The Retro 51 System is what piqued my interest in Retro’s Tornado rollerballs again. It is such a handsome, well designed pen. There are surprisingly few black Retro 51 limited/open numbered editions, which is in some ways not surprising. The company’s aesthetic leans towards the colourful or the metallic, not so much the “dark/stealth/tactical” side of the pen world.
I haven’t reviewed the Retro 51 System so far because it was such a huge hit when it came out, there were half a dozen reviews of it practically from day one. What did I have to add to the conversation? Plus, there was some confusion after the first 300 pens ran out and Mike Dudek put up another 300 pens for sale: people thought it was a very small limited edition, while it was always sold as a numbered, open edition. I didn’t want to take part in the drama, and I think that this pen is iconic enough to warrant discussion outside the hardcore Retro 51 collectors’ circles. Dudek and Retro 51 took a concept that could have been a “Smithsonian gift shop pen” idea, and turned it into a little work of art.
The Retro 51 System isn’t cheesy, though it certainly could have been. Retro do design cheesy pens at times (its part of their design aesthetic), and the solar system has been over-productized for the past 50 years. Yet there’s something about the care put into creating this pen, from the choice to put Pluto on the map but to the side, to the choice to leave the texture to the “dark matter” stripes and let the planet designs speak for themselves, that makes it a utilitarian work of art. This pen was clearly designed be people who love everything about space and the solar system, and also everything about pens. It doesn’t glow in the dark, because it doesn’t need to. It has a classic, classy look that will also wear well with time.
One of the favourite things about this pen is the finial/top disc: it’s clear orange, a representation of the sun. It glows bright against the black background of this pen’s hardware, and really makes the pen pop – to whoever is writing with it.
Around the time I got this pen the Uni-ball Jetstream SXR-600 (Parker style) refill started appearing on the market. I was looking for a replacement to the Schmidt refill, and I had yet to meet my favourite Ohto Flash Dry refill, so a Uni-ball refill that made Brad Dowdy happy seemed like a good one to try. The Uni-ball SXR Jetstream SXR-600 in 0.5 is a Jetstream hybrid gel-ballpoint refill, one that lays very thin, neat, relatively dark lines. It’s probably the best ballpoint refill that you can get these days, and it is waterproof, fade proof and resistant to all kinds of fraud. It is not, however, fully a gel ink refill, nor does it remotely feel one, despite what the marketing says. It’s a best-in-class ballpoint refill, which most people will want to buy in 0.7 I think, as the 0.5 refill lays down a really fine line. If you’re looking for a replacement refill for Retro 51s, something that’s less messy and lays down a clean, fine line, the Uni-ball Jetream SXR-600 is probably the pen for you.