Tag Archives: history

Fountain Pens: Beautiful Writing, Old School

Image from Wikimedia Commons

My Dad’s handwriting is gorgeous. It’s even and firm, with perfectly formed letters. His loops and tails are smooth and flowing, and his capitals have flourish but can never be called frilly.

When I was little, I would watch my Dad write. I was fascinated by the pretty curvy lines that he would make on paper, and the instrument that he made them with. He used a fountain pen, and this, I found so beautiful, intriguing, and… grown up.

My Dad's handwriting. He likes to write down song lyrics that pop in his head. Photo by Nathalie Mariano.

Dad says he was taught to write long-hand using a fountain pen. Very old school–sitting up straight, pen at a 45-degree angle from the writing surface and pointing toward the shoulder. He swears that the fountain pen was key to finding the correct angle, and thus crucial to the development of good penmanship.

A fountain pen is one that has an ink reservoir that supplies its nib. Although the nib, reservoir, and ink have only been perfected several decades ago, the technology behind the fountain pen hasn’t changed since the 10th century. One would think it ought to have been considered obsolete long ago, and yet somehow this pen is still here, and new ones are continuously produced–fabulous ones that bring glory and pleasure to the often mundane act of putting letters on paper.

The fountain pen is a link to the past, one that is elegant and ever useful.

Here are some of the most interesting ones you can find online.

Montblanc's La Diva, from the Ingrid Bergman Collection. Gorgeous color, exquisite embossed pattern. I love this pen's tapered shape when it's capped. Made of solid 18k red gold and embellished with an amethyst and numerous tiny diamonds.

The sleek and sexy Lamborghini pen by Omas.

Who says pretty pens need to be expensive? This cloisonne pen is only around $10.

A quirky homage to the fountain pen’s ancestor, the quill, designed by Vivienne Muller.

The Aurora Diamante, the most expensive pen in the world, which has a platinum barrel blinged out with over 30 carats of DeBeers diamonds. Costs a whopping $1,470,600. I personally would be too terrified to write with it. From Italian pen maker brand, Aurora.

Posted in Culture, Design | Tagged , , , ,

Desperately Seeking Valentine

floral arrangement

Image from personalisedgreetings.wordpress.com

Whence came the sighs and daydreams of red roses and chocolates? Whose bright idea were the candlelit dinners and heart cutouts? Was the trendsetter a man named Valentine?

As part of whining over my perennially unattached state, I tend to indulge in wallowing and grouching this time of year. To counteract this tendency I thought I’d look into the man behind the red paper hearts. He’s got a day named after him, a day so many look forward to, and yet hardly anybody talks about him at all. He’s like a wallflower in his own party! So I thought I’d pay him a little attention this year, and bring him back to the celebration.

Valentine’s Day is the memorial of Saint Valentine–or more correctly, saints named Valentine. There are at least three of them, all martyrs for the faith, all commemorated on February 14. But only one of them is said to have been put to death on this day: Valentinus, a priest in Rome, imprisoned for helping Christians escape persecution. Legend has it that he was also detained for performing marriage rites for couples, because the then-Emperor Claudius II had the notion that wedded bliss was detrimental to the quality of his military, and so prohibited it. After continuous refusals to renounce his faith in order to avoid execution, Valentine was beheaded on February 14 around the year 270.

A print of St Valentine's

A woodblock print of St. Valentine of Rome found in the Nuremberg Chronicles

A painting by medieval artist Bartholomeus Zeitblom depicting 2 scenes of St Valentine performing miracles

A couple kissing outside the Basilica di San Valentino in Terni, Italy. Photo by Daniele La Monaca.

Porta del Popolo. This gate in Rome used to be called Porta Valentini, after St. Valentine. Photo by Elizabeth Carrow.

Though he was said to be a proponent and defender of marital love, and he himself was a model of passion and love–albeit another kind–and fidelity unto death, just like all the other Valentines, such acts of love and sacrifice are still a far cry from jewelry, candy and lace-trimmed confessions of affection.

It turns out that the man behind the mating rituals associated with this day wasn’t named Valentine at all, but Geoffrey Chaucer. Yes, he of Canterbury Tales fame. The association of St. Valentine with gooey sentimental love was first recorded in a couple of lines from one of his poems, The Parliament of Birds and it goes:

For this was Saint Valentine’s Day
When every bird cometh there to choose his mate.

This started the ball rolling on Valentine wooing, which has evolved and escalated to the exuberant excess in the Valentine’s day practices today.

So here’s to all you Saints Valentines, especially you from Rome! May we who live now love as heartily as we enjoy the truffles and trimmings.

The familiar decadent Valentine treat. Image from wasiniluxuryhomes.blogspot.com

An adorable Valentine print by RoccocoCo in etsy.com

It’s not such a big leap that Cupid became linked to Valentine’s Day, because he is after all the Roman god of Love. Figure drawing of Cupid at the Henry and George Courbould Gallery of Antiquities, British Museum.

Statue of Cupid in the center of The Temple de L'Amour. Photo by Una Uu.

Going, Going, Gong

Chinese gongWind or Feng Gong

Good vibrations. Sweet sensations. It seems a lot to expect of home décor, but ancient Asian peoples have looked to gongs to bring just that.

Gongs were the first musical instruments. Although they were used in Asia for the functions of European bells—to announce, to warn, to call to prayer—their uses went far beyond being the popular mass communication medium in the pre-radio ages. Gongs were said to be endowed with powerful, other-worldly, mystical properties. Their good vibrations would resonate in the atmosphere and surrounding bodies, spreading the good vibes, quieting the mind, effecting relaxation, healing, and even enlightenment.

Gongs were also considered good luck, even to just touch them, and countless families in Burma, China, Annam, Java, and the surrounding territories were proud to have these objects in their homes.

People still want gongs in their homes, and not just in Asia. Nowadays, gongs are as coveted for their aesthetic appeal as for their powers, and have become just as much for skeptics as for mystics. Their beauty, symmetry, and history make enough good vibrations to bring satisfaction and sweet sensations.

Fine detail in a Thai gong

Feng Gong

Some gongs are shaped flat like discs (above) and make crashing cymbal-like sounds, while some are nippled or bossed (below) and make rounder sounds with less “shimmer”.


Some gongs are hung, as in the case of this nippled gong.


These gongs from Southern Philippines are laid flat on the floor or placed on wooden mounts.

Drummer Steve Hubback makes his own instruments and creates these magnificent gongs and other sound sculptures

Another Steve Hubback creation

some gong music:

Steve Hubback

Kulintang, Philippines

Gong and singing bowl, Tibet

Posted in Culture, Design, Travel | Tagged , , , , ,

Tea Lovers Go to China

Young tea leaves

The most widely consumed beverage in the world comes from leaves such as these.

Tea variants

Chinese tea variants differ in fermentation, or lack thereof. Image from lalongtea.com

The Chinese are romantic about tea—not that tea is used as a means to create romance, but that tea is the end in itself. China’s love affair with tea spans nearly 5000 years, from the time the first tea leaf serendipitously landed in Emperor Shennong’s cup of hot water in 2737 BC. Since then, their stories and their histories have been inextricably linked. Tea was medicine, imperial potable, mode of currency, object of trade, national drink—it has become become a soothing, comforting presence in Chinese life.

In the simplicity of Chinese tea-drinking ritual, an intimacy between the drinker and the beverage is forged, so that tea seems to become the object of romance, devotion, and commitment.

Attention is lavished on the tea. For it really is all about the tea, its tastes and smells. It is the the center around which the ritual revolves. There are no scones and cucumber sandwiches to distract from the drink, no milk nor honey to hide its true essence. There is no arbitrary prop, process or flourish to steal the show. Every single step and utensil is meant to bring more focus and enjoyment to the drinking experience.

The tea is gently wooed and coaxed to surrender its flavors. Before the actual brewing, the pot and the cups are heated by filling them with hot water, then emptying them. Tea leaves are then slowly swept into the teapot. The tea is then roused from its slumber when the pot is filled with hot water and almost immediately emptied out, thereby cleansing and priming the leaves for the first of many infusions. And with each successive steep, the tea leaves expand and unfurl, giving up its secrets, revealing ever new nuances, enriching and deepening the enjoyment.

Chinese yixing teapots

Yixing teapots are made of a special clay that keeps the heat and the flavors in. Image by Nathalie Mariano.

Pouring tea out of a yixing teapot

The Chinese way of tea is punctuated by quite a bit of pouring and emptying, hence the slatted tray. Image by Nathalie Mariano.

Rinsing a yixing teapot

Image by Nathalie Mariano.


The brewing and consumption of tea make a spiritual experience. The tea drinker’s eagerness is tempered by the slowness and deliberate-ness of the brewing process and the smallness of the vessels. The cyclic filling and emptying becomes a metaphor for the soul’s periodic gorging and purging, and one just lives and breathes the tea. Patience and discipline are learned; gong fu—excellence in the art—is earned; intimate knowledge of the tea is reached.

More about Chinese tea culture::

Been There, Done That First:
10 Things Asia Started

It’s a pretty common game–people do love to brag. Among schoolchildren, it’s called “my dad/robot/dog is better than yours”, and when the kids grow up and attend their high school reunions, they play “been there, done that”. So if the eastern and western hemispheres got into a pissing contest, here are 10 things the Asians would say they’ve done first.

1. Write Notes

It would have been nice if the first note ever written were a love letter, but no, it was an accounting record in Mesopotamia (Iran-Iraq in the present day) sometime 3000 BC. It was created by making marks on soft clay, which was then fired until it hardened. So in a sense, the first banking document was written in stone.

Cuneiform artifact

An account of barley rations in cuneiform

  • Printing soon came after, with the use of embossed cylinders that made impressions on soft clay as it rolled over them.
  • Ink was invented in China around 1100 BC, block printing in 220 BC and paper in 200 AD.

2. Count to Ten

Abacus, the Chinese calculator

An abacus–because people ran out of fingers to count with.

We take for granted that the way we count now and the numbers we use are how it has always been done by everyone, but ancient peoples had to figure it out from scratch, and came up with different ways of doing so. We inherited our decimal number system (based on 10s) from the Indians who got it down by 500 AD. But there is now evidence that the Chinese already had a decimal system two thousand years earlier, so it may be that the Indians got it from them. While the scholars delve into this juicy piece of history, we can just sit back and appreciate the zeroes in our bank statements.

3. Blow Things Up

Fireworks over a harbor

Fireworks, the prettiest use for gunpowder.

In the middle of the 9th century AD, Taoist alchemists in China discovered the formula for gunpowder while trying to cook up the “elixir of life”–ooh, so ironic! The party people and artists used this discovery to make cool fireworks, while the warriors predictably used it to make rockets and bombs.

4. Flip-flop Around

Zori, the precursor to flip-flops

Japanese zori

Flip-flops with their distinctive Y-shaped straps are based on the Japanese zori slippers. American soldiers coming home from World War II brought some of these babies home and made rubber versions of them. Today these footwear have come to represent easy breezy style and laid-back chic.

5. Checkmate a King

Stylish chess pieces

I would like to capture these uber-stylish chess pieces.

Chess began in Northwest India in the 6th century, and the military strategy game soon spread to Persia, where the exclamations of “shah!” (king!) and “shah mat!” (king is dead!) were first called out, echoing in today’s “check” and “checkmate”.

6. Lather Up With Soap

Handmade soap bars

People in Ancient Babylon (a city-state in Mesopotamia) were already taking sudsy baths 4000 years ago. There was even a recipe for soap in 2200 BC, inscribed in a slab of clay.

7. Cross Legs into Lotus

Extended downward facing dog pose

Way before Madonna ever chanted “Shanti Ashtangi”, yoga was being practiced in India, 3000 B.C at the latest.

8. Get Together for Tea

Yi xing teapot

The yi xing teapot, preferred for brewing certain teas.

Tea has been drunk in China since perhaps 28th century BC, but for sure by 10th century BC, and it has since elevated into a much loved, ceremonial ritual. That’s a few millennia before the beverage was taken with crumpets and cucumber sandwiches.

9. Slurp Up Noodles

Ancient noodle fossils

Care to sample these noodles?

The debate on which culture initially brought forth noodles can now be put to rest with the discovery of these 4,000-year old noodles, found along the banks of China’s Yellow river.

10. Get People to Listen Kindly to Amateur Singing

Karaoke mike

Karaoke unleashes the pop star and the mike-hogger in you.

A combination of Japanese and Filipino ingenuity has given wannabe vocalists the permission to rock out in public, even when no band would take them. In karaoke culture, less than stellar singers are given encouragement and support instead of being booed offstage. As music formats evolved, so did karaoke, switching from cassette tapes in the 80’s to today’s discs, data cards, and video games.