Ballograf Chrome Epoca

On my recent trip to Amsterdam I discovered the lovely Ballograf Chrome Epoca pen. I had never heard of Ballograf before and I’ve learned a lot about the brand since buying my first product.

Ballograf is a Swedish producer of ballpoint pens and mechanical pencils and is based in Gothenburg – set up in 1945 by a lone Austrian. Apparently Ballograf employ thirty employees but produce four million writing implements a year. That’s 133333.3 pens per employee! Its main market appears to be Scandinavia and western Europe although I haven’t come across this brand during my usual stationery jaunts, neither online nor in person.

Look and feel

This pen features a simple push button mechanism and is refillable with Ballograf refills. Pushing the button has a nice resistance to it which kicks in about halfway down.

The pen has several simple details which really make the look and feel of this writing implement. The pen clip features the Ballgraf symbol, the silver barrel is lined on each hexagonal face, the join between the barrel and the grip section features, very very finely, the words Ballograf Epoca Sweden. I’ve seen a few websites where you can have your Epoca engraved and sure enough, there is a short section of barrel which is waiting for your name. There’s an overriding historical vintage feeling about this pen – like it’s something that hasn’t changed since the 50s – even though it’s brand new and looks brand new. Its design is timeless, simple and honest.

Can you make out the writing between the barrel and the grip section? It's there!
Can you make out the writing between the barrel and the grip section? It’s there! This section says “Sweden”.
Close up of the lined barrel.
Close up of the lined barrel.

I love the cornflour, lavender blue of the grip section. It’s untextured and has a softly rounded taper towards the end which suits me just fine, and really complements the surrounding silver. It also adds a touch of brightness and femininity to the pen, which is a good contrast against the straight sides of the barrel. The only downside of an untextured grip section might be that it could get uncomfortable writing for long periods of time particularly if, like me, you don’t hold your pen close to the nib or ballpoint.

Lovely blue grip section.
Lovely blue grip section.

The ink in my pen is archival blue. I rarely choose a blue ink, particularly with ballpoints as they tend to be a very obvious blue, if that makes any sense. Luckily the pen is refillable: there are medium and fine refills in blue, black, red and green. I don’t find this blue offensive at all though. Apparently early in the brand’s history, the ink used in their Epocas was certified as archival, meaning that it could be used widely for official purposes in Sweden and this increased its popularity in offices.

Performance

Ever since reflecting on what I want from a 0.4mm gel pen in this post, I have thought about what I expect from several different stationery items. The things I expect from a ballpoint are a smooth writing experience without any ink stickiness, an ink that writes dry on the page and also no ink skipping – this is a common expectation among all pens for me. I think a stationery mantra everywhere should be “every touch has to leave a mark” because it’s so true among all writing implements for me. Finally I really dislike ballpoints where the refill “wobbles” inside the pen casing. I think you’d have to experience this one to understand what I mean but I think it’s caused when the refill isn’t supported properly by any mechanism inside the pen casing or barrel leaving it free to move depending on the pressure you apply.

So on those expectations. Every touch of the pen leaves a mark! Even the dot of an i. You don’t need to apply much pressure to achieve this. I’ve used this pen in a Word notebook, Rhodia dotpad, Field Notes notebook and my Tsunami Fools notebook and I haven’t experienced any pressure marks on the reverse of pages I’ve written on. I’m not sure I would ever risk a ballpoint pen with my Hobonichi though or on paper any lighter than found in your business as usual notebooks.

Close up of writing and so you can better see the archival blue ink.
Close up of writing and so you can better see the archival blue ink.

This pen gives you a really smooth writing experience even on cheap copy paper and whether you’re writing on a single sheet directly on a hard surface or whether you’re writing in a notebook. This is so important for a ballpoint because I think this is one of the main things that makes them compete with gel and fountain pens. Thankfully there’s no wobble either. There is, very infrequently, a pleasing squeak of ballpoint on paper.

Obviously you can’t post a push button pen. It is comfortable to write with but I personally wouldn’t want to write with a much shorter pen. Overall it comes up at a slightly shorter length than my faithful Uni SXN 150-38 and about a centimetre shorter than my Uni Signo .38. Unless it’s a mini-sized fountain pen, I notice the pen’s length much more with push button ballpoint and gel pens because of the clip – I generally only hold a clipped pen in one position with the clip facing upwards rather than rotating it in my hand if necessary.

Length comparison against some of my other push button pens.
Length comparison against some of my other push button pens. As you can see it’s the shortest of the lot.

In summary

I’m really glad I chose the Epoca as my first foray into this brand. Ballograf don’t produce a huge selection of products and are confined to pens and mechanical pencils. I think I’m happy with having this as my Ballograf toolbox addition rather than trying out a range of their other products as I may normally do when discovering a new brand; my impression is their products are likely to perform similarly. In all honesty I think investing in the Epoca and sticking with it without needing to collect the rest of their products is a testament to the brand and pen in this case. It’s timeless in appearance, refillable and writes smoothly and comfortably. It’s also clearly designed to be reliable, apparently each Epoca Chrome will give you 8000m worth of writing. I’d love to know how many Field Notes this equates to!

I am generally shy of ballpoints because I find them to be similar writing experiences whatever the pen is that you’re using. The design, weight and smoothness of the Epoca make for a really enjoyable writing experience. It’s not a standout revelation moment for me with ballpoints, I didn’t expect it to be, but I’ve come away with a product that is unexpectedly high performing, is lovely to look at and use and is a great reflection of a brand I’ve never experienced before. Although four million of them are produced a year I feel it is a unique addition to my toolbox and one that I’m going to keep in my regular collection for the near future.

I can’t find many UK retailers of Ballgraf products but if you’re interested in buying one I suggest you do a bit of googling and find a retailer which suits your requirement best. I bought mine at Like Stationery in Amsterdam where there were a few different colour options including one with a pale pink grip section, and a gold version with a black grip section. 

Amsterdam Part 2: Stationery Haul and Stores

A remarkable quality about Amsterdam is its glaring absence of garish brands repeating themselves every five hundred metres or so. I saw one Starbucks the whole time I was there. This is a city and country that cares deeply about design integrity. I could have spent my whole trip popping in and out of little independent stores full of high-quality, well thought-out products that say something about how they came to be.

Before I went away I faithfully gathered tips on the best bookshops and stationery shops to visit, should I get the opportunity. These are the ones that I managed to visit during my trip.

Athenaeum Bookshop and News

Athenaeum Boekhandel, Spui 14-16, 1012 XA Amsterdam, https://www.athenaeum.nl 

What a wonderful store. I mostly perused the magazine section of Athenaeum as I particularly love browsing magazine stores and this is one of the best I’ve been to anywhere. It’s actually a separate shop to its bookstore brother, is simple, cosy and set over a couple of levels. There is an amazing collection of magazines on every subject – the best to browse when in Amsterdam are obviously the design publications – but there are sections about music, film, travel, fashion… the list goes on.

These magazines aren’t your disposable rags but they are published and designed beautifully, meant to last and have enough to keep you going for the length of any normal book. They’re laid out over shelves from ceiling to floor, and you must navigate your way around eager stacks of magazines laid out like islands in the sea throughout the shop. Luckily Athenaeum is in a very central and accessible part of town; Het Spui near Kalverstraat has several bookstores and literary-looking cafes to keep you interested.

I could have picked up a copy of most magazines in there but I dutifully came away with my all time favourite, the Frankie magazine (you can read my review of the 2015 Frankie Diary here). I keep all of my Frankie magazines because they are so beautiful and full of stories, letters and crafty tips and tricks for me to return to in the future, should I so wish. Now I know that my March edition from 2016 came from Amsterdam.

Even if you come away empty-handed from Athenaeum, I guarantee you will enjoy your browsing experience and leave with a bit of inspiration, whether it’s wanting to look at more photographs, needing a travel book in the future, looking up a publisher or writer you’ve never heard of, wanting to read more poems… it’s a store that just got me really excited. Oh, and their website is great too.

Like Stationery

Prinsenstraat 24II, 1015 DD Amsterdam, http://www.likestationery.com

This recurred on my searches for the best stationery shops in Amsterdam and it did not disappoint. It’s a bright, neat and subtle store on a street lined with independent retailers with huge windows to peer at all of the treasure inside.

On entering the shop you’re faced with a long central table covered with a rainbow array of short stacks of notebooks, jars of pens and erasers, paper goods and planners. The shop also uses lovely props such as an old whitewashed piano, pigeon hole unit for their cards and a chalkboard bearing the name Like Stationery.

The owner, Sanne Dirkzwager, has a large collection of magazines and paper goods proudly lining the inner depths of the shop. It’s a gorgeous store, incredibly well thought out – I noticed a little bit of colour coding on the main table! Sanne is a Dutch graphic designer who is a creative soul that you can discover more about through her website http://www.strawberryblonde.nl; Like Stationery is just one of her many beautiful projects.

I spent a long time looking at Like Stationery’s products, flicking through notebooks and testing out pens. They have a large collection of ballpoints, notably Hightide Penco, and a wide selection of cards, all of which are handmade at the store and feature a range of colourful, fun and minimalist designs. I also discovered a brand I hadn’t heard of before; Y Studio which feature simple and timeless design mostly using metals in deep blacks and brushed brass.

On looking at Like Stationery’s website post-visit, they also do a themed stationery subscription box which looks stunning. Some of the previous themes have included “connecting the dots”, “untainted” which included a range of cream and white stationery, and “shades of marble” including some gorgeous marbled and multicolour products. It looks to be a very considered and thoughtfully curated box. If I could I definitely would.

I would really recommend popping in to Like Stationery for so many reasons: the area it’s in is beautiful and you’ll have a great time exploring all the lovely shops; the paper products on offer are great and varied – you’ll find notebooks, letter-writing sets, thick and creamy wrapping paper, journals and planners; there are lots of recognisable and not-so-recognisable brands to peruse and the store itself is a delight, full of fun and personality. The products I came away with are a Ballograf Epoca Chrome ballpoint pen with archival blue ink, a flexible synthetic Milan eraser and a homemade card.

Would you just look at the branding on this bag?
Would you just look at the branding on this bag? It’s got a bicycle on, a Dutch style building and proudly bears the symbol of being a stationery store. Could it be more perfect?!
My goodies from Like Stationery, card from Koko Coffee and Design and the few tools I went out with (Word. notebook, Mars Lumograph B grade and Muji yellow double sided pen)
My goodies from Like Stationery, card from Koko Coffee and Design and the few tools I went out with (Word. notebook, Mars Lumograph B grade and Muji yellow double sided pen)

Property Of…

Herenstraat 2, 1015 CA Amsterdam, http://thepropertyof.com

This is actually primarily a bag shop but uncovered a theme of Amsterdam shopping for me that, once I became aware of it, I suddenly noticed everywhere. It’s amazing how many shops in Amsterdam specialise in something, but also happen to have a corner dedicated to something completely different but complementary. So Property Of… specialises in bags of all sorts, but has a small but effective stationery section full of Midori goodies, polished brass writing implements and Kaweco classics, a selection of high-quality travel books, oh and it sells coffee too. It just works in Amsterdam.

This experience will have its own future dedicated post because I took the plunge and bought myself a Midori Travelers Notebook. Full sized, black leather. And the reason I just had to have it here is because the shop is equipped with its very own leather embossing machine which the kind assistant patiently showed me how to use. I came away with my very own monogrammed Travelers Notebook.

Getting my new Travelers Notebook monogrammed. I spent far too long deciding whether to have dots in between my initials or not. I decided not!
Getting my new Travelers Notebook monogrammed. I spent far too long deciding whether to have dots in between my initials or not. I decided not!

If you get a chance to pop in this is a lovely and curious shop. All of the products on offer are very high-quality, timeless and stylish. The stationery offer is small but effective; if you’re going to dedicate a little portion of your store to something different, dedicate it to products that you know work wonderfully. This seems to be the ethos amongst all of Property Of…’s added bonus products.

Koko Coffee and Design

Oudezijds Achterburgwal 145, 1012 DG Amsterdam, http://ilovekoko.com 

Another mainly non-stationery store, Koko Coffee and Design has a vintage cabinet stocked with classic stationery products including Kaweco pens and pencils, a wooden draw overflowing with washi tapes, beautiful little leather goods and marbled notebooks. I enjoyed their selection of one-sided cards and decided to pick one up; the paper is thick and textured and I love the fun pattern. I’m so into yellow at the moment. Again, the products on offer are very well thought-out and make the most of their little corner within a shop full of design beauties.

The stationery cabinet.
The stationery cabinet.

If you walk a little further into the store, offbeat tables and chairs are set up amongst the pristine and colourful racks of clothes. It’s very comfortable and relaxed.

So concludes my whirlwind trip of Amsterdam and the stationery and bookstores I encountered within it. Every impression I’ve had of the way stationery and books are considered within the shops I went into is an overwhelming feeling of respect for great design and longevity. All of the shops whether specialist or with a little outpost of stationery offer products meant to last and offer them within an environment that is design-conscious and personal. They all feel luxury without making you feel out of place. These aren’t “office supply” stores. I really enjoyed the experiences within each store and would heartily recommend them as fantastic shops in their own right but also wonderful, honest reflections of the city of Amsterdam.

(On my list I also had Misc-Store which I’ve heard great things about but sadly I didn’t get the chance to pop in here. Next time!)

Amsterdam Part 1: My Trip

I spent the weekend just gone in Amsterdam and I loved it. I’d heard universally positive reviews of the city. In fact, I’m going to publish two posts in quick succession; this one about my trip and a second specifically about some of the stationery encounters I had. I thought it was best to separate them for fear of writing an essay!

Amsterdam has a very compact city centre but it is unlike any other I’ve ever been in. Gone is the pollution, haste and noise of zone ones everywhere. Somehow it manages to be quiet, slow and human. There’s a beautiful symmetry to the buildings because of their heights, window style and spacing, continuity and colour palette. They frame the low canals but looking a little closer at them shows that each building has its own individuality. A red shutter here, a bell gable there, a little plaque with a sword on to identify the building before street numbers were used, a shiny green door. Not only that but people live on the canal too, whether in traditional houseboats or sturdier canal house units made of wood. Public art dotted throughout the city also marks the territory of the young and creative.

We stayed a little outside the main centre at Mercatorplein and hopped on the tram when we needed to. I always think that trams add a sense of vibrancy to a city because they are integrated amongst the people and are a visible part of its movement and sounds. You are able to see and still experience the places around you while travelling somewhere comfortably and reliably. I always think that they also have a great continental European urbanism to them. And of course, intertwined with the people and trams are swathes of upright cyclists going about their business. Looking around them, taking time and care, parking their bike on a canal rail that is already buried by three layers of resting bicycles. In London we suffer a little from cycling being seen as the realm of the Cyclist with a capital C, someone who moves quickly, has the equipment, knows where they’re going and is well acquainted with roads of all kinds (at work this has been referred to as “lycrafication”… I’m sorry.) and this isn’t the dynamic in Amsterdam in the slightest. It’s a small and pedantic point but I believe there really is a difference between a “road” and a “street”. Amsterdam is made up of streets.

Our days were spent mostly languishing around the canals. I had a great list of tips compiled before going; places to pop into should the weather not be so friendly, museums, shops etc. I found that such structure didn’t work for Amsterdam. It’s more of a stroll and see what’s around kind of place. During our couple of days we hopped on a canal boat tour which was lovely, visited the Foodhallen which is an indoor food market housed in an old cavernous tramshed, had long brunches, stopped off for half pints of witbier whenever possible, and perused several street markets full of food, flowers and crafts. Flowers are everywhere. I’ve heard before that the Netherlands are the cut flower capital of the world. It’s good to see that they’re keeping some for themselves.

Although our days were long with walking, it was such a relaxing weekend and I would love to return in the summer when all European cities seem to be at their absolute best. Next up, the stationery and bookstores that I sought out and stumbled across!