After two months surveying pen collectors and performing 12 hours of writing tests on different types of paper, we’ve ranked the top ten pens we’d be proud to display on a hardwood desk or use to sign a history-shaping document. The Montblanc – Meisterstück Classique 163 is the best executive pen, with an iconic look and nimble writing performance to match. If you want a pen that’s a bit heavier — and easier on the wallet — the Cross – Townsend is a presidential favorite for signatures. The Lamy – 2000 and ACME Studio – Rollerball are perfect for mid-century design connoisseurs, and the Pilot – Metropolitan is a budget pick that keeps up with the heavy hitters.
This is a top ten list of executive-class pens researched and selected by our office pen enthusiasts. If you’re looking for a more everyday option you won’t mind other people “borrowing,” see our other review of the best pens.
Fountain pens: Fountain pens put down a heavy line of water-based ink with barely any pressure on the page. There’s a wide selection of beautiful inks you can refill with, but they bleed and feather on common paper types, and the pens need messy maintenance. Despite these difficulties, the most prestigious pens are still fountain pens.
Rollerball: Take the same dye-in-water ink that fountain pens use, then put it in a ball-tip disposable refill, and you’ve got a rollerball pen. This setup is less finicky to write with than a nib, and also much easier to refill. Rollerballs should write effortlessly and can create very fine lines — and unlike gel pens, the ink dries quickly enough for left-handers. Like a fountain pen, the ink can feather and bleed through some paper, and the ink can leak out of the cartridge when air pressure drops on an airplane. Rollerballs also need a cap to stop them from drying out.
Fineliner or porous-point: Like a cross between a felt marker and a rollerball, a fineliner refill for a rollerball pen uses a tough porous plastic material for its tip. The ink is usually the same as in rollerball and fountain pens, but the porous tip puts down just enough for a bold line, with an even quicker dry time. These are often popular among left-handers. Sadly, fineliner refills dry out quickly if you leave the cap off your pen.
Gel: A hybrid between the thick ballpoint ink and free-flowing rollerball ink, gel ink uses archival-grade pigment in water-based gel. If you’re looking for smooth-flowing ink with strong colors and sharp, featherless lines, then a gel pen is probably a great choice for you. That said, if you’re left-handed, you should be wary of gel ink — it smudges more than ballpoint and rollerball ink. We’ve also reviewed a variety of these types of pens to figure out the best gel pens for any job.
Ballpoint: These no-fuss pens were invented as an everyday replacement for fountain and rollerball pens, and they’re popular for good reason. The oil-based ballpoint ink sticks to paper more than it really dries, but the refills last longer and don’t dry out. A ballpoint’s ink doesn’t flow as quickly or smoothly, so these pens require more pressure when writing and the lines aren’t as bold. Note that the firm pressure required to get ballpoint ink on the page means these pens are much better for filling out carbon-copy forms or checks.
How we selected
Our tester for this post is a relatively obsessed fountain-pen enthusiast, so he found it tricky to narrow down a manageable list of finalists. Fortunately, he’s married to a lawyer who owns and uses very nice rollerball pens but isn’t as picky about design history or score-keeping.
Over the course of two months our tester double-checked his own preconceived ideas about what makes a pen “executive.” He looked at guides and discussions on boards like the Fountain Pen Forum and sub-reddits like r/pens. He also looked at all the top recommendations from pen blogs and YouTube channels like “The Well Appointed Desk,” “Figboot on Pens” and “The Pen Addict.”
Here are the qualifiers we came up with when narrowing down the list of contenders:
Suitability as gifts: Graduations, promotions and career milestones are great occasions to give a nice pen as a gift, and even the budget-friendly pens we picked come in elegant keepsake packaging. Though most of the top pens we selected can be purchased as fountain pens, we stuck with rollerball and ballpoint options for our list since most gift recipients will have no idea what to do with a fountain pen. Gift-suitability also rules out inexpensive pens that are made specifically to look like better pens.
Real-world performance: An executive pen should always write well and feel good in your hand. To that end, we tested the pens on nice Clairfontaine writing paper, as well as cheap legal pads, brown kraft paper, receipt paper and glossy cover stock to compare smudging, bleed and feathering.
Refill compatibility: The best pen in the world isn’t any good if you run out of ink. To help ensure that you or the person you’re buying for can keep on writing, we checked to see which pens take our favorite refills: the Schneider – Topball 850(a standard-size wet-ink rollerball that’s an excellent value), the Uni – Jetstream (a standard-size ballpoint refill with smooth-flowing ink), and popular Japanese gel refills like the newer Uni – Signo 307 ultra-fine-tip gel or the winner from our best “regular” pen review, the easy-to-aquire Pilot G2.
Subtle styling: An executive pen should look good on a desk or conference-room table. Flashy details have their place, but the safe bet is something minimal and traditional like black with gold trimming.
Discreet opening mechanisms: We also prefer twist-open capless pens over anything with a “clicky” nock mechanism, since habitual pen-clicking will get you in trouble during meetings. (Don’t worry, there’s still one classic clicky on the list.) In capped pens, we selected snap-on caps over threaded designs, since it can be awkward stopping to screw a pen cap back on when someone interrupts you while you’re writing.
After our two testers checked dozens of pens against each other, considering all of the above points, we selected the top ten best executive pens and ranked them as follows.
Montblanc - Meisterstück
Of the most iconic pen designs in history, the Montblanc – Meisterstück takes top prize without much competition. The Meisterstück Classique 163 is an old-school luxury product, but it’s also a practical gift that a graduate, friend or colleague will be able to use every day. This is also about as affordable as a world-class prestige gift can get — $300 isn’t pocket change, but you can’t get a Rolex watch for less than $3,000. Every person we’ve met (outside of collectors at pen shows) who owns a Montblanc received it as a gift.
The gigantic cigar-shaped Meisterstück 149 Diplomat fountain pen is the flagship of the Montblanc fleet, but the slimmer, rollerball-tip 163 Classique is easier to hold (about 3/8 inch at the grip section), easier to maintain and easier to purchase than the 149. If you’re looking for a middle ground, the 162 Le Grande rollerball fits bigger hands better at just under half an inch, but it uses a screw-on cap instead of the nifty snap-cap of the 163. Montblanc pens are fairly light compared to some on this list thanks to the so-called “precious” resin (better known as acrylic or plexiglass), but the balance is perfect, and they’re great for taking notes or writing long letters.Read more…
If you’re writing on extra-smooth paper and find that rollerball ink tends to smear, you can also get fineliner (felt-tip) refills for Montblanc pens. Fineliner ink dries instantly but bleeds through cheap paper even more. If you need a ballpoint for carbon copies, there’s also a capless ballpoint design.
The definitive executive pen
The pen emoji icons are based on
One of the few elite-tier luxury products that doesn’t cost more than a car
The 163 Classique is slim, the 162 Le Grande is thicker, both are perfectly balanced
$300 for a plastic-body (“precious resin”) pen
Only takes proprietary screw-in refills
Collectors of Pelikan pens will start fights with you
Cross - Townsend
If a legendary German masterpiece is too rich for your blood, the Cross – Townsend is a home-grown prestige pen. It’s just as good a writing instrument as the Montblanc. In fact, we slightly prefer the gel-like ink Cross uses, and the heavier metal body is a little bit more impressive for shorter writing sessions.
The Townsend is the primary signature pen used by all the sitting U.S. presidents since Reagan, and it’s available in classic black-and-gold for less than $100. (Note that while the company headquarters are still in Rhode Island, only the most expensive Cross pens are now made in the U.S.A.) The gel-rollerball refill beat most other pens in this roundup for drying time, feathering resistance and deep color on most types of paper. The quick-drying fineliner refill is also good if you’re left-handed like half of the presidents who’ve used this pen.Read more…
Cross sells the Townsend in a wide range of colors and patterns, even making collectible Ferrari and Star Wars special editions for those who want an ostentatious edge to their desk accoutrements. We like the basic black-lacquer finish with gold or rhodium plating on the hardware; the 10-karat-plated version is simultaneously gaudy and cheap-looking next to high-karat gold. If you like slimmer pens, the Century II sometimes used by the current president is very similar to the Townsend except for its smaller girth.
The Cross – Townsend is elegant and writes with the best
Metal body with top-quality finish feels great in the hand
Refills are top-quality, affordable and easy to find
A bit heavy for long writing sessions
Other popular refills don’t fit
Not actually made-in-U.S.A. for $100 models
Lamy - 2000 Rollerball
Uncapping the Lamy – 2000 for the first time, you might think it’s a new, innovative design from recent years. In fact, it’s one of Lamy’s early pens, dating back to 1966 and designed by Gerd Alfred Müller (who also worked with Dieter Rahms on the classic Braun products.) This is another all-time-classic pen, but you can buy the rollerball version for about $60.
The 2000 feels as good as it looks. “Makrolon” fiberglass-reinforced polycarbonate makes up the body, and it’s deceptively thick in the middle, but the balance and tapered shape allow big and small hands a comfortable grip. The snap-on cap and spring-pivot clip are perfect.Read more…
Note that Lamy made the sneaky decision to make refills for this pen just a bit longer than standard rollerball and gel-ink refills; Lamy’s rollerball ink is fine, but if you prefer to use a gel or felt-tip refill for absorbent or rough paper, you need to add a spacer and possibly a bit of a sleeve or spring at the front to keep it in the right place.
If you’re looking at the fountain pen version, the Lamy – 2000 also features one of the most affordable gold nibs in current production — though some users complain they need some tweaking from a nib-meister to be perfect. The 2000 looks and feels great in brushed-charcoal-gray, but you can also buy the fountain-pen version in all-stainless if you want a heavier pen.
A masterpiece of Bauhaus-inspired design
Weight, balance and ink are all excellent for long writing sessions
Modest brushed finish is interesting without being flashy
Lamy ink feathers a bit on cheap paper
Standard gel and fineliner ink refills need spacers to fit
Uses unattractive metal tabs to hold the cap on
Pilot - Metropolitan
If you’re looking for executive-suite style in a budget-friendly pen, the Pilot – Metropolitan Rollerball (also in ballpoint and fountain pen versions at this link) has a balance and refinement that would be competitive at three times its street price. The Metropolitan pens come in a display case, so this still makes a nice gift despite the under-$20 price.
The Metropolitan has a brass body under the paint, so it has just enough heft despite the shorter length. If you post the cap on the tail end, it moves the balance point up the barrel, so those who prefer to write with a heavier pen have options. The biggest styling let-down is the glossy mid-section of the barrel, it looks cheap on the animal print and “retro-pop” editions but on the all-black version it doesn’t stand out. The paint on our tester’s fountain pen shows some scuffs after a year of carrying it around in a messenger bag; sadly you can’t buff them out the way you can with a resin-body pen like the Montblanc or Lamy – 2000.Read more…
Pilot includes the love-it-or-hate-it G2 gel refill in the rollerball version of this pen, while the ballpoint includes the same good hybrid gel-ballpoint refill as their Dr Grip pen. These are both good refills, but the wet-ink rollerball refills in more prestigious pens dries quicker on standard paper than the G2 gel. Pilot gel pens also take a standard rollerball like the Schneider – Topball 850 without modification, if that’s your preference, but a Montblanc fineliner or different gel refill needs spacers to fit well.
Sleek, balanced and writes very well
One of the nicest pens you can buy for less than $20
Available as a great ballpoint, rollerball, and fountain pen
Not everyone likes the gel ink in the rollerball version
Some alternate colors and styles look cheesy
Painted body shows scratches over time
ACME Studio - Rollerball
Rounding out our top five is a pen with a bit more personality: The ACME Studio – Rollerball comes in dozens of collectible looks inspired by great artists, designers and even musicians. You’ve got the whole gamut represented in this collection, from Frank Lloyd Wright to Karim Rashid. We picked the Verner Panton “Circle” edition for its elegant-yet-intriguing etched metal body and rubber grip, but there’s something for nearly everyone.
The ACME Studio rollerball comes in either a generic mid-century cigar or flat-top design. It’s long, but not too long, and on the heavier side when you buy the etched-metal versions. The refill included with the capped versions is an ACME-branded Schmidt 888 refill, which took the runner-up position in our smudge and bleed tests. This would be an ideal desk pen for signing documents. If you sign carbon copies, the ballpoint (retractable) versions of these pens come with an excellent Easyflow 9000 refill, and they’re also compatible with the Uni – Jetstream and Parker refills.Read more…
ACME Studio is also one of the few companies that sells a converter kit to turn their rollerball into a fountain pen with a standard steel Schmidt nib — They’re inexpensive and collectible enough that it makes more sense to buy a second pen, though. ACME Studio also sells matching pencils, card holders, compact mirrors and other giftable accessories.
A great pen that comes in very collectible designs
Bigger metal body good for large hands
Takes affordable refills that ranked second in our tests
Feels heavy during long writing sessions
Designs might be too much for some people
Price is steep if you don’t care about the patterns
Lamy - LX
Like its big brother the 2000, the Lamy – LX is a classic design from one of the current leaders in pen making. The LX (you’re supposed to pronounce that “lux”) is a special edition of the popular plastic Lamy – Safari, but with an anodized aluminum body and precious metal plating on the clip and end cap. We went for the gold edition, but Lamy also sells this pen in ruthenium, palladium and rose gold.
The LX features polarizing design choices. The price is low (between $40 and $60), and the form is subtle, but the bold metallic finish is too flashy for some boardrooms. It’s on the bigger side, but surprisingly lightweight. It has a triangular contoured grip for an ergonomically correct finger position, but some people prefer to hold their pens other ways. Lamy’s ink writes well and dries quickly on most types of paper, but on other paper it skips or feathers out. This paradoxical nature kept the LX out of our top five, but if you fancy collecting a few nice pens the LX is an affordable way to round out a small collection.
Uni - Jetstream Prime Twist
If you sign a lot of carbon-copy forms, a ballpoint pen is still your best bet for transferring all the way to the bottom sheet. The Uni – Jetstream Prime Twist is a slim and elegant pen that comes loaded with one of the most consistent ballpoint pen inks you can buy. The twist-advance design means there’s no cap to lose, and dried-up ink isn’t a worry with this latest-generation formula. The understated black paint on the body has a matte texture that we love. For about $20, this is neck-and-neck with the Pilot – Metropolitan for best value, but the Uni doesn’t come in a rollerball, gel or fountain-pen version.
Baron Fig - Squire
If you don’t like the traditional shape and balance of typical pens, the Baron Fig – Squire is a breath of fresh air that might earn a place on your desk. The deceptively tapered shape fills out to a thick 10 mm next to the point, so it offers a range of grip options for different hand sizes. You’ll pay more than $50 for a ballpoint that doesn’t do anything fancy, and the prominent name and logo might be a turn-off to some, but this is a very nice pen to write with. It comes with an excellent refill, almost certainly based on the Schmidt – P8126, which is as smooth-flowing as a rollerball but doesn’t need to be capped.
Retro 51 - Tornado
For those who are looking for a reliable metal-body pen with some affordable flair, the Retro 51 – Tornado is one of the most collectible series of all time. We bought a base-price peacock blue model to brighten up our collection and to see how it compares in its most essential qualities, but there are more than 50 designs currently listed. Prices range from $20 all the way up to $400 limited editions.
Editor’s note: as we finish this post, Retro 51 has just announced that they are planning to stop production of their product line after 2020. Collect them while you can!Read more…
As a basic capless rollerball, we were a little bit underwhelmed after hearing so much praise from collectors of these pens. The smooth-turning twist-open mechanism is fine, but not as satisfying to use as the snappy mechanism Baron Fig has. The pen is tapered to give different hand sizes some options, but it doesn’t feel carefully balanced the way the Lamy – 2000 does. If you find a color scheme or special edition you like (check out these editions for fans of: copper, Animal rescue, vintage aircraft) the Tornado could easily become a favorite pen, but if you want something less flashy there are better options than a basic Tornado.
Parker - Jotter Premium
Rounding out our list with an affordable classic, the Parker – Jotter has a strong following among pen collectors because of its reliability, the confidence-inspiring metal “click” sound it makes and the price. We’ve sprung for the upgraded “Premium” finish on this one, but it goes for as little as $9 in more basic editions. Parker has set the standard with this ballpoint refill and mechanism; it’s a reliable writer that just works the way you hope for a ballpoint to work.
The Jotter is a good fit if you like slim pens, but those with big hands should consider the Jotter XL or the Pilot – Metropolitan ballpoint. It’s not as heavy or smooth-writing as other pens on this list, but if you like ballpoints the Jotter is one of the classics.
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Daniel Jackson, Writer
Daniel is a Canadian farm boy who grew up to be a nerd with a literature degree and too many hobbies to count. He emigrated from Canada to California in 2013, and now writes for Your Best Digs full-time. Daniel remains unapologetic about Canadian spelling, serial commas, and the destruction of expensive travel mugs.