Platinum's 100th Anniversary

Platinum logoIt's Platinum's 100th anniversary, so we thought it was a good time to tell you more about this successful Japanese pen maker, and their history of innovation. Much of the information here comes from the "100-Year Timeline Platinum Fountain Pen" book which they have complied to celebrate.

Who Are They Now?

Platinum are a big Japanese pen manufacturer, one of the leading pen makers in the world. They're less well-known outside Japan, but have been very influential, and their pens are highly respected - especially their fountain pens.

They're not to be confused with the old British brand Platignum (with a G) - there's no connection between the two other than the similarity of the names.

They're an innovative company, and are still working to improve their pens and pencils, with new products appearing regularly, and existing products always being improved.

Platinum make a very wide range of products, including fountain pens from semi-disposable pens like the Preppy, at under £5, up to high-end handcrafted fountain pens costing many hundreds of pounds. They also make some innovative mechanical pencils, with special mechanisms to prevent lead breakage, and to make use of every last bit of lead, helping to prevent waste.

Another product type they specialise in is brush pens, especially those intended for Japanese calligraphy, developing them in conjunction with one of the top calligraphers in Japan. Multipens are popular in Japan, too, and again, Platinum have produced a wide variety of top quality multipens, including ballpoint tips, mechanical pencil tips, and some unusual woven fabric stylus tips for modern touchscreens.

They also make some unusual inks for fountain pens, including the much-loved Platinum Carbon Ink, with nano pigments that make it safer to use in fountain pens, as well as being very permanent. Its ability to stay put when painted over with watercolour has made it very popular with artists. Their Classic Ink range adds some interesting colours to traditional iron gall inks.

History

Platinum's Founder, Shunichi NakataThe beginnings of Platinum go back to 1919, when Shunichi Nakata began selling fountain pens. At the time, they were new to Japan, and people were amazed to see a pen that could hold its own ink supply, ready to write without dipping in a bottle of ink. When the first Waterman pens arrived in Japan, Nakata knew he wanted to be part of it - these pens would be important.

Platinum, the company, was founded by Shunichi Nakata in 1924, as Nakaya Seisakusho. He founded the company in Ueno, Tokyo, which was especially known for its culture. Ueno was home to museums, art and science organisations and zoos, and Shunichi saw fountain pens as a "vanguard of culture", so he thought it was the perfect place to start. He didn't want to just sell other people's pens any more - he wanted to make his own.

"I'll make the fountain pens and sell them myself. It must be a venture where I sell using my own brand."

Their early pens were mostly eyedroppers with ink shut-off valves, a type of pen now known to many as a 'Japanese Eyedropper'. An eyedropper is a pen where the whole barrel is used to hold ink, and the ink is put into the barrel using an eyedropper or syringe. The shut-off valve helps with a couple of problems with eyedropper pens, making them less likely to leak in an aircraft, and less likely to drip ink as they warm up in your hand while writing.

Fountain pens were well known in cities at that time, but not as much in rural areas, so Shunichi sold his pens by mail order, enabling Nakaya Seisakusho to reach the rural market that many other pen makers were ignoring - a very successful strategy.

While it still didn't form the name of the company, Nakata registered 'Platinum' as a trademark in 1928. The tipping material on the nib of a fountain pen, at the point where it actually meets the paper, is usually known as 'iridium'. In practice, the actual metal iridium is very rare, and rarely, if ever, used for nibs. The metals used in alloy to form the 'iridium' tips are osmium, ruthenium, palladium, rhodium and platinum. Together, these metals are referred to as the platinum group.

This tipping material is very important to the writing feel. The tip needs to be dense and hard, giving a smooth feeling, and making it last a long time. A gold nib without tipping would wear away as it was rubbed against the paper when writing, but the metals in the platinum group can form very hardwearing alloys, which can withstand many, many years of heavy use.

The company name was changed to "Platinum Fountain Pen Co. Ltd." in 1942.

Around this time, due to the ongoing war, Platinum had to take on a very different challenge. While a shortage of supplies, especially metals, meant fountain pen production was greatly reduced, Shunichi Nakata was appointed president of Tokyo Heiki Company - or Tokyo Weapons Company. Under his leadership, they built 400 of the legendary Japanese Zero fighter planes. He returned to making pens quickly afterwards, but the experience gave Platinum new expertise in metal technology and manufacturing techniques.

Platinum were very quick to engage in international trade following the war, quickly beginning exports, and bringing in machinery and technology from other countries to improve their products.

Expansion meant Platinum needed to increase production, and in 1964, they established a factory in Columbo, Sri Lanka (or Ceylon, as it was known then).

While his company and legacy stay strong, Shunichi Nakata died in 1968, and Toshihiro Nakata was appointed president of the company.

Platinum's updated logo from 1969The 'P' logo, which is still in use, was created in 1969. The circle inside the loop of the P is intended to represent ripples emitting from a drop of ink.

Platinum's continuing expansion led them to open a factory in Shenzhen, China, in 1982; which was followed by another, larger factory, in Shanghai, in 1994.

Platinum's new CEO, Toshiya NakataToshihiro Nakata died in 2009, aged 73, and was succeeded by Toshiya Nakata.

Now, in 2019, they celebrate their 100th anniversary, in a stronger position than ever, with their products covering a huge range, both in terms of types of pens and refills; and in terms of prices - they're still making everything from basic and reliable disposable pens; to high-end works of art, involving months of work from skilled craftspeople.

Innovation

Platinum have an innovative history - from the careful choice of where to start the company, and the decision to sell by mail order to reach markets their competitors couldn't reach, they have continued to invent and come up with new materials, mechanisms and designs, while staying strongly rooted in traditional Japanese crafts too.

Post-war, in 1953, as international trading became much easier, Platinum bought a plastic molding machine from UK, and plastics from DuPont in US, enabling them to improve their manufacturing processes, leading to more consistent quality.

Platinum Honest 60 fountain penThis led to the launch of the 'Honest' pen, the first cartridge pen, in 1957. They called it the 'Honest 60', referring to Platinum's ambition to dominate the market by 1960.

They spent three years of development work to learn how to make 18k gold nibs, completing this and launching such nibs in 1962. Nibs were previously made from, at most, 14k gold. The higher gold content in 18k gold was difficult to work with, and was considered at the time to be too soft to make nibs with. But Platinum's work paid off - 18k gold nibs had a brighter shine, and as pens became more of a status accessory, some people considered the higher gold content to be important.

The Japanese pocket pen wasn't always Japanese - it was based on designs that were common in the US and Europe from the 1900s, but they fitted the Japanese style perfectly, and the Platinum Pocket, launched in 1964, made pens of this style so popular in Japan that such pens are now often known as 'Japanese pocket pens'.

Platinum Soft PenThey didn't only make fountain pens, either - the Platinum Soft Pen was launched in 1964 - a fibre-tipped Sign pen, supplied with spare tips and cartridges. It was disposable, but by supplying it with spares, each one could last a long time.

Platinum Knock retractable fountain penWhen Pilot proudly launched the Capless retractable fountain pen in 1965, Platinum didn't want anyone thinking they couldn't do it too. They launched their Knock retractable fountain pen in 1965. Whether it was too similar for Pilot to allow, or just wasn't as successful, it didn't stay in production for long, but Platinum had shown they could do it.

A pen type that Platinum are successful with to this day is multipens - multifunction pens with more than one tip - usually a ballpoint and a mechanical pencil, or perhaps two ballpoints and a pencil. This started in 1978 with the Double Action. In held a ballpoint and a mechanical pencil, though the design looks a bit odd now (and probably looked even more odd when it launched!). Its flat shape looks more like two pens stuck together, formed into a single body. The convenience appealed to people, and Platinum continued with development, finding ways to put the multiple functions into a more 'normal' pen.

Platinum #3776 fountain penOne of the products they're best known for now, the #3776 fountain pen, was launched in 1978. It was named for the height of Mt Fuji, Japan's highest peak, to show that this pen was the highest peak of fountain pens. Platinum wanted the #3776 to be the pen that represents Japan.

Another product type Platinum have become known for is the mechanical pencil. They launched the Press Man in 1978 - a mechanical pencil specially designed to prevent lead breakage. It used relatively thick 0.9mm lead for extra strength, and a cushioned mechanism to allow the lead to be pushed back slightly rather than snap. The name comes from the target market - it was made for reporters and stenographers, so they could scribble quickly without as much risk of snapping the lead, which would force them to pause and risk missing things in their notes.

While it may not have the same prestige as the #3776, the Preppy, launched in 1980, certainly reached a lot of people - between 2010 and 2017, for example, they sold 10 million of them. The Preppy is a simple, cheap, plastic fountain pen. It's not disposable, using standard Platinum cartridges, but the price isn't much more than most good disposable fountain pens.

Along with the usual selection of ink and barrel colours, there was a Hello Kitty edition in 2010, a definite sign of a product that's made it big! Redesigns in 2007, 2014 and 2017 have kept the Preppy up to date in style, though it hasn't changed much since 2007.

Back in the world of mechanical pencils, Platinum still had more ideas for reducing lead breakage. Their new mechanism was unveiled in 2009, as the OLEeNU.

The system that supports the lead inside the pencil was inspired by the machinery used to drive pillars into the ground for building construction - but a bit smaller! The lead is held in place as it passes through the mechanism, preventing breakage, and also enabling the 'zero-shin' system, which avoids most of the wastage, where most pencils can't use the last centimetre or so of lead.

Platinum's Slip and Seal mechanismIn 2010, it was time to update their famous fountain pen, the #3776, which became the #3776 Century. The main update was the addition of the Slip & Seal mechanism, where a spring inside the cap pushes an inner cover cover down over nib. This forms a stronger seal, which prevents ink drying out. Platinum say the Century models with this mechanism can be left unused for two years without the ink drying out inside.

Brush pens are popular in Japan, as they're perfect for Japanese calligraphy, used for hand-written notes where you want to be a bit more expressive. There were brush pens with foam tips in the shape of a brush, which were cheap and convenient; and there were brush pens with real bristle tips, which were considered better, but were generally more expensive.

Platinum Souhitsu brush pensWorking in conjunction with famous calligrapher Souun Takeda, Platinum developed their Souhitsu Brush Pens, launched in 2012, with the aim of surpassing 'real' brushes for calligraphy - making brush pens that combined the value and ease of foam-tipped pens with the responsiveness of real brushes. The tips have varying levels of firmness, becoming more rigid further up the tip for more control.

A quite recent arrival, from 2018, the Procyon, brought a few innovative features. The nib was a completely new design, with a pentagonal cross-section. The barrel and cap have lovely matte textures which feel good in the hand. There's also the clever feed, which means that when used with a converter, it draws ink up from a little inlet under the nib, which can reach the last drops of ink in a bottle, reducing waste.

It's not just the pens, either - Platinum have been innovative with ink, too. Their Carbon Ink and Pigment Ink are fairly safe for fountain pens, especially Platinum pens with the Slip & Seal mechanism to prevent ink drying in the pen. These inks still need a bit of extra care, but in return, they're very waterproof, which is good for any purpose where spillages are a risk, and can be very important for artists.

Along with the black Carbon Ink, the Pigment Ink adds Blue, Rose Red and Blanc Sepia options.

Released in 2017, Platinum Classic Ink caused quite a stir among ink lovers - it's iron gall ink, like the traditional Blue-Black inks, but made in a range of colours, and made to be safer in fountain pens. This type of ink still requires some care, depending on the pen, as they have particles that could cause clogging, and they're acidic, which can harm steel. Pens like Platinum's #3776 Century range are fairly safe for them, with the Slip & Seal mechanism preventing the ink drying in the feed, and gold nibs staying safe from corrosion.

In return, though, you get a highly permanent ink, which gradually changes colour with time. They go on pale, and darken somewhat quite quickly as they dry, and will continue to darken over the years.

Finishes

Platinum's earliest pens were ebonite, sometimes with metal coverings, as with most other brands. That meant most were black, though they did also used coloured ebonite, and used mixing techniques to create interesting patterns.

In 1924, Platinum introduced rattan weave pens. These were ebonite pens, but with woven rattan over the top, with coloured ebonite showing through the gaps in the weave.

Something that's common now, but wasn't at all common at the time - making pens available in a range of fashionable colours. The Seven Color Series, released in 1965, got Platinum started with the idea of pens as more colourful fashion accessories, not just writing instruments or elegantly crafted items.

In a similar way, the Glamour was a shorter and much wider variation of the #3776, from 1987. The short and wide design was seen as cute, which has long appealed to the Japanese market, and making them available in pastel colours made them even more appealing. Kawaii! The design was originally inspired by a child's drawing of a pen.

The Flower Pattern Series, from 1973, was made in a choice of different flower patterns, with tulips, pansies, clover, roses, autumn leaves, and other patterns - the number of choices made the pens feel more individual.

Platinum leather-wrapped pensFor Leather-wrapped pens, Platinum devised a special process to minimise the seam, which otherwise stood out on such pens. This was first used in 1971, with their sheep skin pen, and in 1973, they followed it with a surprisingly wide variety of dyed patterns on sheep skin, with bright colours and flowers.

They didn't stop with sheep, though. Other animal skins used for Platinum pens have included the Suriname toad, sharks, crocodiles, lizards and snakes.

Mickey Mouse fountain pens, made dor Disney by PlatinumFrom the late 1970s, Platinum began collaborating with designer brands, starting with Japanese designer ixi:z. Other collaborations have included Pierre Cardin, Playboy and Givenchy. A collaboration with Disney saw Mickey Mouse pens from Platinum in 1985, and a dual collaboration with German pen brand Diplomat for Tiffany to make pens with beautiful briar wood barrels, gave the somewhat odd sight of a #3776 nib labelled as 'DIPLOMAT' instead of Platinum.

Rather more common for a Japanese brand, Platinum have made a lot of use of Maki-e techniques for pen barrels, starting from 1933, and continuing to the present day. This beautiful technique uses painted designs and gold powder with layers of urushi lacquer, giving decorated pens with real depth to the design.

While Maki-e is usually used for brightly colourful decorated pens, Platinum have also used it for very subtle black-on-black pens, using charcoal powder for different finishes.

They have also made pens from Celluloid, since at least 1946. The new celluloid series they released in 1989 gave us some of the current finishes, which are still in production.

Platinum #3776 in celluloidCelluloid is a beautiful material for pens, but isn't used often now, as many other plastics are much easier and safer to work with. Celluloid is flammable, so it requires great care when working and shaping it. It has a particular look and feel, with a lovely depth, meaning it's still valued by many people.

A couple of special editions from 2004 were made from hammered silverware. These pens used nibs recreated from 1964 and 1966 records of formulas.

One of the most interesting materials Platinum have worked with is Yakusugi Wood. This comes from Yakushima, where 1,000m high mountains and heavy rainfall mean the Cedar trees grow naturally to very old ages. Only those over 1,000 years old are classed as Yakusugi.

Because they grow very slowly, they have very compressed rings, giving them a different texture and look. Logging is prohibited (well, you'd hope so, with trees that have lived for 1,000 years!), so the pens are only made from wood taken from either fallen trees from typhoons, or stumps remaining from logging during the Edo Period.

For their 90th anniversary, in 2009, Platinum celebrated with a special Carbon Fibre pen.

Platinum Izumo logoIn 2010, they began a new project - Izumo. Izumo is a province in Japan, known for its traditional handmade paper. It's also the birthplace of Platinum's founder, Shunichi Nakata. Their Izumo pens are certified as 'Izumo brand' by Isumo City, and are made by experienced local craftspeople.

Platinum Izumo fountain penIzumo pens have included many different designs and styles, including Maki-e; Urushi; Raden (layers of abalone shell set into urushi lacquer); and Yakumo-nuri, where patterns are drawn with coloured lacquers, mother of pearl, and gold and silver powders, with many layers of lacquer applied over them.

The Izumo project, at a time when the world is generally moving towards mass production and fast production lines, shows Platinum's continuing commitment to individual handcrafted pieces.

The Five Lakes Series, from 2011 onwards, was designed for the five lakes around Mt Fuji: Motosu, Shoji, Sai, Yamanaka, and Kawaguchi. Each one has a different way of representing some aspect of the individual lake.

Like Celluloid, Ebonite was a commonly used material many years ago, at one point the most common material to make pens from. Again, though, it's harder to work with by modern standards, so it's rarely used now, but Platinum have still done so.

Kanazawa Foil technique, referred to as Momi Chirashi, uses gold foils bonded together by rubbing with Japanese paper, to make some beautiful gold patterned pens.

Similar to their very early rattan designs, the more recent Woven Bamboo pens use 36 bamboo rods, each of which is 2mm wide and 0.2mm thick, braided into a mesh.

Nib-making Process

Platinum are rightly proud of the quality and reliability of their nibs. Making each nib takes more than 50 processes.

  • Pure gold, and other metals including silver, copper, nickel, zinc, is made into an alloy ingot. Each ingot is 2kg in weight, and 17mm thick.
  • An ingot is rolled through a mill repeatedly, bringing it down to 0.65mm thick.
  • Incisions are cut out of the resulting sheet.
  • The rough nib shapes are stamped out.
  • The heart shaped hole is cut into each nib, to form the 'breather' hole.
  • At this point, the logos and engravings are marked on.
  • The nib is formed into its curved shape.
  • The tipping material is welded to the end.
  • A slit is cut through the nib and tipping, where the ink will flow from feed to paper. This has to be shaped just right for the ink to flow as it should.
  • The tipping material is ground to smooth finish. As this is where the nip meets the paper, this step is critical, and is where the nib should be made to write smoothly. This stage is done by mechanical polishing with the nib fully wrapped other than the tipping.
  • The final smoothing of the tipping is still done manually by craftsmen, to ensure the nib writes well.

The Future

While Platinum are celebrating their 100th anniversary, they are not looking only to the past, but to the future. In their 100-year timeline book, they say they believe the history of their first 100 years "will serve as a roadmap of Platinum Pen for the next 100 years".

17 June 2019

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