal polishing process. And if you look at the plain Urushi line of pens (vermillion & black), the artisan’s name would say Kokkokai. Kokkokai is a continuation of the original group of Maki-e artisans formed in 1931, under leadership of Maki-e master Gonroku Matsuda, who had joined Ryosuke Namiki back in 1926 as Chief Maki-e Designer. Matsuda is said to have designed for Montblanc too.

URUSHI


Urushi, as you know is the poisonous sap of the urushi or lacquer tree (Toxicodendron Vernicifluum) which grows in Japan, China, and Korea and is primarily brown in colour. The sap of this tree polymerises to form a hard, durable, plastic-like substance, when exposed to moisture/air. Liquid urushi can be applied to multiple materials like wood, metal, cloth, resin, ceramics or ebonite as opposed to the best of synthetic lacquers. When it solidifies, Urushi turns into a very hard coating that is waterproof and protects the coated object from effects of fungus, ambient chemical reactions at surface due to heat or humidity or even from caustic acids. Colored urushi such as black or shu (red) are made byy mixing pigments into cured urushi. With natural exposure to air and ultraviolet light (extended UV exposure ends up in discolouration), the urushi layers gradually increase in transparency and the material gradually unveils shades of original bright colours within. 

The birth of the maki-e decoration technique took place during the Nara period in Japan i.e from 710-794 AD, in which gold ''dust'' was decoratively sprinkled on the lacquer surface. So maki-e utensils, accessories and writing instruments have evolved to their present forms from thousands of years ago. Only direct and prolonged exposure to sunlight will cause urushi to deteriorate. Urushi's hardness and durability makes it an excellent protective coating for any object that will be used continously over a long period of time (Paraphrased from Kyotoguide). This all that ends up with a versatile material and with a characteristic hardness, durability, imperviousness and resistance to abrasion. The elegance of ebonite is supposed to endure time and space with the urushi flair. 


PRESENTED BY NAMIKI


The presentation is grand and velvety with a spacious wooden box, capable of packing your sneakers too, which is made out of traditional Paulownia wood. It is protectively packaged inside a cardboard box. The box has a violet thread running across two metal brackets to fasten the upper lid. 

Resting inside is a bottle of Namiki Black Ink (Pilot Black Ink - 50 mL), an Ink dropper with a red bulb encased in a black cardboard box, a red velvety polishing cloth and finally the No#50 Jumbo resting on its bed. I did receive a nice surprise gift from Pensindia - it is a Pilot Somes single-pen pouch. Thank you! (PS : The Emperor would not fit inside this standard Pilot Pouch)

The model number of the pen, in this case FNF-148S-<R/B>-<F/FM/M/B> indicates the launch price and colour of the pen. 148 refers to JPY 148,000 whereas the third digit R/B refers to the red/black urushi product.

DESIGNED CLASSICALLY 


This Lacquer No.#50 model comes in two standard colours - Black & Vermillion (Urushi) with gold plated clips. A newer No.#50 Urushi model available with two concentric rings on the cap, carrying a different model number. The ebonite feels substantial in hand from dual perspectives of dimensions but at the same time the pen does not feel heavy. 

The classical cigar or rather torpedo shaped geometry with Vermillion hue adores itself with light, which when reflected through multiple layers of urushi takes on a electric red tinge on an otherwise conservative scarlet red hue. The work and finish is impeccable and it does not show any signs of being handmade, whatsoever. The simplistic yet elegant design comes with a single golden accent, provided deftly by the traditional triangular shaped tension fit clip with a sphere to anchor into your shirt pockets, if you have that big a pocket. A marked absence of any other decoration like a clip band or ring or anything else on the entire pen, imparts a continued infinity to modes of convergence. Vermillion is considered as an auspicious colour throughout East Asia, where it’s culturally imbibed. It has four synthetic & natural shades as of today: Red-Orange[sRGB (255, 83, 73)], Orange-Red[sRGB (255, 69, 0)], Plochere[sRGB (217, 96, 59)] and Chinese Red[sRGB (170, 56, 30)]. The shades/hue of the pens in red urushi might vary from one other.

The cap unravels itself after one and a half turns. It reveals the beautiful nib with the modern Mt.Fuji inscription which is incidentally 1.1 cm longer than the section itself. The seamless grip goes through a fair amount of taper starting from the barrel and ends up with a smoothly carved out bumper, emphasising continuity. The cap threads on the barrel are carved out with sculpted finesse and the grip section ends up with a small but discernible gap between itself and the barrel (common across the Urushi models). There is a rubber gasket there as the pen holds a considerable amount of ink, for leakage would be a problem. What looks like a gap is really more insulation. The barrel at the other end leads leisurely to the tail where you have the ink-shutoff valve. This picture thankfully captured the tail end, which your eyes might fail to notice, unless you know where you are looking for it.


I feel, the cap is itself a subtle piece art made from a single ebonite blank. It carries the valour and brevity of the overall smooth curved design with remarkable panache. The finish is impeccable, with the colours varying between bright and dark with the play of light. The clip is traditional triangular Pilot with a sphere at the end, inscribed with Namiki with the Isosceles Triangle within a Pentagon logo. There is a alphanumeric code inscribed on the upper base of the clip, where it delves into the cap. 

FILLING SYSTEM - The ‘Japanese’ Eyedropper 


A bit of history on it, there were these traditional non-self filling systems or NSF (without any filling mechanism - piston/button/plunger) and luckily enough fountain pens were compulsory during my junior school days. Since the squeeze converters/cartridges did not last long, we used to bank on fountain pens from Camlin & Chelpark which used to offer the capacity of the barrel itself. However, sometimes we did end up with ink inside the cap and sometimes a blue blot on pockets of our white shirts (our school uniform) due to ink burping & subsequent leakage. If I remember correctly, Surf made all the money those days, using this particular advertisement with an ink blot on white pockets in TV media. Seems the burping had mattered to the Japanese first, thanks to their costly Kimonos made of silk, when they had come up with an ink stop - plunger mechanism in early 1912

                The term ED (Eyedropper) came into picture after advent of vacuum driven self filling pens with button, squeeze or plunger mechanisms. Now comes the ink-dropper with the red bulb to make an appearance. The section takes almost eternity (read seven complete turns) to reveal one of the most basic fountain pen filling systems. Most of the times, I fear the section would drop off due to my monotony and laziness during unscrewing the section. Once unscrewed, you can see the conical ink shutoff valve inside the barrel and a similar conical concavity with a crevice inside the section, to make the system work. The insides of the barrel & section are all black. With the dropper filled up with your favourite ink, you are supposed to be fill the barrel, until the visible internal threads. Leave the valve shut while filling the barrel, then unscrew one turn to allow air inside the chamber while writing and then close when finished. The entire rod is to be extracted completely, only when you are cleaning the barrel. It's a delicate system, so one must avoid pulling the rod frequently. While using, you can unscrew the tail by 1 mm or so and start writing, although the feed might have a buffer comparable to a converter. After use, you can follow the instruction of screwing back the tail with the nib turned upside. 


NIB - LORD OF THE NIBS


The nib with this Emperor is 18k which weighs more than 2 grams and it came with four stock widths earlier - F, FM, M & B according to the enclosed booklet. It seems F and B nibs have run out of stock for Namiki/Pilot Office in Japan. The nib isn't anything short of grand, but believe me it takes time to get used to it. It’s longer than the section by more than 1 cm. Inscribed is the symbol of Mt. Fuji (also found in #3776 nibs), the upper part symbolic of the snow caps. 

The oval breather hole rests within the snow caps. Below the snow, etched are the Namiki Logo (Isosceles triangle inside a Pentagon), Namiki, gold alloy specs (18k-75%) and Nib width <M>. The nib is sharply curved compared to usual flatter Pilot nibs, at its shoulders & tines, as a continuity of the precision followed by Kokkokai artists, while making the pen.

On the left the #50 nib carries the Namiki Logo Ste PP-F hallmark and on the right it carries the date stamp. Mine is a707, “a” as I understand refers to the machine/plant where the pen was made and 707 as usual refers to July-2007 manufacturing. 


The semi-lacquered plastic feed (red urushi) converges majestically with the overall design of the pen. The big fins ensure levelling ambient air pressure and give you a really worthy buffer (from underside the nib). You can write a few A4 pages with the shut-off valve/tail closed. When I filled the pen for the first time, the feed took some time to respond, but when it did it was with a nice and consistent flow, and after that it was pure performance. 


PHYSICS OF IT – RELATIVELY SPEAKING


This is in no way a daily carry pen designed for extensive use as a travel companion. For a daily pen, I assume that a Yukari Royale would fit the bill well, albeit with a smaller nib. I take special care and limit the pen to home use only. The ebonite body keeps the pen warm & comfortably balanced for writing. The pen is in fact quite comfortable to write with, even for an extended period of time. The grip is temperate and soothing, showcasing the better qualities of ebonite, with urushi sustaining its demeanour. Posting the pen is probably an impossibility for me, given the size, finish or value of the pen. I really do not have any pen to compare it with, though I strongly feel that the Emperor deserves a place of its own. A slight disadvantage in my experience occurs when I change back to a m605 or a 3776, and I have a funny feeling of missing a nib altogether, for the first few moments. Figures for weight and dimension run below in case you need to compare it with a familiar pen. 
  • Length closed ~ 17.3 cm 
  • Length open ~ 15.8 cm 
  • Grip Diameter ~ 1.4 cm 
  • Nib Leverage ~ 3.3 cm 
  • Weight (without ink) ~ 46 g 
  • Weight (without cap) ~ 30 g
  • Ink Capacity ~ 4.4 - 5.0 mL 
Capped, uncapped Emperor poses with an MB149 and Izumo Tagayasan with an apparent disdain for their great magnitude.



ECONOMIC VALUE 


The Emperor retailed at around USD 1600 in the US, although you can find it at lower prices in Japan. Moreover, the production of Emperor without rings has been stopped now and Raul was kind enough to arrange one for me. Technically speaking, I bought the pen from Engeika’s Indian Arm - Pensindia

               Logically the economic value should be equal to salvage value of the pen after a few years of use and I don't think the price will vary by much even after a few years use with proper care, given that someone decides to sell it off. Having said that, even though the pen is one of its kind and the lacquer finish is impeccable, you should give it a serious thought, before taking this kind of a plunge. It will result in a fair amount of money being locked up within the urushi layers! 


OVERALL


The medium nib is graced with a wet flow. It’s neither butter smooth nor with any noticeable feedback, strictly speaking. You will right away know it’s a Pilot nib, in case you have used any of the Pilot pens with a Size#15 nib like a Custom 823 or Custom 845. And it does share its basic DNA with its cousins. I feel that some characteristic spring and softness comes naturally to the Emperor because of the size & shape of the nib, rather from gold content. The verticals grow thicker even with a little bit of pressure. With a high buffer capacity of the feed and its magnificent fins for pressure balance, the nib imparts a beautiful shading to the letters in Iroshizuku Tsuki-yo ink. The ink takes around 45 seconds to dry completely on Tomoe River paper. 

Thank you again for going through the review.
You can find other pen and paraphernalia reviews here.

The Yukari Royale with the Emperor. Notice the difference between the red shades.


SOME CAUTIONARY GUIDELINES FOR URUSHI LACQUER CARE


I felt like including some pointers regarding care of urushi lacquered pens here, since it will help me more than the reader (most of whom are extremely knowledgeable). The points are derived from this FPN Thread
  1. AVOID Ultraviolet light - direct sunlight, UV lamps, halogen lamps. 
  2. AVOID Continuous exposure to visible light which can alter colour, transparency and appearance. 
  3. Do NOT soak in water. 
  4. Store in a dark place to prevent undesirable changes. 
  5. Do NOT store the pen in an excessively dry or desiccating environment for long periods like inside the fridge, with silica gels etc. 
  6. Do NOT use abrasive cleaners or polishes, use a soft cloth damp if necessary, to wipe the pen 
  7. Do NOT have to apply anything to the surface of urushi: oils, stinky tofu, silicone or otherwise. 

REFERENCES


3 comments:

  1. WoW, drop dead awesomeness ....

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  2. Thank you for the fantastic review, yes this is my next purchase. Currently I use the SAILOR KOP IN BLACK EBONITE WITH RHODIUM TRIM, NAGINATA TOGI BROAD GROUND TO AN ARCHITECTS POINT. I use it as a daily writer AND fill it up two or three times a day, I carry Visconti ink wells for refilling and see this as my answer to long writing sessions. This vermillion red is intoxicating in photos I can hardly wait to see it in person.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you for your gracious comments. The naginata nibs indeed have their own levels of intoxication :) . Only if Sailor could rethink about filling systems other than C/C. All the best for your No#50.

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