By Bill Riepl
In the world of pens, there have been countless examples of "styling cues," "design inspiration," and yes, even downright fakes offered for sale through the years. Some have been pretty good, some downright ridiculous (anyone for a pink marble acrylic "Mont Blanc Starwalker"?) While Mont Blanc, with its position as the premier status symbol among writing instruments, serves as the principal target for counterfeit products, it seems no brand is safe. There is always a market for those wishing to cash in on the marketing success of others, whether it be with pens, watches, cigarette lighters, handbags... Almost any brand name product.
A perfect example of this is the recent rash of surprisingly good counterfeit S.T. Dupont Orpheo Midsize pens that have been popping up online. These "Orpheo" pens look right, feel right, and hey, they're even packaged right.... Or so it might seem from the online pictures and description. The price is certainly right. A recent search of eBay turned up more than a dozen examples of these pens, with closing bids hovering right around the $75-$125 mark. Since an authentic mid-sized Dupont Orpheo in basic black lacquer should easily expect to end upclosing at around at least twice that amount in an auction, it leaves plenty of room for the unsuspecting to assume that they've gotten a bargain.
Unlike many past fakes in the world of writing instruments, however, the buyer might not discover that he or she's been had when the pen arrives. These copies are good enough that, unless you have the real thing right there to compare point to point, you might easily be taken in. They go well beyond "look-alike" -- these are very well made counterfeits.
Considered strictly as a writing instrument, these are actually very good pens. Cartridge/ converter filled, with plated steel nibs. Brass cap and barrel, with nicely done lacquer finish. Very smooth writers, with good, reliable ink flow.
If this sounds like an advertisement, it's not. Had the makers of these pens simply put their own name on them and sold them as "XYZ Brand" pens, I'd consider them to be very fairly priced at the $75-$100 mark. However . . . They're passing them off as something they're not. That's a crime, and should be. It's not fair to S.T. Dupont to take advantage of the years of cost and effort it has put into building its brand image. It's certainly not fair to take advantage of customers who (perhaps foolishly) think that they're just getting a great deal on a prestigious name-brand pen. So, as good as these pens are in and of themselves, the sooner they are taken off the market, the better. Not often we get to say that!
To begin with, a few tips about buying pens online in general. These apply whether you're buying from an established site or an online auction, a modern "status symbol" or the vintage classic that will complete your collection.
Ask questions. Lots of them, and don't be afraid to be detailed in your inquiry. A legitimate seller will be happy to answer your questions since, after all, they want a happy customer. A seller who refuses to reply to your questions at all or who is evasive should be a warning sign. Note that some sellers might not know much about pens, but not knowing details about the specific model being sold is a great deal different from trying to pass it off as something it's not. Do your research before shopping. Know the length, width, weight, and as many other facts about the pen you are interested in before you start. This allows you to ask "non-pen person" questions that should be easily answerable by any legitimate seller.
Shop around. Know the going rate for a given pen. If a Mont Blanc 149 normally lists for $500, and you find one at legitimate, well-known retailers for $400, or listed on pen websites in used-but-new condition for $300, then begin asking questions when you find one on eBay for $75. Shopping around will also help you become more knowledgeable about what you really need, and can assist in avoiding impulse buys when you see a "great deal" online. It also allows you to weed out the obvious fakes, like the abovementioned red marble Skywalker!
You get what you pay for. OK, we all like a deal, and there are bargains to be had for modern pens online. Especially on eBay. I've found some great pens at true bargain prices. The truly amazing deals, on the other hand, are few and far between. The marketplace on eBay, even considering that it's a worldwide market, is becoming more and more sophisticated, with more and more knowledgeable collectors joining the fray. You might be the only one who's noticed that modern pen about to close at 10% of the list price, but I wouldn't count on it. Everyone else might know something you don't.
The bottom line comes down to being careful when buying online. If you haven't done business with the seller, or don't have personal references, there's always the possibility that you might not be getting what you think you are.
Let's get into the nuts and bolts of these counterfeit Dupont pens. First of all, they are copying the Orpheo, Dupont's flagship model. The counterfeits are, so far at least, being made in the mid-sized version. Most of the auction descriptions we've seen don't mention the size, so that might not be a huge help, but if you can get the seller to answer an inquiry, get the pen's dimensions. If it matches with the size of a large-sized Orpheo, there's a better chance it's real. Other than that, the sky's the limit, style-wise. We've seen "gold plate" in barley pattern, pinstripe pattern, and a sort of fougere pattern, "silverplate" in the same patterns, as well as translucent red lacquer, dark brown lacquer with gold dust, dark red lacquer with gold dust, black lacquer barrel with "gold plate" cap, and the last with "diamonds" inset into the clip.
Whatever the exact pattern, they all look very much like real Duponts. Of course, some of those models listed above do not exist, at least as far as I know. The translucent red lacquer, and the cap with the "diamonds" are nothing like we've seen either in person or in a legitimate Dupont catalog. Good research should keep you from ending up with one of these counterfeits.
However, the plain black, black with gold-plate cap, and some of the gold or silverplated models look much more like real Orpheos. When it comes to these pens, it requires a much closer inspection to determine the authenticity. We'll go through the basics; if you check the following features, you should be able to tell whether you have the "real deal."
For purposes of illustration, we've selected a plain black laquer finish mid-sized Orpheo to compare with the counterfeit pens. In the illustrations here, the plain black cap and barrel pen is the authentic Dupont Orpheo, the others are all counterfeit pens.
To begin with the cap, there's not much to look for that's immediately obvious. Some of the samples we obtained have a clip that is cut rather sharply at the bottom end, as compared to the slightly rounded bottom edge of the real Dupont. You will also probably notice some looseness to the cap when it's on the pen. The real Dupont has absolutely no play to the cap, either up and down or from side to side. It won't even twist easily. The counterfeit examples we tried all had caps that were loose to some degree, with one allowing significant play between the cap and barrel. The cap would spin fairly easily on the barrel. Obviously, this is not something that you will see on a real Dupont. The clip on some of the coutnerfeits had an abrubt, slightly angled end to it, unlike the Dupont, which was slightly rounded, and even across the bottom edge.
None of the samples we checked had the Chinese lacquer symbol (a stylized leaf) on the cap, as the real Dupont does. Other than that, the finish of the artificial lacquer on the counterfeits is very good. If the other details were in line with a real Dupont, it would be tough to have to try to pick the fake simply from the finish of the "lacquer."
Fortunately, the other details are not quite so well done. The plating on the metal portions is good enough, but when seen next to the real Dupont, it has a slightly lighter appearance. The finish on the metal trim is also not quite as good as on the Dupont.
You'll note a slight roughness to the engraving of the Dupont name on the barrel, and when you look at the underside of the clip, there's an obvious wave to the finish of the metal. The Dupont is as perfectly finished on the underside as it is on top.
One method of detecting the counterfeit is to look at the barrel end under strong light. The real Dupont is perfectly finished; the counterfeits clearly exhibit some slight roughness to the metal under the plating. On one of the counterfeit examples, there was already some plating wear to the barrel bottom, which is obviously something you're not going to see on a brand-new Dupont!
The counterfeits are engraved with "Made In France" and a serial number on the side of the clip, just as on the real Duponts. However, the engraving on the counterfeits is not as crisp, and interestingly enough, the same serial number was used on every one of the counterfeit samples we've seen.
The clips are otherwise well made, with the same spring-loaded design as the real Orpheo. The counterfeit clips were a bit looser than the Dupont's, but again, it's the sort of thing you'd need to compare both pens to see. Pay close attention to the fit and finish of the clip, especially the underside, it's one of the best indicators of a counterfeit. The fakes are good, but clearly not finished to high standards. Definitely not the level of standards that S.T. Dupont requires!
Removing the cap gives the next clue that you've got something short of the real thing. Although, again, you really need to have the two side by side to see the difference. The real Orpheo cap releases from the barrel with less force applied than the counterfeit requires. There's a much more precise feel to the Dupont cap than to the counterfeit. They both close down on the barrel well enough, and with a clear "click" sound, but once closed, the counterfeits caps will spin slightly, while the Dupont cap will only revolve on the barrel with a bit of effort.
Looking down into the cap will also show a clear difference. The counterfeits all had bare metal showing, with tooling marks and poor finishing on the inside of the cap. The real Dupont has a clean, finely finished appearance in this area. This is the first point at which an immediately obvious visual difference exists.
Turning from the cap to the nib revealed that once that cap is removed, we find what looks at first to be a normal S.T. Dupont nib. The Orpheo nib has a distinctive shape, and the counterfeit carries the deception through almost perfectly. The nib silhouette is a dead ringer for the real thing, from the plain view outline of the nib shape to the distinctive scalloped edge on the side view. The engraving pattern and two-tone plating are also a close match for the real Orpheo nib.
Now, seen as simply a nib in and of itself, the counterfeit nibs are quite good. The tipping material is generous in size, and nicely finished. This means that you get a smooth writing experience. Not quite as smooth as you would from the real Dupont, but if you weren't comparing them, you'd likely be quite happy with the feel of the nib. The counterfeit is marked as 18K gold, but let's put it this way . . . an 18K nib would not be picked up off the desktop by a magnet!
Aside from the fact that it's made from steel, the counterfeit nib gives the game away with a slightly rougher finish than the real nib, poorer, thinner plating, and on some examples, not always precisely within the engraved markings. The "platinum trim" versions of the counterfeit pens have a silver-colored nib that's really just unplated steel. These are tougher to tell from the real thing thanks to the absence of a bad plating job, but you can still see some evidence of a rough finish, and of course, they'll fail the magnet test.
The section trim is a giveaway, one of the weakest portion of the counterfeits, with tool marks clearly visible when viewed from the front. This is easy to spot when you're comparing the counterfeit with the real thing, but much tougher when you're looking one over solo. Still, if you can see any sign of tool marks under a strong light, you're probably looking at a fake. The plating on this area of the counterfeits has the same slightly lighter, more yellow look of cheap plating that the exterior trim does.
This brings us to probably the easiest way we've found to determine the status of the pen.... Turn the thing over and look at the feed. The difference is immediately obvious. The Dupont feel is a shiny, dark, finned feed. The counterfeits we've examined have all used the same cheaply produced molded feeds. They have a dark gray matte finish, and lack any visible fins.
Unscrewing the section provides another giveaway. The Dupont has slight resistance during the first few turns of the barrel from the section; the counterfeit simply unscrews. It's interesting to note that the counterfeit thread patterns duplicate the real Dupont. The fake section will thread into a real barrel and vice versa. In fact, the real cap will fit on the counterfeit barrel. The copies are that close dimensionally. The only measurable difference is minute; the counterfeit's overall length when closed is just barely 1/8 inch longer than the Dupont.
The converters supplied with the counterfeits proved to be a real surprise. They're actually counterfeit Dupont converters! Close copies in terms of their external looks, they can still be distinguished from the real thing by the level of fit and finish.
The real Dupont converter has a short portion at the end of the turning knob that isn't milled, while the counterfeits carry the milling through to the end of the turning knob. The plating and engraved name are poorly done, and they happen to be a whopping 1/8th of an inch shorter in length than the real Dupont converter. Still, it's an impressive touch of "realism" and could easily take in an unsuspecting buyer.
To make matters even worse, the counterfeit Orpheos come with "all papers and packaging". . . and the good detail-matching carries through this area as well. Unfortunately for the unsuspecting buyer, it's no problem for the unscrupulous seller to come up with an impressive looking pile of "authentic packaging" for his sale photos. From photographs, you're going to have a very, very difficult time separating the real from the fake.
The latest Dupont products are shipped in new packaging, consisting of a black and purple box in a white outer box. As yet, the counterfeits attempt to copy the older brick-red packaging. For now, if the Dupont you buy comes with a purple lined black box, black box sleeve, and a white outer box, you're probably OK -- until they get around to copying those!
Inside the counterfeits' brick-red outer box is a nicely made, heavy presentation box. The real Duponts had the Chinese lacquer symbol running along the upper edge of the outer box. Both the real one and the counterfeit are embossed with the S.T. Dupont Paris logo in silver on the box top. The counterfeits have a white sticker on each end flap, one with a "SKU number" and a bar code, the other with the same number and the model designation. The real Dupont box has only one white sticker on an end flap, with the model designation, bar code, and SKU number. The real Dupont sticker has slightly rounded corners, the ones on the counterfeit have square edges. Also, like the "serial numbers" engraved on the sides of the clip, the counterfeits all use the same "SKU numbers" and model names on the box labels. Just to be petty and snide, their French is atrocious, as well.
Once you get the outer box open, the illusion becomes even more interesting. The presentation box is nicely done, with the only real difference being a slightly lighter color. The real Dupont boxes have the Chinese lacquer logo running around the top edge, and the Dupont "D" on the front lower edge.
Opening the box reveals more noticeable differences: The counterfeits have a plain, flat bed, with a ribbon running across at an angle, while the real ones have a fitted bed sized to hold the specific pen. Both boxes have the Dupont logo on the inside box lid, but the real one is noticeably larger than the counterfeit's.
The associated paperwork is located under the flat bed of the counterfeit box. On the real Dupont box, the paperwork comes in a separate packet, in a specially made spot between the inner and outer boxes. Pulling the paperwork out of the counterfeit box reveals three items of paperwork: a "collections" info sheet, a guarantee card, and an instruction booklet. These fairly accurately reflect what you might expect to see in a real Dupont box, and when spread out for an auction photo, they look convincing. It really takes a close look (and admit it, when was the last time you actually read one of the instruction booklets than came with a new pen?) to tell the difference.
The "International Guarantee Card" is pretty good, but still misses on a couple of points. The Dupont version is a slightly heavier card stock, and feels as though it has a plastic coating on both sides. The counterfeit card is lighter, uncoated card stock.
The "collections" sheet appears to be a fairly well printed copy of a Dupont brochure, reduced in size. It's a sheet of heavy gloss paper 13" by 3.5", accordion folded to a 2"X3.5" size. This displays various Dupont products, everything from jewelry and leather goods to perfumes. It's printed on both sides, and the printing is pretty good.
The instruction booklet is where the largest difference comes to light. The paper used on the counterfeit is orange, while the Dupont booklet is white. The Dupont booklet also uses a better paper. The fake booklet isn't so bad that you'd likely pick up on it were you looking at it on its own, but when held up next to the real thing, it's obvious. The real Dupont lacquer pens also come with a thin leather pen pouch and a booklet on the Chinese lacquer used to make these pens.
In conclusion, these counterfeit Duponts are good. Good at being fakes, good at copying a successful design, good at fooling the unwary buyer. For the most part, they are going to pass a casual inspection. Considering just the plain black lacquer counterfeits, it's quite difficult to select the real from the fake with just a cursory (or even a not so cursory!) inspection of the pens themselves.
It's somewhat easier with the more flamboyant designs, but even those require a pretty good knowledge of Dupont's product line. The packaging is very good, and only stands out when put next to the real thing.
In other words, these are the top of the line when it comes to fakes!
The pen-collecting community has quite a continuing debate about counterfeit pens. Obviously, no responsible collector or dealer would have anything to do with an attempt to defraud a buyer by passing off a fake Dupont as the real thing. On the other hand, many collectors we've spoken to seem to have a much more open attitude towards actually using one of these counterfeit pens. While they wouldn't consider it to be a prize piece of their collection, "if it works well enough, why not write with it?" seems to be the general attitude.
It's difficult to argue with that attitude from a strictly pragmatic viewpoint. The pens themselves are good enough, considered strictly as writing instruments. The problem really is that they are being passed off as real Duponts. While it's true that the principal market for counterfeits is not likely to be serious collectors, but rather the more casual shopper who wants affordable style, these pens are finding their way into the secondary market among pen collectors. Given their quality and the difficulty of easily picking them out from the real thing, it leaves a lot of room for error when making a pen purchase, especially an online purchase based on pictures.
We're pretty sure that the counterfeits will not go away any time soon. This just means that we as consumers must be especially vigilant. Use extra care when buying online and from auction sites, and above all, remember: If it seems too good to be true, it probably is!
copyright 2006 William Riepl
Images copyright 2005 William Riepl