Fans rush to HMT as watchmaker marks time

September 19, 2014

Vikram Narula walked into an HMT showroom in Delhi’s central business district this week to get his hands on an iconic mechanical “Pilot” watch. But the watches were sold out.

Narula, a real estate agent, is an avid watch collector, and one among hundreds of HMT fans willing to pay a premium for timepieces made by a watchmaker that is on the verge of shutting down.

Retailers have reported a spike in sales of HMT watches, especially hand-wound mechanical models, after Indian media reports said last week that the unprofitable unit of HMT Machine Tools Ltd was likely to wind down.

“People are mad after these watches, because they are rarely available in the market. So people are selling at premium prices,” said the 33-year-old Narula, who owns 28 Indian and foreign-made watches including five HMTs.

He said local shopkeepers and vendors on Olx, an online classifieds site often called India’s Craigslist, were selling HMT watches at mark-up prices.

India’s homegrown watch brand was set up by the government in 1962 with help from Japan’s Citizen. HMT admirers included former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and Russian politician Leonid Brezhnev, and was the preferred choice of Indian officialdom. In the 1970s and 80s, HMT watches and scooters were sought-after dowry gifts and cherished status symbols at a time when household incomes were low.

Growing competition from Indian rival Titan and the entry of foreign quartz watches after import restrictions were lifted in the 1980s and HMT’s failure to adapt to change led to falling sales, a slump from which the company never recovered.

HMT’s dingy company store is tucked away in an alley in Connaught Place, its uninviting facade a far cry from the trendy watch showrooms in the city. Steel cupboards and a couple of shabby chairs, threadbare with age, face a pair of glass showcases with a few rows of watches on display. An employee said sales of some models had increased significantly, but declined to give numbers. He declined to share his name, saying he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Ranpreet Singh, a watch enthusiast in New Delhi who occasionally sells timepieces, said he used to get one or two queries each month, but sold 20 watches last week. A seller in the city’s old quarters said a Pilot watch, an aviator watch with a simple black face, was available for 1800 rupees ($30), about 800 rupees ($13) more than its list price. Others were selling it for as much as 2200 rupees ($36), he added.

All but three automatic and mechanical watches were out of stock at HMT’s online store at the time of filing this story. Several new listings of HMT watches have appeared on Olx and eBay, the e-auction website.

Collectors like Narula and Singh vouch for HMT’s quality and sturdiness. Singh said his Vienna-based uncle would invariably wear HMT as his fancy Swiss watches “lost time” in the harsh winters.

Singh compared the watchmaker to India’s classic Ambassador car, which went out of production earlier this year, and Royal Enfield, the Anglo-Indian motorcycle maker.

“Ambassador car had a very bad end unfortunately. We wanted HMT to become the Royal Enfield, to reinvent itself, but apparently that never happened,” said Singh, whose father also collects HMT watches.

But the employee at HMT’s Delhi store blames “customers and government policy” for his company’s misfortunes.

HMT wouldnt be in this condition if our customers had been loyal, he said.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillanFollow Sankalp on Twitter @sankalp_sp, Tony@tonytharakan and Robert  at @bobbymacReports | Disclaimer: This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

2 comments

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When i was a kid, my father used to wear hmt watch. He had 4 watches with him all of which were hmt make but only one worked. It seems he received them as a gift from different sources and two of them never actually worked. The third one ticked its last when i was 2 years old but the one which was gifted to him by my nanaji was working.
Times change and so did the watch. He now wears Titan but i still remember that steel body hmt watch.

Posted by saxenachetan | Report as abusive

RIP, HMT, the makers of watches for the country.
The quality of gold plating and machines inside of HMT watches has been phenomenal, but HMT’s chequered growth has not been phenomenal.

Posted by Bichu | Report as abusive