At the only official HMT store remaining in the city (at World Trade Centre, Cuffe Parade), we are greeted by empty showcase windows covered in dust, and the company’s final batch of watches. “We have 500 to 600 pieces left. Back in the day, we had over 1,000 pieces on display at any given time, and new stock had to be brought in every other week,” says Rehman Sheikh, who has been a mechanic and a salesman here for the past decade. He admits that business has suffered over the years, but he claims the store still sells 10 to 15 watches every day. To make his point, he pulls out a catalogue and starts rattling off names, and the demand for each: “People still come looking for Pilot, Akhil, Rajat, Kedar, Janata….”
For generations of Indians, HMT, or Hindustan Machine Tools, has been synonymous with watches. Our grandparents and parents invariably owned at least one of them. They were also the go-to wedding presents, retirement gifts in offices, and nostalgic hand-me-downs.
However, on January 6, 2016, the government announced the closure of HMT’s last three units — HMT Watches, HMT Chinar Watches and HMT Bearings. Having started making watches in 1961, it was nearing retirement age (the company has been making watches for 55 years); and it was incurring losses, reportedly, since 2000. More recently, reports from the Heavy Industries and Public Enterprises Ministry stated that the net loss of HMT Watches rose to Rs 242.47 crore in 2012-13 from Rs 224.04 crore in 2011-12.
But with the news of closure, there is renewed interest in the final few models from watch collectors, and a generation looking back in nostalgia. At the HMT store, Sheikh tells us, “The sale has actually gone up over the last few days, after the news of HMT shutting down came out.”
Meet the collectors
Twenty-four-year-old media professional Mukul Garga, who co-owns 930-plus HMT watches with his cousin, Carol Goyal, started collecting them only in 2014 (it was the year when the government first announced that it’s looking to shut HMT). “We had around 180 HMT watches in the family. My fascination started mainly because it was an Indian company, and because I love mechanical watches,” says Garga. What he tells us later, of course, is that the price and demand for watches, like art, rises when they start becoming rare.
Some of the rare pieces at his Worli apartment include the HMT Braille (the mechanical watch for the blind, in which one can remove the glass and feel the figures to know the time) and a first edition HMT Pilot. The latter was designed to mainly help Air Force pilots. The glow in the dark dial helped military personnel see the time even in dark. Garga also owns a rare set of HMTs with colourful dials, called the Madhavrao Scindia (former Congress minister) collection. “I got them from a collector in Gwalior. Apparently, Scindia would match the dials with the colour of his shirt,” says Garga, who has travelled the length and breadth of the country in search of HMT watches.
Now, even collectors who focus on more expensive watches, are suddenly interested in HMTs. Kushal Sanghvi (39), business head at Reliance Entertainment and Digital, who collects high-end timepieces like Tissot, Swatch and Movado, is unhappy about not owning an HMT. “I feel terrible that the company is shutting, and I don’t own a single HMT. I had three of them growing up, but I gave them away.”
Time is money
Mukul Garga’s collection is one of the biggest in the country. So rare, in fact, that a prestigious gallery apparently offered to buy it: “Piramal Art Gallery approached me. Since HMT is India’s first mechanical watchmaker, the gallery wanted to preserve their timepieces as art. I have invested around Rs 8 to Rs 9 lakh on these watches. They offered me around Rs 50 lakh. But I have no interest in selling my collection,” he says.
With the history behind the brand (the first batch of HMT watches was released by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru), collectors reckon HMTs will now be in demand internationally. Karan Bangera, founder of Gentleman’s Community, that sells antique and vintage men’s accessories, says, “We’re not like the Swiss. They have hundreds of watchmakers. Allwyn and HMT are the quintessential Indian watch companies. Collectors from across the world will now try to get their hands on HMTs.”
For those looking to start their collection only now, the Facebook page, India Watch Company, is a good place to begin. “The focus here is on HMT and lesser-known Indian brands like Allwyn, Timestar, Amar and Hegde-Golay,” says Ivor Soans, the admin of the group.
Moreover, every city has a watch neighbourhood: Delhi has Chandni Chowk, we have Dadar and Chor Bazaar. The wholesale market in Dadar also sells individual parts, including straps and batteries. But if you are looking for vintage and second-hand pieces, and are patient enough to scout for genuine ones, head to Gujjar Street and Mutton Street in Chor Bazaar. The place is a treasure trove of genuine and sometimes not-so-genuine, old and new, working and dilapidated timepieces. Garga bought some of his first HMT watches from here. “I found some Kedar, Janata and Vijay HMTs. Watches from Chor Bazaar need extensive restoration and repair: you’ll often need to get the dial polished, the strap fixed, the glass replaced, etc,” he says.
Handle with care
“We’re the only shop on Hill Road (Bandra) that repairs all kinds of watches. We have been here for over 50 years now,” says Rizwan Khan of Timely Corner, as he busily works on an old HMT. The store boasts of high-profile clientele, including loyal patronage from Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh and Farida Jalal. “Salman Khan used to study in St Stanislaus High School down this street. He would come to us to get his watches repaired back then,” he adds.
However, Sheikh is worried about the replicas in the market. “Many people come to us with their watches for repair, and they turn out to be copies,” he says. Garga has also noticed a large number of fake HMTs at popular vendors. “These guys use the real watch face, but insert fake machinery. So, although the watch looks real, when you listen to the sound, you can figure out that it’s a fake,” he explains. For a layman, there’s no foolproof way of verifying a watch. The best way to tell a fake and real apart is by getting the watch checked by a repair store.
With no new stock coming in, this might be a good time to invest in an HMT from the official website — hmtwatches.in. Ironically, as the models sell out, the default message shows up: “stock awaited”. That stock is unlikely to come in. But what does exist — on eBay, in Chor Bazaar, or with other collectors — is worth its weight in nostalgia.
A brief history of time in india
* 1961: Government-supported HMT sets up the first watch-manufacturing unit in collaboration with M/s Citizen Watch Co., Japan, in Bangalore. Then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurates the first batch of watches.
* 1965: Hegde-Golay, an Indo-Swiss collaboration, is established in Bangalore.
* 1981: Allwyn is established in the watch industry in 1981 in collaboration with Japanese brand Seiko; it is one of the leading manufacturers of mechanical and quartz watches in the country.
* 1984: Titan Watches is incorporated with the aim of making analog electronic watches in over 150 designs.
* 1990: A joint venture agreement between Titan Watches Ltd and Timex Watches is signed; the association lasts till 1998.
* 2011: Timex Watches launches Versace watches in India.
* 2016: The government announces the closure of HMT.
Repair and restore
USP: They also sell watches at flea markets in the city, and on social media platforms like Facebook and Instagram.
Check their collection on facebook.com/Gentlemans-Community
Where: Near Pepper Fry Studio on Link Road, Santa Cruz (W)
Call: 98193 89118
Join India Watch Company on Facebook, a closed group of Indian watch enthusiasts. Here, you can discuss timepieces, share wrist shots, and members help find good watch repair mechanics too. The group focuses on Indian brands like Allwyn, Timestar, Amar, Hegde-Golay, Titan, HMT, etc. facebook.com/groups/IndiaWatchCompany