By creating watches inspired by motorsport, Shami Kalra, the founder of Omologato Watches, has managed to convert two of his childhood passions into a roaring business.
Forty-seven-year-old Shami Kalra, the founder of British watch boutique Omologato, has been in love with timepieces for more than 25 years; with the same woman, his wife, for about 30 years; and with cars for close to 37 years. Clearly, he is a man with deep reserves of passion and commitment, and just the sort of man you’d want to create a prized possession for yourself.
Kalra launched Omologato Watches about two years ago, after finishing a two-and-a-half decade stint in corporate design, as an ode to the legends of the track, essayed through handassembled watches. Since then, his reasonably priced watches (from £149 onwards) have become the personal favourites of petrolheads. “I’ve always loved the name Omologato,” says Kalra. Once he hit upon the idea for the brand, he knew he needed a name that would be recognised instantly and universally as representing the complex world of motorsport. “It was natural for it to be called that name — Ready to Race. Homologated.” For the uninitiated, the phrase ‘homologated’ was used to describe a class of cars (Gran Turismo) that had been qualified to compete, making them Gran Turismo Omologato in Italian, or just ‘Omologato cars’, among fans.
What sets these watches apart is Kalra’s reliance on the wealth of stories and details that may be missed by a casual observer, but which invoke a rush of memories in a fan. Each piece is embellished with unique features — bricks etched into the back to reference the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis; dials that mirror those in the iconic Berlinetta Competizione; numbers picked out in red to mark 7:22 — the exact time Sir Stirling Moss left the starting ramp of the 1955 Mille Miglia. “It’s not just something to tell time by; these are stories in my head that I love, of racing, which are just sitting there, waiting to come out as creations.”
Kalra’s departure from the usual brand-backed merchandise, available in every other gift shop, was what drew in one of his first Indian customers, the former managing editor of Motoring World, Rohin Nagrani. A self-confessed Porsche nut, he was faced with two choices when looking for a watch. “Either I go and buy a watch sold by Porsche design, which would be prohibitively expensive, or get something which is inspired by the whole thing, and a good job done both in terms of design and price.” Nagrani eventually settled for a watch inspired by the 1970 Le Mans race, emblazoned with the orange and blue gulf colours that adorned the cars at the time. “What I like about Shami’s work is [that] there’s a subtlety to his design. It’s not something that’s ostentatious or over the top, but it gets the right amount of colour variation, and the colour coordination is just right to get the attention of someone who knows what good taste is in watches. Those who have a certain taste and flair for the good things in life, they do tend to approach [me to ask about my watch], irrespective of whether they have an automotive passion or not.”
It’s for these “approaches” that Kalra creates his watches. He’s mentioned earlier that he wants to design watches that begin conversations, that would make a stranger walk up to you, curious to know why your watch has a face tilted 45 degrees to the right (hint: so that the wearer doesn’t have to take his hand off the wheel to read the time). “One of the nicest stories I’ve heard was this guy [who] bought a Laguna Seca from me. He was sitting in a bar, and a lady came up and said, ‘What the hell’s wrong with your watch?”’ Kalra recounts, laughing. “He started talking about it, and nine months later, they’re still seeing each other. I told them if you’re getting married, then you can invite me to the wedding.”
Perhaps the most satisfying thing about this journey is that Kalra, who started out as just another diehard fan, can now count among his wellwishers prominent names in the industry, such as Damon Hill, Karun Chandhok, Johnny Herbert and Derek Bell. The late John Surtees, the only man to win World Championships both on two wheels and four, was also a friend of Kalra’s before he passed away. “In European circles, he was like rock royalty. He was celebrated everywhere he went. Ferrari used him as a brand ambassador, but he never allowed people to put his name on a product — never. He was approached by luggage companies, watch companies, clothing companies, all of them wanted to make merchandise with his name on it, but he said ‘no’ to everybody, but he said ‘yes’ to me. That was quite an honour,” he says. Kalra has even broken bread with Mika Häkkinen, whose 2000 overtake of Michael Schumacher on the legendary Spa-Francorchamps circuit was the greatest moment in motorsport history, according to Kalra. “Mika Häkkinen has always been — you know how you have a pinnacle of the person you want to meet? I met him about four weeks ago, and I couldn’t believe it. I was like a ten-year-old at a Bieber concert. We sat down together for half-an-hour; it wasn’t just a meet-and-greet. He was behind the scenes, and I was behind the scenes as well, so we thought we’d sit down and have a coffee and a long chat.” Although he hasn’t yet converted the iconic manoeuvre at Spa into a watch yet, he would like to work on a project with Häkkinen in the near future.
Häkkinen’s is not the only name on the cards, with Kalra owning the watch rights to dozens of other illustrious names. “One of the reasons they’re coming out so slowly is that we’re fiercely independent. If I took investors and loans, I could catapult the business and launch all these products immediately. But, I’d rather do it in an organic way in which the company is profitable, streamlined and independent. I don’t want anyone telling me what I should and shouldn’t be doing. I’ve been there before and I hated it.” Now that Kalra is finally doing what he loves, it’s clear that there’s no way he’s taking orders from anyone other than his heart.