In the age of smart wearables, Javed Khan, one of the last traditional watch repairers, who has been working for close to 50 years, is breathing new life into vintage, hand-wound Swiss watches
Javed Hussain Khan, 62, leans over his workbench, his frail body arched like the handle of an umbrella, examining a watch through his eyepiece. His eyebrows have moved closer in a frown and his nose is almost buried in his palm as he tries to look at the components. His lips curled in an “o", Khan’s fingers move with a surgeon’s precision—most of the watches he works on are old and one hasty movement can tip them to the point of no return. Minutes later, the frown fades, his eyes sparkle as he puts the watch down on the table with a satisfied smile and removes the eyepiece. He seems to have solved the issue at hand and can afford to sit back and exhale on his rickety, low wooden chair.
At a time when mobile phones have replaced watches as the primary tool of timekeeping, and in a world that is embracing smart wearables over traditional timepieces, he is among the last remaining watch repairers, or ghadisaaz—a Hindustani term which, when it was coined, meant the maker of a watch, and stood for those patient craftsmen who took years to make one. In the 1983 Hrishikesh Mukherjee movie Kissi Se Na Kehna, actor Farooq Shaikh’s character is a part-time ghadisaaz. Khan repairs and resells HMTs and Titans, even vintage Swiss mechanical watches. And he has been doing this for 50 years. Khan claims no one in Delhi has been repairing vintage Swiss watches for as long.
Interestingly, the Delhi-based watch repair expert has never heard of the SIHH or BaselWorld, international fairs that champion the Swiss watch industry. But he has a vast collection of Swiss watches—from Favre-Leubas, Exodus and Roamers, which he retails for a couple of thousand rupees, to vintage Omegas, his favourites, and Rolexes: watches that cost more than Rs50,000.
Khan sources used watches from dealers across the country. He sells mostly to tourists—Thai travellers are among his biggest clientele. He has even couriered watches to customers in countries like Malaysia and Saudi Arabia.
His fame has spread through word of mouth; sometimes, tourists come looking for the “Swiss watch repairer of Nizamuddin". This is, in fact, how most antique watches come to him for repair. He points to a TAG Heuer watch his son is wearing. “A high-ranking police officer sent this watch through his constable a couple of days ago," says Khan. “Trust is a big factor when it comes to the repair of such watches."
One particular Rolex troubled him the most, he says. “When a watch comes to me, I want to get into it. I can’t relax till I fix the watch," he says. “This particular watch came from a local resident about five years ago. He told me he had sent it everywhere possible, including Switzerland, for repair, without any luck. It took me about five days to repair it, but I finally did it. The parts weren’t available and I had to make them myself."
Khan has one rule though: He doesn’t repair Chinese watches. “They don’t last," he says. “Swiss watches, on the other hand, are meant to be heirloom pieces, changing hands several times. Nothing can beat that."
The lane leading to the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya in south Delhi is crowded with devotees through the year. There are makeshift shops, almost permanent now, selling everything from neem twigs (used as toothbrushes) to dates. Overeager hawkers don’t let go of any opportunity to draw in the curious onlooker. The by-lane going towards Markazi Market is no different. It’s lined with hawkers on one side and shops on the other. Pedestrians, two-wheelers, cars, rickshaws and cows occupy what’s left of the lane. The story of Karbala is being narrated over the loudspeaker from one building. Most hawkers have radios, all playing different songs. Add to that the honking and the hawkers calling for customers, and it’s difficult to get your bearings.
Khan’s shop is little more than a hole in the wall in Markazi Market. It’s easy to miss the small signboard announcing “OLD SWISS WATCH SALE & SERVICE".
The faint smell of paint indicates that the walls have recently been given a fresh coat. There are four clocks on three walls—including two Scientifics—their pendulums oscillating in coordination like a team of athletes performing rhythmic gymnastics; their hands are aligned between 1.35 and 1.38pm, chiming within minutes of each other. The clocks are bookended by multiple shelves that stock all the paraphernalia related to the world of watches. A Bata shoebox holds prized components that are not available in the market any longer. Another yellowed, worn-out box, with Vardhman Thread inscribed on it, contains glass fronts of watches that are out of production now.
The shelves have some old refurbished HMT watches—which, Khan says, are in demand since the company shut operations in 2016—and some cheaper Swiss watches. The more expensive ones, like a 1936 Omega, are kept under lock and key in a drawer under Khan’s workbench. Another small display counter has some lookalikes. A 36mm steel and gold piece, claiming to be the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust, looks eerily similar to the original, but retails here for a mere Rs2,500. The original would cost you Rs7.97 lakh.
Khan’s workbench is cluttered: A radio tuned in to an FM channel that plays only old Bollywood songs; a passport-size photo of his wife; cardboard boxes big and small, holding springs, pins, crowns, bezels, bracelets and different components of the movement; small round steel boxes holding cleaning solutions; wooden brushes; tweezers and small screwdrivers; and about a dozen watches, several of them dismantled. The table resembles a box full of Lego pieces: Nothing makes sense on its own, until he starts putting them together, one tiny piece at a time, inside a 42mm steel case. One winding of the crown and the watch, a sum of the hundreds of individual components that were strewn on the table not so long ago, starts ticking again, almost miraculously.
Khan, the third of four sons of Afsar Jahan and Riyasat Khan, was born in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. He moved to Delhi, he says, when he was in class IV. “My father had got a job at the Waqf Board…. He wanted all of us brothers to study and do well. But I never enjoyed going to school…never liked it actually," reminisces Khan. “So I would sneak out with friends and go wandering. My father used to beat me a lot over this, but my heart was not in studies. I wanted to earn." Khan dropped out of school after class VIII, once he picked up the nuances of watch repairing (his brothers, however, graduated from college—two of them are now settled in the US and the youngest lives in Okhla, Delhi).
At the time, the Khans used to live in Nizamuddin West. “Some years after we moved, we rented out a room in our house to one Ishaq Khan from Lucknow. He used to work in a watch shop in Chandni Chowk and would bring watches home to repair," says Khan. “He used to work till late in the night…. I was fascinated with his work and the watches."
Ishaq, Khan says, came from a family of traditional watch repairers in Lucknow. His father used to have a shop in the city’s Hazratganj area, which is now managed by Ishaq’s sons.
Soon, Khan started joining Ishaq for his late-night rendezvous with watches. He would sit quietly and observe Ishaq. It became a routine. One day, Ishaq asked Khan if he wanted to learn watch repairing. “Of course, I said yes," says Khan. “He gave me a watch and asked me to open it. I kept following his lead, memorizing the positioning of each component. He handed me a brush to clean its parts. After I was done cleaning, I put the watch back together. He was surprised at the speed at which I had learnt and said, almost jokingly, that he would train me inside three months."
The first watch Khan repaired was a Western women’s watch. In 1972, he got his first job at a small shop in Chandni Chowk. “My boss was so happy with my work that he gave me a Rs10 bonus over my first salary of Rs300, asking me to buy milk for myself," smiles Khan. “I gave the money to my father. He never stopped me from working, or forced me to go to school or beat me again. I didn’t even have a moustache then," says the clean-shaven Khan.
When we meet, Khan is dressed in a full-sleeved white shirt—almost five sizes too big for his thin frame—grey trousers, black shoes and a white skull cap. He is wearing a 1960s Zenith watch that he finished repairing a day earlier, he says, talking softly, almost stammering at the start of each sentence, punctuating these with long pauses. His glasses are resting midway down the bridge of his nose, accentuating his deep-set black eyes. The wrinkles on his face widen when he smiles. He laughs often, especially while talking about his childhood and his wife.
Repairing watches is all I know and have ever done. I come to work even on Eid. Most of my fights with Kaushal were because of that. She complained I was married to my watches, not her.- Javed Khan
Kaushal Sharma, who used to live in Bhogal, near Nizamuddin, came into Khan’s life in the 1970s. “I was working at Surendra & Co., which only stocked and repaired HMT watches, in Connaught Place at that time. Kaushal came there for a job. I fell for her at first glance. Soon, our chakkar started," he says, referring to their workplace romance with a naughty smile. “We used to come to work together and leave together, often holding hands. Sometimes we would call in sick the same day, just so we could spend some time together." Khan recalls the story as if he were living it all over again, three years after he lost his wife to cancer.
“I had till then worked in several shops around Delhi and had learnt to make parts of old watches that weren’t available in the market myself. I worked at Surendra & Co. for about four years and then started my own shop in the early 1980s," he says, adding: “Kaushal and I were big movie buffs. There wasn’t a theatre in Delhi, from Shalimar Bagh to Vikaspuri, which we didn’t visit. We used to watch at least two movies every week."
Connaught Place was their favourite hangout, and Regal the theatre of choice. After watching a movie there, he says, they would hang out at Standard Restaurant, in the same building as the theatre. “She used to love a good burger and a cup of tea," he recalls. “And she was also a graduate."
Their parents were opposed to the match, but the two married in 1980 with the help of cousins, says Khan. “We fled to Kashmir for a good couple of months to avoid any lafda (trouble), and so that things could cool down here," smiles Khan. Their first child, Junaid, was born in 1985. Saif would follow 10 years later.
While Junaid, a graduate from the National School of Drama, is an actor and writer, Saif works for an online education provider in its email processing department.
In the passport-size photograph on Khan’s workbench, Kaushal is smiling, as if at Khan as he works. “We used to love Dev Anand," says Khan, looking at her photograph. Almost on cue, the radio plays Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya, one of Anand’s most popular songs from the 1960s. Khan leans back in the chair again, asking Junaid to bring tea.
Khan opens a packet of biscuits with the sweet, milky tea. His long fingers, so steady while working on a watch, tremble as he tears the plastic packet. I ask him if he ever thought of giving it all up, or retiring.
“I am so attached to the work that I never want to give it up," says Khan. “It is all I know and have ever done. I come to work even on Eid. Most of my fights with Kaushal were because of that. She complained I was married to my watches, not her," he chuckles. Khan opens his shop by noon every day and closes around midnight.
“If he stays home, he worries," butts in Junaid.
Khan explains: “There was a time, about a decade and a half ago, when I was on the verge of quitting. Mobile phones had just started coming in and people had stopped wearing watches. I used to ask myself why I learnt all this. But then I diversified into repairing and reselling antique watches, and it got better. And now, watches are coming back in fashion."
“It is all about the ungli ki pakad, or the hold of the fingers," explains Khan. “Once you open the watch and put it back together, there should be no traces left of you on that watch. It should be as good as a new, unopened piece."
Khan is a popular man in the neighbourhood and people are curious to see their affable chacha posing for the camera. “Chacha is going to come on television," one man tells another. “He is going to be famous like Amitabh Bachchan." Khan overhears this and smiles, responding to greetings from passers-by, while continuing to pose for the camera.
Some stories age better than others, like some whiskies. Khan’s is one such story that has picked up notes of love, passion and experience over the years.
“When I started on my own, I just had a small stool, which I would put on the side of the road in Nizamuddin and work," says Khan. “Today, I pay Rs6,000 as rent for this shop and earn up to Rs30,000 a month. God has been kind."