The Battle Between Japan’s Big 3

Big 3 Nibs

It’s no question that some of the best fountain pens made today are coming out of Japan. Quality and materials beyond most anything ever seen, and nibs that go finer than fine; Pilot, Platinum, and Sailor are Japan’s “Big 3″ pen companies, the ones to go to for a writing experience like no other.

But why? To understand the reason why Japan is one of the best places for writing instruments, you have to look at its history. Over the course of the last century Japan has become a central hub for technology and innovation. This translates to improvements in design, manufacturing, and overall quality of products across the spectrum. If you buy a TV these days, chances are you will be looking at Japanese brands. The same goes for cars, phones, computers, almost any piece of tech you can think of.

Now most people may not associate the term “modern technology” with something as archaic and (perhaps incorrectly) basic as a fountain pen, but the two have blended together significantly over the past 50-60 years to produce futuristic “classic” fountain pens  that exhibit the feeling of a vintage writing instrument and the features of a modern piece of technology.

The Big 3

The “big” 3 is perhaps a misleading term. It does not refer to the physical size, the number of employees, amount of revenue, or any other property we commonly associate with “big”, but the perception of the three in the fountain pen world (and maybe a mix of all the others). If you ask a fountain pen enthusiast, “Which Japanese pen should I buy?” chances are they will recommend a model from one of these companies. The reasons are clear: if you are holding a pen from Pilot, Platinum, or Sailor, you are holding a quality pen.

But which one is best? That’s what I hope to show you in this post!

The Pilot Corporation

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Started by Erich Drafahl and Ryosuke Namiki almost 100 years ago (1918) as the “Namiki Manufacturing Company”, Pilot started off small and has worked its way up to become the largest of the big 3, and one of the largest pen companies on Earth. With subsidiaries all over the world and a range consisting of hundreds of pens, markers, pencils, and other stationery, Pilot is a name everyone would be familiar with.

In terms of fountain pens, they tended to produce the popular “long/short” form factor fountain pens during the 1960s and beyond. This form factor was popular back in those days; it allowed pen users to have a full sized pen when in use, but it would shrink to a miniature form factor when capped, perfect for storage in small bags, purses, etc. One look on eBay for classic Pilot/Namiki pens turns up hundreds of these types of pens, most of them cartridge fillers, as well as other larger sized pens such as the Birdie and Super series.

Photo 11

One of the most notable releases was of the super-advanced Capless series in the early part of the 1960s. This was the first consumer retractable fountain pen, and it melded the ease of a clicky ballpoint, with the quality and feel of a fountain pen. The Capless series evolved significantly over the years, and was re-released as the “Vanishing Point”. The change in name was mainly (as I believe) due to the term “capless” indicating that something was missing, like a pen that required the cap to be bought separately.

Vintage capless/vanishing point pens are often available for upwards of $100 on eBay, and occasionally you’ll see a “Namiki” branded pen on there too. Namiki has become a subsidiary of Pilot, and is tasked with making luxury pen models, many of them hand-made from special materials such as Japanese Urushi lacquer, painted with elaborate designs in the ancient “Maki-E” technique. Modern pens of this calibre sell for upwards of $600.00 (some even in the thousands), so you have to pay a luxury price for such luxury pens.

These days, the main Pilot models include the Custom series, and the Vanishing Point series. There are also other minor ranges such as the Lucina, Falcon (aka Elabo), Varsity/V-Pen, and many more. The Custom series sports a wide range of sizes, shapes, and prices, beginning at the lowly Custom 74, to the high-level Custom 823 and 825. The Vanishing Point series has a wide range of colours and materials (including the amazing Raden version), but it has also spawned the Capless Fermo and Decimo models, which are more expensive variations of the Vanishing Point design.

The Platinum Pen Co.

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Platinum was originally started by Syunchi Nakata, who started making pens in 1919. By 1924, the name “Nakaya Seisakusho” was given to the company, but it soon changed to Platinum Pen Co.. Platinum also began making long/short style pens in the same way as Pilot did, but gradually moved towards the models we see today. Platinum is relatively small, much smaller than Pilot, and the diversity in the range of pens also reflects this. Presently the company is run by Syunchi’s son, Toshio Nakata, so it is also a family business!

Platinum may not be a name that every knows, but they are at the forefront of innovation in the fountain pen world. Platinum were the first to design the cartridge-style filling system, and this innovation has rippled throughout the industry, such that most modern fountain pens these days are being designed as cartridge/converter fillers. This filling system is present throughout the Platinum range, with pens such as the Preppy taking cartridges across every model (Preppy’s come in highlighter, marker, and fountain pen variants). Modern innovations include the “Slip n Seal” cap system, which I will discuss later on.

Today, Platinum’s range is rather minuscule when compared to Sailor or Pilot, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less impressive. We start with the #3776, which is the lower-tier fountain pen. The #3776 is named after the height of Mt Fuji, 3776 metres, and comes in at around the $60+ mark. The range of models within the #3776 series is also impressive, with steel, 14k, and 18k gold nibs available in a wide array of sizes, and body colours ranging from the usual black, to amazing celluloid marbled patterns. There’s also the vastly different President model, a very large pen with 18k gold nibs in colours such as blue, red, and black; all business, for about $150.

Sailor Pen Co.

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In 1911, Kyoguro Sakata began the Sailor Pen Company after being introduced to fountain pens by a British sailor (hence the name). Sailor are most famous for their nibs, which come in the widest range available (in the most whacky designs of all time). Their pen range is also rather massive, similar to Pilot, despite the fact that Sailor is the smallest (in size) of the big 3.

The heart of the Sailor range is the 1911, which comes in a range of sizes (ordered from largest to smallest): King of Pen (flagship, in the 1911 design), 1911 large, and 1911 standard. Then come the Professional Gear (or ProGear) models: King of Pen, standard, slim, mini, and slim mini. All of these designate how large the pen is, but the design within the range is more or less identical. Price varies heavily as well, but you do get more pen for your dollar as you work your way up through the range.

Sailor also makes a bunch of cheaper options, like the Somiko, Anchor, Reglus, Lecoule, Procolor, and more. You really have to look towards the 1911 series to really understand why Sailor is so good, however. The whole series ranges in price from around $10 to the thousands for Limited Editions, so there’s something for everyone from Sailor.

So, let the battle begin!

Round 1: Variety!

A pen company is truly great when it is able to distinguish every model from the next, across the price spectrum such that it caters to almost everyone’s taste. This round focuses on how diverse the range is, with nib types/materials, colours, models, and more considered.

Japan Group

First place has to be Sailor. The range of nibs actually outnumbers the range of pen models from many companies, which is impressive in itself, but it’s also the fact that almost every price point is considered and any writing style too! For artists you have zoom nibs; fude calligraphy nibs; nibs that are actually multiple nibs welded together; some with extra “hood” bits that increase flow; plus the full range of ball nibs all the way down to “saibi togi” ultra extra fine, and music nibs! Every model from the King of Pen to 1911 and beyond come in a huge range of materials and colours, with more being released all the time. My only gripe is that you often pay up to double the price of the pen itself just to get a certain type of nib, and the range of steel nibs is fairly limited, but not more so than the others.

Sailor Nibs

The 1911 Large comes with a 21k gold nib, but the 14k nibs on other models are just as good

Second place is Pilot. Whilst their range is pretty good, they don’t exactly have a huge range of nib options. Many nibs are recycled between models, and a lot are simply larger versions of lower models that perform essentially the same (a Custom 823 nib will not necessarily perform better than a Custom 74 nib). Pilot does get kudos for the range of filling options though, with cartridge fillers sitting next to vac and piston fillers in the range, with a good range of converters available too! Bonus points also for the VP series, which are incredibly impressive by themselves.

Pilot Nibs

Platinum is the unlucky last. Whilst the pens are fantastic, their range leaves a bit more to be desired. You’re essentially limited to the cartridge filling system no matter what and have only two premium models with very little variation within is a little disappointing. However, this may be a blessing to some, as too much choice can be a bit overwhelming. The nib range is pretty good, but nothing to really brag about. Platinum does get browny points for their cheap Preppy line. One of the best pens for under $5.00 (see this post for a full rundown of how awesome it is). Note that we haven’t included Nakaya in this comparison.

Platinum Nibs

Winner: Sailor (+2)
Special Mention: Pilot (+1)

 Round 2: Quality!

When searching for a pen, or anything for that matter, you want your money to go as far as possible to get the best pen you can. Quality is a huge concern, especially as fountain pens can be a little finicky. This round considers materials, writing ability, longevity, and also tolerant pens are to different inks and writing conditions. FIGHT!

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No matter which Sailor model you buy, the high quality is obvious

First place is awarded to Sailor. Once again, Sailor is very impressive. Not only do they use extremely durable materials with a fantastic finish and durability in droves, but their nibs are top class and write better than basically anything out there. I do dock a few points because I have had a couple of mine be a little misaligned and scratchy out of the box, but a trivial fix had them writing like a dream. None of mine show any signs of wear even after daily use; are very consistent, comfortable, and durable; plus they’ve worked with all inks I’ve put them through, and look the part!

Second is, perhaps surprisingly, Platinum! The materials used are not the best, giving a rather hollow feeling not found on Sailors or Pilots, but it doesn’t detract from the quality look and writing comfort of these pens. The Platinums really come out on top in terms of writing ability. My absolute favourite pen in my near 100 strong collection from loads of different brands is the Platinum President. The flow on all my Platinums is absolute top class, writing so consistently you can’t tell you’re running out of ink until the pen just stops completely. Not to mention that the nibs are so smooth that even my Ultra Extra Fine, needlepoint, 3776 Century is one of the smoothest nibs I own. A smooth needlepoint nib! I consistently find that my Platinums write even better than my Sailors, but not by a huge margin.

VP Nib

The Pilot Vanishing Point has a tiny, but extraordinary nib that’s also retractable

Third is Pilot. Whilst the VP series is excellent in almost every regard, the same cannot be said of the Custom series. Almost every Custom I have either has or had flow issues out of the box. Opening the tines helps a little bit, but whereas I am always confident my Platinums will not ever fail on me, I am under constant fear that my Custom 74s or 823 will skip and hop and fall over at any time. In fact, even after grinding and adjusting and trying different inks in my 823, it is currently unusable due to rampant skipping issues that were present from day one. Quality of materials is great in most cases, but a pen that can’t write well is a pen that stays in the drawer. Pilot actually states that their pens are designed solely with Pilot inks in mind, but I think that’s utterly stupid as people don’t want to have to buy another bottle of ink just to be able to use a pen. In fact, my $50 steel nib Pilot Lucina writes better and more consistently than any of my gold nibbed Pilot Customs.

Winner: Sailor (+2)
Special Mention: Platinum (+1) 

Round 3: Value for Money

This round is perhaps the most significant, as price is a huge deciding factor for many people when buying pens. The final round considers included extras, quality vs price, writing ability vs price, as well as value for money across the range. So let’s go!

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Out of the 3 premium models from each, the Pilot Custom 823 is much more expensive because of its vac filling mechanism

First place has to go to Platinum. The sheer value for money you have with every pen is crazy. For around 100 dollars you get a pen that writes perfectly out of the box, works great with even the cheapest of inks, and comes with a boatload of accessories. Also add in that even the $60, steel nibbed 3776 comes with the same luxury and writing ability as the more expensive models, you have a consistently awesome range that doesn’t fail to disappoint. You also get a lot in the box, from included cartridges, to converters and adapters for international cartridges. Buying a Platinum pen is a fantastic investment for anyone.

Pilot Group

Second is Pilot. Whilst their pens may not write the best, many models can be had for under 100 dollars and many of the cheaper models perform brilliantly. For under 10 dollars, the 78G is fantastic value and could even be a perfect daily writer for many beginners. The VP is the best value pen for the price in the premium range in my opinion, and is extremely unique in its function and writing ability.

Third, sadly, is Sailor. Whilst their pens are of high quality, the prices are fairly high and you pay some serious premiums for simple things, like the piston filling Realo, which is significantly more expensive than the regular, cartridge filling 1911 with nil writing benefit. You do get the standard range of in-the-box accessories, though. It’s this inconsistency throughout the range that brings Sailor down in this category.

Winner: Platinum (+2)
Special Mention: Pilot (+1) 

FINAL SCORES

1st: Sailor, 5 points
2nd: Platinum, 3 points
3rd: Pilot, 2 points 

Please note that these scores don’t mean that every Pilot pen is worse than every Sailor, but it’s a more-or-less objective generalised judgment of each brand overall. If you want to go for Pilot, you can’t go wrong with the Vanishing Point or similar, whereas with Platinum and Sailor you get a great pen no matter what! In terms of favourites I actually rate Platinum above Sailor, so I have gone against my own rating system in this regard.

I love Platinum for the fact that I own President and Sailor’s 1911 Large (which are basically competing models) and find the President to be a better pen. I can’t really say why I like them over Sailor, except that Platinums just tend to suit my writing style better!

Sailor represents the best quality, best choice, and some of the best performance of the lot, but with some of the highest prices too. While it falls flat in the last category, it excels in all other aspects. For this reason, it’s best to find one a bit cheaper than retail so you essentially negate the last part.

Platinum Group

In any case, it’s pretty safe to say that no matter what pen you buy, it will certainly be one you’ll enjoy using. In the end, nothing else really matters as long as you enjoy a pen. In a few years you’ll forget how much you paid and what else was available at the time, but you’ll still be able to pick up the pen and love using it.

  • Youstuckgold

    Good review snd with outcomes I would support ! Keep writing!

    • jono

      Thanks! Will do!

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  • Gerald

    I would recommend sending your non-functional pilot pens to the Pilot Pen company to adjust the nibs. They will usually do the adjustments for free. When properly adjusted, Pilot nibs are actually more expressive than Platinum nibs (speaking from experience, having owned five Nakaya pens and five Pilot pens). I like Sailor nibs too, but only the bigger KOP ones because of the spring and plushness.

  • Paul Bloch

    Well-done, thorough and interesting. Not everyone will agree with every judgment – but, of course, isn’t that true with everything? – but a sincere, detailed attempt to provide some criteria for decision-making. I found it informative, and recommend it.

  • Roberto Sans

    Good review. I agree with all that you said, particularly regarding the issues with the Pilot nibs. I have a Custom 74 and the only ink it likes is the Iroshuzuku. On the other hand I would like to comment that you can buy very interesting Platinum Kanazawa Maki-e pens for about 150 Us $ , these are excellent18 K gold nibs with beautiful designs .
    I love your site and keep checking it for updates, keep up the good job!

  • JRW71

    That’s a very good article and I enjoyed it a lot. Further, as a Asian pen fanboy I pretty much agreed with everything you said.

    I have a soft spot for Sailor and love the few that I have, but they are definitely pricey compared to what you can get from others.

    I have several Pilot pens and you can get some great value but their nib quality can jump around a bit more than Sailor.

    Now to get that Platinum 3776 Nice Pur that I’m slobbering over…

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  • david wright

    In discussion Platinum, in glowing terms, you say:
    ‘… you have a consistently awesome range that doesn’t fail to disappoint.’

    Is this what you really mean, or its opposite??!

  • Glenn Higley

    I’ve two Platinum 3776’s and while I love the body design and the “Bourgogne” and “Chartres Blue” finishes as well as the “Slip and Seal” system, their nibs are truly awful. I really wanted to like these pens, but cannot in any way recommend them due to their terrible nibs. One has the “Soft Fine” nib which is quite fine, but not the least bit soft and the other has a medium nib. Both nibs are scratchy as hell even after professional smoothing/tuning. Don’t waste your money! I’ve certainly learned my lesson. Both 3776’s are going for sale on eBay to some poor fools.

    All my Pilot pens at any price are great writers and I highly recommend the brand. What they lack in visual appeal they more than make up in writing performance. Their “Soft” nibs are truly spectacular.

    I’m about to buy my first Sailor (KOP) and look forward to seeing what it is like.

    • Douglas Gorney

      I’ve got a 3776 medium, and it’s smooth as butter. (Wet as a river, too.) It’s become my go-to pen. On the other hand, I’m on my second Pilot 912, and I just cannot get the FA nib to write consistently. Really frustrated.

      • Glenn Higley

        We’ve the opposite experiences with these brands, eh? The FA nib has it’s limitations but it’s my favorite “modern” flex nib. If you want real flex you’ll have go vintage, but they’re widely available for the same or less than the price of the Pilot 912. Check out Greg Minuskin’s work – I’ve had good and sometimes really great pens from him: http://gregminuskin.com/

        • Douglas Gorney

          In those moments when the GA nib works, yes, I love it. Planning to send it to John Mottishaw for tuning. Though another commenter here mentioned that Pilot USA will fix nibs gratis…..now where Is that receipt??

          Will take a look at Greg Minuskin, thanks!

    • Blattlaus

      I’ve been lucky and have had no really bad experiences with any of the big 3, but in my experience Platinum has been my favorite nib, followed by Pilot and the Sailor. For build quality, I reverse the order. I guess like so many things YMMV…..

  • gwatch

    Who is “Erich Drafahl”? Did he really found Pilot? I cannot find his information anywhere, let alone official Pilot sources. What is your source?

  • Craig Clesson

    I find it interesting that you excluded Nakaya. I have multiples of all three you have reviewed here and agree with your comments. I have also found that the Platinum music nib is far superior to any other, including Sailor.

    • Dan

      Nakaya is the top line owned by Platinum.

  • Kevin Huang

    Nice comments. I also enjoy using Platinum President. But I like Custom 743 the most.