Fountain heads: Inside the world of India’s pen collectors
They are getting organised both online and offline with summits, meets, and even help with pen loans.Updated: May 12, 2019 08:47 IST
Can you imagine applying for a loan to buy a fountain pen? Or using a pen as collateral for a personal loan?
Some of India’s most avid pen collectors are doing both. The pens they prize cost between Rs 30,000 and Rs 12 lakh each, and are typically limited-edition pieces by brands such as Mont Blanc, Sheaffer and Parker, hand-crafted from silver or, as in one case, one by Visconti made from lava spewed by the volcanic Mount Etna in Italy.
The most ardent collectors have hundreds of these pens, and meet regularly to discuss their collections, share tips, chat about maintenance, and are now holding organised events such as this February’s first-ever India Pen Show (IPS).
For two days, the Nehru Centre in Mumbai teemed with pen collectors touring a total of 40 stalls, attending calligraphy workshops, taking guided tours with pen experts, and even looking in at a special letter-writing booth set up as an ode to the joys of writing with a fountain pen.
“Before this there were only informal group meets within one’s own city or hubs facilitated by international pen brands such as Pelikan,” says Vishal Singhi, 39, a banker and pen collector who thought up and helped organise the IPS. “It was about time India had something of her own.”
Singhi started collecting fountain pens in 2007 and has more than 400 today. “It’s an out-and-out infatuation,” he says, laughing. “I collect because, quite simply, nothing else makes me swoon as much.”
Typically, collectors start small. Ashok Jain was 30, a young art dealer in 1990s Delhi, when he started collecting pens. “My first purchase was a Sheaffer 14-carat gold pencil I paid Rs 2,000 for, the same price as 5 gm of gold at the time,” he recalls.
The internet helped Jain scour like he’d never scoured before – he found pens made of gold and silver, embellished with precious stones and covered in intricate designs. “I was hooked,” he says.
Today he has over 1,400 pens, the rarest of which is a vintage 1920s Mont Blanc with a long, gold nib. “Only five to six of these are known to be in circulation, in the world,” he says. They sell for anywhere between Rs 10 lakh and Rs 12 lakh a piece.
So how do you keep collecting when the prices are this high? To address this problem, Jain set up a loan system. “Banks in India will accept a house or car as collateral but won’t accept a fountain pen, even if it costs as much — or more,” Jain says.” So, in 1996, he started the Pen Club of India and in 2010 the club began to help collectors get loans. The club began with three members and now has over 300. Each of these members contributes a fixed sum, so that, if a collector needs to urgently borrow money in order to buy a pen, he can offer a pen as collateral and borrow from that fund. The loans are interest-free for the first three months.
“We not only collect pens here but also help others learn the nuances of collecting, or advise them on which pen to buy,” says Pradeep Jain, 52, a pen dealer from Delhi among the first members of the club.
WRITE SIDE UP
Even prices aside, pen collecting is not an easy passion to pursue. “Especially if you’re a vintage fountain pen collector, it’s a lonely journey to the top,” laughs Yusuf Mansoor. Help comes in the form of those like Mansoor himself, who calls himself ‘the kalam vaidya’ or pen doctor. He’s the guy people go to, to find spare parts for the restoration of their precious possessions.
A geologist from Patna, Mansoor has identified scrap vendors and antique sellers in Lucknow and Kolkata who have been given a crash course in how spot a precious antique pen. “Essentially what they took away from that was that any pen might be worth saving. So they bring me everything they find,” he says. “But honestly, they’ve learnt the ropes over time.”
Some of his rarest finds through these channels have been a German Marc, and a rare French Lebouef, each worth about Rs 20,000. The internet, of course, has made things a lot easier.
The Fountain Pen Network, arguably the most popular such platform, has over 1 lakh members from around the world, and lists rare finds up for grabs, has discussion threads, pen reviews, maintenance tips.
Closer home, the Fountain Pen Association of India, set up in July 2018, aims to work towards promoting events, exhibitions, seminars and activities “that promote the enthusiasm and hobby of collecting and using fountain pens among members of the association and society at large,” says Sudhir Kalyanikar, 45, a techie from Mumbai and founding member.
Still, he adds, he misses the days when the only way to make a rare find was to scour brick-and-mortar shops, antique markets and flea bazaars abroad. “Pen-buying was an experience then,” he says. “I bought the iconic Ratnamsons pen, the first high-end, Indian-made pen, purely through interactions via snail mail letters, and paid through money order! Today you can just head to a William Penn boutique in any metro city or trawl through online catalogues on eBay.”
There are now Indian manufactures competing with international brands in the collector’s-item pens segment. Brands such as Constellation 88, Magna Carta, Lotus, Asa and Kanwrite make limited-edition and customised handcrafted pens that range in price from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000 and are finding takers among collectors abroad too.
Arun Singhi, who started making hand-painted pens as a hobby in 2014, set up Lotus Pens in 2017, though before that he worked for 40 years in the production department of a pen company.
At the 2016 Pelikan Hub, Singhi displayed his collection for the first time and all his pens were sold out. His USP is handcrafted pens made from unusual materials – buffalo horn, titanium, micarta.
And then there are the craftsmen who work alone, only by order. Sreekumar Nathu of Krishna Inks, based in Palakkad, and Pune-based Manoj Deshmukh of Fosfor pens have waitlists of up to 60 weeks. “The simple pens can be made in a day, some of the complex ones may take 3 or 4 days to make,” Deshmukh says.
Deshmukh is proudest of his first pen, a simple ebonite item that got rave reviews on fountainpennetwork.com.
Today he can make pens in any shape, size or ink-filling system. The materials are sourced individually for each pen, which takes up most of his time. “My USP is making customised pen barrels in triangular, quadrangular, hexagonal or even decagonal shapes,” he says.