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An Iconic Indian Watch Brand Faces Shutdown

  • Anjana Pasricha

The only HMT store in the New Delhi, India market, Sept. 17, 2014. (VOA / A. Pasricha)

The only HMT store in the New Delhi, India market, Sept. 17, 2014. (VOA / A. Pasricha)

In India, the winding down of an iconic watch brand is being seen as a signal that measuring time accurately is not enough to keep pace in a fast-changing world. Nonetheless, many Indians say they will miss the watch brand that for nearly three decades was billed as the timekeeper of the nation.

The solitary outlet selling watches made by Hindustan Machine Tools Limited (HMT) in the Indian capital lies in a back alley of a busy market, but there are no customers.

The shop’s shutters could soon come down - HMT is one of six loss-making state-owned companies that the government proposes to close.

HMT set up shop in 1961 and proudly ruled the country’s watch market at a time when a wristwatch was a coveted item - for decades, India’s closed economy meant limited access to goods.

The bulky timepiece was the prize for students who passed with flying colors, the top pick for a wedding gift, a proud statement on office goers’ wrists.

The firm won accolades for its quality. Raghu Viswanath, who heads brand consultancy firm Vertebrand, recalled there was even a waiting period for some brands.

“I remember the time as a young kid more than 40 years ago, when virtually you had go and book it at a watch counter and wait for it to come to wear it on your wrist. That was the kind of equity that it had,” said Viswanath.

But as economic liberalization brought in both domestic and foreign competitors, HMT turned into another relic of India’s socialist past. The company has steadily lost market share and accumulated losses for over a decade.

Brand consultant Harish Bijoor of Harish Bijoor Consults Inc. said HMT fell behind when a watch was transformed from a simple time-keeper to a status symbol and a fashion accessory.

“The watch ceased to be a functional item after a while. It became a cosmetic item. The government did not sense consumer change and it got stuck in a kind of time warp,” said Bijoor.

Viswanath said that like with many state-owned firms, there was too little emphasis on innovation. That is why the watchmaker could not stand the test of time.

“In that kind of a scenario it was very important for HMT to try to keep reinventing itself. They continued to be kind of frozen in the past and refused to do anything much to be able to enhance the whole look and feel of the watch as well as the watch buying experience,” said Viswanath.

Still, for an older generation, some of whom still have an HMT watch tucked away in their cupboards, the company’s upcoming shutdown brings a wave of nostalgia.

Umesh Sood, 69, recalls it was a matter of pride to get hold of an HMT watch.

“By the time you were in ninth class or 10th class you got an HMT watch from your parents and that was a big event. You queued up to buy an HMT watch,” said Sood.

Many consider HMT’s planned shutdown as the part of a symbolic end to an “old India,” when the country’s former leaders took pride in self sufficiency and setting up state-owned domestic manufacturing units. Dozens are clocking up losses.

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is also laying emphasis on turning India into a major manufacturing hub through a campaign dubbed “Make in India.” But in a sign that times have changed from building state-owned enterprises, he is now inviting domestic and foreign businesses to set up shop, hoping to attract billions of dollars in investment.

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