Categories
Blog History

Nakaya: For Your Hand Only

I bring the readers through the history of Nakaya Fountain Pens.

Nakaya is somewhat of a curiosity in the Japanese pen scene that takes an entirely different philosophy of pen making. Nakaya did not invent the idea of urushi coating pens; that honour belongs to Pilot. However, I would argue that Nakaya popularized urushi fountain pens outside of Japan.

The story of Nakaya, as the official literature would have us believe, stretches all the way back to 1919, the founding of the company now know as Platinum. Originally, Platinum was known by the guild name of Nakaya Seisakusho, although they had made pens under a variety of unique names. In reality, this connection to the original Nakaya Seisakusho is largely in name alone, as Nakaya Seisakusho did not make high end urushi pens (they started off by making Parker knockoffs). The one characteristic that they do share, however, is the handmade nature of their products.

When Nakaya came onto the market, they quickly found the market to be unforgiving and hostile. Composed of retired craftspeople who wanted to continue making pens “the good old way”, Nakaya was founded on the principle of handmade pens for your hand only. In other words, Nakaya’s business model was deliberately inefficiency manifest. They made ebonite and celluloid pens turned from a single wooden lathe, hoping to reach audiences through the new fangled internet with little success.

Master Matsubara and his wooden foot-powered lathe. Picture taken from Pentrace East

Nakaya may or may not have ultimately become successful in the domestic Japanese market, but the company whose sales as of 2017 from the overseas market accounts for 75% of the total business may very well not have survived without Ross Stutler. If you could recall the late 90s and early 00s, the internet was not yet the place we know it to be today. Discovering products across the globe required local distributors who would help manufacturers with everything from marketing to sales. Nakaya had none of that. However, a non-Japanese pen lover by the name of Ross Stutler was living in Japan and happened to have access to the fountain pen events often held in department stores. Ross had the advantage of location and language. As somebody who was living in Japan, but also spoke and wrote English, Ross was a contributor to an Ireland based message board called Pentrace. It was Ross’s discussion of Nakaya’s production that sparked a fire in international pen lovers across the world. When you consider that these were fully handmade gold nibbed celluloid and ebonite pens at extremely affordable prices starting from around 300USD, it is not difficult to understand the appeal of Nakaya. Indeed, Pentrace’s impact on Nakaya was so profound that Nakaya sponsored Pentrace until it’s demise.

Picture of a green pine needle celluloid Nakaya taken from Pentrace East, which was in turn taken from the Nakaya website

Fortunately for Nakaya, they had no retail presence. Why this was a fortune is because a buyer needs to be physically present at a retail store, so the clientele would have been limited to locale. Nakaya did not have the money nor the clout to go retail, so from their founding in 1999, they had a website. This would prove to be the saving grace of the company. Orders started pouring into Nakaya, mostly from the United States, and the reversal of the company’s fortunes was dramatic. From the company’s founding in 1999 until the spring of 2003, Nakaya did not even have their own office. At this time, 30% of their orders came from overseas and the small team of 4 worked every single day including weekends. As I will discuss later, the retail strategy comes later.

Readers will notice that I have refrained from mentioning urushi until now. That is because Nakaya did not produce urushi fountain pens for the first 3 years of their existence. In fact, the idea to produce fountain pens lacquered with urushi did not originate within Nakaya.

Nakaya’s adventures with urushi began when a customer in Wajima, a center of urushi production, requested for a plain ebonite pen with no trims. This customer turned out to be an urushi master who took this ebonite pen and lacquered it as part of their personal collection. Mr Nakata, the president of Nakaya, was enamored and discussion of collaboration was born. At the time, the Wajima-nuri Nakaya fountain pens started at 335USD. Readers in 2021 would most certainly not associate Nakaya with affordability, but the unbeatable prices and beauty was what drove Nakaya into the spotlight. When compared with Pilot’s Namiki urushi pens, Namiki pens are most certainly produced to a higher quality with more intricate details and techniques. However, as Namiki’s are squarely out of a regular collector’s budget, Nakaya’s emergence onto the market in 2003-2004 as the affordable urushi fountain pen manufacturer sent shockwaves in the industry.

2004 was pivotal year in Nakaya’s history. For the first time, Nakaya hosted a table at a pen show outside of Japan. It was the Chicago Pen Show of 2004, and Nakaya was hosted by Leo Provisor, who was the director of advertising and marketing at Pentrace. Nakaya even brought the wooden lathe for master Matsubara to demonstrate the turning process. While it was great for the US audience to meet Nakaya for the first time in person, this article will skip pass the show report, which you can read from the link above.

Instead, I want to analyse the importance of this event because this was when Nakaya met with John Mottishaw of nibs.com. US based readers will know that Nakaya does not have an online retail presence anywhere outside of their own website and nibs.com. In fact, their own website does not carry any inventory so nibs.com is in fact an anomaly in the distribution chain for Nakaya. I believe that this meeting with John Mottishaw holds the secret to why that is the case.

By this time, it would be evident that the lifeline of Nakaya would be orders from overseas customers. However, nib grinds, while fairly common in the US, are essentially unheard of in Japan. In Japan, there is the concept of “adjustment”, but not of “grind”. I suspect that Nakaya was getting requests from customers to grind stubs and italics, but the Nakaya masters had no idea what they were and how they could do that since stubs and italics are not used regularly in Japan. John Mottishaw’s knowledge on that front would be an incredible boon to Nakaya in serving their customer base. I believe that the agreement for nibs.com to retail Nakaya pens, as well as the trust of Nakaya in nibs.com to grind Nakaya nibs, stems from Nakaya’s great respect for John Mottishaw’s skill and knowledge which he shared with them.

This was a boon for Nakaya for another important reason. Until then, Nakaya did not have any retail presence. As a result, cash flow depended purely on bookings, which means that, from a business point of view, profit and loss was impossible to forecast with any accuracy. With nibs.com, Nakaya was able to put pre-made inventory in what would become their largest market without worry of distribution. This relieves an incredible pressure for any business, but especially important for a small company like Nakaya. Today, Nakaya is has retail presences across the globe including Singapore, Hong Kong, as well as in almost every single high end store in Japan. However, most likely out of respect for John Mottishaw, nibs.com remains the only retail presence in the US. This helped them fuel their growth further beyond their website days, but without the original website, Nakaya would very likely not have survived the initial 4 years.

I’ve had the good fortune to purchase a few Nakaya pens myself. I got into the fountain pens game fairly late, but as recently as 2014, Nakaya pens retailed from 400USD. Since then, there has been a huge increase in price and those same pens retail for at least 600USD.

A Kurotamenuri Nakaya with a whimsical fountain pen shaped roll stop

One of the most fun things about Nakaya are their roll stops. They have plenty of amazing roll stops that range from serious dragons to whimsical fountain pens to fantastic flowers. the combination of these silver works of art with the urushi lacquered pen gives a sense of sophisticated dandyism.

A Hekitamenuri Nakaya with a resting dragon roll stop
Three roll stops for display
3 Nakayas, the middle featuring an incredible full cap roll stop

When you purchase from Nakaya at a retailer or through their website, it is usually possible to select from their full range of nibs. However, it’s important to understand that the Platinum and Nakaya Music nibs are not the same shape as the other nibs. Not only are they longer, they are also curved differently and are sat on an entirely different feed design. As a result, they need special sections, as the feeds are not interchangeable. Several people have approached me in regards to their music nibs that they ordered from nibs.com. Specifically, these people found poor ink flow and general poor performance. I discovered with these people that nibs.com has been cutting off the ends of the music nibs to force them to fit onto the regular feeds, which they cut horizontal channels to improve ink flow (the performance of this modification has been subpar according to their owners). This information has since been confirmed by a former nibs.com employee in a private forum, although I highly doubt that Nakaya are aware of this practice.

An unmodified music nib with the correct feed (left) versus a modified music nib and the standard Platinum/Nakaya feed (right)
A feed modified by nibs.com for the purposes of fitting a music nib
I took the offending music nib to inspect under a loupe against light, which revealed the pinched tipping and tine gap which impacts the flow and performance of the nib

I asked Nakaya what would be the proper procedure to swap a music nib into a pen that did not retail with it, and they told me that the customer would have to ship the pen to Nakaya so that they can create a new section for the pen. Naturally, that is a long process that can take months, but if you want an unmodified music nib from Nakaya, that is the only way to go.

Overall, Nakaya has been hugely influential in introducing urushi lacquered pens to the regular global pen collector due to variety, customisability, and price. Although the pens have greatly inflated in price, they are still far away from the astronomical prices of Namiki’s urushi pens. What impresses me the most is that although they are a company founded on deliberate inefficiency, they made the perfect business decisions at the right time to drive growth for the company. Nakaya is a story of serendipity meets business acumen, and I believe that we are all grateful that Nakaya continues to make beautiful creations for our hands only.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s