Why Celluloid?

Celluloid is widely hailed as the resin material for pens, but why?

Celluloid and hard rubber or ‘ebonite’ were the first plastic materials to be used in pen making.

Ebonite is natural latex rubber, which has been mixed with sulphur and heat-treated so that it loses it’s ‘rubbery-ness’ and becomes a harder, rigid material.  This proved to be a very satisfactory material for making pens, but unfortunately, the manufacturing process also made it dark, and so colour choices were limited to dark sombre colours, perfectly acceptable to the city gent, but not very inspiring for the more fashion conscious.

Celluloid is also made from naturally occurring materials: nitrocellulose, usually derived from cotton and camphor resin, from the camphor tree.  Developed in the second half of the 19th century and first patented as celluloid by  John Hyatt in 1870, celluloid had the big advantage that in it’s natural state it is colourless and can be coloured with dye to produce transparent colours or with pigment to produce opaque colours, and because of the colourless nature of the material these colours are not limited to the sombre dark colours of ebonite.  It was discovered that celluloid could be diluted in amyl acetate and made into a thin film which became used in photography and later for x-ray and movie films.  However, the highly flammable nature of celluloid film, combined with the heat of the projector proved a lethal combination and by the 1930s  celluloid films had largely been replaced by safety film.

In fact, by the 1930s the use of celluloid had largely been replaced by newer materials for most applications.  Today, the only major use of celluloid is for ping pong balls.

So why are celluloid pens still being promoted, and at premium prices?

Well, I suspect that it is partly a rarity thing, but also celluloid does have a look and feel which other more modern plastic resins don’t.  I’m not absolutely sure that I could pick out celluloid from a well polished acrylic in a blind test, but a celluloid pen does feel, well – nicer!  It has a solidity and weight about it a bit like polished stone (but not so heavy!), which isn’t apparent with similar materials, the surface feel smoother, more ‘organic’. The colours are bright, with subtle changes and highlights that other materials don’t have.

I believe this is because of the way that it is made.

Pigment is added to the translucent celluloid ‘dough’ and mixed in, whereas other resins have their colour added to the liquid form.  This dough mixing process affords control and techniques not available with other materials.  The dough can be rolled, layered and re-rolled producing a wide range of multi-colour effects.

Celluloid is only found in high-end pens, both because of it’s cost and because of the techniques necessary to make it into a product.  Once made, celluloid needs to be left to dry for 18 months or so before it can be used.  Pen barrels and caps then need to be machined from the solid: celluloid cannot be injection moulded, the mass production technique used to produce most plastic products.  Together, these factors considerably increase the cost of manufacturing with celluloid, so that the use of celluloid, with it’s unique qualities can only be justified in expensive products.

Two Italian companies, Montegrappa and Visconti are making beautiful pens from celluloid today.  Montegrappa have been using celluloid since 1912  and Visconti since their inception in 1988: a modern company who have made it their business to revive the pen makers’ art of working with the oldest plastic material – celluloid.

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