I’m not sure what would be considered the first official overlay pen in my collection, but somewhere along the road of pen collecting, I discovered hard rubber. Frankly, I like the smell of hard rubber. I like the warmth of a hard rubber pen in my hand, I like the touch, I even like the look of a slightly discolored hard rubber pen. Discolored pens just look old. They add to the mystique and history of the pen. They were used enough to have been affected by ultraviolet radiation and had been affected by water, either through perspiring hands, or a direct contact with water.
A collection of hard rubber pens, discolored ones at that, however, is boring. Think of it – a whole tray of pens, all black. All essentially the same. Maybe some minor chasing variations. But that’s what people had to deal with in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a proud, card carrying member of the Black Pen Society, but too much black just doesn’t do it for me.
Enter overlays and barrel bands. Now in a sense, we are covering up the boring black hard rubber and making it pretty and sparkly. What you couldn’t do with a chasing machine you can now do on an overlay, either by further machining or better yet, by hand. Add precious metals, sterling silver and gold and your pen becomes a work of art. While many used very similar styles of barrel bands or overlays, some companies managed to find their own niche and come up with something completely different. It is this variety that peaks my interest. Essentially, a early form of marketing their product, coming up with a different means to decorate what was otherwise the same essential five pieces of an eyedropper pen. Some were successful, others not so.
And it wasn’t always the Big Four that came up with what are the best or most interesting designs (at least to me). In some cases, the mass production of overlays like the Waterman Basketweave design (simply called “Filigree” in their catalogs) makes them slightly less special to me. It was the deliberate attempt to deviate from the norm that made a second or third tier manufacturer’s overlays special. You won’t see the designs any where else.
The entrance of plastics in the 1920’s greatly expanded a manufacturer’s ability to be different, in some sense making it easier. They didn’t have to think as hard. Practically any new and differing plastic marbling or color would be different enough to stand out. Somehow when everyone was working with the same few parts and materials, it really made them step back and think, “How will my pen get noticed amongst this sea of black hard rubber?” Give me overlays and banded decoration any day of the week and I will be a happy man. For it is that which brings out the uniqueness amongst pens.