By Bill Riepl
Sometimes, what you actually get might not be what you see... Looking at the pictures here, you might be forgiven for assuming that what you are seeing are a couple of classic American fountain pens, the Parker Vacumatic and the Sheaffer TM touchdown.
Instead, what you are seeing is the application of clever marketing on the part of a couple of little known 1950s pen makers from the far east. Or outright counterfeiting, depending upon how hard minded you tend to be about that sort of thing! The pens are not marked as being either a Vacumatic of a Sheaffer, but aside from the markings, almost every detail is exactly true to the pens that were their "inspiration".
We'll begin with this little number... The Skater "Opalette". At first glance it might appear to be a humble Vacumatic in Gold Pearl. A single jewel pen, not oversize, and a color that's fairly common. A closer look reveals that things are not what they seem. The trim doesn't match any real Vacumatic model in finer detail, besides which, it's chrome plate, not gold plate. There's a faint imprint on the barrel "Opalette".
As you can see from the picture to teh right, there's no way that this pen would be confused with a Parker Vacumatic. On the other hand, there are a lot of similarities between the two!
As soon as the cap comes off, the differences get even more pronounced. A black section might be normal enough on some Vac variants, and even a two tone nib. But not a two tone nib that's plated in the same style as a Sheaffer Lifetime nib! It's also pretty obvious that this is a steel nib with thin gold plate on the lower half, rather than a solid gold nib with palladium plating, as used on the Sheaffer nibs of this design. As you might expect, this is also nowhere near as smooth a nib in use as the Sheaffer that inspired the design. It's not horrible, for an inexpensive steel nib, but that's as far as I'd go!
Exploring the filling mechanism reveals another huge difference between this pen and a Vacumatic. Instead of a plunger under a blind cap at the barrel end, you find that the entire barrel unscrews, revealing... A copy of Parker's Aerometric system...
It might not be "accurate" but hey, it works! This sort of filling system is very common on pens of this type, it was hugely popular at the time for reasons of simplicity and durability.
With this example, as cheaply made as it might have been, it was still in perfect working order when I got the pen.
So, here we have a Vacumatic clone, with a Sheaffer style nib, and a 51 style filling mechanism. Interesting!
Looked at in it's role as a writer, the Skater pen is a bit disappointing. The nib is rigid, and a bit scratchy on the paper. The Aerometric filling system was in good shape, and works perfectly, as you would expect from this durable, simple design. It's a smaller pen than I would normally like, and this alone would be enough to keep it out of my pocket. Given it's poor nib, and the fact that it's really more of a curiosity piece than anything else, this one spends it's time on display rather than in use.
Our next example looks at first to be a humble Sheaffer TM, albeit one in an interesting (if somewhat drab) beige color. Not a color Sheaffer ever utilized in a pen of this type. The cap looks to be just like what you might find on a Sheaffer, although it's obviously gold plate instead of the heavier gold fill Sheaffer would use. The barrel is marked "Lucky" "Made in China" with two Chinese characters flanking the two line imprint.
Removing the cap reveals a nib that fits right in with the other design cues lifted straight from Sheaffer, it's a simple triumph conical nib. While it's marked as being 12K, I don't know if this is true, or just "marketing". I might guess that it's an accurate representation of the gold content, since if it was just a marking to aid in sales I would have thought they would have gone "all the way" and marked it as 14K or 18K.
In shape and style, the nib is an exact duplicate of the Sheaffer Triumph nib, and is also marked "Lucky" with the same two characters as on the barrel. The section, although shaped as a Sheaffer section would be, is made of a transparent plastic, allowing you see the ink flowing down into the feed.
The Lucky is a much better writer than the Skater Opalette, although the Aerometric filler sac was shot on this one. It looks as though they used a plain rubber sac, and at some point in it's life, it was left filled with some sort of horrible ink that's dried to the consistency of concrete.
Given that I never really intended to use this pen a lot, I haven't bothered with replacing the sac. When dipped however, the nib proves to be surprisingly smooth. No flex at all, but the tipping seems very well made, and the nib almost glides across the paper with a fairly dry, fine line. I was very surprised at how well this pen performed all in all. It's a smooth pleasant writer, and seems to be very well made. While still not an "expensive" pen, it is clearly several notches above the Opalette in quality.
Neither of these pens is what you would be able to call "high end". Construction is good enough, notably better on the Lucky, but both are obviously meant to be marketed towards the everyday user. Production is probably from the late 1940s through the 1950s. It would seem that during this time, the possession of a Parker or Sheaffer pen was seen as being "above the average", hence the design of these pens.
Since each is clearly imprinted with the maker's name as well as a model name, I wouldn't refer to these two pens as "counterfeit". Unlike the S.T. Dupont counterfeits covered elsewhere in this issue, these pens do have an identity in their own right. They are definitely designed to imitate the style and design of other manufacturer's pens, but I think they stop just short of the line between legitimate and outright counterfeit.
Although neither is exactly what you would call a valuable pen, they make interesting examples of marketing from years past. The Skater pen rests in my display case along with my small collection of Gold Pearl Vacumatics, and the Lucky alongside the few Sheaffers of this design I have.
copyright 2005 William Riepl
Images copyright 2005 William Riepl