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Cult Pens Visits the Sailor Factory

Sailor is one of Japan’s most popular fountain pen brands and is definitely a Cult Pens favourite. Famous for truly exceptional nibs, iconic designs and an impressive schedule of new and innovative product from the ‘entry level’ Tuzu to high end Chinkin and Urushi pieces skilfully crafted in limited numbers, you can always guarantee 2 things from Sailor. The writing experience will be exceptional and the pen will have been made, 100%, in Japan! So when the good people at Sailor invited me to visit the factory in Japan my bags were packed before you could say ‘King of Pens’.

They have a history dating back to 1911, and you can read a brief history of Sailor pens in this earlier blog. One thing has remained constant through that history and that’s a commitment to be ‘a pioneer of the culture of handwriting while continuing to be uncompromising with your writing’.

Sailor’s newly reconstructed factory, completed in autumn 2022, is located in Kure, 30 minutes from Hiroshima. Kure has been home to Sailor since 1911 when the brand was founded by Kyugoro Sakata. The new state of the art factory was built on part of the site that has housed Sailor manufacturing since its inception. The factory has taken many different forms and required a total rebuild in 1945 at the end of WWII.

The architecture of the new factory is striking, with a white building housing the entrance area, an impressive archive and museum as well as the nib manufacturing section of the factory. Behind (in ‘Sailor Blue’) are the production, assembly and finishing areas. When viewed from above the site is even more impressive, given that the white section of the building resembles a fountain pen nib! And when viewed from the side the white building features a design inspired by a ship, with the blue building suggesting the idea of a pen setting sail.

As is standard in manufacturing facilities I was unable to take any photos or videos on the factory tour. However, I was luckily enough to see all areas of production on site. The tour began in the archive. I was taken on a journey from the first ebonite pens made in the 1920s, through celluloid examples from the 30s and 40s to 1945, when Sailor invented their own plastic injection-moulding machines. Sailor’s first ink cartridge pen came in 1958 with the first 21 carat nibs landing in 1969. Things really accelerated through the 80s and 90s with the introduction of the 1911 and the pens reaching new international markets. Walking through the archive I got a real appreciation for the history of the brand and the relationship between innovation and the use of traditional Japanese manufacturing techniques and craftsmanship.

Most recently Sailor produced pens for world leaders at the 2023 G7 Hiroshima Summit. Each world leader was presented with an Iro-Miyabi fountain pen produced in the factory.

The methods used in the factory seamlessly blend state of the art modern machinery and ancient techniques. This is perhaps most apparent in nib manufacture. Gold, silver and copper are melted at 1,000°C to create the alloy that serves as the base for every gold nib. The ingot is then rolled to the required thickness for the initial nib shape to be punched. The nib then goes through more than 20 stages of grinding, shaping, testing, polishing, cleaning and testing again before being passed to the assembly area. The final position of the nib is set by hand before precise dimensions are checked under a microscope. I was blown away at the skill and attention to detail taken through this process. We often think of ‘Quality Control’ as a person checking a random selection of products at the end of the production line. In reality, as the nib passes between at least 20 different pairs of hands it is inspected and checked under a jeweller’s loop by skilled technicians with decades of experience. If the smallest flaw is identified, the nib is instantly rejected.

Ever wondered why your new Sailor nib seems ‘wet’ or there is some moisture in the cap? That’s because before assembly the nib is dipped in a watered down ink solution and tested by hand on paper. The technician uses decades of experience to check that the feel of the nib is correct and the nib is behaving as expected. You guessed it, if the exacting criteria is not met, the nib goes back to the start of the process.  

The majority of the barrels and caps are manufactured in the Hiroshima factory; however, some speciality products are created by the finest craftsmen in Japan.  

The final area of the factory tour took me to the assembly line for the Sailor Tuzu. With all components injection-moulded on site and the nibs manufactured in the same factory, I was pleased to see that these pens are also assembled by hand and go through the same exacting QC process as any other pen coming out of the factory. The factory manager was pleased to show me his personal pen of choice - the Sailor Tuzu. As a ‘leftie’ the rotating triangular grip allows him to achieve the best angle for his writing style.

I also had the opportunity to meet legendary Sailor ink blender Mr Hidetoshi Takahasi. He has developed many inks for Sailor including the Cult Pens Exclusives. With a mixing pallet, set of 16 ink colours and a finely-trained eye he can create any coloured ink one might desire. As well as the majority of inks in the Sailor range, he has personally created one-of-a-kind inks inspired by the fur on a beloved pet cat; the colour of the sea from a holiday snap; and the bright pink hair of a fountain pen enthusiast. When I was asked if I would like my own one-of-a-kind ink I didn’t know where to begin! My ‘go-to’ for day-day note taking and journaling is Diamine Ultra Green but I’ve been after something a bit more subtle. My brief: moss green, with a blue tint, subtle, natural, but fun and interesting. Easy, right?! So with some mixing, switching, adjusting and remixing, I bring you ‘Sailor Celadon’- exclusive to the desk of - me! 

The factory is not open to the public; however, should you ever find yourself in Japan then Hiroshima is a wonderful place to visit. The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is moving and thought-provoking, with the memorial gardens providing peace and tranquillity at a location associated with terrible loss and destruction. The city has been rebuilt on hope and peace and represents the best of modern Japan. Close by you’ll find Itsukushima Shrine, a World Heritage Site with one of the most famous and iconic Torii gates in all of Japan. And also home to some very friendly deer!

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