On every collector’s bucket list, Nakaya is the quintessential bespoke pen 2
Culture

On every collector’s bucket list, Nakaya is the quintessential bespoke pen

Crafting writing instruments built to suit a single hand, this Japanese company serves up one-of-a-kind art.
David Celdran | Feb 28 2019

Over the course of centuries, there have been many devices used to convey the written word. But the invention of the  fountain pen—an instrument that carried a small container of ink inside the barrel—would change the way people wrote completely. No longer did people have to dip their pens constantly in inkwells to continue writing. For the first time, writing no longer required multiple vials and devices.

As the fountain pen was developed, it began to take the form that we know now, but an art as fluid and inconstant as writing and penmanship will always need its instruments to adapt to the user, to better suit the styles and methods that he employs.

As one of the most prominent brands for collectors, Nakaya, a handmade pen workshop located in the Higashi-Ueno district of Tokyo, Japan, is known for creating its pens to the specifications of its clients.

“For your hand only” is Nakaya’s motto. Meaning, anything from the point of the nib and the ink flow to the size of the clip and the design on the lacquered barrel can be custom made for the end user. It is essentially a “bespoke” pen.

 

Japanese stronghold

Nakaya began in 1997, when current president Toshiya Nakata decided to found a company that would absorb the retired craftsmen of the Platinum Pen Company. Each of these craftsmen had worked for the latter for over 40 years, and sought to continue their trade. They also expressed the desire for more creative freedom, which the mass-produced Platinum pens could not completely satisfy.

On every collector’s bucket list, Nakaya is the quintessential bespoke pen 3
Nakaya jewelercraftsman Satoru Matsukawa and president Toshiya Nakata outside their Tokyo headquarters.

With an initial capital of only JPY 3 million, Nakaya had to focus on building their inventory, leaving very little for other expenses. Borrowing a spare room from the Platinum Pen Company’s offices, Nakaya began producing handmade, finely wrought fountain pens and started to take their samples to the market.

The initial pens did not have clips on the caps, primarily because the company could not afford the materials for them, but the simplicity of the product appealed to people and the craftsmanship of their pens would be widely well received.

Today, Nakaya is one of the most sought after brands in the fountain pen industry, though it remains a small artisan manufacture, the core of which is a roster of five craftsmen. When we visited the company’s workshop, we had the rare opportunity to take a look at Nakaya’s signature techniques and materials firsthand.

 

The art of pen making

Nakaya pens come in many different designs, with most of them being made with the urushi method, an ancestral lacquering technique that uses refined sap from the tree of the same name, found only in Japan and China. The sap can only be harvested once a year and takes years to prepare before it can even be used. Such an art has few masters and the craftsmen of Nakaya patiently build layer upon layer of the rare lacquer to bring out each color and motif.

But even as Nakaya builds its pens to please the eye, it is the technical workmanship of its products that have found a greater following. Their current designer and nib engineer Shinichi Yoshida specializes in customizing the writing instrument to fit its user. After a series of questions about the client’s writing style, the workshop begins producing a single, unique model built entirely from scratch. The nibs are adjusted by hand, depending on the client’s unique writing angle, speed, pen pressure, and the paper most commonly used. The degree of artistry in Nakaya’s work is so precise that the company has been able to adapt to the penmanship of many countries, like Singaporeans’ quick scrawl using small letters.

Nakaya’s clientele, which mostly reside outside Japan, have created such a large demand that it is difficult to keep up with it, shares Nakata. Each pen can take up to months before it is finally released to its new owner.

“In fact, I wanted to close Nakaya one year, because every month there are an average of 600 orders,” he says. “We cannot provide.”

 

New blood

But increasing their production is not a simple matter. Pen work is so specialized that there are not many craftsmen interested in devoting their traditional craft to Western writing instruments.

On every collector’s bucket list, Nakaya is the quintessential bespoke pen 4
Black pen, six ways: a showcase of different traditional Japanese lacquer finishes applied onto various Nakaya pen models.

Even as some of the newer artisans have expressed their intentions to join the company, the craftsmen of Nakaya cannot take the time away from their work to train someone properly. Patience, then, becomes a necessary virtue for both the craftsman and for the buyer who is committed to purchasing a custom-made pen. Though their sharply honed art is a fading one, it is by no means blunted by the lack of new blood, and as long as collectors insist on placing their orders, Nakaya will continue building pens made by hand, for the hand.

 

This piece originally came out in Issue 16, 2014 of Vault. For more information, visit Nakaya.org.