THEY MEET AS often as they can, swilling single malts and admiring their latest acquisitions, the movements of a complex series of gears and springs, the variation of the tiny hand measuring the passage of seconds, the pattern of the self-winding pendulum or the manually wound mainspring, or just contemplating the next object of their attention. They are grown men, with businesses, wives and children, but when it comes to their pricey baubles, they can be rendered quite childlike.
“It’s what keeps us sane,” says Aman Kathuria, whose day job is running his family’s stainless-steel manufacturing business but whose lifetime passion is watches, shared by 45 other members of a collectors’ club called J9. The purchase of a watch has marked every special occasion in Kathuria’s life, beginning with the Art Deco-influenced Tissot Classic Prince, a homage to its 1917 version, when he graduated from Delhi’s Sri Venkateswara College to his latest purchase—a quirky piece, with a green dial and a bronze case, an Oris 40mm Big Crown Pointer Date designed to celebrate the 80th anniversary of a special piece created in 1938 so that glove-wearing Second World War airmen could easily adjust it.
Kathuria is the kind of man Pranav Saboo can relate to. Saboo is CEO, Ethos Watch Boutiques, India’s largest chain of luxury watch boutiques with 45 stores across India, and ethoswatches.com, the country’s largest website for watches, which sells watches in the range of Rs 10,000 to Rs 2 crore. The Chandigarh-based Saboo has every plan to make both even more exclusive when he launches the first boutique in the country to sell watches from global independent watchmakers to discerning Indians. The prices will be higher but he hopes it will be worth it for those looking for distinctive work, as the world’s watch-making axis shifts from Geneva in Switzerland to Glashütte in Germany, home of the handmade Nomos and A Lange & Söhne. Both brands embody the transformations in global politics. As Gary Shteyngart wrote in The New Yorker in 2017, in ‘Confessions of a Watch Geek’, Nomos specialises in manual-winding and automatic mechanical watches and was founded in January 1990 by Roland Schwertner, two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A Lange & Söhne was founded in 1845 by Ferdinand Adolph Lange, the godfather of German watch- making. After the Second World War, the Soviets nationalised the company based in the former East Germany. Walter Lange, the great-grandson of Ferdinand, fled to the West. In 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when Lange was sixty-six years old, he returned to Glashütte and started making watches again.
It is these brands, worshipped in stores such as Contrapante in New York, that Saboo wants to bring to India. These brands, which still venerate craftsmanship, are quite content making just 500 to 3,000 watches a year. It’s their stories he finds fascinating, often traversing wars and revolutions. Brands, such as H Moser, was founded by independent watchmaker Heinrich Moser in St Petersburg, Russia in 1828, makers of pocket watches favoured by Vladimir Lenin. Saboo plans an atelier for 10 such brands under the Ethos umbrella at Chanakyapuri in Delhi by August. “They are unique in that they are a work of art and a work of wearability,” says Saboo.
At a cost of over Rs 2.5 lakh a watch, Gaurav Mehta has been giving options, such as engraving Lord Hanuman inside the watch
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Luxury watches work on the principle of exclusivity, given that they are a perfect blend of art and engineering, but they have an additional quality that reflects the values of the buyer. In this rarefied world, there is, however, a gold standard—the Rolex, whose resale value is usually double its cost. Founded in London in 1905 by Hans Wilsdorf as a company specialising in the distribution of timepieces, he started to dream of wristwatches equipped with mechanical movements manufactured by a Swiss watch-making company in Bienne. When a London secretary named Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel in 1927, Wilsdorf made sure she had a Rolex Oyster on her wrist. Rolex has kept its association with adventure by accompanying explorers from mountaintops to the depths of oceans. Ever since, the story of the watch has been of extraordinary achievement.
As Kathuria says, they don’t choose their brand ambassadors unthinkingly. “Who wouldn’t want to emulate a Roger Federer or a Jack Nicklaus?” And our very own Vijay Amritraj? Indeed, in these social media-savvy times, the more-than- hundred-year-old brand has the coolest hashtag possible: #EveryRolexTellsAStory. What’s more, the classic Swiss watch has always restricted its manufacture, ensuring demand is always higher than supply. Saboo currently finds himself torn between his two loves, his perpetual obsession, the Rolex Daytona, of which a mere 30 pieces are manufactured every year, and which has a waiting list of 1,000, much like the Birkin handbag for women, and the Parmigiani Kalpagraphe Chronomètre. “It’s a technical marvel with its integrated chronograph but it is also beautiful with its rose-gold case. I wear it with an alligator leather strap,” he says about the latter.
But are luxury watches an exclusively male preserve? Do men collect watches the way women collect handbags, with the inbuilt advantage that their acquisitions are timeless? For Anita Khatri, whose Mumbai- based company represents Ulysse Nardin, which has been in the business of watch-making since 1846 and became part of the Kering luxury conglomerate only in 2014, and Audemars Piguet, founded in 1875 and unusually still a family business, that is not so. For Khatri, watches are as much pieces of art as they are of jewellery and status symbols, all rolled into one.
They are also a deeply personal form of expression, she points out, and refers to her recent obsession: an Audemars Piguet Millenary rose-gold watch with diamonds. “It’s different as it has an elliptical shape, off-centre disc. More than that, it has a mechanical winding, which creates a special relationship with the wearer,” she adds. In the new rich India, women have been building their own watch collection to match their social appearances with equal fervour. Bejewelled watches for weddings, gold strap for everyday use, a coloured dial to go with whites and other assorted exigencies.
But Indians love their gods more than their watches perhaps, and not everyone is ready to customise luxury timepieces for them. Enter Gaurav Mehta, a former risk-insurance expert who saw an opportunity in this market and set up the Jaipur Watch Company in 2013 by blending his passion for collecting coins with his love for horology. The watchmaker offers bespoke watches to his high-value clients and the opportunity to celebrate special moments in a more meaningful way. At a cost of over Rs 2.5 lakh a watch, he has been giving clients options, such as engraving Lord Hanuman inside the watch dial or inscribing ‘Ya Ali’ in the Kufic script on another. Each task requires considerable research. The Kufic script, for instance, is the oldest calligraphic form of the various Arabic scripts and was developed in 7th century Kufa, Iraq. “It is believed the original Quran was written in it. I had help from a friend in Rampur for this. There is no way I could get it wrong,” says Mehta.
Pranav Saboo currently finds himself torn between his two loves, the Rolex Daytona, of which a mere 30 pieces are made every year, and the Parmigiant Kalpagraphe Chronometre
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He’s produced special watches for all kinds of memorable moments: from a corporate couple’s 25th wedding anniversary to a CEO celebrating a big deal. His favourites? A classic silver body embedded with a pre-Independence-era King George VI coin from 1944, marking the year of Amitabh Bachchan’s birth with his signature encrusted on the flip side of the watch, which he presented to the actor. And a made-to-measure timepiece for Gaj Singh of Jodhpur, which had the maharaja’s coat of arms and the official polo emblem.
Those are the emotions associated with the timepieces. Indeed, as the legendary Patek Philippe ad says: You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely take care of it for the next generation. As Geneva’s oldest family-owned watch company, founded in 1839, that tagline is emblematic of the brand in practice as well. The narrative around these timepieces is what tempts those with money to spend, and with India continuing to grow at around 7 per cent annually, discretionary spending in the top 25 per cent will continue to rise disproportionately. It is this market that the luxury watchmakers’ innovative narratives are aimed at.
Take Breitling’s Cinema Squad, for instance— Brad Pitt, Charlize Theron and Adam Driver tempting you to buy a timepiece that has a history that began in 1884. Or, take the 171-year-old Omega’s strategy of taking women seriously. When the watchmaker launched the latest models of the Constellation Manhattan women’s watch collection, they did so in Shanghai, China last year with their models and brand ambassadors—actresses Nicole Kidman and Liu Shishi, and models Cindy Crawford and Alessandra Ambrosio.
Shunali Khullar Shroff, Mumbai-based writer of Love in the Time of Affluenza, believes watch collection in India is happening in a Gatsby-esque way so as to buy an entry into a certain club or class of privilege. “Aspiration is a natural human trait. We all want to own that one nice watch, but to own a drawer in your closet that you call a watch drawer because collecting timepieces is your brand new hobby, then is about fulfilling some other greater need within you,” she says. People have their own ideas about how they want to enjoy their newly acquired wealth and perhaps they try everything their money can buy, including social status, she adds. “We should grant them that. The Vanderbilts and Rockefellers are known to have been exactly this acquisitive when they first came into wealth a century ago after all,” she adds.
History and myth, fashion and function, art and engineering, sentiment and synchronicity, these luxury watches have it all. From Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Apollo 11 Speedster (which has been missing since 1970 when it disappeared while in transit to the Smithsonian) to the Rolexes gifted to Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before their ascent of Mount Everest, there are few instants in time that have not been captured and savoured by the finest timekeepers to the world.
“The invention of the mechanical clock in medieval Europe…was one of the great inventions in the history of mankind…. One can think of few objects that have played so critical a role in shaping the character of life and work as clocks and watches.” So wrote economist and watch historian David S Landes in Revolution in Time. He tells the story of clocks and watches from Su Sung’s astronomical clock made in China in 1086 to the quartz- watch revolution of the 1970s. He wrote it in 1983. Otherwise, he would have, no doubt, included the return of the mechanical watches and the rise of the smart watch. And he would have marvelled at the irony that mechanical watches are far less accurate than battery-powered quartz watches, but often far more expensive, because their bearings are more intricate.
And that indeed is the hallmark of great artistry. We, like our watches, are made more beautiful by our imperfections.