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Suresh Venkat with his watch collection

The news that the central government-owned HMT (Hindustan Machine Tools) watch company was shutting down caused some horologists to be hit by a wave of nostalgia. HMT has lived a full life, after all. It started out with a Nehruvian swadeshi agenda — an indigenous mechanical watch that would help its citizens run the country on time. Thus the tagline ‘Timekeepers to the Nation.’ The first engineers were trained at Japan’s Citizen Watch Co, and the first factory was set up in Bangalore in collaboration with the company in 1961. Jawaharlal Nehru christened one of its earliest models Janata, and it became his personal favourite.

To own an HMT watch was akin to owning an Ambassador — a matter of pride, but also the only option available. When Prafulbhai Kamdar opened his Kamdar and Kamdar store in Mumbai 43 years ago, they gave away free silver coins with each HMT watch. “There was a line nearly 200 metres long,” says Kamdar, who went on to become the biggest distributor for the brand. He remains one of the few who continue to sell, repair and service HMTs. As we speak, he receives two Braille watches for servicing, and five Pilots are convalescing with him already. “Sona, Janata, Kanchan and Kohinoor were the highest selling models,” he says. “Overstaffing and Titan watches heralded their demise. There are still many mill workers around Dadar, Lalbaug and Parel who have been using their HMTs for 30-35 years every day.”

“You booked a Kanchan or a Sona watch two months in advance,” says Zubair Memon, proprietor at Popular Watch Co on Laxmi Road, Pune. Memon’s prized possession is his Skelton pocket watch, which exposes the mechanism at the back, and also the Rajat. “When the watch arrived, sometimes three to five months later, we would send out a postcard to the client telling them that their watch had arrived and to collect it,” he says. The height of HMT’s fame was between 1970 and 1985. Major post offices were also part of the distribution chain. Before they opened their own showrooms, post offices would have a counter selling HMT watches. As of two months ago, you could still get them at the Kolkata post office.

HMT Kalyan
HMT Kalyan
HMT Shakti
HMT Shakti
HMT Kajal
HMT Kajal

Government organisations gifted a watch to their employees on key occasions — promotions, retirement and the like. The Jawan became the trademark of those in the army. The Kanchan model earned the nickname the ‘dowry watch’, because weddings were delayed to accommodate its delivery. Even if you were an HMT employee, you couldn’t walk away with a Kanchan on your wrist. You’d have to get a recommendation letter from a senior cabinet minister, or, more accurately, his or her secretary, to jump the queue.

When you graduated from the Air Force Academy, you got an HMT Pilot. The model is now the most sought after one, proving that all every boy wants to be is a pilot. Of the 30 people on Memon’s waiting list, 90 per cent want a Pilot. While it comes in different coloured dials, the classic black one at Popular costs Rs 1000 more than the others (and this is after a 50 per cent mark-up).

The demand for the Pilot is so high that sales people have gone from ingenious to devious. About six months ago, when he was in Bangalore, senior journalist Suresh Venkat decided he wanted one. “I remembered there used to be an old HMT showroom in Unity Building, and it was exactly the way it would have been in 1975,” Venkat says. “He had no Pilots, no Janatas, basically nothing. He told me to go to a private dealer 10-15 feet across the street from his store who might have these models. Then, he literally went out the back door and greeted me at the other store — turns out that was his private dealership. Then, he said he would give me a Pilot only if I bought five other watches — models he wanted to clear. I thought he meant for free. No, he meant he would sell it to me only after I bought those watches. Later, I found out that the salesman is a legend himself.”

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Hmt-Pilot-Watch-SDL065809626-1-1429d

(Above- HMT’s Janata and Pilot)

Suresh’s brother, Naresh Narasimhan, is an architect in Bangalore and fascinated by horology. “There are few things purely mechanical anymore,” says Narasimhan. “HMT watches are the best products of early India. They are 95 per cent defect-free and keep almost perfect time. Everyone thinks India produces junk, but it’s not true.” He has 90-100 HMT watches and has a “massive” wish list. “Wherever I see a watch shop, I check what they have,” he says. His favourite from his collection is the first automatic watch, Rajat, besides the classic Pilot and Jawan. Then, there is the Rajeev and the Jubilee that came out in 1987 to commemorate the company’s 25th anniversary. “It has roman numerals and a dappled surface,” he says.

Bangalore-based Rohit Hangal has around 200 watches, and 90 per cent of his collection comprises HMTs. “My first watch was a Janata, which I bought in 1999,” he says. “At the time, Titan quartzes were around Rs 1000-2000, and here was a mechanical for just Rs 300. Since you have to wind them up every day, a mechanical watch becomes part of your routine, part of you. The designs were no-nonsense, clean, with art deco sensibilities and would run for years.” Hangal now has seven varieties of the Pilot. His other favourite is the Chinar, and he is on the lookout for a Kaushal and the automatic Taurus.

The charm of the HMT is not just in the nostalgia — it lies in its vast range of designs and variations on a theme. Between 1961 and 1982, the company had five factories: two in Bangalore and one each in Srinagar, Tumkur and Ranibagh. Each factory was responsible for particular sets of models. The Janata went through several variations — changes in dial, colour, script, language, faces, metals and so on. Some came with Devanagari numbers, others in a Russian typeface. There were day watches, evening watches, dress watches, mechanicals, automatics, quartzes and pocket watches. The designs changed but remained classic. The company was the first to introduce a Braille watch (for both men and women) and official centres serviced them for free. They were named after the common man — Vijay, Kedar, Avinash, Utsav, Sona, Jawahar or Kohinoor. Tareeq was a tongue-in-cheek reference to the first watch that showed dates. An old joke is when Maneka Gandhi wrote The Penguin Book of Hindu Names, the research point was an HMT catalogue.

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Avnish Mehra’s watch collection

Avnish Mehra, a finance professional in Mumbai, says. “I love mechanical watches and collected Patek Phillipes when I was in London. My father used to have an HMT, and I loved the retro look. Everyone asks about them when you wear one.” Mehra started scouting for pieces online and now collects models that share names with friends. “They make for very sentimental gifts. There’s also an Indian army version of the Jawan I am looking for,” he says.

While the news of the shutdown turned many into hyper collectors, it also spawned a market for fakes, immense mark-ups and second-hand dealers. As official showrooms shut down, like the one on Tilak Road in Pune, they offered their stocks to private retailers. These dealers now sell them at 15 to 50 per cent mark-ups. The footfall at the 127-year old Popular Watch Co has gone from 30-40 a month to 100-150 in the same timeframe. “We get at least four to five people every day looking for HMT watches,” says Memon. “And, they buy in bulk. One lady bought 25 watches in two lots.”

Companies that had bought them in bulk to give away as corporate gifts found themselves sitting on a goldmine. Websites such as OLX, Quickr, Indiamart and Ebay offer a range of unused, used and fake HMTs. The company officially sells its models online through hmtwatches.in, but these are mostly newer quartz models that collectors turn their noses up at. Aficionados and collectors gather on public and private forums, such as HMT Watch Collectors and HMT Watches on Facebook, to tip each other off about retailers, revive memories with old warranty cards and steer newbies towards a respectable collection.

This new revival has made a mini celebrity out of Prashant Pandey, an HR professional in Bangalore. He runs a blog and has more than 900 watches. He changes them four to five times a day to keep them wound up and in running order. “My favourite is the Janata,” he says. “I wear it every day and have 25-30 varieties of it.” Pandey’s larger interest is collecting watches made in India or for India. Eighty per cent of his collection is HMT, and he checks on them every weekend, winding, cleaning and sorting them. “Most weekends you’ll find me with my friends in an HMT showroom,” he says. A sudden surge in his collection came from a benefactor, another collector who bequeathed his collection to Pandey when he moved abroad.

Amid all this attention, a not-so-subtle point was made by politician J Jayalalithaa recently. When she left Parappana Agrahara Central Prison in October 2014, after spending 21 days there, she collected her HMT watch and earrings from the prison warden. When a politician, with a private jet, mountains of saris and jewellery, needed to put on a veneer of simplicity and nationalism, she wore an HMT.