A pen is a pen is a pen. Well yes, most of the time. As long as it contains ink and some means of getting that ink onto paper, it's fit for purpose. It's classified as a pen. Some are pretty, some are not, and some evolve beyond the definition of a mere pen and become a work of art. Namiki writing instruments fall into that last category.
They display the fabulous results of an almost mythical sort of patience, because the techniques employed to create the marvellously-detailed designs on the barrels take many years to perfect - a lifetime, in some cases.
Ryosuke Namiki and Masao Wada were merchant marine engineers who started making fountain pens in 1918. In 1925, inspired by the painstaking work of the lacquer artists who later became known as the Kokkokai, or 'Group of the Nation's Light', they began producing what we now recognise as a Namiki pen. A later alliance with luxury brand Alfred Dunhill began a slow, but sure, spread of Namiki pens throughout the western world. Slow, because we are not talking mass-production here; we're talking traditional craftmanship, enormous skill and a single-minded desire to expose this particular type of art - 'Maki-e' - to the world. And all in the guise of a pen. Genius. What better way to perpetuate an awe-inspiring tradition than by displaying its beauty on an everyday object?
The pens are relatively unadorned in terms of trim and basic design: the barrel is a simple black tube, all the better to show off the remarkable designs to their best advantage, and the whole is set off by subtle gold- or rhodium-plated trim and simple pocket clips. Even the boxes in which they're supplied are plain wood, albeit perfectly constructed.
Because it's the Maki-e that is important. That and the pictorial representations of Japanese culture: natural landmarks such as Mount Fuji, symbols of long life such as the crane and turtle, and dragons, creatures of legend. Each Kokkokai artist devotes his career to perfecting a single technique, which involves the use of natural materials including Urushi, a lacquer produced from resin extracted from a type of sumac tree on only a few days a year. Each layer of Urushi on a Namiki pen - and the most complex designs can involve as many as 200 - is a fraction of a millimetre thick, and each is polished by hand.
Hira Maki-e, displayed on the Tradition collection, involves creating a design using coloured Urushi and raw lacquer, and then applying gold and silver powder using a hollow bamboo stem. Togidashi-hira Maki-e is a similar technique, except that the polishing process involves charcoal, to enhance the design. Togidashi-taka Maki-e involves mixing lacquer and charcoal powder and creating a design layer by layer to result in a three-dimensional effect. Raden, which features on the Capless collection, uses the pearlescent nacreous surface of shells from horseshoe and newt crabs, and abalone, which are cut into tiny fragments and arranged in mosaic patterns. Hyoumon involves small pieces of gold, silver and lead which are cut to create an inlaid design and then charcoal-polished to enhance the effect. Rankakou is created with powdered or tiny pieces of quail egg shell which are then polished to reveal the pattern. Chinkin involves engraving a lacquer surface using cutting tools and a sheet of precious metal. Gold powder is then inlaid into the engraving. Shishiai Togidashi Make-e is considered the highest level of all, as it requires numerous drying steps and combines several different techniques simultaneously.
Fountain pens need a nib, and the Namiki ones are all produced in-house. Gold is laminated and cut into sheets, which are then embossed to give them their curvature. The slits are carved using a hair-thin diamond tip and iridium powder is heated to 3,000°C to form tiny balls, which are pressed into the end of the slits. And then they're polished by differing degrees, depending on how wide the nib is to be.
Namiki Maki-e pens have been around for almost a century, and look set to survive for at least another. They exude a sort of serenity, one that has been achieved by placing perfection above mass-production, and traditional craftsmanship above commercialism. Priceless.