Reviewed on this page:

Duofold  Frontier    Sonnet    Insignia

Parker Duofold reviewed by John

Pens do not come with any more history than the Parker Duofold. As the continuing popularity and relatively high prices on eBay attest, the Duofold was and is a classic design reflecting art deco sensibilities of the 20s. This is both a huge advantage and a huge responsibility for the modern incarnation. How well does it pass the test? User experiences of the modern Duofold are mixed. It seems to be the most popular pen for spouses to abscond with and take ownership of. Presumably this reflect the attraction of the design and the friendliness of the pen. In particular, I think the cartridge/converter fill system makes the pen more user friendly. Of course, this is also widely cited as a big minus of the modern version compared to the traditional button-filler design of yesteryear by the pen cognoscenti.  Also on the minus side are reports of problems with skipping, starting, and just general balkiness of the pen. While I've always loved the design, these latter reports gave me pause and for several years I avoided the pen. Ironically, it was the dismal performance of a Parker Insignia  that I received as a gift that changed my mind about the Duofold. That pen was such a horrible writer that I shipped it back to Janesville for retuning. I was so pleased with the speed and quality of the service that I thought the risks associated with getting a bad Duofold were perhaps not as bad as I first imagined. 

An aside -- why not go vintage? Given the availability of the vintage Duofolds, why not just get one of these and avoid the risk? First, if one buys over eBay, the risk is perhaps even greater than purchasing new. Risks here include expensive repairs of the filling system, nib repair, or, worse yet, physical flaws in the pen not adequately disclosed in the description. The solution is to buy from a reputable dealer, but this too is not as easy a task (at least to get a good price) as one might think. The best way to go is probably visiting a pen show, but I did not have the patience to wait for one of these to come around to my area. Bottom line -- while one often hears about how much more pen for the money one can get by going vintage, I'm not sure how true this is of real prices for Duofolds. (Full retail price is not a good comparison either -- I paid about half this.) 

It seems like there are a fair number of folks who are well plugged into the vintage network and who will claim the reverse.

Back to the review. My choice now centered on the size of Duofold to get. After having written with various shapes and sizes of fountain pens over the years, this choice is critical. I have both a Pelikan M800 and a 600, which roughly approximate the size difference between a Centennial and  International sized Duofold. I've discovered that for extended writing, the 600 is a lot more comfortable than the 800. [An aside: This is a hard thing to know from trying a pen out in a store. The 800 is a dream to write with for short periods but tires my hand after a few pages. Well, you're never going to write a few pages during a dip in a store. The nearest analog I can draw is with trying on shoes -- lots of shoes feel good during the quick lap around the shoe store, but not after walking for several miles.] I ended up buying the international. In fact, I wrote this review in longhand with it -- no tiring and no regrets. 

The style choice was obvious. The pearl and black version is the overwhelming favorite of folks on the net and to see it in person is to know why. Part of the beauty of this design, and it is not so evident from photos, are the horizontal swirls of ivory just below the surface of the pen. The swirls make a nice contrast with the verticals of the black veining that dominates the look of the pen. Together with the gold accents and the two-toned nib, the design is visually striking. The nib has strong retro stylings highlighted by the Parker arrow with a scroll labeled "Duofold" inscribed through its shaft.  

I was lucky as far as the writing quality of my Duofold went.  My Duofold fine nib is extremely smooth (ranking behind the Pelikans but above everything else) and has nice character to the writing (comparable to the Pelikans). The ink flow is generous without being ridiculous. Initially, the pen did skip occasionally, but this went away after running water through the pen a couple of times. The pen is well balanced with the cap posted or not and has modest heft (similar to the M600). 

What's the bottom line? As a pure writer, one can certainly do a little better for less money with Pelikans. But the pen is more than just its writing quality, the overall look and feel of this pen are gorgeous, and the history and art deco design elements just add to the appeal. It's a pen that is likely to get oohs and aahs from non-pen folks.  By the way, I got my Duofold (at a great price) from Pamela Braun at Oscar Braun's. Great service, no hassles there. 

Parker Frontier reviewed by Kim Stahler

Here's another poor-librarian review, this time of the easily acquired Parker Frontier. I bought mine in Staples for $29. I know I could have gotten it cheaper online, but I have a thing for all-metal pens, and it was an impulse buy (after reading about it in the cheapie column in Pen World). I think the Flighter version of this pen is far and away the most attractive and classic-looking.

The nib is yellow metal, possibly gold plated but I'm not sure. It is stiff and fairly wet - the medium was WAY too big for me (I prefer XF) so I sent it to Parker for the XF, which is like a Senator fine or a Sheaffer fine/medium. Parker
doesn't seem to *get* XF nibs. But they still don't charge for nib switches and are pretty fast - usually three weeks is the maximum I have had to wait. The nib writes smoothly, starts up fine after a few days, doesn't ooze ink, and doesn't leak into the cap, even if you drop the pen on the floor. But don't expect your handwriting to look much different from a nice medium rollerball.

The Frontier looks more expensive as it is. Carry it around without worry - it is easily replacable and a solid workhorse. I love the brushed aluminum finish and rounded end. It has gold-colored trim, very understated with a streamlined arrow clip which can grip a collar or pocket fairly easily. The pen should appeal to both men and women. Cap clicks shut, and the section is rubberized though not contoured. Mine came with the cheesy slide piston converter, so I just stick with the carts which I refill because (nerd alert) I hate to waste plastic, or I use an
old aero converter. I keep mine filled with Pelikan Blue-Black since to me that is a thinner-writing ink which slims down too-wide nibs.

The pen is approximately the size of a Sonnet or Insignia but lighter without the brass. Cap posts nicely, but I would prefer a pen that is longer when the cap is posted. I feel this is a good entry pen - one that could live comfortably at the bottom of your briefcase. You might forget it is there, but you will be happy to see it again.

Regards, Kim Stahler - - feel free to write me with any questions.

Parker Frontier reviewed by John

When my wife and I were in Oxford, she ran out of film. Since she is an avid picture taker, this required an immediate trip for resupply. We ended up going to WH Smith to get replacement film. While she debated the merits of Kodak versus the house brand of film, I amused myself by examining the pen section of the store. I was actually pleasantly surprised at how extensive WH Smith’s pen section was. Amidst the usual suspects, I ran across an inexpensive pen that caught my fancy – a brushed stainless steel version of the Parker Frontier.

I visited again about a week later to see whether my fancy was still struck by the Frontier. At that point, I came across an even better section of the store – the closeout section – and there I found a Frontier fountain pen and ballpoint set selling at 50% of the already marked down price. Now this truly caught my attention and I ended up buying the set for only £10.

On to the review: The pen itself has a size and shape reminiscent of the Parker 51 though the nib is not hooded and is steel as opposed to gold. Pretty much all of the pen is stainless save for the section, which is a matte black plastic. The grip actually does work to prevent hand slippage. As mentioned above, the nib is steel with a simple swirl design and the word Parker etched on it. The only other branding on the pen appears inconspicuously at the base of the cap, where the words “Parker Frontier E” are emblazoned. The pen is well balanced with medium heft with the cap posted or not.

The pen is a cartridge fill, but of course works with the Parker converter (not included). For its maiden voyage, I popped in the cartridge that came with the set and started to write. Unlike a lot of other pens, Parkers have a pronounced sweet spot on the nib. Hit the sweet spot and the writing is effortless, miss it and things are not nearly so good. In particular, you get skips a lot when you miss the sweet spot. Of course, if you live with the pen for awhile, you’ll tend to gradually adjust to the point where you’re always hitting the sweet spot. In this sense, Parkers come with a kind of built in learning curve. The nifty thing about the writing experience of this pen (medium nib) is the surprising amount of line variation you get from it. This presumably derives from the pellet on the nib, which has a pronounced oval shape. The ink flow is generous and, though the medium runs to broad, the line variation makes this a really fun pen to write with.

Bottom line: At only £10 (with a ballpoint thrown in), the stainless steel Frontier looks and acts a lot more expensive. It’s also an interesting writer. It’s not the ultimate for smoothness of consistency however. The key to this pen, as well as many other Parkers is to have the patience and adaptability to find and hang onto the sweet spot on the pen.

Parker Sonnet reviewed by Steve

For many years my only fountain pens were my two Parker Sonnets. One in blue, with a fine nib and the other in green with a medium nib. Both the pens felt good in the hand and both had steel nibs. The fine nib had a bit of bite to it and the ink flow was a bit spartan even for a fine nib. The medium nib however was smooth and laid down a lovely wet line. Recently I was tempted, and bought a third Sonnet, red this time with an 18k fine gold nib. I know all the colours have fancy names but red, green, blue are easier to remember. Anyway the 18k gold nib is completely different from the steel ones. The ink flow is very good, but the nib itself feels very soft. I cannot get much line variation as any increase in pressure makes the nib skip. I normally use very little pressure at all when writing and so this tendency does not affect my normal writing style. Others I think may dislike this nib considerably, but it may also be due to my inexperience and being used to firm nibs. The ergonomics of these pens and their feel of quality is beyond anything of a similar price that I have yet tried. My first two Sonnets have been serving me well for many years with no problems what so ever, although the caps still click on and off properly they wobble a bit once on. Now the Sonnets have slipped down my rotation list a little in favour of the two Aurora Ipsilons I have bought. It will be interesting to see if once the novelty and newness of the Ipsilons has worn off the Sonnets return to favour once again. I will keep you informed.

Parker Sonnet reviewed by John

I have a Black Lacque Parker Sonnet. The Sonnet has an unusually flexible nib for a modern pen. Indeed, it is possible to get considerable line variation simply with pressure adjustments in one's writing. In addition, although the pen is not that large, since it is lacquer over a brass barrel, it has reasonable heft for a small pen. That's the upside. The downside is that it can be fussy starting up (although this seemed to improve with use.) It is also not a good flyer -- I had a nasty leakage incident with it not so long ago. Finally, the nib comes in two flavors -- gold and gold plate over steel. I found the flex in the gold to be much superior to the steel. It's almost a completely different pen with the steel nib.

The Sonnet is a little fussy as well when it comes to its writing "sweet spot." One of my pet theories is that the perceived break-in period when getting a new pen largely consists of micro adjustments to one's writing style in order to maximize a pen's strengths. That is, the writer adapts to the pen not the other way around. In any event, my experience with the Sonnet was that if I wrote with it using the same style I used with the Waterman Phileas, the thing would barely write at all. Eventually, I discovered that if you slightly increase the writing pressure on the left tine (I'm a lefty), the writing performance was dramatically better -- smooth, even, perfect. I suggested a Sonnet to a friend interested in fountain pens when it was on sale at Levenger recently. He had the same experience. If he wrote with the pen that same way as his beloved Sheaffer Cartridge pens, it was a disaster. A slight adjustment and it was smooth sailing.

Parker Sonnet reviewed by Kit

I own three of these pens, and love writing with them. My favourite is a black lacque with an extra fine 18K nib. I remember having a little trouble writing this in at first, but after a while it became extremely smooth. Now I can write faster with this pen than any other writing instrument. I also have a fine nib in 18K gold which wrote perfectly from the start, and is also very smooth, but does not lay down such an attractive line. The third is a medium steel nib with gold plating. This also writes nicely, with bit more edge. It is not as smooth as the gold nibs but it perhaps has a little more character in its line.
For me, I like the balance and relative lightness of the pen. I have read a lot of compliants about them clogging up. I have never had any problems, even using thick Parker Penman ink. Infact these pens will write really nicely no matter what ink I put through them, more so than any other pen I own.
I have two criticisms only. I can imagine that the cap (click on with a plastic seal) could become loose in a number of years. The neck of the nib can collect a slight amount of dried ink over time, so you really need to wipe it every so often to keep it clean.

Parker Sonnet reviewed by V Marmont

I chose a Sonnet in gold plated cascade pattern about four years ago. It was a replacement for my 51 which had done over 4 decades of service and was operating well until dropped and stood upon. I have been very disappointed in the Sonnet. The original 18 k gold medium nib snapped a tine after only two weeks. It was replaced at no cost by the distributor. The second nib lasted about 2 months and it twisted and became unusable. I stored it in the back of the desk for two years and then decided to try again. A steel medium nib had to be sent back immediately. The split was assymmetrical. The second steel medium nib lasted two weeks and one side of the left hand pellet fell off. I will never buy another Sonnet. My new Waterman Expert has performed flawlessly for over a year now.

Parker Insignia reviewed by John

This pen is a a close cousin to the Parker Sonnet. It is similar in weight and dimensions. Its nib may be unscrewed from the section and interchanged with that of the Sonnet. Since it is lacquer over brass, the pen is heftier than you might guess judging by its size. The version I have is decorated with a brown marbleized lacquer design on the cap and body with gold trim accents. It's a very attractive pen. The balance of the pen is good with the cap posted, but it's a little too short for my tastes if being used with the cap unposted. All of that is the good news.

The bad news is the business end of the pen. The Insignia I have comes with a modestly decorated gilt nib. When I first got the pen, it hardly wrote at all. Initially I attributed this to ink sticking to the sides of the dreadful plastic converter that came with the pen. I tried to solve this problem by giving the pen a bunch of baths in dilute dishwashing liquid to lubricate the walls of the converter. Unfortunately, that alone did not do the trick. I then did a ton of minor nib tweaking and, for a time, was able to get it to write decently. After using it for awhile, I put the pen away for about a month. Pulling it out again, all the same old nightmares were back. More nib tweaking, etc. was needed to bring it back to being usable. The sad part is that mine is not an isolated incident. There have been a number of similar horror stories about this pen circulating on the web. I'd have returned the pen immediately but for the fact that it was a gift.

An Update: 

The pen returned from Janesville after about two weeks and it's completely changed. It is now a very decent writer (not spectacular, but perfectly serviceable). The Parker people did a great job making this right. Hats off to them. 

Bottom line: The bad news -- quality control problems plague this pen. The good news -- Parker service is dedicated to making it right. Still, it's not worth the hassle, avoid this pen.

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