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Home / Companies / Finally, time runs out for HMT

After an agonizing period of decline and desolation lasting over two decades, and countless obituaries, HMT Watches appears to have finally run out of time. On Wednesday, the cabinet committee on economic affairs, chaired by the Prime Minister, announced a set of concrete steps that will lead to the imminent closure of a brand that once dominated the Indian market like no other.

A PIB press note said: “With a cash assistance of 427.48 crore, the three loss-making subsidiaries of HMT Ltd, namely HMT Watches Ltd, HMT Chinar Watches Ltd, HMT Bearings Ltd, will attain closure after separation of about 1,000 employees through attractive VRS/VSS (voluntary retirement scheme/voluntary separation scheme) and settlement of their dues."

All assets of these firms, the release said, will subsequently be disposed of in accordance with government policy. These assets will include, in addition to the usual detritus of land and buildings that accompany such public sector winding downs, machines that are still capable of manufacturing wristwatch movements and parts to a high standard. Till very recently it was possible to buy functioning automatic wristwatches from HMT dealers at prices that were arguably the lowest in the world. These watches all came with movements inside that were based on, or copies of, bomb-proof workhorse calibres developed by its one-time Japanese collaborator, Citizen. (For this reason, HMT watches are popular on some online watchmaking fora as cheap devices for amateur horologists to tinker with.)

HMT’s decline, therefore, is not just a matter of a public sector dinosaur being overtaken by nimble-footed private sector competitors who made better products. The story of this iconic brand’s decline is more complicated than that as reported by Mint in September 2014.

To recap briefly, HMT spent the first three decades of its life, after establishment in 1961, dominating the Indian market with market shares that often crept above 90% but declined towards the late 1980s. Some of this success was, no doubt, due to favourable government policies and import restrictions. Its hold was weakened first by the arrival of quartz watches, which the brand failed to capitalize on, and then by an opening up of the market in the late 1980s. Liberalization struck a final, fatal but not inevitable blow. HMT, had it responded to explicit signals from the market, could have remained a major player. The company racked up over 90 crore in losses in 1994, the same year in which Titan Industries made a profit of around 20 crore. The battle for the Indian wrist had been lost and lost comprehensively.

And then—like a once great empire in terminal decline—HMT watches spent years in a state of limbo existing merely to give jobs to its employees. It lost money, customers and selling points with great speed. Along the way, the government continued to make non-committal noises about reviving a brand that, like so many others of the licence raj, had more evangelists than actual buyers. The company itself, meanwhile, appears to have given up long ago. The latest entry on the ‘history’ section of the HMT Watches website is from the year 2000.

It was not that revival would have been impossible. The wristwatch market in India is perhaps growing at 20-25% per year, according to most experts. And there are few quality choices in the price bands that HMT operated in. A private investor could have, at the bare minimum, turned it into a brand of hipster repute such as Leica or Moleskine.

The agony has now ended. After selling around a 100 million watches over the last five decades, and more than living to its claim of being the ‘Timekeepers To The Nation’, HMT Watches is now being liquidated.

On Wednesday, Mint asked HMT aficionados on social media to send pictures of their favourite HMT watches with the stories that went with them. Edited excerpts:

1. Shruti Prakash

“Here’s a picture of the HMT Sujata watch of my mother. Her sister gifted it to her on her wedding day, in January 1969. Me and both my sisters have worn it over the years, and still treasure it; it’s so sleek and stylish, elegant."

2. Sahil Khan

“I recently got the HMT Pilot off Amazon after keeping an eye on it for a while to be in stock. I got it as a gift for myself —having recently raised a seed round for my food recommendation app. As expected, I got called a hipster by a bunch of folks."

3. Shankha Basu

“I was working in Mumbai during 2010-12 when I got my three HMTs. I always wanted to buy a mechanical watch and got to know more about HMT while researching watches. Many watch communities online have a section on HMT watches.

HMT’s website showed it had an outlet in Dadar. However, I had a tough time finding it. I had expected a big outlet as it was supposed to be the only authorized outlet in the heart of the city. But the outlet was very small and was managed by two very polite old gentlemen.

The first watch I bought was Janata. It is also my favourite watch mainly because of the history attached to it (the first watch model which was manufactured in India). It came with a usual leather band but I changed it to a silver bracelet. I find the watch timeless and classy.

The two other watches were Sona (a gold dress watch) and Pilot. The Pilot has a luminous coating which looks really cool in the dark. But I end up wearing the Janata on a regular basis.

The most surprising part was the price. It amazed me that while most mechanical watches cost a bomb, I got these fine pieces by HMT for less than 1,000 each."

4. Ivor Soans

“I got the NASL 03 last year. A watch collector friend who travels a lot on work found it in a shop in a small town near Madurai in Tamil Nadu.

I got my first HMT automatic the day media carried the story about HMT shutting down. Decided it was now or never. Was an NASL 02.

I went a bit crazy for a year since...have got around 60 plus HMTs and have focused on their new automatics (ADSL 02, 04) and have some very rare variants of both. Have also got old HMT Janata watches (love the simplicity of the Janata).

Thanks to the HMT craze in early 2015, met some fellow watch collectors and we now have a nice little club in Bombay that loves its watches and whisky and classic rock. We go on watch hunts to parts of Mohd Ali Road, Bohri Mohalla, etc., where old, broken down watches are bundled into sacks. Each watch costs 50. We sift through these sacks, look for dials that are in good shape and get them restored and buffed for another 400. Thanks to this, I found some other great Indian watches, too; I personally found a Hegde Golay, which was a company the Tatas invested in to try and enter the watch business during the days of the license raj. Didn’t work and a few years later, Titan was born.

The craze was incredible in the last few months of 2014 and early 2015. The Black Pilot was selling for 10,000! The White Pilot with Blue Hands were selling for astronomical amounts.

And then, HMT started putting together watches using refurbished old movements and selling as new on the HMT website. Now there is hardly any demand as all those collectors who collected dreaming of massive returns have realized that anyone who wanted a Pilot has got one. A few weeks ago, even the much elusive White Pilot with Blue Hands became available online. I know folks who paid 10K for it just weeks before.

The quality of the new HMT watches is absolutely terrible. Many watches come in a non-working condition with jammed movements. The finishing is bad and the crowns are badly fitted. In fact, fake HMT watches seem to have better quality since the movements are refurbished HMT movements anyway."

5. Dheeraj Vashisht

“HMT was an iconic Indian watch brand that was brought to life by Nehruji…even as a kid, I used to love their tag line of timekeepers to the nation.

Once I started earning, it was a passion with me to own Indian brands; so, naturally, Avinash was the first watch that I bought in 1989. Mechanical winding watches slipped away to oblivion with the advent of the new millennia, the only options in the market were the very expensive Swiss brands...

Last year, my best friend, an avid watch collector, bought 50 HMT watches at one go when he heard that HMT was shutting shop. Knowing my passion for HMT watches, he gifted me the Pilot and Janata."

6. Shankar

“I have about six of them, Janata-regular, Janata-Devnagari, Pilot, Jhalak, Braille and the handsome pocket. Hunted down the company outlet in Chennai some years ago. At the first attempt I found the shop closed at 5pm and a nearby shopkeeper quipped they ‘worked on government time’. I made it on time in the second attempt but the manager had gone out and the staff did not have keys to the racks containing watches. So I could only look at them wistfully from outside. The third attempt was a Saturday where they closed by noon and I bought watches in a frenzy. Five watches were acquired at a fraction of what it would cost to procure the nearest mechanical Swiss cousin.

A happy owner who would like to own more, I wish Titan would acquire and run HMT. It may become more expensive but at least it would survive."

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