1. Appearance and Design. The Optima is classic in design, with a shape that recalls the Parker Duofold.
Aurora uses a variety of materials for the Optima. The simplest and perhaps sleekest is solid black resin with either gold- or chrome-colored trim. I don’t have one, yet, but a black and chrome Optima with extra-fine nib is one of the few pens on my wish list.
Then there are two demonstrator Optimas, one with a red piston knob and cap top, and one totally clear. The demonstrators are numbered limited editions and have 18k nibs instead of the usual 14k nib.
Apart from the demonstrators, I’ve tended to gravitate to Optimas from the regular line, featuring the multi-colored resin the Aurora calls Auroloide. I’ll append at the end of this review a segment from the television series “How It’s Made” that shows how Aurora makes a fountain pen. In the video, you can see how Aurora makes its own resin for the pen bodies, using plastic resin pellets that are melted in an injection molding machine into a liquid that is molded into pen parts. The Auroloide pen bodies would be formed from pellets of several different colored resins. My green Auroloide seems to be comprised of a variety of different greens and even some blue resin.
Because each resin mixture, and thus each pen body, is unique, no pen will be exactly like another.
When you look at more than one of them together you get an idea of the variety possible.
The cap bands also lend variety. There are a lot of different designs. Even if you just look at the two types of Optimas I own, you can see that the demonstrator cap band differs from the regular Auroloide cap bands. Then my Auroloide pens have two styles of cap bands: the older style has three metallic bands with black in between, while the new-style one has one integrated cap band with “Aurora” in the middle area instead of the old-style Greek key design.
This photo shows, left to right, the old-style, the new-style and the demonstrator cap bands.
Aurora makes other versions of the Optima as well. There are black resin Optimas with caps of sterling silver or other precious-metals, and there are Optimas that are sterling silver in both body and cap. There are Optimas in the “Continents” series that have special resins inspired by each continent, along with special cap bands.
Finally, the Optima is sibling to the modern Aurora 88. Apart from the different body styles, the pens are alike mechanically from piston to nib. So anything I write about the Optima also applies to the modern 88.
2. Construction and Quality. I would rate this very highly. Each Optima I’ve purchased, whether new or used, has worked flawlessly from the start. And everything looks perfect — there are no niggling trim flaws. The demonstrators would not be possible without such attention to detail and careful finishing.
An Optima is light in weight, but the only word for how it feels is “solid.” Like a Montblanc or Pelikan Souveran, an Optima feels like it will last a lifetime.
I did have one issue: one of my demonstrators spontaneously cracked apart where the body meets the section. This didn’t happen while the pen was in use, but while the pen lay empty in a pen case. It had never fallen or even taken a minor knock, so it must have been a weakness in the material. I have since heard of the same thing happening to another Aurora owner. However, it was only that one pen, and Aurora quickly and painlessly replaced the barrel, so I don’t worry about it. In fact, I actually feel better knowing that the service is so good.
3. Weight and Dimensions. Weight of capped pen: Auroloide: approximately 21 grams. Demonstrator: 24 grams. Weight of body only: Auroloide: 14 grams. Demonstrator: 16 grams. Length of capped pen: about 12.5 cm or 5 inches. Length of pen body only, excluding nib: about 10 cm or 4 inches.
I write with my pens unposted, and the Optima is well-suited for that, since the pen body is longer than you’d suspect; in fact it’s the same length as the Montblanc LeGrand.
The Optima has a larger diameter than many pens, and a longer section as well. Combine those with the pen’s light weight, and you get a pen that’s very comfortable to write with.
This photo shows the diameter and the sections of, from left to right, a Montblanc LeGrand (146), Aurora Optima and Pelikan M200.
Here are the Optima and the modern Parker Duofold.
And here they are uncapped.
4. Nib and Performance. An Aurora nib runs narrower than the typical European nib, so an Aurora fine really feels like a true fine. An Aurora nib is smooth, but with feedback. I have read that some people find Aurora nibs “scratchy,” so I have to think some small number of people may be reacting to the feedback. It is not a glassy smooth nib like a modern Pelikan. Aurora nibs also tend to be very firm. An Aurora nib is not flexy, nor is it springy or soft. All in all it adds up to a nib that is ideal for me, because I like to write quickly, I like a finer line and I like a nib with some feedback for smooth paper.
My favorite Aurora nib is the fine, but it’s really fine, so someone who isn’t so attached to very fine lines might prefer the medium. I think my broad nib actually is fairly broad. It has a lot of tipping, and it even seems to have a tiny bit of give, compared to the medium and fine.
Optima nibs are hand-ground, so there is the typical small variance among nibs of the same size. The feeds are ebonite, which is lovely in a modern pen. Aurora marks the size of the nib on the feed, helpfully. I consider the ink flow moderate to medium, so I find that the pen handles a wet ink very well.
I’m not sure if there’s really any difference writing with the usual 14k nib versus the 18k nib. Except for the gold content, the style of the nib is identical. Writing with either is wonderful. That said, I do honestly think that my 18k fine nib may be my most wonderful. But that could be because it’s on the clear demonstrator, which is my very favorite. Or it could be because I only use Aurora Black ink in that demonstrator, and, as you’d expect, Aurora ink matches very well with an Optima. So, I couldn’t swear that the 18k is any different, and I wouldn’t choose one Optima over the other based on that.
The nib and feed units unscrew and can be swapped between pens as you can with a Pelikan.
5. Filling system and maintenance. These are piston fillers that work smoothly. Mine have been completely trouble-free: I have not needed to so much as grease a piston ever. It has an ink window so you can monitor how much ink remains. I measured the ink capacity at 1.2 ml, which is large.
Aurora has what it calls a “hidden ink reservoir” that retains some ink in, I believe, the inside of the piston. In the next photo, you can see that when the nib is screwed into the pen, there is a small black tube in the middle of the ink window. That is part of the feed, also shown above in the photo of the nib unit. When the pen starts to run out of ink, you’ll see the ink on the page become lighter. At that point, you just screw the piston all the way down until it covers that tube, as if you wanted to fill the pen from a bottle. This time, however, the extra ink is expelled from the ink reservoir, fills the ink window area and flows into the feed. After doing that, I get another few pages worth of writing before the pen runs dry.
Cleaning an Optima is very easy with the removable nib. Sometimes after flushing the pen a little water can linger in the ink window area. To clear that, with the nib removed I just shake the pen over the sink like an old-fashioned thermometer. It also will dry out on its own if you leave the pen wrapped in a paper towel for a few hours.
6. Cost and value. Cost depends on which model you buy, and prices seem to have gone up in the US over the last year. The black resin pens are now around $400 to $500 depending on the retailer, and the Auroloides are about $100 more. The special editions have a higher list price yet.
There’s no question that it’s an expensive pen, especially after the price increase. But it’s a pen made in relatively small quantities, with lots of hand labor, in an Italian factory. The initial quality control seems to be at a very high level, and the service is good if problems develop later. All of that understandably increases the price. In the end, I think it’s a fair value. The Optima is priced between a Pelikan Souveran and a Montblanc, which feels about right; I think of those as the closest comparable pens to the Optima.
7. Conclusion. The Aurora Optima is just a great pen. I’ve sold off, or chosen to forgo, a lot of other pens because I have realized that I prefer writing with an Optima. It has a great nib for writers, it is mechanically reliable, it is beautifully made and it looks gorgeous. Most importantly, it makes me happy every time I pick it up, uncap it and put pen to paper.
Here is that great five-minute segment from “How It’s Made,” which shows how Aurora makes a fountain pen.