There are three inevitabilities we will experience during our time on this mortal coil: we are born, we will die, and sometime in between, we will use a BIC Cristal pen. The company claims to have sold over 100 billion of dirt-cheap pen since the design launched in 1950.
Despite its humble price, the Cristal is a bonafide design icon. The pen is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art and was revolutionary for its time. The hexagonal shape, modeled after a wooden pencil, provided better grip and wouldn’t roll from a tabletop. And assuming you could hold on to one long enough to be concerned about it running out of ink, the transparent fuselage easily showed the user how much ink was left inside. Few manage such a feat. This is the downfall of the BIC Cristal.
Cheap, disposable pens can bring out a lot of bad habits. We lose them, we chew on them and we toss them in the trash without a second thought. This is before considering that the cheap pen, while plenty useful, isn’t all that special to write with.
Enter, the moderate upgrade. We’re not talking three-figure Montblanc’s and gold-nibbed Parkers. There is a whole world of high-end ballpoints under the $20 mark. A fair bit more than a $3 package of BIC Cristals, for sure, but between their high-quality builds and refillable cartridges, they’ll last you eons longer. These are the best upgrades to your cheap pen collection.
OHTO was established in Japan in 1929 and started making ballpoints 20 years later, so even if you haven’t heard of it, know it isn’t a spring chicken when it comes to the writing utensil game. OHTO’s well-known for making fine-tipped writers (including the absurdly slim Minimo), and the Horizon is no different coming stock with a 0.7mm tip and cartridge nestled in its sleek, aluminum barrel. Better still is the fact that the pen will take a multitude of cartridge refills, including Pilot’s Hi-Tec-C, revered among pen nerds for its smooth, consistent writing action and needle-thin tip.
Caran d’Ache 849
The Caran d’Ache 849 shares the BIC Cristal’s hexagonal fuselage, which gives it a similarly comfortable grip, but the aluminum construction is more durable and more satisfying to hold than the BIC’s cheap plastic. The overall effect is sleek, and since the 849 is Caran d’Ache’s mainstay products — it was introduced in 1969 — there are endless colors and finishes to choose from. One of the calling cards of the 849 is its stainless-steel “Goliath” cartridge, which the brand claims is good for 8,000 meters, or nearly five miles of writing line.
Pilot’s Metropolitain is better known as an entry-level fountain pen, but it comes in a ballpoint guise, too. The body is thick and round, not all dissimilar from something you’d expect to see on an ‘80s executive’s desk, but the variety of monochrome matte finishes makes it look and feel more appropriate for the 21st century. The body is made from brass so it’s weighty; a good thing if you tend to write with a heavy hand.
Fisher Space Pen
You don’t need to be a certifiable pen dork to know the story of the Fisher Space Pen: developed in the 1960s, it was designed to write in zero gravity for astronauts. You’ll never go to space, but it’s nice to know that if Elon Musk’s idea for a moon colony pans out (it won’t) that at the very least you can write with it in any situation, in any orientation, on any surface. That makes it particularly suitable for EDC types who find themselves jotting notes anywhere that isn’t a flat desktop.
Kaweco Classic Sport Ballpoint
Like the Metropolitan, Kaweco’s Classic Sport is well known as a cheap fountain pen, but the ballpoint version is not to be slept on. Like it’s nibbed brethren, the fuselage is thick, hexagonal and made from a thick, durable plastic. Yes, it lacks the metallic composition of other pens on this list, but it allows for a girthy body without excessive weight and means you can opt for a clear variant if you appreciate the transparency of the BIC Cristal. It will also accommodate a massive amount of refills — Jet Pen, for instance, lists a whopping 77 cartridges that are compatible.