The beginnings of Maki-e pens by Ron Dutcher
  Article # 294 Article Type: Ron Dutcher on Pens

Store windows.
It all started with store windows.
Shopkeepers rely on their windows to attract passerby customers and draw them inside where they might make a sale. However in the early 1920’s, pens were made with hard rubber, commonly called ebonite, and this material had some problems.

Ebonite, invented by Charles Goodyear in 1839, is made of naturally occurring rubber mixed with sulphur and then heated or “vulcanized” The problem is the sulphur. Not all of the sulphur bonds during the process and as much as 40% is left “free”. Ultraviolet light will force the sulphur to combine with oxygen and this causes the discoloring. Also hydrogen and oxygen like to bond with sulphur. Thus if ebonite is exposed to water, either in the air as humidity or in liquid form, the surface will create a film of sulphuric acid on the pen which burns the pen and also discolors the surface.

Pen shop in Yokohama 1917
Pen shop in Yokohama 1917 1

A Japanese window is the worst place in the world for a hard rubber pen. The air is hot and steamy in the summer, and the sun is always strong. A pen would generally last a week before it discolored to a point where it would need to be replaced. When the Pilot Salesman visited shops, trying to push more pens, they were constantly met with the same complaints. The shop owners were irritated at the number of pens wasted by displaying them in the windows and having to replace them as they discolored. They often used Dummy pens, pens made of wood and painted black to resemble the real pens, but these dummies were not as glossy as the real pens and sales would decrease.

Pilot was well aware of the problem and they had been working on a solution. For years they had been trying to perfect the vulcanization process. They tried using more heat and pressure to minimize the free sulphur, but nothing seemed to work.

In 1923 someone in the company had the idea to coat the pens with urushi lacquer. In the Tokyo Museum there were several pieces of ancient silver artwork that had been coated with this lacquer, and even after 800 years the silver hadn’t tarnished. If the lacquer worked for silver why not hard rubber?

Pilot pen - 1923 lever filling Pilot pre-Laconite lacquer 2

The Pilot engineers quickly discovered that urushi lacquer was not easy to work. This lacquer comes from a tree that is closely related to poison ivy. The factory workers tried spraying and dipping techniques to coat the pens in mass production. This was a bad idea. They couldn’t get an even coat on the pens, and the poor workers were covered in rashes and swollen eyes. Some men were in such bad condition that they needed to be hospitalized. But the process seemed to work. The pens had an uneven surface and some shopkeepers complained about that, but after a week in the sun the pens still retained their luster.

Pilot lost no time marketing these pens. They promised the shopkeepers that the pens would never discolor even if left in the sun, Guaranteed. This was unfortunate. The lacquer delayed the discoloration, but after a few months the pens would discolor just as before, and the shopkeepers demanded their money back. Pilot lost a lot of money on these pens. Today these 1923 Pilots are very hard to find and are very valuable to collectors.

Pilot pen – 1926 Laconite finish 3

By 1925, after having rebuilt from the 1923 earthquake, Pilot finally solved the problem and sought to reap untold profits. The solution was to take the hard rubber stock and rotate it on a lathe at high speeds. Felt strips, saturated in urushi lacquer were pressed against the stock. The friction heated the stock and forced the lacquer deeper into the rubber’s pores, impregnating the stock with the lacquer and the resulting material turned out better than expected. Even after several months in the sun the pens did not lose their color. Pilot named the new material Laconite and secured patent in Japan, the U.S. and England. Pilot thought that the world would come rushing to them, wanting to license their invention. They were a little too late as other companies were starting to look at new celluloid and other plastic materials that were more colorful and easier to work.

Pilot pen U.S. patent imprint for Laconite process

Pilot pen U.S. patent imprint for Laconite process 4

One company to take Laconite seriously was General Electric. The new material had an interesting characteristic: Laconite was a far better insulator than plain hard rubber, and GE licensed this for several years for telegraph insulators.

Disappointed, Pilot looked at their lacquer pens and went a step further. They noted that their pens looked like all the other pens in the world, why should anyone in a foreign market notice them? Fortunately someone asked, “Why not use colored lacquer and traditional Japanese artwork?” The art of Maki-e had been around for centuries. It seemed like an obvious decision to apply the Maki-e artwork to pens. Sure, Pilot wouldn’t be able to mass produce pens this way, but some customers would pay more for the artwork. It was this simple idea that quickly launched Pilot as a major pen company. Many foreign companies wanted to hire Pilot’s artists to make Maki-e pens for them, but Pilot refused, they would not relinquish the name Namiki from their pens.

Eventually Alfred Dunhill would compromise and use both the Namiki and Dunhill names on the pens for the exclusive rights to sell the pens abroad. The rest is history.

  1. This is a postcard showing a street in Yokohama. In the image you can see a shop named Byron Fountain Pens. You would think from the name that this would be a Foreign Shop, but it is surely owned and run by the Japanese. During this time, foreign products were considered far superior so shopkeepers nearly always chose a foreign name. The postmark dated the card to 1917. This is a year before Pilot began selling pens, but in the signs advertise Swan Pens (this would be the Japanese maker not Mabie Todd) and Sanesu (or SSS, the name means three S's) The top sign advertises Japanese Pens, Import Pens and repairs. In any case it is interesting to see what small local Japanese pen shops looked liked back then. The Large Department stores in Tokyo were more modern for the time and was where most of the selling took place.
  2. This is a 1923 Lever-filling Pilot pre-Laconite lacquer pen. These early lever fillers are exceedingly rare. It was too expensive if at all possible to replace the rubber sacs, which often rotted or turned to goo in Tokyo's tropical summers and the ultra-humid rainy season.
  3. Illustrated is a 1926 Laconite pen. Pilot sold over 400,000 of these pens in 1926, more than twice as many as they had sold from the years between 1918-1925. It was just the break Pilot needed as they were trying to repay their creditors. It was also the first time Pilot was seen as a quality pen maker. Before 1926, Swan and San-essu were seen as the leaders.
  4. The imprint gives the US patent number for the Laconite process.


Ron Dutcher and his wife KeikoRon Dutcher has lived in Japan for over 15 years, where he owns and runs a small orthopedic clinic with his wife, Keiko; which leads him to many Japanese pen finds. His patients, once they learn of his pen hobby often give him pens as gifts or offer to sell them to him. He is a member of the Tokyo Pen Association, and has learned a great deal from Japanese pen collectors. He sells a great many Japanese pens on ebay under the name Kamakura-Pens, but his true love is for early American pens. He can be contacted at

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