India’s oldest and most iconic watch company is running out of time

India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (left) released the first batch of HMT watches.
India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru (left) released the first batch of HMT watches.
Image: AP Photo
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This item has been corrected.

In just the last five months, India has lost two of its iconic brands.

First, the production of the beloved Ambassador car was halted by its makers Hindustan Motors in May owing to poor demand. And now, the death knell has sounded for HMT watches, India’s oldest watchmaker.

The state-run Hindustan Machine Tools has decided to shut down HMT watches due to heavy financial losses, the Financial Express newspaper reported today. HMT didn’t respond to phone calls for comment.

The watchmaker was outperformed by Titan Company, another Indian manufacturer of watches. When Titan, part of the Tata group, introduced quartz watches at under Rs 350 in India in mid-1980s, mechanical watches—HMT’s expertise—lost their grip over the market.

But HMT dominated India’s watch market during the 1970s. Such was once its sway that it even had a waiting period, which could run up to 10 months. One of its models, Kanchan, was often a popular wedding gift, along with Bajaj scooters (also defunct) and music systems.

Established in 1961 in collaboration with Japan’s Citizen Watch Co., the first batch of HMT watches was released by India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. His underlying idea was to encourage punctuality among the workers of the young country by providing them with cheap wrist watches.

And staying true to its roots, the company used Indian names for several of its popular models including Kanchan (gold), Aditya (sun) and Janata(public).

The reasons behind HMT’s failure are similar to that of the Ambassador: Both couldn’t cope with changing consumer preferences and eventually gave in to the onslaught of foreign brands in India. The situation at HMT was so dire, that the company was unable to pay salaries to employees. Its losses ballooned from Rs 59.18 crore ($9.72 million) in 2000-01 to Rs 242.47 crore ($39.87 million) in 2012-13.

Yet, HMT’s watches still enjoy a cult status among many Indians, even transforming from a workers’ timekeeper into an item of family legacy today.

It isn’t, however, too late to buy an HMT watch. India’s largest online retailer Flikpart currently has 134 HMT models listed on its website and Ebay is offering HMT’s NASL 03 automatic watch for Rs 8, 400 ($138).

Correction (September 11): An earlier version of this story incorrectly indicated that the Titan Company introduced quartz watches in India in the mid-1980s. HMT was already making such watches by then.