M.Pratap Kumar, a chemistry graduate and the unsuspecting heir to the celebrated Gem & Company—popular since time immemorial for the GAMA pen, is the third-generation owner of the hand-made fountain pen business. The highly sought-after company was founded by his grandfather M. C. Cunnan, and his associate, Venkatarangam pre-Independence, amidst the bustling crowds of commerce in George Town.
“I hadn’t really set foot into the shop much when I was younger, except for when the whole family was brought together for Ayudha Pooja every year,” recalls Pratap Kumar with a sense of irony.
It was in the year 1985, Pratap Kumar, a fresh graduate from Madras University decided to diversify by trying his hand at a couple of businesses (completely unrelated to pens) before his father, who was running Gem & Co. at that time, called him over to the shop one day. “I was a salaried employee for a very long time. I still remember I was getting, Rs.240 per month.” During this period, he was taught the trick of the trade, not just as a salesman but also as a craftsman. “We have a workshop as well, and back in the day, we used to get about a hundred pens for repair. My father would do all the restoration by himself. Eventually, as he grew older, I took over,” Pratap Kumar recalls how several parts of these pens were not easily available in the market and had to be hand-made.
The GAMA pen, the time-less classic, was designed behind these four walls and sent to England to be manufactured. Besides this classic, the shop housed millions of other models and brands that had been carefully hand-picked and scrutinized to ensure quality. Even today Pratap Kumar travels the distance to get the right pen. “Those days there was a lot of competition. Today we barely have that, yet quality has always been our trademark, we ensure that we sell the best pens made in India.”
While we live in the decade of Siri and Google enabling us to record our thoughts in text, without having to click a button, Gem & Co. may seem like it is running a race that it is sure to lose. Contrary to popular opinion, there still exists a community that strongly believes in feeling every stroke while penning down their thoughts. Some even insist that their children would greatly benefit from learning the art of calligraphy. Steve Jobs did. So does Pratap Kumar.
When it comes to talking about hand-made fountain pens, Pratap Kumar loses himself into a world of passion for the remarkable instrument and its every detail. Perhaps that is the power of the fountain pen. The user is enraptured by the poetics of it all, a much-needed getaway from the mundane clicks and the daily grind. Especially with the dawn of the ‘work from home’ where time slips as we stare bleak-eyed into the brilliance of our screens.
And that is what keeps Pratap Kumar going. Even during these times of peril, Gem & Co has created a niche for itself. People from all over Tamil Nadu come to the shop in search of exquisite hand-made fountain pens even today. “People entering Chennai after a long travel, would first set foot in George Town given that this is where the inter-state bus terminus used to be. So for a very long time we had a great number of customers from outside the city who would stop by our store to buy a pen before going about their intended work in Chennai. With the bus terminus now moved to Koyambedu, we lost a lot of that crowd. But some people still do come specifically looking for our store.”
The technology boom has not turned out to be all that bad for the company. “Google has proven to be highly resourceful. You get information about who’s the manufacturer and who’s the reseller, effortlessly. Our GAMA pens have been getting reviews on the internet, and because of this more people have begun to understand the value of handcrafted pens.” says Pratap Kumar, “Infact, even during the lockdown, I received quite a few calls and messages asking if the shop could be opened so that they could buy a specific model of our signature handcrafted fountain pen.”
The ‘handcrafted fountain pen’ connoisseurs keep the store running today. In the age of objects being valued based on uniqueness and environmental sustainability, the market seems to be taking off once again. Noticing the demand, several pen dealers have approached Pratap Kumar to sell his pens online for better reach. “I have two or three people reselling pens that we sell at around Rs.900 at the shop for a handsome price of about Rs.3,000 on Amazon. I’m not very tech savvy and I want to encourage these people to do business, so I do my best to support them. Sometimes if a particular model isn’t in stock the customer would directly come to my shop to buy it,” explains Pratap Kumar.
Today the century old company has even adapted to the social media revolution, especially with the lockdown making the transition inevitable. Gem & Co pens can be ordered via WhatsApp, simply by sending specs along with a picture of the desired model. The pen then gets couriered to your doorstep in a few days (depending on how far away you live from George Town) after completing an online transaction. These forms of outreach have given the brand an international following. “So you said you barely set foot in the shop during your childhood, but you seem so passionate about your business!” I say, to which Pratap Kumar shrugs and says with a laugh, “I guess it runs in my blood.”