Collecting Articles and Features

The History and Art of Dunhill Namiki Pens

Namiki pens are the perfect blend of art and history and are considered to be some of the finest writing instruments in the world. Each pen is a work of art, with a unique design using traditional Japanese techniques that date back to the Heian period (794-1185). A single pen can take three months to create and can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars / pounds to buy. We take a look at the history of the pen, the techniques involved in their creation, the Dunhill Namiki partnership and we include some examples along with their price guide.

A Dunhill Namiki Maki-e lacquered fountain pen circa 1930 with two longtailed goldfish
A Dunhill Namiki Maki-e lacquered fountain pen, circa 1930, almost certainly an A-grade example elaborately decorated using shishiai togidashimaki-e and nishiji techniques with two longtail goldfish swimming amongst foliage, signed to the barrel and impressed underneath ‘Made in Japan’ and incised ‘314/1’, the nib marked ‘Dunhill, Namiki, 14CT’, approximately 138mm in length. Sold for £9,000 at Sworders, December 2020.

The history of Namiki pens

The Namiki Manufacturing Company was founded in Japan in 1918 by Ryosuke Namiki (1880-1954) a merchant ship’s chief engineer by trade who was interested in the technology of pens and fountain pens and how to improve them. He was responsible for a number of innovations including to develop and patent a non-clogging drafting pen in 1909, and the first Namiki gold nib in 1916. The company also specialised in pen nibs and he was to develop a gold and iridium alloy nib, which could be adapted to the writing of Japanese characters and script.

Dunhill Namiki signed Shogo A 1930s rare Japanese maki-e lacquer writing pen decorated with a dragon
Dunhill – Namiki – A 1930’s rare Japanese maki-e lacquer writing pen decorated with a dragon painted in gilt relief to the barrel and a mountainous scene to the cap, decorated with Togidashi maki-e and abalone shell / raden, Bokashi, aogai, the cap having 14ct gold bands (marked R14k), the lever engraved with Namiki logo and the nib marked Dunhill 14ct gold. Signed by the artist Shogo below the lever, Namiki’s first artist. Shogo was born 1894, studied under Shorin Ueda in 1908, and began working for Namiki as a subcontractor in 1926. He joined the Namiki Co. in 1928 and became the leading member of Namiki’s elite Kokkokai group assembled by the legendary Gonroku Matsuda in 1931. Sold for £8,000 at East Bristol Auctions, January 2021.

In 1924 the design team at Namiki began to perfect a new process for the production of superior fountains pens. At the time and for nearly a century before the main material used was ebonite (a vulcanized sulphur and rubber compound) as it was easily moldable and could be painted.  However, over time and with exposure to sun it would lose its colour and shine. The Namiki team used lacquer in the compound and in 1925 patented the laccanite process which involved the addition of raw lacquer to the basic ebonite compounds.

 

It was “lacquer” that caught their eyes. Using lacquer, a superior coating which Japan boasts to the world, they devised a method called “lacquered ebonite” which creates an attractive body which was tolerant to deterioration. With the original goal being achieved with this, there were further calls saying, “If we are going to use lacquer, why don’t we try painting designs using the lacquer work technique Maki-e on the fountain pens?”

Dunhill-Namiki a 1930s maki-e fountain pen and propelling pencil set in original box pencil signed by Shomin
Dunhill-Namiki, a 1930s maki-e fountain pen and propelling pencil set in original box, pencil signed by Shomin, the fountain pen with hira maki-e maple leaves and birds, with raden and okibirme detail, the no.2 Dunhill Namiki nib stamped 14ct, lifebouy lever filling system, with red kao mark, 10.3cm long; the ring top propelling pencil in a similar design with maple leaves and a soaring bird, signed Shomin and with a red kao mark, 10.2cm long, in original box. Sold for £6,200 at Dreweatts, March 2019.

Namiki realised that with a durable long lasting shiny surface they could add lacquer decoration using traditional Maki-e techniques. Lacquer artists Shisui Rokkaku and Gonroku Matsuda created a few dozen pens that Namiki founders Namiki and Masoa Wada took to the West to establish a market. They had immediate success in London and in 1926 Namiki opened an office in Bishopsgate. In 1930 a contract and partnership was made with Alfred Dunhill and the Dunhill Namiki Fountain Pens were to be sold in major European cities and the USA.

Six Early 20th Century Gold Dunhill Namiki Pen Nibs Marked Dunhill Namiki
Six Early 20th Century Gold Dunhill Namiki Pen Nibs, Marked Dunhill Namiki 14Ct Made In Japan, Size 20 And 50. Sold for £2,500 at Mellors and Kirk, November 2014.

The Namiki Manufacturing Company became the Pilot Pen Co., Ltd. in 1938 and is now the Pilot Corporation.

Maki-e Techniques

Maki-e has been used since the Heian period (794-1185), and it reached its height of popularity during the Edo period (1603-1868). The maki-e technique is a Japanese lacquerware decoration technique that involves sprinkling gold or silver powder onto a wet lacquer base. The powder adheres to the wet lacquer, and the excess is then brushed away, leaving a design that is both beautiful and intricate. The four stage process of lacquering, drawing, sprinkling and polishing is repeated many times with some Maki-e pens going through the process 130 times.

Shishiai Togidashi Maki-e (Combined Raised and Burnished Maki-e)
Togidashi-Taka Maki-e (Burnished-Raised Maki-e)
Togidashi Maki-e (Burnished Maki-e)
Togidashi-Hira Maki-e (Burnished-Flat Maki-e)
Hira Maki-e (Flat Maki-e)
Raden (Mother-of-Pearl)
Hyoumon (Foil)
Rankaku (Egg Shell)
Chinkin (Gold Inlay)

What influences the value of  Namiki pens?

A number of factors influence whether a pen is a few hundred dollars or many thousands of dollars including:
the amount of detail on the pen – the more design on a pen the longer it takes to create.
the type of design – simple designs with a lot of the black background untouched are known as C Grade pens, those with more complicated and fuller design are know as A Grade pens.
the artist – all pens are signed by the artist – early pens were created by the artisan group Kokkokai which was established in 1931 and pens by artists such as Shogo and Kokoyo sell for many thousands of dollars.

Namiki maki-e fountain pen from Emperor Collection featuring Dragon design
Namiki maki-e fountain pen from the Emperor Collection featuring Dragon design

Related
Sheaffer PFM (Pen For Men) Price Guide and Background
Mont Blanc 149 Fountain Pen information and price guide
The Official Pilot-Namiki web site has English and Japanese versions. It has a good section of the techniques used in the creation of their pens and details on their current collections.