Counting down: How the clock is ticking for traditional watchmakers

Counting down: How the clock is ticking for traditional watchmakers

By ANIRUDH VOHRA | | 27 February, 2016
The dying art of watchmaking seems to have few takers in today’s era of digital timepieces. And yet, the craft of making watches by hand is still kept afloat by a tiny minority of traditional watchmakers. Anirudh Vohra meets with a few of these craftsmen.

Chandni Chowk, we all have heard of this famous and celebrated market place situated in the heart of old Delhi. Several things are said about this colorful and noisy market. But whenever you walk down the market next time, mute out the constant traffic noise, the honking from stranded cars, the yelling shopkeepers and howkers.  In short imagine you are viewing a mute video of the place. See the colours of the walls, the bright clothes hanging in the walk ways, the smiles and frowns on people’s faces.

The scene will take you in a completely different world. A world of peace and amazement, and that is what Chandni Chowk is all about. Not the noisy, over crowded market place that people try to portray it as.

Tucked away in a back street of this huge market, lay several small shops that exclusively sell and repair watches. The streets are flocked by people who are either there to buy a new watch or get an old one repaired. But the narrow street with watches displayed in glass shelves on both sides, was very different fifteen years back. For these very watch sellers were watch makers.

So, it’s about time we look at the extremes of timekeeping, including the watch on your wrist. Small in every way, except for the countless hours of hard and tricky work that brought this tiny time machine to life.

“It’s been six years and I haven’t made a single watch, it’s just repair work that comes our way here,” said Kasim Sharif a 53 year old once watch maker. “It’s not that people don’t want watches any more but the mass produced watches that we also sell are the sole reasons for this lack of business. Why will anyone pay 1500 for a handmade watch from a small shop in Delhi, when you can get a branded one for 500.”

Just like band The Buggles’s song says Video killed the radio star, smart watches are said to have massacred the traditional analog time pieces that we all possess or possessed until a few months ago when the hands that told time were replaced with screens that not just tell us time but also messages, incoming calls and what not.

So much so that major watch makers are tying up with IT companies to come out with their own smart watches. Be it Titan tying up with HP or some other international brands doing the same. But this is not the reason why these small watchmakers from our own back yard seem to be going out of business.

According to Jagdish, who learnt the art of watch making from his father, “Sir, smart watches have come out now but our business started to die years ago. The mass produced watches cannot compete with our make and kind. The last watch I made took 16 hours, but a factory can churn out hundreds of better finished and better designed products in the same time frame. During my father’s time it was just HMT that used to be our biggest rival but today, there are Titans, Sonatas, Rochees and what not.”

The process of manufacturing these watches is really intricate and time consuming, several tiny little pieces are put together over a period of several hours, in a tiny box that houses the entire mechanics: a dial, a few hands and a glass top.

“I use old and thrown away timepieces and turn them into jewelery, dresses and other designs. The most intricate part is taking apart these watches, for all the gears and strings are the key features in my designs. I take around two to two and a half hours to completely disassemble a watch, so you can imagine how long it takes  for a maker to put it all together,” said Abhishek Basak a Delhi based designer. 

Rapid industrialisation killed several small time businesses in the past but the watch making industry seems to have managed a bit longer. “Things were okay till a few years ago as we had a small but regular clientel, but no more.  I sell all kinds of watches now but rarely my own,” added Jagdish.

So the handmade watch market is in its dying days, for we don’t mind spending lacs on exclusivity when it comes to high end brands, then why not these watchmakers. “It’s easy to get these handmade watches and they are a lot cheaper, but what is the point of having a watch when you don’t appreciate the piece as it doesn’t belong to high end brand, or some big designer or watchmaker,” says Abhishek Basak, who is also a collector of old watches.

“Smartwatches have come out now but our business started to die years ago. The mass-produced watches cannot compete with our make and kind. The last watch I made took 16 hours, but a factory can churn out hundreds of better finished and better designed products in the same time frame. During my father’s time it was just HMT that used to be our biggest rival but today, there are Titans, Sonatas, Rochees and what not.”

Time has gone for good old HMT watches that were once the biggest competition  for these watch makers. HMT will soon be shutting down its operations. On January 6 2016 the union cabinet approved the closure of the iconic HMT Watches. So, if   company backed by the government of India couldn’t stand the test of time, imagine how these small time watchmakers will be able to survive.

“We sell AUX cables Bluetooth speakers and other accessories for cars and mobile phones along with watches, to keep afloat. I have even sent my son to do a course in cell phone repair so that we can have another option,” said Nasheed Khan, another shopkeeper in the once ticking street.

Similar is the case with all the watch makers in the vicinity, who earlier dealt exclusively in watches, but are now morphing into other things , just to keep their boats afloat. “Only watches are not enough. We hardly sell 10-15 pieces a week and it’s not like the margins are very high. So we had to diversify there was no other option,” said Nasheed. 

In this case, survival of the fittest is a befitting phrase. Evolving with time is imperative. Just as the major watch manufacturers are tying up with the tech companies to evolve, these small time shop keepers are leaving no stone unturned to keep their lively hoods going.

Add new comment

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.