Back in the late 17th century French explorers and traders arrived and started trading with the Potawatomi Indians in the area that would eventually become known as the city of Chicago, Illinois. 'Chicago' is the French version of the Miami-Illinois word 'shikaakwa' meaning stinky onion named for the plants that at the time grew on the banks and fields of the Chicago river.
Today I am looking at the 'standard' offerings from two brands found on the continents either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Representing the USA and Chicago is Field Notes and representing the Republic of France is Calepino. I would love to be able to tell you that the first paragraph in this review was the reason for comparing the products of these companies but the reality is considerably simpler than a tenuous historical link. My first subscription pack from Pocket Notebooks contained a lovely pack of Calepino Quadrille notebooks and a Field Notes mixed pack. A perfect opportunity to compare and contrast these products.
Field Notes was founded in 2007 with just 200 hand made notebooks to the companies name. 9 years later and they are selling over 500000 notebooks a year and have subscribers to their various editions located across the globe. All their products are designed and made in the USA. The subscription books are often collected devoutly and rare versions of the pocket books often sell for hundreds of dollars, luckily most people actually still use their notebooks.
Calepino was founded a few years later in 2010 and by 2012 they were already offering limited editions to their followers. Based in Nantes the brand is named after Ambrogio Calepino, an Italian lexicographer, who was famous for writing one of the first multilingual dictionaries. He was known as Calepin in France and this word eventually made it into the local vocabulary roughly translating as a little book in which you can write notes.
Within the stationery community Field Notes has achieved an almost cult status, they have a well established design language including the usage of the Futura typeface and a simple three staple binding. You can get tens of different 'editions' with different paper types, markings and covers. They run a very successful subscription service that enables their customers to be the first to receive the limited edition products. Their every day product however is the most iconic. A simple craft card cover and 48 pages of paper, bound with three staples and with rounded corners. The books have dimensions of 3.5" x 5.5" (90 x 140mm) and are bound along the long axis.
The pack came with one lined, one plain and one grid notepad bound in a white cardboard sleeve and shrink wrapped. All the books sport the same brown cardboard cover which is a rather thin 220gsm and internal paper which only just scratches 74gsm. This results in a notebook that is thin and a bit flexible, but despite this it seems to hold up to rough handling rather well.
In use the thin paper becomes a bit problematic with fountain pens. With ball point pens and pencils it works fine and is perfectly adequate, but put any fountain pen with a nib broader than a EF will end up with feathering, show through and sometimes bleed onto the next sheet of paper. If you pick your ink and fountain pen combination carefully then the show through can be minimised and the white paper will really help the ink stand out. It is also a very quick drying paper which makes it really good as a pocket notebook, other paper such as Rhodia can take an age to dry and often smears if handled too quickly, but this is ready to go almost instantly after writing. It is also by no means smooth, my wife has commented on multiple occasions that it sounds really scratchy and it certainly gives a lot of feedback.
The grid layout on the book uses a 4.7mm square pattern, slightly smaller than the typical 5mm used in most European paper types. I actually think that this slightly smaller square is better, for a pocket notebook it means you can get slightly more on the page especially with a very fine nib. The lines are a light brown colour which blends in nicely with the page and doesn't dominate the text.
One of my favourite features of the Field Notes books is the back page. It is chock full of information about the book including paper type, ink colours and typefaces which is really interesting for a notebook geek. Whilst it doesn't make the book any better for practical use the added touch is what I believe drives people to love these books so much.
The Calepino notebooks come packaged in a really nice cardboard box which can double as a long term storage box when you have finished with them if you are so inclined. The pack contains three notebooks with the grid rulings. Plain, lined and dot pads are also available. Unlike Field Notes there are no mix packs to try them out so you have to order three of each type if you are unsure of the best layout.
A thick craft cover protects the paper inside and is decorated with horizontal green stripes which look really smart. The cover is considerably thicker than Field Notes and feels like a more premium product. Inline with the thicker cover card the paper inside is also a lot heavier at 90gsm. In use this makes a big difference with feathering being under better control and next to no show-through even with big juicy nibs. It is considerably smoother and easier to write on but still dries quickly.
It has a 5mm grid pattern with a light green ink printed on the nice bright white paper. The pages are bound together with two silver staples, here the Field Notes feel more robust but I didn't find that the Calepino books were poorly constructed. All the paper and card used in these books is 100% recycled, which is a nice touch especially for those who are environmentally minded.
Whilst Calepino do release limited edition products every quarter they tend to be disproportionately expensive. They look amazing and I would love to get one someday but I think their standard products meet all my needs without breaking the bank.
For fountain pen users and everyday use the Calepino books are technically the better choice purely due to the better paper quality in the standard products. When it comes to the limited edition products Field Notes hits Calepino for six, the range of different books that come out is amazing and I can really see why someone would choose to collect them.
Overall I love the size of the squares in the Field Notes and the amazing back cover information. The line colour matches beautifully with the J. Herbin Ambre de Birmanie ink currently used in my Karas Kustoms Fountain K, I love this line colour especially as it also matches the brass section of my pen. The aesthetics of the Calepino books really hit the spot, I love green and the grid version comes in this lovely dark shade for the cover graphics.
If you are looking for a great everyday pocket notebook then I would recommend the Calepino as the best option of these two, but by no means is the Field Notes a poor product. Indeed if your main writing instrument is a ball point or pencil then there is less of a performance gaand you should go with the brand that excites you the most. In the UK they cost about the same and are both relatively widely available.
Where to Buy:
The books were sent as part of my paid subscription by Pocket Notebooks, the service from this company is excellent which is why they are on my companies to buy from review. I highly recommend the subscription service as it is very good value for money and you get a lovely broad selection of books. My second box arrived this month with some Story Supply notebooks and the Sweet Tooth Field Notes limited editions. I really look forward to using these soon.