Gel Pens Didn’t Go Away When Tweens Got Over Them In The 90s

Inevitably, when people start reminiscing about being kids in school in the 90s, they get around to the topic of the gel pen fad. You know, middle-schoolers decorating the covers of their notebooks with squiggly lines and hearts drawn in sparkly, glittery gel ink.

Assorted Gel Pens

They wax nostalgic about how all the cool kids in middle school had gel pens, about how fun and exciting they were and how doing homework in bright purple and drawing gel ink tattoos on themselves let them be rebels without, ya know, actually doing anything really crazy.

Tattoo Gel Pens

But the thing is, they talk about gel pens as if they were nothing more than a passing obsession of childhood and have nothing to do now with adult life.

It’s a little frustrating because, as all pen people know, gel pens didn’t go away, they just grew up. Gel pens have become more sophisticated, more widely used and more relevant today than they were when 7th graders coveted them.

Gel pens aren’t Twilight, after all.

If you’ve stumbled onto this blog looking for childhood memories of a rainbow of metallic ink, we’ve got some good news for you. Gel pens don’t have to be a relic of your tweens…they actually make them for adults now.

The Sakura pen company of Japan invented the first gel pens in the 1980s as a way to advance the technology of the rollerball pen and put the company ahead of its competitors.

Sakura Gelly Roll Logo

Sakura spent several years developing the ink that consisted of pigment – rather than the blander dyes being used at the time – suspended in a water-based gel solution. The idea was to create a bolder, slightly thicker ink that would still write smoothly using the rollerball design.

The Sakura gel pens were a hit in Japan, and the company decided to expand to the US to tap the larger market. They renamed their 3rd-generation gel pen from BallSign 80 to the Gelly Roll.

Gelly Rolls gained traction in the US during the early to mid 90s, then exploded into popularity with school kids in 1997 with the introduction of metallic colors. Gel pens became synonymous with middle schoolers.

Sakura Gelly Rolls

And that was sort of the problem. The term “gel pen” was used to refer to the fun but not really useful pens that kids played with, instead of what it actually was, which was a type of ink technology.

But….just because kids grew up and stopped writing their school papers in sparkly ink didn’t mean that it was over for gel pens.

Other pen companies began to pick up the new gel-ink technology and started developing their own pens. They still offered a wide color palette, but these gel pens were more serious, meant to be used by high school and college students and adult professionals.

The new generation produced gel pens like the Uniball Signo, the Zebra Sarasa, the Pentel EnerGel and the Pilot G2, along with scores of others. The pens were stylish, well-constructed and wrote clean, vivid and professional-looking lines.

Pentel Energel Pens

Those gel pens have now become the standard for inexpensive, high-performing work and school pens. Still the same ink, just more grown up. You’ve probably written with one, even if you didn’t know it.

But don’t worry. If you’re feeling nostalgic, they still make the glittery ones, too.


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Tony Bridges

As a seasoned journalist and freelance writer, I've spent over three decades telling stories and exploring the world through the written word. With a passion for writing instruments, I found my niche at The Pen Vibe, a blog that shares our collective fascination with pens, pencils, and other tools that have shaped the art of writing.

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