Gama Pens need no introduction, nor does the 95 year young Gem & Co. Prof K C Janardhan talks to the man at the helm, Pratap Kumar in an exclusive for Inked Happiness.
Pratap Kumar, master pen turner and the third generation at the helm of Gama Pens in conversation with the Maestro Prof K C Janardhan:
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: I have been having a lot of meaningful discussions with Pratap Kumar of Gem & Co., for the last few years. He is a fountain pen knowledge bank. I was in Chennai between 1970 and 1987 and in 1984 when I was Interning at Ashok Leyland for six months, almost every day, on my way I had been ogling at Gem & Co, on NSC Bose Road in Broadway, Chennai. Unfortunately, I never had the opportunity to step into the shop then. I am now eagerly looking forward to spending at least one full day during my next visit to Chennai for having ironically missed the Gem.
In the recent times, when the current Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M K Stalin started using a Wality Fountain Pen belonging to his father Dr Kalaingar Karunanidhi, who was the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu for almost two decades, it made the headlines about Pratap Kumar and Gem & Co, one of the oldest surviving Exclusive Fountain Pens Company (Shop) in India, over 95 years in existence! Started by his grandfather M C Cunnan, Pratap has been in Business from 1985, when he was all of 24 years of age. Fountain Pen making finer details were taught to him by his father Prabhat Kumar in a traditional manner, which I feel, has made all the difference.
Anyone conversing with Pratap Kumar of Gem & Company will experience what a Gem of a person he is. His personality shines like many facets of the gem, with impeccable ethics, a content personality, great humility and modesty! It would not be wrong to say that today, if most new pen manufactures are able to give a proper fitting and tuning to their pens, the credit goes to a very great extent, the modest man Pratap Kumar.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: What according to you are the top five features that make a fountain pen stand out as a classic?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: Weight and Balance, material, ease of use, nib and the spares.
There are so many people who can make a pen but do not know how to balance it. They are not aware how to surface a pen so the pens are not long lasting, that’s where we come in, where our customers have vouched for the sturdiness and long-lasting nature of our pens, with no leaking and un-compromised quality.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: Despite an enviable legacy and a universally acknowledged mastery over the craft of fountain pen turning, Gama pens has never sought out its rightful place as the preeminent force in the world of India made fountain pens. Why?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: We did not focus on Branding value creation for Gama, instead we wanted to give the utility value to the customer: the pleasure of the feel of writing with a Gama fountain pen. If we were to focus on branding value, the price would have shot up by 10 folds.
We had four Brands: Gama, Sigma, Alpha and Beta. Gama was a special quality line. When customers come directly to my shop, I can give them the option of choosing the best pens for their hands, to avoid any changes or settings at a later date which would be a waste of time and money. Therefore our customers keep coming back to us for more.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: The Late Karunanidhi was your lifelong customer. Now MK Stalin, the new CM of Tamil Nadu is walking on the same path. What does it take to earn such trust? How does it feel to be in the limelight which everyone seeks but only Gem & Co gets?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: In the last 5 years we have been increasingly coming into limelight because of God’s grace.
The exclusivity of Gem & Co., which sells only quality fountain pens and no ball or gel pens, where we have always striven to add value through our personal tuning of nib and feeder, even in all other brands of fountain pens we have dealt with.
The care given to a fountain pen and the customer at Gem & Co, has earned the trust and made us the sought after and most preferred outlet to buy these pens. The Late Hon Karunanidhi always sent his people across to buy Wality Pens only from our shop. After the recent news coverages, we are flooded with enquiries and orders. Our customers’ feedback has been very, very positive. Unless the customer comes to our shop, we cannot customise the tuning to the customer’s hands. Sometimes other branded pens we deal with, which normally comes with proper fitting and tuning, also need to be refitted and tuned. As we do it for free, many people prefer to come to us.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: Who were the other celebrities using / possessing Gama pens? The list seems to be endless.
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: People come in search of us from all over India and other countries too. We really don’t know the other celebrities who have been using our pens, but they certainly know us, we come to know only when they make news. Many consulates like Singaporean, Korean and Japanese have come to Gama and got the names of their consulates engraved on the Gama Fountain pens, some buyers have marketed our pens abroad. We have done pens for German, British and Japanese customers who give us all the parts and gold nibs, we manufacture the pens for them and just take the labour charges.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: From your vantage point, do you see a resurgence in the demand for fountain pens in India? Are young people taking up the fountain pen more than ever?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: Writing is definitely picking up and the demand for the Fountain Pen will increase, people have realised its importance. The resurgence cycle has arrived and it is certainly on an upswing. Yes, more youngsters are using a fountain Pen than ever before.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: What should be done to make the use of fountain pens and the art of handwriting, lettering and calligraphy more popular?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: We need to emphasise how eco-friendly, how economical a fountain pen is, how nice it is to write without straining your hand, when you see the blue ink how pleasant it is to your eyes. Try writing with a ball pen or a gel pen and feel the difference. Once we demonstrate this to the children, they will definitely buy fountain pens. Propaganda about fountain pens and its advantages need to be explained in Schools through their Eco Clubs. Unfortunately, we have not been able to do this. But when young people come to our shop, I am happy that I am able to convince 80% of them to use fountain pens. We are trying our level best to canvas for fountain pens: just not Gama fountain pens, but all fountain pens.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: What are your plans for the future? Can we expect scaled up production, backed by a more concerted web offensive, leading to a resurgent Gama name with an established global footprint?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: We need to train people, we need to bring them to our fold. The occupational hazard of the pungent smell while turning the ebonite pen is a put-off for many workers of the new age which we need to deal with for scaling up production.
If we do a proper marketing we can compete in the market as our quality is proven. We are doing it in the local market. When it comes to Global market, we are conservative people who have to think carefully before taking a huge step for expansion, for, it might be helpful or it may backfire. I am nearing sixty, why should I take risks at this stage in life? We are very clear about our traditional approach, we don’t indulge in corporate or fancy pricing. However, we would welcome digital support for expansion.
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: What are your plans for the future?
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: To just continue the legacy of GEM & Co. My daughter is there, she has got a passion for fountain pens. It is to be seen how our youngsters, who are well qualified, will perceive Gem & Co business which is 9 am to 9 pm, for a lifetime in a non air-conditioned shop on the main road with dust, grime and noise from traffic vis a vis their 9 to 5 jobs where they have to work only up to 60 for retirement in a comfortable air-conditioned environment.
I can work for even 10 to 12 hours, but the youngsters get tired within two or three hours. We need to talk to people with patience and passion. We are a sandwiched generation where we have listened to our Parents, now we also have to listen to our Children! Nobody listens to Whatever we say! (Chuckles Jocularly)
Maestro Prof K C Janardhan: Anything that you would like to communicate to the readers of Inked Happiness.
Pratap Kumar, Gama Pens: Dear readers I request you all to continue and start using fountain pens, which has so much of advantages like being economical, the balance of the pen avoids pain in the hands, are very comfortable and eco-friendly. Keep Writing and keep using only Fountain Pens.
After listening to Mr Pratap about the manufacturing and tuning process of nibs at Gem & Co, its guaranteed leak proof ED fountain pens with an impeccable record for many years, my fingers and hand are itching to hold one and write with it!
The Interesting Trivia and some facts about Gama Pens:
- We get our ebonite from who-you-know in Tiruvallur. We have a manufacturer in Bombay for No:35 Nibs who exports all his nibs and supplies to me as a goodwill based on our long-term relationship. We use only German points and not Korean points for our pens and others from Kanwrite. We were dealers of Ambitious nibs earlier.
- Nikko Ebonite is a very good material, I have a customer who imports the Nikko ebonite and we make the pens for him. He is selling them abroad. He gets 20 to 50 pens according to his need as he gives me an open time of 3 to 4 months.
- Gama reached its peak when the electronic medium reached its heights through digital social media and whatsapp became a household name, a strange coincidence. During the peak 17 to 18 people used to work for us. Production of number of pens per day is not known, since we used to sell Parker 51’s, 61’s, Aeromatic, Pilot, Sheaffer, Pelikan, Waterman and other brands we have not kept track of our production per day.
- We have very special tools, over a hundred of them for repairing these brands. Today I myself know only how to use 50 odd tools because those old pens with those different systems are not in circulation for restoration and we haven’t had the opportunity to use others which belong to the vintage era. We have the service manuals of many brands and over 100 tools to restore them.
- We have people from other countries appreciating Gama pens who ask us to become their partners, but we are happy to supply our pens of best quality at best prices, which they can market, we are happy with our small profit. We are not looking for more profit through partnership. We do not dictate terms on the price to our resellers, they are given the freedom to sell at their price but we will sell at “X” price only at our shop.
- Manufacturing ED pens which do not leak in the body section and flows properly is a different cup of tea. The easy way out was a cartridge or a convertor! There are many hobby manufacturers who make pens with a converter or cartridge. They are not able to make ED pens as they are more challenging, that is where Gama Pens come into picture with traditional manufacturing and proper turning. We don’t use CNC machines. There are very good craftsmen who can make beautiful pens but they cannot perfect it.
- Getting skilled lathe workers to work on a softer material like ebonite compared to a harder material like metal is a challenge. Even though the workmen have a very good hand they are not able to understand what I am saying even after providing the sample as they don’t want to understand. For the workers to understand the intricacies of fountain pen making, to get the right balance and fine finish is very difficult. They clearly know that we are dependent on them and they dictate the terms. In the handmade fountain pen Industry it is difficult to ensure skill development. It takes me a year to train them, every time a new model is given, we need to sit with the workers for a few days and it is difficult to get the perfect balance of the pen.
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