Namiki Benjamin Teh

Kintsugi. It’s a Japanese art form I fell in love with, not so much for its undeniably beautiful appearance, but for what it means: embracing one’s flaws and imperfections. This method – putting broken pottery pieces back together with gold – popped into my mind as I sat listening to Benjamin Teh, general manager of Namiki, talk about his writing instruments.

The brand is famous for its mastery of maki-e, a Japanese decorative technique developed for lacquerware. Artisans apply urushi, derived from the sap of a lacquer tree native to Asia, on a surface before layering metal powders such as gold, silver and pewter over it. This process is repeated several times until the artisan achieves the desired image. It’s difficult and time-consuming and young artisans go through several years of training to become adept at it.

Incidentally, the application of lacquer has a beneficial side effect. It makes the pens more durable and able to withstand deterioration. This is something Teh is very familiar with; he’s been with Namiki since 1995. The same year, the brand released White Tiger, a 300-piece limited edition fountain pen that retailed for US$1,500 (S$1,995). When the genial 64-year-old wanted to buy the same pen for display in 2012, he had to fork out $18,000.

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There’s a surprisingly healthy number of Namiki collectors in Singapore. Many purchase not for investment purposes, but because of the beautiful artwork. “A Namiki pen is a work of art. Typically, an artisan needs between two and three months to complete a simple pen that costs $1,000. I’ve always asked our customers to visit the workshop and witness the creation with their own eyes. They will come away impressed,” says Teh.

The most expensive fountain pen Namiki has ever produced is Sakura. It’s a stunning, complex piece created by legendary urushi artist Kyusai Yoshida. Then he retired. Several locals bought the pen, priced at $23,800, when it was released. Only 62 pieces were made.

Namiki Fountain Pens
The White Tiger and Sakura fountain pens from Namiki.

During Pilot Corporation’s 100th anniversary in 2018, it released a set of seven Namiki pens. Only 25 sets were made, with each going at $75,000. The company enlisted 11 artisans to complete this artistic endeavour. Teh managed to convince his headquarters to produce another 100 sets “with a slightly different design”. He believed that there would be demand for it. He was right; everything was snapped up.

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Do customers use such pens, especially since one is the same price as the down payment of an apartment? Yes, says Teh, although he doesn’t recommend it. “If you drop the pen, the damage can be hard to rectify. To try and fix it, the artisan will have to retrieve all the materials used to create the artwork in the first place. If there’s a dent, it can’t be repaired,” says Teh.

n a world of planned obsolescence, it’s refreshing to hear from Teh that his customers comprise the entire spectrum. From professionals in their mid-20s to changemakers in their 60s, many have fallen in love with Namiki’s writing instruments. Teh shares that collectors tend to start with roller balls before moving on to the fountain pens. “There’s just something about the gold nib of a fountain pen that blends well with the art.” And, unlike art on canvas, which has to be hung on walls, a Namiki pen can be carried in your pocket and taken out to admire when you’re at a traffic stop. You can’t do that with a Mona Lisa.

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