If you are a Person Of A Certain Age, odds are that an oddly specific office product loomed large in your childhood: Gelly Roll pens. We had to have them — and we had to collect every possible color available, too. The history of Gelly Roll pens, however, goes back a lot further than you probably think. The invention of Japanese company the Sakura Color Products Corporation, Gelly Rolls are just one in a long line of writing implement innovations — and honestly, I had no idea the history of office supplies could be this interesting.
Let’s take a deep dive, shall we?
The Sakura Color Products Corporation began life not as a pen company, but as a crayon manufacturer. What’s more, the Osaka-based company came into being during a specific time in Japanese history: Founded in 1921, it arrived hot on the heels of the Taisho period, when free-form drawing was just hitting it big. Japanese artist Kanae Yamamoto’s theory that creativity should be encouraged in children — and that free-form drawing could help inspire them — was quite revolutionary at the time; all it need to really take off was an easy-to-use, vividly colorful medium.
The need for that medium led to the development of Sakura’s first innovation, which was introduced to the world in 1924: A highly pigmented oil pastel called Cray-Pas that was meant to improve on some of the limitations of wax crayons. Unlike crayons, Cray-Pas both layered and mixed well — and they did so without the mess usually made by powdered pastels. Indeed, the name itself describes exactly what the product is: It’s a combination of crayon and pastel. Given that Cray-Pas were originally developed for children, it’s unsurprising that I remember using Cray-Pas in art class when I was a kid; although they could be a bit messy, their bright colors blew standard crayons out of the water.
As the decades wore on, Sakura began to narrow their focus to the development of specialized ink technologies — which led to their next invention: A line of permanent markers featuring something the company called Pigma ink. In the United States, the Sanford Ink Company had launched the first pen-style permanent marker in 1964; called the Sharpie, it was capable of writing on virtually any surface, ranging from paper to glass, plastic, metal, and stone.
However, Sharpies — and every other permanent marker available in the ensuing decades — used dye-based ink, which was susceptible to UV rays, chemical degradation, and pollution from other kinds of oils or chemicals often found on paper. However, Pigma, which was launched in 1982, wasn’t dye-based; it was pigment-based, which meant the ink could stand up to all the things that dye-based ink could not. Pigma ink pens are still a favorite of comic book artists today for their brightness and opacity.
Meanwhile, the first water-based rollerball pen had been developed by a different Japanese company, OHTO, in 1964. By the ‘70s, the rollerball was becoming quite common — but although Sakura was interested in exploring this new kind of pen, which combined the ease of use of a ballpoint pen with the classy, wet-ink look of a fountain pen, the company didn’t just want to do what everyone else was doing with the form. Instead, they looked at the invention as a springboard: Knowing that this new pen technology existed, what could they do with it that was different from everything else on the market?
The answer turned out to be gel ink. (You can see where this is going, right?) Although stationers and pen companies had been trying to figure out how to make gel ink work for quite some time, no one had created a working formulation yet — so in the early ‘80s, Sakura put together an R&D team specifically geared towards solving that problem.
Why gel ink? Because it solved an issue commonly encountered in oil- and water-based ink, particularly when used in a ballpoint or rollerball pen. Because these kinds of inks remain consistently in a liquid state, they’re susceptible to gravity — so if you store pens that use them in such a way that the ink collects at one of the end of the pen, you’ll find that the ink flow has a tendency to skip a lot when you try to write with it. (Ever struggled with a ballpoint pen that looks like it has plenty of ink in it, but which just won’t write? That’s what I’m talking about here.)
Gel, however, has a property called thixotropic action: When gel stands still, it solidifies, but when it’s moved, it becomes liquid again. Apen that incorporated these qualities into its ink would therefore solve the whole “Why the heck won’t my pen write?” issue faced by oil- and water-based inks.
Sakura’s R&D team had succeeded in making usable gel ink by 1982, and by 1984, they had designed a pen that could handle it. It was introduced in Japan as the Ballsign pen — a portmanteau (like the one used for Cray-Pas) that combined “ballpoint” with “sign pen,” the Japanese term for a felt-tip pen. By 1986, Sakura established a North American affiliate; then, a few years after that, Sakura Color Products approached Sakura of America about bringing the Ballsign pen to the United States. Instead of marketing the Ballsign as simply a variety of rollerball pen, however, marketing research encouraged them to introduce it as an entirely new kind of pen — which meant coming up with a new name for it.
Sakura of America Vice President of Marketing Peter Ouyang explains on the brand’s website, “Not only were we building a brand, but a whole new pen category. I forget how many names went back and forth between Japan and America — we wanted to capture the qualities and essence of this pen in a catchy and descriptive way. We crossed our fingers when we decided on the brand name of Gelly Roll.” So, in 1989, the very first Gelly Roll pens arrived in the United States: A black pen, a blue pen, and a red pen.
Interestingly, though, it wasn’t until nearly a decade later that Gelly Rolls really hit their stride in the United States. During the intervening years, Sakura kept working on new developing kinds of ink for the Gelly Roll, and in 1997, they hit upon something major: An opaque, reflective ink that they used in pens they marketed as Gelly Roll Metallic. Unlike regular Gelly Rolls, Gelly Roll Metallic pens could write on both white and black paper, which made them a real novelty — and they subsequently took off with school kids in a big, big way.
My very first Gelly Roll was the green metallic one; I was gifted it by a friend. And you guys? It was my favorite pen ever. I get a kick out of the fact that it’s still available today — you can get it either singly or in multi-packs of Gelly Roll Metallics. It still looks exactly the same as it did when I was 12. Man, I miss that thing.
Worth noting: Pentel introduced the “Milky” pen — which was actually a variety of the brand’s Hybrid gel pen — in 1996, so Milky pens and Gelly Roll Metallics both took off at around the same time. They had similar properties — that is, they were both showed up on dark-colored paper — but Milky pens cornered the “cute and pastel” market, while Gelly Roll Metallics covered the “edgy and cool” one. It’s interesting to me that they arrived within a year of each other, though, so do with that what you will.
Anyway, Sakura continued to create new varieties of Gelly Rolls throughout the late ‘90s and early 2000s: The Gelly Roll Lightning (which is now known as the Gelly Roll Silver Shadow) and Gelly Roll Stardust came along shortly after the Metallic saw its great success, and in June of 2000, Sakura Color Products received the Award of the Director General of the Japanese Patent Office. This award officially recognized Sakura as the inventor of the world’s first gel ink pen.
And they’re still going strong, too. Most older millennials —those of us who were around when Gelly Rolls were first hitting the scene — considered them a staple of every back-to-school season, although we mostly tended to grow out of them by the time we hit our late teens. (Personally, the deciding factor for me was the fact that they look a little “young”; I eventually swapped out my Gelly Rolls for Pilot Precise V pens and haven’t looked back.) Given the sheer variety of Gelly Rolls that exist now — and their availability; back in my day, you could only find them at specialty stationary shops, but now you can get ‘em at any old office supply store— it’s safe to say that business is booming, with each successive generation discovering the joys of the colorful pens during their elementary and middle school years, just like we did when we were kids. It’s the circle of life. Or… something.
Maybe I’ll go get myself a Green Metallic Gelly Roll this weekend. Just, y’know, for old time’s sake. After all, what’s the point of being a grownup if you can’t act like a kid every now and again?