This company was founded in 1905 by two gentlemen profoundly not named Conway and Stewart, but rather by Frank Jarvis and Thomas Garner. What I can only describe as internet rumour suggests that they took the name of the company from a popular stage act of the time. The founders had both worked for de la Rue, the makers of Onoto pens and one of the great names in pen-making. Conway-Stewart were, in terms of models at least, one of the really big makers in England, although it’s debatable whether the company ever reached the levels of respectablility held by its founders’ erstwhile employer. Indeed, the initial direction of the company was to provide for the more popular market in England, while de la Rue (which was just lashing “Onoto” to their trademark) firmly held the upper classes.
This approach appeared to work, as Conway-Stewart outgrew its initial digs in 1927 and passed into the Great Depression without seeming to falter. The company became publicly traded in 1935. Unlike some other British manufacturers, they continued to make pens through the war, and finished what I term the Golden Age in fine form, introducing new models and patterns of plastic.
Like many makers, Conway-Stewart found that the end of the 1950s was the end of the good times. Attempts to retain market share by making cheaper pens didn’t serve, nor did a move to Wales in 1968. In 1975, the company closed.
The name was resurrected as the century drew to a close, beginning sales in 1996. This reincarnation appears to be going great guns, making pens for the high-end user and the collector market. They are still very attractive pens, but the popular market is not going to get its hands on them. Update: The revived Conway-Stewart went into administration at the end of August 2014, and all the physical assets sold off. If the company revives again, it will be yet another different company using the same name. Further update: Emmanuel Caltagirone, one of the forces behind the revival of Wahl-Eversharp, announced in December 2014 that he’s laid ahold of the US rights to the name, and plans to do something sensible about putting Conway-Stewart back into production again.
The vintage incarnation of Conway-Stewart is mainly reknowned for its vast array of attractive plastics (frequently using casein as the material) and for its bewildering numbering system. While most pen-makers’ numbering systems are more or less arbitrary, with Waterman being a bit of a standout in that the numbers frequently had meaning of some kind, the Conway-Stewart numbers seem almost randomly assigned. There is a chap who has made the effort to at least catalogue the numbers, an act of academic effort that should bring some kind of honourary doctorate. The modern version of the company seems to be pursuing both of these lines, in that the pens are very pretty and the codes for the colours seem to be extremely arbitrary and complex. They seem to have been a sort of inversion of Esterbrook in the sheer quantity of models available at any given moment; while the latter made an appearance of a multitude through swappable parts, Conway-Stewart made an apparent effort to carry as much stock as possible.
Models I’ve examined: