Blurred Visionnaire

Is one of the most successful pen projects on Kickstarter a bulk order from China? Gabe Bullard draws a line between the dots.

The Magazine
· 8 min read

Morgan Combes was driven. On the day his son was born, when it came time to sign the birth certificate, he was handed a cheap giveaway pen from a tackle shop. This was unacceptable. Combes needed a writing tool that spoke to the importance of this document. But a pen should do more than add permanence to paperwork. It should spark inspiration in artists. But what pen can do this? None. Combes would have to build it himself.

The Visionnaire Kickstarter campaign

He set to work. He drew designs, compared materials, and came up with the Visionnaire. (Combes is French; the name means “visionary.”) To produce this pen, Combes took to Kickstarter, where many pen designers before him had gone to fund their dreams. With a goal of $15,000, Combes shared his vision with the world, and the world responded. Sixty days later, he had nearly 6,000 backers who pledged $324,000. His vision is now a reality: shipments have already been delivered or are en route to anxious fellow visionaries across the world. Combes had fulfilled his dream.

Or maybe he just ordered a bunch of cheap pens from China.

Visionnaire pen / Matthew Morse

Spilled ink

Now, months after the project has been funded, the Visionnaire Kickstarter page is full of compliments. People love their pens. But every so often, an unsatisfied customer pops up. Someone says the ink is overflowing from the nib. Another says their Visionnaire’s barrel has come apart. Some say the converter that’s meant to draw in ink isn’t built as solidly as it should be. The finish is chipping. The clip isn’t stable.

These complaints all justify the cliques of pen die-hards who began questioning the project shortly after it launched. On pen message boards and blogs, pen aficionados wondered what made the Visionnaire so special. It looked no different than a handful of pens available from Chinese wholesalers.

A pen ordered from an Alibaba reseller by Glenn Austin Green, who provided photos.

In comments after the project launched, Combes admitted he didn’t know much about fountain pens, and skeptics were quick to point out evidence of this fact. In the initial Kickstarter video, Combes is sketching the various parts of the Visionnaire using a cheap throwaway ballpoint. Certainly someone seeking a high-level writing instrument would use something a bit more elegant.

In an update video, Combes refills his pen with drawing ink, a definite rookie mistake, and one a man who designed a fountain pen would surely have avoided.

Visionnaire update video

“There’s nothing unique about this pen at all. There’s no design improvement. There’s no unique design. This is a very basic fountain pen,” says Brad Dowdy, the founder and editor of the Pen Addict blog. Dowdy discussed the project (which he didn’t back) several times on the Pen Addict podcast, and he spoke to Combes to test the Visionnaire’s legitimacy. “He just repeated the same party line,” says Dowdy, who has yet to use a Visionnaire.

Shortly after the project reached full funding, critics began posting links to mass-market pens on the wholesale Web site Alibaba, some of which look a lot like the Visionnaire (see photo above), but which sell in quantities of 1,000 for $0.85 each. Combes purports the Visionnaire is worth 100 times that: a $37 Kickstarter pledge earned a Visionnaire, but Combes’ Web site offers it at a retail price of $85, marked down to $50.

“There are lots and lots and lots of vendors in Asia that you can buy pens from and buy other things,” said Ana Reinert, a designer and the editor of the Well-Appointed Desk, on a recent Pen Addict Podcast episode. “Especially if you’re buying in large quantity, you can say, ‘I like this pen but I’d like you to make it in a different material or in a different color or with a different finish,’ and if you order enough they’ll make a run of them for you in whatever treatment you want. I’ve done a lot of work in Asia doing that.”

Dried up

Combes always said the pen would be made in China, and no critics of the project dispute Chinese manufacturers’ ability to turn out high-quality writing tools.

But Combes sold more than a pen. He sold a new design that he claimed was his. He posted screenshots of 3D renderings of the design drafts on Kickstarter. And he sold an idea. He said he designed the Visionnaire to be an heirloom, a product superior to any competitors. A tool for changing the world, not something he put together out of available mass-market parts or, worse, bought in bulk and repackaged.

Combes initially agreed to be interviewed via e-mail for this piece, but he has not responded to questions sent to him in November. He has responded to critics on Kickstarter, saying it’s not the backers who have been ripped off, but him.

Unfortunately I can not trademark or protect my Visionnaire design. I have put my entire savings in the beginning to fund the Visionnaire project just to get it started before receiving any type of funds. I have designed and continuously upgraded parts of the pen, packaging, and sourced different manufacturers to put this project together. This includes, design, manufacturing, producing, shipping, customs, and logistics of the Visionnaire pen, ink/ink boxes, as well as upgrades of the ink converter and tube packaging.

Chinese manufacturers have a less-stringent policy on trademark and design than those in the U.S., the Well-Appointed Desk’s Reinert said on the Pen Addict Podcast in November. But while it’s certainly possible Combes’ design has been ripped off, that’s not a line the critics are willing to follow.

“After using it, there’s no doubt. It’s a poorly made, Chinese-manufactured pen,” says Matthew Morse, a Visionnaire backer and self-professed pen obsessive. Morse wanted to like the Visionnaire. He saw the evidence piling up against Combes’ claims, but he kept the faith. “I gave him the benefit of the doubt,” he says. “I kind of defended him.”

But the questions persisted. Then Morse got his Visionnaire in the mail. “Mine came apart,” he says. Morse has posted a video review of the pen — the 10-minute running time shows the level of devotion addicts have to pens —showing how it broke and how the materials and construction are sub-standard.

“I hate to be that guy,” Morse says of his criticism. “Me and a couple other people took a good amount of flack. People said, ‘It’s just a pen.’ Morgan didn’t advertise it as just a pen. He held it in high regard.”

Visionnaire Fountain Pen Review by Matthew Morse

Pointed retort

Morse is now active in the comments section of the Visionnaire Kickstarter page, raising complaints and talking with other users. “I wouldn’t have such an issue with it, but Morgan had the audacity to compare it to Montblanc,” he says. (Combes compares the pen to a $575 Montblanc on the Kickstarter page.)

Glenn Austin Green, who has purchased a few of the Alibaba pens that are similar to the Visionnaire, says for less than $10, the wholesale pens would be fine. “[They] would be a nice addition to a stationery shop looking to offer a low-cost, entry fountain pen,” he says. And Dowdy says he’s confident whatever the backers are receiving is fine, but overpriced.

Pen Addict Podcast host Myke Hurley backed the Visionnaire project and recently received his pen. On the show, Hurley said he found the packaging a bit much. He said the pen was fine, “but not to the level we’d expect” given Combes’ presentation.

Kickstarter declined to comment for this piece. And despite complaints, the company isn’t taking action against Combes. Kickstarter has never mediated a dispute after a campaign is over. At that point, it considers any issues to be between the project creator and those who have had their pledges charged against credit cards. (From a tax and revenue standpoint, Amazon processes payments directly on behalf of a creator, and the creator assigns 5% to be paid to Kickstarter.)

Definitively proving the Visionnaire’s creation story is a myth would take an admission from Combes or the manufacturers. (The maker didn’t respond to a press inquiry.) But the complaints continue, and they appear to have sunk a Visionnaire followup project. BHG Design (Combes’ firm) recently launched a project to build a Visionnaire notebook. The suede-covered design appeared to be an original work by book designer Celine Nadon that Combes had commissioned.

But after raising nearly $11,000 toward a $15,000 goal, the project was abruptly cancelled on December 13. Visionnaire pen skeptics had hit the comments page, and Nadon posted in a comment that she could no longer trust Combes:

I should note that communication between myself and Morgan/BHG Design has been minimal in the past couple months, and other than an email telling me our project was live I have not heard back from BHG even on my own concerns regarding our business relationship — I have as much confidence in BHG as the comments section to the pen campaign can give me.

In a recent episode, Pen Addict Podcast host Myke Hurley wondered whether bad press about the Visionnaire would deflate other pen projects on Kickstarter. But Dowdy doesn’t think so. He doubts the Visionnaire backers or satisfied customers are pen addicts, and the real addicts will continue to back unique projects as they pop up.

But perhaps the Visionnaire may end up doing some good. It’s probably going to turn a few thousand people into fountain-pen users. And they may get the bug. Once they’ve taken the first step to caring about the instrument with which they write, they will seek out a pen that might be a little more solid or with a nib that better suits their handwriting. Because, to pen addicts, there is no perfect pen, although some are more imperfect than others.

Gabe Bullard wrote about pen addiction for The Magazine in “Penultimate,” which appeared on August 29, 2013 (Issue 24). You can read that feature in full here on Medium.

Gabe Bullard is the program and news director of public radio station WFPL. The rest of the time, he edits Toothpick Swords, a cocktail blog. He lives in Louisville, Kentucky.

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