The defunct Indian brand of HMT Watches stands alone in watchmaking history for valid reasons. For one, few other companies can speak of leaving behind a colony of unemployed workers so large, it might overshadow an African war zone. That is to imply how vast the empire of HMT (Hindustan Machine Tools) Watches once was.
Regrettably, there aren’t many accounts of HMT’s serial innovations. In its pursuit of setting watchmaking standards, the company went all out to manufacture every component in-house, setting up extended units to make mainsprings, hair springs, gears, pinions, shock absorber parts and even watch cases. Few companies in the world can make such a claim. For a fair note, there isn’t likely to be a shortage of HMT spare parts until the end of time. HMT’s achievements, meanwhile, such as the first Braille watch and India‘s first quartz watch in 1981, amount to little more than an assortment of plaques on the walls of the company’s administrative offices.
The story of HMT Watches has all the makings of an epic saga, about the rise and fall of a megacorporation between 1953 and 2016, a tale of intense nationalistic idealism bowing out to contemporary demands, and eventually, rendered obsolete by its own insufficiencies. At its core, the story is riddled with ironies. HMT watches – quartz, automatic and mechanical – are considered highly dependable even today; albeit, while being stripped down for spare parts.
At its peak in the 1980s, HMT had up to five factories – two in Bangalore, Karnataka, one at the industrial city of Tumkur, and one each at Srinagar, Kashmir and Ranibagh, in Nainital District, Uttarakhand. The watches made HMT a colossal success, even as the brand stays afloat today with its tractors and machinery divisions. For over half a century, the most part of independent India, HMT Watches were emblematic of the “Made in India” dream, living up its tagline as the official “Timekeepers of the Nation.”
By the end of 2016, the last of HMT’s highly prized machines were being auctioned off and craned out of its factories. In due course, the factories will be razed to the ground. On a late October morning last year (2016), at the HMT gates, we ran into Dhimant Kumar, a businessman from Rajkot, in a furious kerfuffle with the factory’s security personnel. Kumar recounted his tale of woe, of dealing with the company’s state-run administration.
The HMT Watch factories, although in a deplorably tumble-down condition, retain their “Z Security Zone” status, Kumar pointed out, ranting against a bunch of stiff-necked officials delaying his paperwork. “This is the reality of [Indian Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign,” said a despairing Kumar.
Kumar successfully bid for a handful of HMT’s high-precision Swiss-made EWAG (brand) machines – state-of-the-art equipment by current industry standards, he said with some pride. He plans to refurbish the machines to make and supply components for watchmakers such as Timex and Fossil. The incident almost sums up the fate of the HMT Watches empire.
Unsurprisingly, HMT watches rarely have glowing passages made out for discerning connoisseurs, there are no grand complications or lavishly decorated movements. HMT watches were decidedly subdued in design, being essentially unfussy, hardy timepieces – qualities that loyal fans continue to extol.
Lately, the affordable retro-cool factor has spawned a crowd of enthusiasts, fostering a culture of low-cost, high-esteem collecting. The thing about HMT watches was that they were readily favored as gifts, reasoned Jayesh Srinivasan, a university student in Chennai. For his own collection, Jayesh began picking up HMTs among his friends and family.
But where HMT watches were once attested accessories for the brightest students of the day, the brand failed to find favor among younger crowds taking to the snazz of watches by Swatch, Timex, Titan Fastrack and fashion brands like Diesel, Tommy Hilfiger, Armani and so on.
There’s a lot more to speak of by way of the HMT design ethic, as much as its failure to evolve is cited as a crucial reason that led to the company’s demise. HMT’s designs flourished with a simple strategy of personifying Indian identities, churning out models with names that seemed like they were from a roll call in a desi version of Malory Towers or Hogwarts: Adarsh, Amar, Ajay, Ajeet, Akash, Arjun, Ashok, Avinash, Deepak, Bindu, Dipti, Gouri, Harsha, Jayanth, Kailash, Kamal, Kanchan, Karan, Karna, Karthik, Kedar, Kiran, Nishant, Nutan, Prabhat, Priya, Rachana, Rajani, Rekha, Rohit, Roshan, Sandeep, Shilpa, Sourab, Surya, Tejus, Tushar, Usha, Veena, Vijay and Vikas.
The names never got any more inventive than Samay (Hindi for time), Sainik (soldier), Shakti (strength), Sona (gold), Tareeq (date) and Jubilee. The designs were predominantly stark, given the slightest flourishes, with the exception of festive HMT releases (picture Hindu deities, and the Indian tricolors on the dials). The brightly colored versions that find favor on HMT forums include the blush-pink Rajat, the ultramarine Kohinoor, the pale yellow Chethan, variations of the Pilot in purple, Arctic blue and seaweed green, the emerald Jawan, the scarlet Janata and the marigold Jhelum.
PART 2: The legacy HMT leaves behind now. Click here.