Inside the Collection

How to make a nib – a story of gold rainbows and diamonds for Valentine’s Day

A collection of 4 carat gold ink nibs
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

I struck gold in the basement last week: 14 carat gold in the form of this delightful didactic display showing stages in making a fountain pen nib.

Close up of two gold nibs
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

Note the shape of the ‘breather hole’, which exposes ink to the air and helps it move smoothly towards the writing tip: a tiny heart. The perfect nib for writing a Valentine’s Day card!

Gold has been used to make jewellery and keepsakes since ancient times. Pure gold is too soft to use for nibs, or indeed for jewellery, so alloys are used instead. To make 14 carat yellow gold, the pure metal is alloyed with copper and silver; 58.3% of the mixture is gold, and the rest consists of equal amounts of copper and silver.

A nib with a gold point would wear quickly, so a tiny quantity of a fourth metal is fused onto the writing tip. This is iridium, a very rare, very dense element. Like gold, it is highly resistant to corrosion, and an iridium-tipped gold nib can last a lifetime and write millions of words.

Iridium derives its name from the Greek goddess Iris, whose symbol was a rainbow. The chemist who discovered it, Smithson Tennant, named it for the ‘striking variety of colours which it gives, while dissolving in marine acid’ (hydrochloric acid). Just the element for penning a Valentine’s Day card with hope in one’s heart!

Tennant also discovered the true nature of diamond, another gift we associate with romantic love. He did this in 1796 by rather unromantically heating diamonds with potassium nitrate in a gold vessel and deducing that diamond is merely a crystallised form of ‘charcoal’, the element we now call carbon.

Old document about gold nibs for fountain pens
Powerhouse Museum Collection.

The gold nib display was donated to the museum in 1924 by the Wahl Company of Chicago, which later made pens with the brand name Eversharp. Reaching behind it on the basement shelf, I found this slightly battered card listing the steps in making a nib. As well as adding value to the object, this list has a certain inherent charm. It links us to the person who wrote it by hand, perhaps using a gold nib with a tiny heart delivering ink to its rainbow tip.

3 responses to “How to make a nib – a story of gold rainbows and diamonds for Valentine’s Day

  • Different pen manufacturers used different alloys for tipping material. i.e. Iridium-Osmium alloys. The Parker 51 used Rutherium Osmium & Tungsten. Morern nibs do not use Iridium, probably due to its cost and difficult to work with, such as voids in the materia.
    Iridium in this case is similar to Kleenex for facial tissue.

  • Hi! I would like to state a question: why did they stopped doing heart shaped breather holes and started doing them rounded? Thank you very much in advanced.

    • Hi José,
      An excellent question, but one I unfortunately don’t know the answer to. If I had to guess I would say it was either due to cost or simply changing style preferences over time. Sorry not to be able to give you a definite answer, but I hope you enjoyed the post.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *