When you hear “watch collection”, you immediately think of names such as Rolex, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Cartier, and Patek Philippe. You also think, rightly, that you’ll need a fortune to put together a collection that includes these brands. But here’s some news: You can build an interesting watch collection without having to mortgage your home.
The first, last, and most important point: forget resale value. If you’re collecting watches as an alternate investment, I’m sorry to say you aren’t a real collector. A true watch-lover gets pleasure from acquiring specific watches—those with some unique history, or ones that add value to a themed collection. And such watches can cost as little as Rs 5,000 a piece, if you know where to look. Almost every city and even town has at least one tiny watch repair shop, which also sells old watches. These are treasure troves for a collector, and this is where the most interesting watches can often be had. Then, of course, there are the auction houses and watch sales, where prices can cross several lakhs.
But for a beginner, a collection need not be full of timepieces that are difficult to get—you can start one right at home. Look at watches that belonged to family members. Like the one that your grandfather wore during his college days, or the one your grandmother received as a gift on her wedding day, and the one your father got as a gift for graduating from college, and, if you still have it, the first watch you ever wore.
If family collections don’t interest you, there are unique pieces you can procure. Wouldn’t it be great to have one of the first watches made by Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT), the Citizen, which later became HMT Janata? In its heyday, HMT was the pride of India. It started manufacturing watches in the early 1960s, with technical collaboration from Japan’s Citizen Watch Co. It has given us watches like the HMT Jawahar, which was named after Jawaharlal Nehru (the project’s mentor), HMT Pilot, and HMT Kohinoor. Early editions of these watches would be a wonderful part of any collection. Then, there’s the HMT watch made to commemorate the 1982 Asian Games, which had the mascot, Appu the elephant, on its dial. Or the first automatic day-date watches produced by the company.
The first watches produced by Titan would be the more recent vintages that India has to offer. The first edition Edge watches, which are among the slimmest watches in the world, could be a novel part of an India-themed collection. There are also the quartz watches; but decades later, these will be difficult to find.
For a little more, you can get hold of foreign watches with an India connect. Mahatma Gandhi used to carry a Zenith pocket watch. (In fact, I’m surprised that the company has not tapped into this legacy for its campaigns.) Want to expand that collection? Find out what brands national leaders such as Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, C. Rajagopalachari, and Sarojini Naidu wore, and see if you can lay your hands on them.
There’s also that bestseller: the Rado. Some of the chunky, gaudy, gold Diastars, often disdained by sophisticated urbanites, can add to a collection.
Still with the foreign theme, at least three Swiss brands were hugely popular from the 1930s to the 1950s—Favre-Leuba, West End, and Titoni. These watches have since disappeared, except from the memories of those born and growing up in those years.
Favre-Leuba (now a subsidiary of Titan) is a watch that people in their fifties and sixties will remember getting from their parents. Getting hold of any of the models of the early 1900s could be quite a feat—but well worth the trouble. The West End Watch Co., another storied Swiss brand, has a strong India connect: In the early 1900s, West End came up with the Sowar line, named after the elite cavalry troop of the Indian army. It’s a West End trademark, and if you manage to buy one of these, you’ve bought yourself a good slice of history. And then there’s Titoni, the youngest of the three brands. The company was active in India till Emergency was declared in 1975. Prohibitive import rates levied on foreign companies at the time made Titoni shut operations here. An interesting addition to a collection could be one of the last Titonis the company sold in India.
To be a watch collector is to be a student of history—and a researcher par excellence. You could, for instance, learn that Girard Perregaux, one of the oldest and most formidable names in haute horology (it’s been around since 1791), assembled watches in India for a couple of years in the early 1980s. Fewer than 500 pieces were made, and any one of those could be a feather in any watch collector’s cap.
Few of the watches I have spoken of are expensive. But all of them are rich in history. So, don’t just look at those pricey watch auctions; rummage in your neighbourhood store. You never know what bit of history you can unearth.
The author is the owner of Ethos Swiss Watch Studios. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Fortune India. Fortune India does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.