Made in China
We see these words on a daily basis, on most of the things that we own. The tea mug that I'm drinking from is made in China. The chair that I'm sitting in is made in China. My laptop, iPad and iPhone are made in China. There are only a few places in my life that have been completely free from anything made in China, and one of them has been my pen case. I can't help but feel that Made in China is a dirty phrase in the pen world, especially considering things like the recent Esterbrook controversy, where the revamped American pen company tried to obscure the fact that its revamped pens would be made in China. Despite the negative associations with Chinese pens to poor quality, there's a name that keeps popping up in my news feed and has even made it to mainstream pen sites like Goulet Pens, and that's Jinhao. I set out to test just how well Jinhao held up to its western competitors and wanted to see just how much bang I could get for my buck.
I set a few parameters for my Jinhao pen search:
- The total cost of the pen, including shipping, should be less than $5.
- The pen should be larger. I've always wanted to try a larger pen, but I prefer smaller pens for everyday writing. There's no way that I would spend a large amount on a large pen, but I was willing to spend $5.
- The pen must be orange. There's no rational reason for this, except that I like orange.
My search led to the Jinhao 159, a large fountain pen with a bright orange enamel. I managed to find one on Amazon for a grand total of, I kid you not, $3.28 including shipping. I chose a medium nib, since the fine-nib version was nearly three times the price. The order came with a month ship time and little guarantee that it would ever arrive. I've been burned by ordering items directly from China in the past, so I had no expectation of ever seeing my bright orange Chinese friend. I was shocked when the pen arrived in less than two weeks, all for the low-low price of $3.28. The Pen Economics blog has an excellent article on how this low pricing might be possible, but I figured that its pricing was just reflective of the pen's crappy quality.
I removed my Jinhao 159 from its cheap shipping envelope and was greeted by a bright orange pen that actually appeared to be well made. The pen's metal body had a surprising heft. The pen has shiny chrome accents that recess nicely into the pen body, and the clip, although not quite my taste aesthetically, is very sturdy. The Jinhao has the appearance of a $50-$100 pen from a distance and mostly holds up to closer scrutiny. There is a small manufacturing defect in the enamel, where the clip meets the pen cap, and the pen has a plastic cap insert that cheapens the look, but these require close inspection to notice.
The Jinhao 159's grip is a standard smooth black plastic grip. It's a fatter grip than I'm used to, but I'm surprised by just how much I enjoy it. Like most smooth plastic grips, the Jinhao's grip becomes very slippery during long writing sessions; however, I'll leave my novel writing to pens like the Lamy 2000.
The cap of the Jinhao 159 has a threaded fit and caps very securely. The pen can be posted, but the cap wobbles too much for it to be comfortable, and ratcheting down the cap will likely damage the enamel. Since the 159 is a large pen, it nestles comfortably in the webbing between my thumb and index finger without the cap.
The Jinhao 159 comes with a standard piston converter, which holds a hilariously small amount of ink, compared to the pen's size. The pen's size can also make it difficult to fill with smaller ink bottles or ink samples, and the grip of the pen is too large to fit in the 30ml bottles of Diamine that I typically use. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to pop the converter out, fill it with an ink bottle, and then pop it back into the pen. This certainly isn't ideal, so make sure you have some larger bottles of ink on hand for easy filling.
I've read some terrible things about the nib quality of Jinhao pens, so I had zero expectations for the nib's performance. I was pleasantly surprised when the medium nib slid smoothly across the page. The nib is hard as nails, but that's to be expected from a steel nib. The Jinhao medium reminds me of a TWSBI fine, which leaves a slightly thicker line than a western fine. There may be manufacturing differences in nib quality, but the one that I received functioned perfectly. After writing an entire article and playing around with the Jinhao 159 for several days, I'm pleasantly surprised by just how will it performs for under $4. Those looking for a better nib quality should turn to a standard replacement #6 nib, which you can find on sites like Goulet Pens.
Although the Jinhao 159 won't make it into my daily rotation, I may keep it in my office, or somewhere where I may need a pen but don't want to risk losing a more expensive one. The Jinhao 159 is certainly worth the $3.00-$5.00 Amazon price tag, and it's even a great value for $10-$15, if you go through official channels like Goulet Pens. It's a great starter pen for those who want to try a cheap fountain pen before moving on to a more expensive model.