HMT watches: No longer the timekeeper to the nation

By Aniket Gupta | 14 Mar 2024


Some people love watches so much that they cannot avoid gazing at the displays outside watch shops or visiting websites displaying watches. And if they decide to buy a new watch, they have many brands to choose from, brands such as Casio, Seiko, Fossil, Timex, Titan, etc.  

Sadly, there has been one watch brand in India with a rich history, which has been forgotten over time. That brand was not known for its flashy name or design but rather for the simplicity it represented, and to many Indians, the pride of nationalism attached to it. That brand is HMT.

HMT Logo

Most people born after the 1990s may not have heard of this brand, which has been overshadowed by many others that have flooded the market, but the watches made by HMT were sought-after and cherished back in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.

HMT, or Hindustan Machine Tools Ltd., was incorporated as a public sector enterprise more than half a century ago, in 1953, at the behest of then Prime Minister Mr. Jawaharlal Nehru. The plan was to boost India’s manufacturing capacity by having a machine tool manufacturing company. HMT was incorporated and brought under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Heavy Industries.

The watches division was launched in 1961 when a team from Citizen, the Japanese watch-making company, visited India. Citizen collaborated with HMT to begin making HMT watches in Bangalore – and thus began the golden age of Indian watches.

The golden time

Post-independent India witnessed the growth of many industries – from steel and chemicals to aerated drinks. But one thing India wasn’t making, despite heavy demand, was watches. Rich Indians could afford expensive imported watches, mostly famous Swiss brands.

Sadly, there was no Indian company in those days to make watches for the general population. Hence, the idea to start HMT Watches was mooted.

HMT watches quickly rose to prominence, and by the 1970s, HMT was already an iconic brand, becoming a coveted gift for various occasions like birthdays, weddings, and farewells. The demand for watches grew in the 1960s and 1970s, and HMT catered to it. 

HMT Jhalak (semi-skeleton)

HMT watches also symbolized a sense of national pride and became a status symbol among the Indian people. The company’s iconic tagline was: Timekeeper to the Nation.

Growth impulse

The 1960s were a difficult time for the Indian economy because of four wars, two with China (in 1962 and 1967) and two with Pakistan (in 1965 and 1971), and severe droughts. The country had a foreign exchange crisis, and to bring things under control the government of India enacted the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) in 1973. 

This law prevented the entry of foreign brands into the Indian market. And many Indian brands and Indian companies were able to rise from very humble beginnings thanks to this law. HMT Watches was one such brand.

HMT Watch established two watch manufacturing units, one in Tumkur in Karnataka, in 1978 and the other in Ranikhet in what is now Uttarakhand in 1985 (then a part of Uttar Pradesh state).

During the 1970s and 1980s, HMT aggressively captured the Indian market and continuously kept upgrading its technology. The company started by selling mechanical and hand-wound watches, but the demand for its watches rose so quickly that there used to be waiting lists for months to buy these timepieces.

HMT Sona

HMT had to somehow tackle the high making time of mechanical watches and so it introduced quartz watches to the Indian market in 1981. HMT Watches introduced Sona and Vijay as quartz watches, but unfortunately, these watches flopped in the market. We will explore why later in this article.

The HMT line-up

A watch company’s success depends on the popularity and quality of its watches. HMT Watches was no stranger to this popularity, as it had launched many successful good-quality watches over the years to maintain its dominance. 

While many global watch brands take pride in their exclusivity, HMT took pride in catering to the common people of India.  So it launched ‘HMT Janata’ watches in 1963. Janata is a Hindi word that means people or citizenry. This timepiece became the most famous watch made by HMT.

HMT Janata

While there is no official data as to how many HMT Janata were made, the company is estimated to have sold about 150 million of them, and Janata was their most-sold brand.

The simple design and elegance made HMT Janata the Number One watch in the country. Even then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was once spotted wearing an HMT Janata watch.

Indira Gandhi wearing HMT Janata

Among the famous HMT watches were the Pilot, Kohinoor, Chirag, Kanchan, Jawan, and Rajat. Interestingly, HMT Kanchan was also known as the ‘dowry watch’, as it was one of the most common gifts given in dowries. The word ‘Kanchan’ has connotations such as ‘gold’, ‘wealth’, and ‘shining’.

HMT Kanchan

HMT Jawan and HMT Pilot were also popular as their names had a connection to the Indian Armed Forces.

HMT Pilot

Then there was competition 

After enjoying two decades (1960s and 1970s) of success, HMT Watches began to get some competition. Seiko, another famous Japanese watch brand, came into the Indian market with a partnership with Hyderabad Allwyn Watches in 1981. But, although the idea behind this partnership was similar to that behind the Citizen-HMT association back in 1961, Seiko had arrived a bit too late. HMT Watches had already built a loyal consumer base; so Hyderabad Allwyn Watches could not compete with HMT Watches.

HMT Watches continued its monopoly in the 1980s. Then the 1990s arrived, and with them came two difficult challenges: the liberalization of the Indian economy and the growth of Titan Watches Ltd (now simply Titan Ltd).

Other famous watch brands

With liberalization, India opened its market to foreign companies, and many famous brands such as Seiko, Cartier, Casio, and Timex entered the market. Indians started getting more watch choices, and HMT’s monopoly started weakening.

But none of these foreign watch brands would trouble HMT as an Indian watch brand did. This brand was Titan, and it proved to be a powerful competitor.

Titan vs. HMT 

Although the 1980s were a good time for HMT, problems began to appear. In 1984, the Tata group launched a joint venture with the Tamil Nadu Industrial Development Corporation to create Titan Industries Ltd., or Titan Watches Ltd., as it came to be known later. 

Titan Octane

Titan knew that HMT was already the king of hand-woven and mechanical watches; so it decided to try a different approach. Titan’s assessment of the market was that, if marketed properly, quartz watches could become the next big thing. 

So in 1987, Titan entered the Indian market with quartz watches. Just three years after their introduction, Titan watches became very popular and started to eat into HMT’s market dominance.

HMT suffered a big setback in 1986 when 350 engineers left the company and joined the rival Titan. 

By 1991, HMT had 8,000 employees and had registered its highest-ever sales revenue of Rs 300 crore. But the company had also lost a lot of its market share and iconic status to Titan.

Then, in 1991, the economic reforms brought even more competition.

With these economic reforms, several foreign brands entered the Indian market, including Japanese brands like Citizen and Casio, American brands such as Timex and Tommy Hilfiger, Swiss brands like Rolex and Swatch, and Italian brand Armani, which presented a formidable challenge to HMT. These challenges exposed some of HMT’s mistakes.

Downfall of HMT

In 1994, HMT Watches experienced something unprecedented. For the first time in 30 years, it faced losses in sales. HMT Watches hasn’t registered a single year of profit since 1994. The 21st century was even harsher for the company. The chart below is probably the best representation of how a company that was once an industry giant fell from grace.

HMT Watches sales (2000-2023)

As you can see from the chart, HMT Watches has experienced low sales throughout the 21st century. The worst year was 2015 when the BJP government decided to shut down the company’s website and just keep one store open in Bangalore. This store is still open today and is located on Bellary Road in Bangalore under the name of HMT Bhavan. HMT also has a museum called the HMT Heritage Center and Museum located in Jalahalli, Bangalore.

HMT Heritage Centre and Museum

The website was relaunched in 2019, and, as you can see from the chart, sales started to go up from that year. But, although HMT has a functioning website today, it has stopped producing iconic watches such as the Janata and Pilot. 

But how did the company fall so hard so quickly? 

Why have HMT watches failed? 

As we have seen earlier, HMT had almost no competition for three decades. Then Titan came, and from the 1990s on, many other watch brands entered the market. However, HMT Watches did not lose out to these brands; it lost to a certain watch type, which it had ignored for a long time—quartz watches.

If you are a watch enthusiast, you would know, but if not, it is important to know that quartz watches are the easiest to make and hence the cheapest type of watch available in the market.

As you may remember, HMT did introduce or tried to introduce quartz watches back in 1981, but failed. The reason: HMT had created an identity for itself as a specialized mechanical or hand-wound watchmaker. Even in 1981, during the launch of HMT quartz watches, it never advertised or marketed the watches properly. Consumers of HMT watches still preferred mechanical watches and hence the company resorted back to manufacturing and selling mechanical and hand-wound watches.  

HMT showroom

Another reason for the downfall of HMT was its production capability. We discussed earlier that HMT had two production units, but that’s about it. Mechanical watches take a long time and hard work to manufacture, and just having two manufacturing units did not cater to the public demand. 

Earlier, this was acceptable as there was no competition, so customers had no other option but to wait; but post-1991, that changed. People had many options available, and hence, rather than waiting for two to three months to get an HMT watch, they bought watches from other companies.

The third reason was the government itself. The government did not do a good job managing the company. It could have established many more manufacturing units, but it did not see that as a priority. The result was the downfall of a company once hailed as the pride of the nation. After 2001, the government even made significant budgetary cuts in HMT Watches, and finally, in 2016, the government decided to shut down other HMT divisions such as HMT Tractors, HMT Bearings, etc.

HMT Tractor

HMT did start making quartz watches of its own in the 1990s, but by then it was too late. Other brands already had a huge head start in quartz watches.

This was how an Indian watch company got lost in time. HMT watches are still available but not deemed as desirable as they once were.

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