When the Earth began to form sometime around 4.5 billion years ago, molten iron sank to the planet’s center, forming the core. Gold and platinum also migrated to the core leaving the outer layer of the Earth essentially devoid of any precious metals. It is now widely believed that nearly all of the gold content within the Earth’s exterior came from meteorites that bombarded the planet more than 200 million years after its formation. In other words, all of the gold within our beloved nibs is likely extraterrestrial in origin. Of course, not all gold is created equal. We use a karat scale to measure the ratio of gold to other metals or alloys within an item, also known as its fineness. The term karat has the same derivation as carat which is more commonly used for gemstones. Both words originate with the carob bean born from the carob tree (Ceratonia siliqua) which grows in the Mediterranean and has fruit pods that contain multiple seeds. A balance scale used to be the only way to effectively weigh something which meant that a counterbalance of known quantity was necessary, and it was once believed that carob seeds were uniform in size, making them the perfect unit weights. The karat scale that has since emerged ranges from 0 to 24 with 24 karats representing gold in its purest form. In 92 years of fountain pen production, Pelikan has utilized gold with four different degrees of fineness in their nibs; 12C-500, 14C-585, 18C-750, and 20C-833. The number in front of the hyphen refers to the ratio of gold to other metals whereas the second number is the millesimal fineness which denotes the percent of gold in an item. For example, a 12C-500 nib has 50% pure gold whereas the 20C-833 nib has 83.3% pure gold. Does that mean a 20C-833 nib writes differently or is in some way superior to its more impure brethren? Read on to find out.
The seed pod and seeds of the carob tree, Ceratonia siliqua, also known as St. John’s Bread
The 1/24th proportions of the karat scale harken back to Ancient Rome and the time of Constantine The Great during the 4th century. A silver coin known as a siliqua was equal to 1/24th the value of a gold coin known as a solidus, the equivalent of 24 Greco-Roman carats. The carat would forever be associated with the number 24 from this time on. To understand how it came to be a measurement of the purity of gold, we have to look to Germany. The German Empire created the German mark in 1871 which was backed by a gold standard with gold coins minted weighing 24 karats (minted at ~90% gold). The purity of the gold that made up the mark was expressed as the number of karats of gold, and this is how we arrive at the karat scale in use today. Most of the gold nibs that you find bare some marking of fineness along this scale. While “K” is the standard symbol for karat in the USA, “C” has been used in some European countries such as the UK. Many European countries now use decimal hallmark stamps indicating the millesimal fineness. You will generally find both markings on Pelikan’s nibs, but this practice has varied over time.
Coins of antiquity. Top to bottom: A Roman Siliqua, A Roman Solidus, and a German 20 Mark coin
Intuitively, one might expect nibs made from purer gold to be the better value. While gold that possesses greater purity is certainly more expensive, it is the application that is most important when selecting the right karat weight for the job. In the case of a nib, less can certainly be more with 14 karat gold oft being regarded as the sweet spot between form and function. Pure 24 karat gold is incredibly soft and deforms easily, lacking any true durability. Rather than imparting flex, such a nib would bend without ever returning to its prior shape. More commonly encountered metals such as zinc, copper, nickel, iron, cadmium, aluminum, silver, platinum, and palladium have all been alloyed with gold in order increase its durability and, in some instances, to change its physical appearance. Higher karat gold has a more yellow appearance. The more alloy, the more durable the piece, therefore lower karat weights will be stronger. The tradeoff is that lower karat gold will be less tarnish resistant and have less monetary value. When applied to a nib, properties such as durability and spring/flexibility can be impacted by the gold alloy used but this also depends on the nib’s size, shape, and thickness. Nibs have changed over time with vintage examples generally displaying more spring/flex than their modern counterparts. Economics, a change in manufacturing techniques, and the evolving way that we use our pens are some of the likely reasons behind this. It would be an incredibly challenging task to explore all of the various nib characteristics over the decades and it is important to acknowledge that each nib will be a bit different, making generalizations largely invalid. To keep a narrow spotlight, I will be focusing solely on how the gold content within Pelikan’s nibs might impact the writing experience and their resilience.
Pelikan’s 12C-500 nibs are some of the most exotic and infrequently encountered nibs that the company has ever produced. They have come in two varieties, the first being a gold alloy with a monotone yellow appearance whereas the second features rhodium plating imparting a bi-color appearance. These nibs were utilized in the late 1980s and early 1990s, most having been destined for foreign markets, specifically East Asia. They are frequently found in Japan adorning the #250 and the #350 though there are examples of the M481 from the Italian market similarly outfitted. With 50% gold purity, these nibs should theoretically have increased longevity however anecdotal reports from the period have suggested a higher than expected nib failure rate was experienced due to cracking. The bulk of the encountered widths are in “Harte” varieties which indicates a nib designed for stiffness. HEF, HF, and HM are common sizes found in Japan, likely attributable to the regional predilection for a stiffer, finer nib (in contrast to the West’s desire for bolder, more flexible nibs). Consequently, these nibs lack any significant degree of spring or flex. The stiff, unforgiving gold alloy likely resulted in many of the 12 karat nibs being overtaxed and subsequently cracking. Another consideration is that 12C-500 gold has a lower inherent acid resistance due to the impurities of the alloy. Repeated exposure to low level acids can result in the gold becoming embrittled over time resulting in stress corrosion cracking. Ultimately, these are more theoretical considerations than practical ones, particularly with today’s less caustic inks. In real world use, Pelikan’s 12C-500 nibs are firm writers that are true to their designation and lack any inherent spring or flexibility. It is indeed curious that the same region of the world that saw use of these 12 karat nibs would also be home to a significantly finer 20 karat option.
Pelikan’s 12C-500 nibs in HEF and HM as found on the #350 (1990-1993) and #250 (1985-1990). Note the darker appearance of the gold owing to the 50% alloy
Pelikan’s 14C-585 nibs date back to the company’s earliest production models from 1929. They have been regularly employed on mainstream models since that time and can be found on current production pens such as the M400 and M600. 14 karat nibs were once the most commonly encountered gold nib thanks to an ideal combination of tarnish resistance, strength, and flexibility (provided the nib is appropriately configured). These are found in un-plated variations with a monotone yellow gold appearance, fully rhodium plated specimens with a monotone silver colored appearance, and partially rhodium plated imparting a bi-color look. Given the expanse of time over which these have been manufactured, the nibs will have wildly varying characteristics and therefore a blanket statement cannot be made. The vintage 14 karat nibs have a lot of character and can be found with a pleasing degree of spring that really imparts a pleasant softness to the writing experience. Some of Pelikan’s nibs have even been designed for incredible flexibility, such as the stenographic (ST) nib whereas others will inherently have a degree of flex simply by virtue of the manufacturing process though this was unlikely to have been the intended goal. Regardless of intent, 14 karats strike the perfect balance between strength and durability that helps guard against nib failure over time. Pelikan’s nibs have lost a step over the years, lacking the same degree of character and spring that they once had but they remain as robust and dependable as ever. That lastingness is likely why so many vintage 14 karat nibs have survived long after their manufacture.
A 14 karat EF nib as found on the Transparent Pelikan Fountain Pen circa 1929. This was Pelikan’s first model of fountain pen ever produced. The nibs from this period were not made in house but were instead bought from the Montblanc Company
Some of Pelikan’s 14 karat nib offerings as found on (left to right): A 101N Tortoise (EF, 1949-1951), a 400N Black Striped (KEF, 1956), an M400 Green/Black 1st year (M, 1982), an M400 Blue/Black (F, 1997-2003), and an M405 Silver-White (M, 2020)
Pelikan’s 18C-750 nibs are very similar to their 14 karat offerings in terms of durability and performance. These too can be found in un-plated monotone yellow gold, fully rhodium plated monotone silver colored gold, and partially plated bi-color configurations. Pelikan even has a rose gold nib, a unique oddity in the line-up. These nibs have been in use since the earliest days of manufacture. 18 karat nibs were, at least initially, found mostly on models made for export. Lore has it that there was a French law on the books that required anything made of gold to be at least 18 karats or higher in order to be advertised as such. Items of lesser karat weight could be sold but not advertised as being “gold.” Those laws are no longer on the books, but the nibs have persisted, largely because uninformed consumers have been conditioned to believe that higher karat weight nibs are somehow better. You can see this today with Pelikan reserving 18 karat nibs for their higher end models such as the M800 and M1000 as well as certain special editions. You might expect the 18 karat nibs to be softer and have more flex than their 14 karat counterparts due to the extra softness of the metal and, if all things were equal, that might be the case. Because it is a softer metal, however, you cannot perform the modifications necessary to achieve significant flex without losing structural integrity thereby resulting in a much higher likelihood of the nib failing after a time. As it stands, there is still the theoretical risk of the softer metal deforming when used with increased pressure for extended periods as well as a higher propensity to spring (become permanently bent upwards, away from the feed by excessive writing pressure) but, when written with a soft hand as intended, this is rarely ever an issue. In daily use, there is little practical difference in the writing experience or sturdiness between 14 and 18 karat nibs. That is why these two measures of fineness encompass about 98% of the gold nibs that you find on Pelikan’s fountain pens.
Some of Pelikan’s 18 karat nib offerings as found on (left to right): A 400 Black Striped for French export (F, 1950-1954), an M800 Tortoiseshell Brown (OB, 1988/89), and an M805 Anthracite Stresseman (F, 2015)
An 18 karat rose gold nib in broad width as found on the M710 Statue of Zeus fountain pen (2017)
We now arrive at the more exotic bi-color 20C-833 nib which was in use circa 1989-1990 and possibly a little beyond. This is the purest form of gold that Pelikan has ever put into a nib, and it seems that nibs of this variety were largely restricted to the Japanese market. They have been found on M800s (Rebirth Of A New Germany & Maruzen) from that region as well as some of the early West German M900 Toledos. The added purity of the nib doesn’t really impart any difference in the actual feel of the writing, and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference between either an 18 or 20 karat nib. Why would the company deviate from their usual standards and create such a unique nib? We will likely never know for sure, but I strongly suspect that this type of nib was utilized for regional marketing purposes. Japan is home to some of the top fountain pen manufacturers in the world, the big three being Pilot, Sailor, and Platinum. They collectively engaged in what some have dubbed a “karat war” back in the 1970s. I believe that it was Sailor who first launched a 21K nib with Platinum and Pilot following up with 22K options. Before the big three gave up trying to outdo one another, a 23K nib was even conceived. All of those karats and the advertising surrounding them likely drove the consumer perception that nibs of higher gold content were of superior quality. Of course, those high carat weight nibs would need special treatment to perform since otherwise the gold could simply deform if too much pressure was applied thanks to its malleability. That is generally not a concern here with Pelikan’s 20 karat option but the same concerns about springing the nib with excessive pressure previously discussed persists here. While owning one of these certainly makes for a neat addition to the collection, the writing experience is fairly standard.
Pelikan’s 20 karat nib in F width as found on the Rebirth Of A New Germany commemorative M800 (1990)
Which of these gold substrates make for the ideal nib is purely a matter of preference. Stainless steel can serve as the perfect raw material for a nib, superior even to gold in some instances, lacking only in its resistance to corrosion. It is important to remember that gold does not trump stainless steel and that 18 or 20 karats are not necessarily better than 14. Upgrading to a gold nib usually has more to do with aesthetics than anything related to the writing experience and choosing a nib based on gold content alone is simply folly. If you’re looking for a premium nib material that has historically been felt to represent the optimum blend of gold and alloy, that will be one of the many 14 karat varieties out there. Anything more than that is a relic of past market regulations or mass marketing hype without much substance behind it. Buy the nib that you enjoy and write well with but be mindful of the history learned here. Do that and you won’t go wrong, no matter what the gold content.
As you look left to right, the purity, malleability, ductility, and tarnish resistance of the gold increases. Note the change in color of the logo medallions as the gold becomes more yellow owing to fewer impurities