BIC Silver Anniversary Pen c1975
by Jim Mamoulides, March 30, 2005
The most successful pen of all?
When the question is asked, what was the most successful pen in history, many pen collectors will name some of the most famous fountain pen models, such as the Parker 51 or Sheaffer Balance. There is no doubt that in terms of influence and impact on the design and marketing of fountain pens, these two certainly stand out. Arguments could also be made about other fountain pens as well. What's interesting in these conversations is the oft omission of the most successful pen of all. It's as if the elephant in the room is invisible, and yet there it is, hiding in the very pockets, pocketbooks, pen cups, and briefcases of those eagerly engaged in the debate.
This amazingly simple pen was introduced in 1950 by a small pen company in Paris, France. It had no moving parts, no refills, and no complex instructions. It was self evident: pull the cap and write. The new pen was the antithesis of the decades run up to more complex and expensive pens being produced by the established fountain pen companies. What began as a self contained eyedropper filled pen had by the 1930s evolved into exotic plunger and vacuum filling pen, and finally reached the pinnacle of complexity in 1952 with the Sheaffer Snorkel. Even the ballpoint products of traditional fountain pen companies were complex, with the pens of the mid 1940s being designed and priced like their fountain pen counterparts. If ever increasing complexity and price was the poison, this new ballpoint was the antidote.
Only five years earlier, in 1945, Marcel Bich (1914-1994), with his partner and friend Edouard Buffard, started the company that would produce this breakthrough product. Marcel Bich had been working for an ink manufacturer, and brought his production skills and knowledge of the pen business to the new venture. The new company started off making fountain pen and mechanical pencil parts, but Marcel Bich had seen the potential in the new ballpoint pen and acquired the patent rights to the Biro ballpoint pen.
The Biro ballpoint was the invention of the two Hungarian brothers, Ladislo and George Biro, who applied for the patents in 1938. They fled to Argentina during World War II and there introduced the Biro ballpoint pen through the newly formed Eterpen Company. The pen was well received and the Biros claimed it could write for a year without refilling. In May, 1945, Eversharp partnered with Eberhard-Faber to acquire exclusive manufacturing and marketing rights from Eterpen and poured millions into acquisition, development, advertising and production, in order to rush the pen to market. Eversharp made press releases months before the pen was actually available, in order to stir up demand and quickly recoup its investment, likely banking on the base of its market leading Skyline pens. The Eversharp CA (1945-1947), was a product that suffered because it was rushed to market too soon and without sufficient product testing.
In June, 1945, Milton Reynolds was in Buenos Aires and saw the very same Biro ballpoint and came to the same conclusion as to its potential. He bought several sample pens and returned to Chicago, Illinois and started the Reynolds International Pen Company to manufacture it. Reynolds did not have patent rights, and the Reynolds pen was a reverse engineered product that beat Eversharp to the market with essentially the same pen. It was introduced it in October, 1945 at Gimbel's department store in New York. The Reynolds Rocket ballpoint pen was priced at US $12.50 and 8,000 units were sold on the first day, valued at US $100,000. This action prompted a legal fight between Eversharp and Reynolds that drained the resources of both companies, and it didn't help that both the Eversharp and Reynolds pens suffered from leaking and skipping problems that led to heavy returns that eventually crippled both. Reynolds folded in 1951 and Eversharp never really recovered, being purchased by Parker in 1957.
Into this turbulent market entered Marcel Bich with his new ballpoint, based on the same design that killed Eversharp and Reynolds. No doubt Bich had seen the issues with the previous ballpoint products and spent some time perfecting the design. The Bich ballpoint was introduced in December 1950. With its clear hexagon shaped plastic barrel and ink-color plastic cap, the new pen was like nothing else on the market. It was a strong departure from the pricey pens that had preceded it. Bich used a shortened version of his own name, "BIC" as the brand and "Cristal" as the name of the pen, to play on the clear, ink view design. Priced aggressively low, Bich marketed the new pen as, "a reliable pen at an affordable price." The BIC Cristal pen has been made continuously ever since.
Today, BIC is the world's leading manufacturer of ballpoint pens. In an interesting turnabout, BIC acquired Sheaffer in 1997, one of the pioneers of the pen making business and the leader in cartridge filling fountain pens.
Like any manufacturing company proud of its successful heritage, BIC celebrated the 25th anniversary of the BIC Cristal by creating a special version of the flagship product. A series of special edition pens in sterling silver, vermeil (gold plate over sterling silver), and solid gold pens were made in the same hexagonal design as the Cristal and with the same refill insert. The precise year of the pen is not known, but if it celebrates 25 years of the BIC Cristal, it would date from 1975, if from the founding of the company, it would date from 1970.
These pens, according to Jim Rouse of Bertram's Inkwell, were not intended for sale, but were given to employees and executives to commemorate the event, with the sterling pens probably being the most common and general pens given out, the vermeil pens to higher level employees, and the solid gold pens reserved for senior executives. A unique treasure from a company noted for turning out millions of inexpensive throwaway ballpoints.
Identification guide and features:
- Three versions, with cap and barrel made either of sterling silver, vermeil (gold plate over .925 sterling silver base metal), or solid gold
- Unknown production numbers of each type
- Raised BIC logo near the top of the barrel
- Slip on cap
- About 6 inches long capped and a very long 6 5/8 inches with the cap posted on the end of the barrel
- Weighs about 1 ounce
- Uses as refills the ballpoint insert from BIC Crystal ballpoint pens
- Presented in a special BIC Silver Anniversary gift box
This pen is so many contradictions in one package. First of all, it's really no different than any other BIC Cristal ballpoint, except for the fact that it's all metal and therefore a lot heavier. Like every other throwaway Cristal, it's about 6 inches long capped and a very long 6 5/8 inches posted. It will ride quite high in the pocket, and that gold colored cap will get some odd looks.
Refills are obtained the old fashioned way, sacrificially. Buy a pack of Cristals and you have a ready made refill farm that is harvested by pulling out the inserts from the donor pens, which can double as actual useful pens, when needed, unlike the refills in a Parker Jotter, for example. Write with one of those for a while and you'll see what I mean.
The writing quality is, well, just like the BIC pens found literally everywhere. Tell me you don't know how a BIC pen writes. I'm guessing that there are only a few places on Earth where BIC ballpoints aren't used, but none come to mind immediately. I'll ponder that a bit later.
This pen has seen a few miles of use and the gold plating is showing a little wear around the edges. It has held up quite well, though, indicating a good job of plating was done. It all fits together like it should, and I'm sure the pen was very impressive when new.
In effect, the BIC Silver Anniversary Pen duplicates the Cristal pen down to the last detail. A really nice job. It's the perfect match to the gold plated toothpick, and any other over the top rendering of a humble everyday object. It's one of the ultimate pen conversation pieces.
Comments on this article may be sent to the author, Jim Mamoulides