A fountain pen with a gold nib is a serious investment. Typically, it will cost at least £50 - £60 more than the equivalent pen with a steel nib, and a top end gold nib can cost up to £300 on it's own. So, is this a sensible investment or a vanity purchase that will have fountain pen cognoscenti laughing up their sleeves?
Most of the pens we sell have excellent steel nibs - Lamy (whose Z50 steel nib is one of the wonders of the fountain pen world, but more of this in another time), Diplomat, TWSBI and Cleo Skribent. All do an excellent job; they may offer a range of different writing styles through variation in size (fine, medium, broad) or tip type (round tip, italic or stub), and offer our customers a smooth and enjoyable writing experience. But many of them offer gold nibs as well.
The first thing to say is that, remarkably, the quality of the nib has little to do with the bit that is actually in contact with the paper. Have a look at the picture below. All quality nibs - steel and gold - have tipping made out of a ball of hard metal, usually called iridium. Its purpose is to prevent the tip from wearing away - gold is a soft metal, and even steel will be worn away by constant use so tipping is essential.
But hang on - if the same metal tip is in contact with the paper, what is the point in having a gold nib?
The secret is in "what lies behind" - in this case, as you'll see in the diagram, the tines. These are the two sides of the slit that channels ink to the tip of the nib, and the way they move - or don't move - will help to determine the character of the nib. Steel is rigid, gold is soft, and as a rule that's why nibs will feel different, depending on what they are made of. Put simply, a gold nib will give a softer, more luxurious feel to the pen. Think of it like the suspension on a car; gold gives a softer and more comfortable ride.
Of course, it's not quite as simple as that: you can change the characteristics of metals by alloying them with other materials, and that will affect how a pen nib feels. The thickness of the metal will make a difference, as will the shape of the nib; long, thin tines will be more responsive than short, stubby ones.
Pure gold nibs are very soft (and very unusual!), and are at more risk being damaged by careless use, so gold nibs are usually made of 14 carat (.585 pure gold) or 18 carat (.750 pure gold). Some will be treated to give flexibility so prized by many writers, and skilled nib technicians can accentuate this by reshaping the nib. And its also true that steel nibs made of springier alloys will flex as well.
So, is a gold nib worth having? The answer is clear; it depends what you want! In my view, gold nibs tend to have more character than steel, and give more pleasure in use. But in my regular rotation, I've got both gold and steel nibbed pens, and when what I want to do is get some words down on paper as fast as possible, I'll often reach for a steel nib.
Your best bet is to get down to your friendly neighbourhood pen shop - if you're one of the fortunate few who have one, and try a few different pens and nibs - see what works best for you. Otherwise, you're probably dependent on the kindness of friends willing to lend you their pens! And those are real friends.
Just to finish off, if you have fifteen minutes to spare, have a look at this video from the Pilot Pen Company in Japan - it's the best I've seen showing how fountain pen nibs are made. Well worth fifteen minutes of your time!
And last but not least, a picture of a jolly good nib!