I’m going to talk more about the philosophy behind the KWZ in the next part of this interview. But I’ll touch on it here.
KWZ Inks has a current lineup of 62 inks — 21 iron gall and 42 standard, dye-based inks. Despite such a huge and varied roster of inks, KWZ remains small and personal.
Konrad and Agnieszka are KWZ Ink from soup to nuts. It’s all them, from formulating the ink, to testing and evaluating it, to bottling it, hand-writing the labels, and even boxing up and shipping the bottles in boxes that can weigh 30 kilos each. Even the name KWZ comes from Konrad’s initials.
The KWZ inks I’ve used (and that’s dozens by now) have been generally so safe and low-maintenance that I rank them at highest level, alongside my gold standards Waterman, Pelikan and Montblanc. KWZ doesn’t issue new inks for sale without first testing them extensively in fountain pens. That’s because they both are chemists, as well as fountain pen users.
That’s that’s how it all began: in 2012, Konrad was a fountain pen user, who decided to make inks for his own fountain pens. As a Ph.D student in polymer chemistry and organic synthesis at Warsaw University of Technology, Konrad used fountain pens for lab notes and other everyday writing. He tried some water-resistant and iron gall inks. “But I wasn’t satisfied with them,” he said. “That’s why I thought I’d create my own.”
First, he researched. “I did a comprehensive study of the scientific updated literature about dyes, iron gall complexes, and interactions between different components – the chemistry of ink. It wasn’t far off the knowledge already gained during my studies.”
Then he bought chemicals and started experimenting — developing, refining and testing ink formulas. Konrad said it took nearly a hundred experiments before he came up with the full recipe for “an iron gall ink that I could use myself on daily basis in my favorite pens.”
Konrad was an active member of a Polish fountain pen forum, and when he posted about his new inks there, there was support and interest. Other members wanted to try them. The first inks he sold were early versions of Iron Gall Turquoise. The final version of that is today’s Iron Gall Turquoise, an absolutely marvelous ink.
In April 2013, the Polish pen forum organized the first pen show in Poland. Although the pen show was in Katowice, four hours away by train, Konrad went. “I decided it was a brilliant occasion to show my inks to ‘wider’ public,” he joked, adding that the show was so small that “the wider public meant 100 people.”
Konrad improvised: “I didn’t have any brand at that time, the inks were prepared in the recycled bottles from my favorite juice, and shared in small bottles used for medicines, the only bottles which were easy to buy in small quantity. The inks didn’t even have any label. They just were called Konrad’s Inks or Nicpon’s Inks, as ‘Nicpon’ is my nickname used in the networks, and literally means a ‘scamp’ in Polish.”
And then, in the autumn of 2013, Konrad met Agnieszka, who was finishing her own Ph.D in the Faculty of Chemistry, specializing in ceramic materials. He joked, “She wasn’t very keen on pens, she didn’t know much about inks, but she was crazy enough to date me.”
When the spring of 2014 came around, it was time for the second Pen Show Poland. Konrad decided to go at the last minute, and he drafted Agnieszka to help. “She was fascinated by this, and as a chemist herself she quickly got involved in my hobby, assisting me in the home lab.”
That’s when Konrad and Agnieszka came up with a name — just for the ink, because there wasn’t actually a company yet. KWZ was born that day in 2014, its name taken from Konrad’s initials. “We were cutting the first labels in the train heading to Katowice,” Konrad said, “and the first bottles of the inks marked as KWZ Ink were sold during that show.”
That 2014 show was important for another reason: a few bottles of Konrad’s ink ended up in the hands of North American members of Fountain Pen Network, a large, English-language forum for fountain pen fans. After reading about Konrad’s ink, some FPN members in the US and Canada organized a group buy. And then another.
At that point, Konrad said, “registering the company became simply unavoidable.” So KWZ Ink was officially registered in January 2015.
Before Konrad started selling his inks more widely, he had tested them extensively. Initially Konrad tested the general composition of both the standard and iron gall inks. “At first all the components were tested separately to make sure they don’t interact with the pure materials that the pens are made from, and then as a mixture,” Agnieszka said. “If any interaction was observed, that component was replaced with another one and tested again.”
She added that “all the first inks were used in many different pens, different mechanisms, materials, performance (dry or wet) and many different papers — low and high quality — so we knew what to expect.”
They also stored the ink bottles in various conditions, at different temperatures. “And some written text was exposed for a long time to the sunlight to examine the stability.” After Konrad was satisfied with his formulation, his friends at the Polish fountain pen network tested them, too. “That is why the inks were not available at stores immediately: we needed time to verify the stability and performance.”
But by June 2015, KWZ Ink was being sold in a retail store: Vanness Pen Shop, a brick and mortar store in Little Rock, Arkansas, which also sells on the internet.
Agnieszka said, “We didn’t know anything about exporting, we didn’t have a proper package, we didn’t have efficient technology for manufacturing, and, most important, we actually didn’t have the plans to run a business.” In fact, they both had (and continue to have) scientific jobs outside KWZ. So they had to do everything ink-related in their free time.
“But that was amazing for us, that despite of all of those drawbacks, people wanted to try the inks,” she said. “We simply couldn’t refuse them.”
Now, 11 stores and five distributors carry KWZ Ink. Customers reside around the world, including Poland, the US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, the Philippines, South Africa, Taiwan, Australia and Japan.
Konrad hasn’t stopped innovating, however. Remember how his ink explorations began with a quest for a better water-resistant ink than he found available commercially? Konrad didn’t feel he ever perfected the water-resistant inks he worked on back then. But he has some new ideas now, and KWZ hopes to introduce new water-resistant inks before the end of the year.
In Part Two, we’ll go into more depth on the company’s ink-making process and philosophy.