Luxury made-in-India watches are a surprisingly popular new trend

Topics Swiss watch | luxury watches | Watch

A new timepiece by JWC that comes embedded with an antique King George VI stamp
Among the generous coverage devoted to the 50th anniversary of the moon landing last month, the most delightful was a piece that appeared in The Atlantic. It had nothing to do with the scientific marvel that was Apollo 11, or the colossal achievement that the mission was to become. Rather, it was about a watch: the Omega Speedmaster Professional, the timepiece that Buzz Aldrin wore on the lunar surface. The watch, with the words “First Watch Worn on the Moon” engraved on the case back, continues to be immensely popular among connoisseurs, retailing at over Rs 3 lakh.

 

In the era of everything smart — your phone can tell time with way more precision than a mechanical watch — such a romantic fixation with the past is what’s still driving luxury watchmakers. A Breguet is valued as much for its exquisite craftsmanship as it is for the fact that it was once a Napoleon Bonaparte favourite. Tag Heuer still prides itself for having been the first Swiss watchmaker in space. More than anything else, watches are about sentiment — and stories.

 

Gaurav Mehta was well aware of that when he ventured into the watchmaking business with the Jaipur Watch Company (JWC) in 2013. For an industry novice like him, going up against international brands several decades old, the only way to charm prospective clients was through compelling storytelling. His watch had never been to the moon, let alone adorn the wrist of an emperor who once ruled over most of continental Europe. Mehta did have a royal obsession, though: King George VI.

JWC’s ‘Liberty’ watch
This fascination led to his collecting hundreds of coins bearing the image of the British monarch. And while dismantling a watch — he possesses over 200 HMTs and a host of gorgeous Omega De Villes — some years ago, he decided to insert one of those coins into the timepiece before putting it back together. The watch became an interesting conversation piece, and JWC — perhaps India’s first luxury watch brand — was born.

 

“What makes a watch tick is its history and rarity. Looks are important but secondary,” declares Mehta, who sits in the lobby of New Delhi’s Taj Mansingh hotel armed with a massive box full of JWC watches crafted with rare coins, some of them nearly a hundred years old. On his own wrist sits a brown-strapped JWC embedded with a one-paisa coin from the colonial era.

 

Over at Mumbai-based Horpa — a portmanteau for horology and passion — founder Rajeev Asrani is out to master the combination of aesthetic and style. “I’ve been in the watch business all my life, and after many years of visiting watch fairs across the world, I realised that there was a huge gap between fashion and luxury in India,” says Asrani. “Except for Titan, we had nothing.”

A bespoke JWC watch created using a 1947 Re 1 coin

 A watch enthusiast, Asrani is hoping to speak to what’s in vogue without compromising on the quality of construction. “We’ve come up with colourful dials and interchangeable straps in some of our models. But the process — everything is done from scratch here — is key. Every piece must look unique,” he says. Horpa’s first collection, a men’s line called C1, was introduced in 2017. It’s a 45mm chronograph available in seven variants, priced between Rs 14,500 and Rs 16,500. It has since also launched two collections for women, Mystique and Pearlette, both featuring elegant, sophisticated timepieces with an evident emphasis on versatility.

 

Another brand keen on establishing a homegrown watch culture is five-year-old Aiqon, founded by Chinmay Shah, a finance graduate who formerly worked on New York’s Wall Street. The city of Mumbai has been a constant muse for Shah, whose timepieces in the past have paid tribute to landmarks such as the Gateway of India and the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus. Another inspiration is London — the rectangular, rose-gold Aiqon Big Ben I is an ode to the Elizabeth Tower and the Big Ben clock housed inside it.

 

“When I came back from the US, I was looking at affordable luxury. And I realised that watches were a great way to showcase my creativity,” says Shah. “Some of the big brands are conservative in terms of design. With Aiqon, I wanted to exhibit something bold and very different. Plus, I was fortunate that I was able to come up with such a unique way to spell ‘icon’.”

 

Shah has been careful to price all his offerings under Rs 10,000, fully knowing that sales in the Indian watch market are often determined by looks more than functionality.

 

But elite watches have always been driven by prestige — and a bit of snobbery — which should, presumably, make these relatively new Indian brands a less than unattractive proposition. Mehta says that people will be surprised by the positive response he’s got in recent years, even with minimal advertising. “The reason we’ve done well is because we’re Indian, accessible and our design mindset matches the Indian psyche’s,” reckons Mehta, adding that the “Make in India” plank — JWC is headquartered in Jaipur but the manufacturing takes place in Bengaluru — is a significant draw for customers.

"What makes a watch tick is its history and rarity. Looks are important but secondary," Gaurav Mehta, Founder, Jaipur Watch Company
Moreover, with greater cultural awareness, the Indian customer, once unconcerned with the intricacies of watchmaking, is now more appreciative of quality craftsmanship and complex movements. That’s only fitting since India has always had a close association with luxury watches, with opulent maharajas known to be fond of brands like Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre.

“Earlier, seven out of 10 customers used to ask me what makes my watch so expensive. Now, that number is down to two. So there is maturity there,” says Mehta. JWC watches normally cost between Rs 15,000 and Rs 40,000. The bespoke variety, made to order, start at Rs 2.5 lakh.

Two variants from Horpa’s C1 collection for men
Mehta has customised watches with images of Ganesha as well as Sai Baba in the past, even selling a gold-plated one for as much as Rs 18 lakh. “When someone is willing to pay so much for an Indian watch, you can’t help but agree that there is a sense of acceptance of homegrown labels,” feels Mehta.

 

Arjun Behal, a Gururgam-based businessman and watch collector, says that this variety was long due. His favourite is the HMT Skeleton automatic, but he adds that he wouldn’t mind experimenting with an Aiqon or JWC. “In India, heritage has always played a part in watches. The new ones are a wonderful mix of history and modernity,” says Behal. “And perhaps the best part is that these brands are offering very different products from each other. There is something for everyone.”

Aiqon watches pay tribute to iconic landmarks such as the Gateway of India and London’s Big Ben
Further confirmation of that lies in the fact that JWC sold 1,200 timepieces last year — a stellar return for a brand still unknown to many. Mehta is now opening JWC’s first standalone store next week, at Delhi’s Select Citywalk mall, the highlight of which will be a brand new timepiece with an antique postage stamp featuring — no prizes for guessing — George VI at the base of its dial.

 

Mehta says: “We’ve been lucky that customers have come to us in the past. Now, with the store, we hope to reach out to them. We are nervous, but there is great confidence in the fact that people are happy working with indigenous brands.”



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