May 07, 2015

Diamond-Pointed Gold Nibs


[Posted on L&P on Feb 11 and 24, 2008, and May 15, 2012.]
        The phrase “diamond-pointed gold pens” was quite common in the 1800s, but what does this actually mean, and which brands were diamond-tipped, and how were diamonds attached to the gold?  These questions keep getting asked over and again, periodically every few years, so let me put it to rest here, once and for all.
        I found a brief and succinct answer to this question a few years ago while I was searching through the “Making Of America”
(MOA) website of the Cornell University Library.  It’s from an old issue of Manufacturer and Builder magazine, July 1874, p.164, so it’s neither something that I wrote, nor my interpretation of the facts.  It was written at a time when diamond-pointed nibs were still relatively new.
From what on former occasions we have mentioned, our readers will know that the so-called diamond-pointed gold pens are only called so by reason of the extreme hardness of the points, which far surpass those of steel.  In fact, a steel pen is soon worn out, while a gold pen, [properly used], will last a lifetime; any alloy of gold would be altogether too soft to stand the friction over the paper made by writing; it may be brought to the proper degree of elasticity, but for the points some harder substance is needed.  Unfortunately, small diamonds not being metallic, can not be soldered to the points of a pen….In this case, metallic points were wanted, harder than steel [and] next in hardness to the diamond, and chemical metallurgy provided them in [a natural] alloy of osmium and iridium, incidentally produced from the ore of platinum, and at first [thought to be] useless, until the discovery of its extreme hardness and special fitness for pen points gave it great value.
        So the answer to the question is that ALL brands of gold nibs are diamond-tipped, but NONE of them actually have diamonds on the “soles of their nibs”.  The adjective “diamond-pointed” is just a metaphor.  There are, however, a few closely related exceptions to this rule.  Gerald Sattin’s booklet Writing Implements And Accessories In Gold And Silver c.1680-1880 (1993), and Michael Finley’s book Western Writing Implements In The Age Of The Quill Pen (1990) both show an ad from ca.1825-30 for William P. Doughty’s “Perpetual Ruby Pens” with points that have tiny “rubies set in gold”, and made on the pattern of Bryan Donkin’s 1808 UK patent.  But in the same ad he also offers his “Improved Rhodium Pens”, tipped with another hard, platinum-group metal, and said to be “made on the same principle, and will write nearly as well”.  Actually, it’s the other way round, since the ruby-tipped pens didn’t write all that well, and the rubies kept falling out of the points, and they didn’t catch on, while the osmiridium-tipped gold nibs did catch on.  At about the same time as Doughty’s nibs, there were also Wollaston’s nibs ca. 1822-25.
        Ron Dutcher wrote on the Zoss List that, “A few early pens were tipped with actual diamonds”, but these were not gold nibs.  They were nibs made of tortoiseshell and horn.  Also take a look at Ron’s webpage titled
“Hawkins 1822 Tortoise Pens”.  The article “Invention Of The Gold Pen”, in The American Stationer, June 16, 1887, p.966, states that it was invented by John Hawkins, circa 1823 to 1834.  At first he tried ruby points, then diamond powder, then rhodium tipping, and then finally osmiridium.  The Finlay book also mentions, but shows no illustrations or photos of John Isaac Hawkins’s tortoiseshell and horn nibs that had “small particles of diamond, ruby, or other very hard substances” impressed into their tips while they were made soft with boiling water.  Apparently there were no surviving examples found at the time to be photographed for Finlay’s book, but the British patent survives as evidence.  UK patent no. 4,742 for “Pencil-Holders, Or Porte-Crayons, And Pens” was issued to Hawkins and Sampson Mordan on Dec 20, 1822.  They were produced by Mordan, albeit not very successfully, before Hawkins successfully solved the process of attaching osmiridium to the points of gold pens in 1834, but those few Mordan nibs that were produced with diamonds were probably part of the source of the confusion with the later osmiridium-tipped gold nibs being called diamond-tipped.  The 1822 Hawkins and Mordan patent was typical of the British multi-purpose patents of the day in that it covered a multitude of variations and different types of unrelated inventions, in this case mechanical pencil holders as well as nibs of horn and tortoiseshell.
        Here are three more British patents for nibs made of horn or tortoiseshell, but without any hard tipping material added.  Henry Stephens’s patent no. 7,333 from Mar 28, 1837 was for a method of hardening nibs made of quill, or horn through a heating process.  Henry Peters’s patent no. 1,856 from Aug 10, 1853 was for nibs and penholders made of tortoiseshell.  William Evans & Edward Concanen’s patent no. 2,112 from Aug 23, 1861 was for nibs made from sheets of horn.  There are also six more British patents for nibs made of hard rubber, and even a Charles Goodyear patent in 1853 for an “India-Rubber And Plumbago” mixture used as a “Writing Lead”.
        As for Jean-Benoît Mallat’s nibs, Pierre Haury and Jean-Pierre Lacroux’s book A Passion For Pens says on pp.112-113, “In 1843, after trying ruby tips, the Frenchman Jean-Benoît Mallat initiated the production of gold nibs with iridium points”.  I have references for two French patents received by Mallat for pens with “Inalterable” tips in 1842 and 1843.  The French patent numbers might be 13,940 from Sept 30, 1842, or 15,253 from 1843.  Perhaps someone in France can look those ones up and tell us whether they concern nibs with ruby tips, or just plain, old osmiridium tips.
        The only quotes I have found concerning these early diamond-tipped nibs not writing all that well are from John Foley’s history of the invention of gold nibs and the process of making his gold nibs.  Foley’s book is truly a revelation.  The full title says it all in this Victorian, mile-long fashion, History Of The Invention And Illustrated Process Of Making Foley’s Diamond Pointed Gold Pens With Complete Illustrated Catalogue Of Fine Gold Pens, Gold,-Silver,-Rubber,-Pearl,-and-Ivory Pen & Pencil Cases, Penholders, &c. Patented & Manufactured By John Foley, Broadway, New York.  Just this, and nothing more.  The book is available online on, the Hathi Trust, and Library of Congress.  Some of the images of the nibs are washed out, but I don’t think it’s a problem with the scans, though.  It might be a problem with the original printing of the book.  It’s okay, it only affects a few images at the beginning of the book.  The book is divided into several parts, and the first half is all advertizing for his gold nibs, penholders, pen cases, pencil cases, and store display cases and other materials.  An advertizing circular reproduced near the beginning says in part, “Any invention that will facilitate our labors is highly worthy of notice as well as extensive patronage”.  The best part is the second half with the history of nib making, where he then goes on to prove his point.
        The book was registered with the Library of Congress in 1875, and all of the nibs illustrated in the book are date-stamped for that year.  Foley was one of the few penmakers who proudly stamped the date of manufacture on his nibs.  This was also done for the purposes of his guarantee to his retailers.  He promised his dealers that he would replace all outdated and undamaged nib stock remaining at the end of each year with new stock from the succeeding, new year.  On the last page of the book, there is also a reprint of an undated review of Foley’s book taken from the New York Mail newspaper.  This review also summarizes Foley’s public-spirited work exposing “Boss Tweed” and the rest of the corrupt Tammany Hall bosses.
        For most collectors, the advertizing first half would be enough, but it’s the second half that concerns us here.  At mid-point, after the advertizing first half, there is another title page, a mid-term title page, but this time there are three separate titles, and all three are mile-long again.  One title deals with “Diamond (Iridium) Points”, what they are, and how they are applied.  Another title deals with “Foley’s Diamond Pointed Gold Pens” and how they are made.  But best of all is this title, An Interesting History. Gold Pens: Who Invented Them; When And Where.  And it’s this part of the second half that concerns us here most of all.
        The illustration of the 61 oz. bottle of “Diamond Points” with its ca. 1875 valuation printed beneath it leads off the second half.  It acts as a stand-alone frontispiece illustration, since it’s on the recto, the right-hand side of the open book, and facing a blank page on the verso, the left-hand side, where it should have been.  Why this is so becomes quite clear once you turn the page.  The rest of the second half is equally divided between two concurrently running texts printed on opposite pages of the book, on recto and verso pages facing one another, like some post-modernist, fragmented, interspersed, and deconstructed text before its time.  On the recto is a cross-hatched, engraved illustration and a textual explanation of “the principal operations appertaining to Gold Pen making”, that is, attaching “the ‘Iridium’ which is the celebrated Diamond Point of the Gold Pen”.  Throughout the series of explanations Foley uses the word “pen” for the whole nib, and the word “point” for the iridium tips, and the word “nib”, or “nibs” for the tines straddling the slit, and for that part of the pen only.  And finally, at long last, on the verso is the text that purports to be that Interesting History [of] Gold Pens [and their invention].
        “The Pen is an instrument for writing with a fluid”, it begins, quite obviously.  But it soon gets to the point.  When talking about the gold pen as opposed to the quill, or the steel pen, he says, “Its point is everlasting”.  He runs through the history of how John Isaac Hawkins “hit upon” the “native alloy of Osmium and Iridium”, and how “from this hard substance he succeeded in making the so-called Diamond Point, which is the great characteristic feature of the Gold Pen”.  He talks of Hawkins searching for thirty years for a suitable material for tipping gold nibs.  He even tried cementing diamond powder to the points of quill pens.  This is where Foley says, “But the particles of diamond were by degrees dragged out of the cement by the paper, and thus caused a feeling of roughness while writing”.  And this is what Foley says about gold nibs tipped with ruby and diamond.  “He had, during these years, made many specimens of durable Pens, which, however, on trial proved deficient in some quality or other.  Some of his points were made of rubies set in sockets; but these nibs [tines] were clumsy and could not be wiped clean, and all the elasticity that could be given to the Pens was too far from the point, so that the best of them felt hard in the hand while writing.  This seemed a difficulty not to be overcome”.  David Nishimura posted that he owned a few examples, and could testify from personal experience that what Foley said about the shortcomings of the Doughty ruby-tipped gold nibs tipped was, indeed, a fair description, that is, they were clumsy, lacked smoothness, were difficult to wipe clean, had insufficient flexibility, and felt hard in the hand while writing.
        But after thirty years of “labor and fruitless experiments”, Hawkins finally succeeded.  He tried cutting some iridium particles with diamond dust applied with oil to a copper disc on a high speed lathe, and was satisfied that he could cut and abrade and shape the iridium points.  But the first nib was made of two separate small pieces of iridium soldered to the tip of a silver nib.  It soon lost one of its iridium tips, and was said by Foley to still be in existence somewhere, minus one of its points, but he didn’t say where.  The second nib was made in the same way, but of gold, and was a complete success.  “[It] had all the pleasant elasticity of the quill, and completely realized all his hopes on the subject, satisfying him that he had a Pen for his lifetime, with fair usage.”  He then made his third nib, which he sold on April 26, 1834.  And by the time Foley wrote this story of Hawkins in 1875, it could be said, in the review in the New York Mail, “This little instrument…is now in universal use”.  And as Foley himself writes, “The use of the Gold Pen in America is almost universal, for the reason that it is…the best and most perfect writing instrument….The noble goose quill has been superseded successfully by the superior Gold Pen”.
        There are also some ads and articles between 1845 and 1848 in The Scientific American, which can be found in
Hathi Trust and MOA, that refer to these nibs as both diamond-pointed and ever-pointed.  Most of these ads and articles are for “A. G. Bagley’s Celebrated Improved Ever-Pointed Gold Pen”, but Joseph Hayden’s gold nibs were also called “diamond-pointed”.   The article titled “Gold Pens”, on Nov 20, 1847, p.67, uses the dismissive phrase “the manufacture of such a trifling article as pens”.
    In an interesting side issue, the earliest patents for mechanical pencils, or “pencil cases”, as they were referred to at the time, also described them as “ever-pointed”.  In both the US patents between 1829 and 1846, and the UK patents between 1844 and 1850, “ever-pointed” is the descriptive adjective of choice for pencil cases.  It looks like the adjective “ever-pointed” originated in pencil cases and was borrowed and adopted and moved over to describe the points of gold nibs.
        Stan Klemanowicz of posted, “I happen to have a 1950s Nagaoka Hooseki Japanese fountain pen with a Sapphire nib”.  Some pics of Stan’s sapphire-tipped fountain pen were posted by Ricky Chau in this
thread on FPN.  There are two pics in the post, but there are more in his Flickr photo stream.  Here is one of the other pics of Stan’s sapphire-tipped nib.  I think the pen is a bit of an anomaly, and an exception to the rule.  It might be the only model with a nib with this type of tipping.  The nib is actually imprinted with the word “Sapphire”.  The only other time I have seen sapphire, or ruby used as a tipping material in the 1900s was in the Rollekuli ballpoint by Rotring, like a watch jewel.
        David Moak posted that an article about A. K. Watts of Mabie, Todd & Co. stated that he had a sapphire tipped pen, though not a Mabie Todd.  He also said that the New Diamond Point Pen Co. was apparently sued by a woman because her Diamond Point pen did not have a diamond point.  The New Diamond Point Pen Company story was from the last owner of the company whose memoir was published in
The Pennant in five installments between 2007 and 2009.
        There’s an article in Am. Stat., Apr 3, 1909, p.13, with a picture of a bottle of iridium used by Waterman’s for tipping nibs in their nibmaking department.  It’s called “pure iridium” in the article, but pure iridium almost never exists in nature.  What is called, or known as iridium is found as a natural alloy with osmium called osmiridium, or iridosmine.  The cut of a Waterman’s nib blank that was said to be “accompanying” the article was left out inadvertently, or for lack of space, probably bumped by an ad.

George Kovalenko.