Historically Speaking A Tribute To The HMT Janata: India’s Horological Icon

Celebrating the true Everyman’s watch (literally).

by Amish Behl

The 60 year old history of watchmaking in India has effectively revolved around two names – HMT and Titan. While the dominant sentiment around HMT (est. 1961) was one of local pride, almost as if it were a household staple, Titan (est. 1984) introduced elements of trends and aspirations to the Indian watch buyer. However, if we distil it all down to a single defining timepiece in Indian watchmaking, it would, without a doubt, be the HMT Janata.

With HMT’s watch division definitively ordered to be shut down in 2016, a lot has been written about the state of affairs that brought them to this point, but there seems to not be nearly enough about the watches themselves. So an icon like the Janata most certainly deserves the spotlight.

A recap of HMT’s history

The story of watches in independent India is one that most Indians have a vague idea about. Or maybe not, if you belong to an era when you had a mobile phone before entering your teens. In any case, the oft-repeated chronology goes something like this: HMT starts making watches in the 1960s. Two golden decades follow. Quartz watches enter. Titan capitalises. Liberalisation eases import restrictions. HMT suffers. Titan marches on strong. HMT shuts down.

Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru inaugurating HMT’s first manufacturing facility in 1962

Too short? Okay, here’s a quick refresher.

In protectionist times after independence, the Government was looking at self-sufficiency in wristwatches (among other sectors) and they came down heavily on Swiss imports. Instead, they tied up with Japanese watchmaker Citizen to bring their technology to India and started producing watches locally under the HMT (Hindustan Machine Tools) banner in 1961. In the two decades that followed, HMT cemented its place in the hearts, minds and homes of Indians. No matter which elder you hear it from in the family, the anecdotes revolve around similar themes – the Kanchan being a ‘dowry watch’, the allure of the Pilot and Jawan due to their connection with the armed forces, someone at home buying one to mark a special occasion, or just otherwise fondly recounting the names of popular models like the Sona, Rajat or Kohinoor.

HMT Kohinoor – a popular model that many remember fondly. Named, of course. after the famous diamond.

In the 1970s, Japanese watches were shaking up the Swiss industry with much cheaper and more accurate quartz timepieces. In the 1980s this idea started doing the rounds in India too, but HMT thought this trend would be short-lived and didn’t do much to bring quartz watches to the production and marketing forefront. 

Meanwhile, import restrictions were eased and Titan (under the Tata Group) capitalised on the opportunity to start a quartz-only brand of watches in 1984. They were agile and rapidly gained market share, branding themselves to be more stylish, as well as ones challenging the status quo. HMT’s decision-making couldn’t keep up with this pace.

Titan’s more modern, aspirational style of marketing was one thing HMT couldn’t really keep up with. Seen here is one of the ads for Titan’s Edge collection from the 2000s, which showcases the brand’s refined approach.

HMT made fresh efforts with design and marketing in the 90s, focusing on quartz watches, but it did little to turn their fortunes around. Gradually, their financial situation worsened. The downfall continued into the 2000s and the Government announced in 2014 that HMT Watches would be shut down. This order was finalised in early 2016.

HMT continue to sell watches through their official website, but pieces of this era don’t quite feel the same; often lacking in finish and suffering from a lack of consistency and ineffective quality control. This is largely due to watches now being assembled from leftover parts as well as a sense of resignation, presumably.

But we’re celebrating the Janata in this story and talking about its special place in India’s watchmaking history. So let’s switch gears and get into it.  

Charm of the HMT Janata 

The Janata is HMT’s most storied, emblematic and charming watch for good reason. Significantly, it begins with the name itself. “Janata” in Hindi means the public; and making a watch dedicated to the people of India is how the Janata got its name. At a time when we were finding our feet as an independent nation, this humble object came along and offered something representative of collective national dreams, as well as a means to unite people through pride in a locally made item.

A variant of the Janata with ‘Art Deco’ numerals

While the representation of dreams manifested itself through charming designs and vernacular model names, unity-through-local-pride happened quite meaningfully too. Because over its lifespan, HMT made close to 15 crore (or 150 million) watches. That’s a truly astonishing number. While there is no data which could help break down this number into model-wise information, it is highly likely that the single largest model sold was indeed the Janata.

A combination of austere design and an immensely relatable name struck a chord and how. This made the HMT Janata’s ambitions of equipping the general Indian public with timekeepers transparent and appealing. It was then only natural that people went the extra mile to be part of this story. It’s also worth remembering that all this happened in an era when wristwatches were objects of utility more than anything else. But that’s not to say that buyers were oblivious to the must-have-it phenomenon. FOMO is recent only as an abbreviation, not as human tendency. 

Things did indeed come to the point where you were only permitted to purchase one watch, no matter how long you stood in line outside the HMT store (yes, there were lines). 

Linen dial of the HMT Janata Super Deluxe. The current example from the 1970s has developed a patina.

HMT Janata: The watch itself

At its core, the Janata is an extremely simple watch. It has a svelte 35mm case, is about 11mm thick (including a domed crystal) and is powered by a manually winding, 17 jewel movement. The movement is where the key technology transfer from Citizen happened. Citizen’s 0201 calibre was adapted to become HMT’s 0231 hand-winding movement and it used the Japanese watchmaker’s ‘Parashock’ shock protection system. This is why hand-winding HMT watches have “Parashock 17 Jewels” mentioned on the dial.

For all the talk of in-house movements that has (almost irrationally) taken over the world of watches, HMT did truly make these movements in-house. And I mean down to the mainspring and hairspring – parts that are usually outsourced by even those brands that claim to be fully in-house. Such was the competence they had built. It’s one of the under-appreciated or even forgotten details, but it makes HMT shutting down that much more heartbreaking.

The 35mm case may be considered diminutive by today’s standards, but its modest appearance would arguably be lost with something substantially larger. In any case (pun not intended), the size was just right for its time and I personally remain firmly in the camp which believes it’s just-right even now, regardless of fleeting trends.

HMT advertisement from 1972, showing the price of the Janata (bottom right) to be ₹112 (Image courtesy: OldIndianAds.com)

There isn’t anything complex going on with the case design or finishing, and what you get overall is quite straightforward and utilitarian. Something meant to be “the people’s watch” isn’t going to be too ornamental anyway. And honestly, it’s also too much to ask from a timepiece priced to be accessible. For some context, in 1972, the Janata cost a humble ₹112. Even until the early 2010s (before the closure announcement pushed prices up), the Janata was priced under ₹1,000. For an in-house manufactured, mechanical movement, I may add.

This accessibility, together with its completely Made in India tag, ensured that many, many Indian families had their own, personal tryst with the Janata as well as other HMT watches. Whether it involved the day they stood in line outside the HMT store to buy their watch, an occasion it commemorated or simply a lasting memory of a family member having worn one for years.

Quite recently, I had shared a somewhat rare HMT watch on Instagram, and someone I know (who wouldn’t call herself a watch enthusiast in any sense) wrote a long message to me talking about the HMT Janata that her father was gifted but barely wore, and how it came to her grandmother before ultimately being passed on to her. She said wearing the watch made her feel as if her grandmother was still with her and that she would be wearing the watch on her wedding day.

From L to R: Janata Devanagari, Janata Art Deco for BHEL, Janata Art Deco

Would the story have been all that different if it weren’t an HMT? Probably not. But we’d definitely have a lot less such stories if there were no HMT. And say what you will, the emotional connection with anything will run deeper if it were at close quarters. This added layer of kinship and local pride makes tales of HMT that much more delightful, engaging and stirring.

Some interesting design variants of the HMT Janata 

Understandably, not many divisive design elements can be adopted for a watch which makes its aspiration of mass-appeal fairly clear at the outset. Yet, over time, HMT did manage to iterate on the basic idea of the Janata – which is to essentially say, a clean, legible everyday watch with a basic, round case.

These iterations, or variants, rather, made the Janata into a sort of mini-collection of its own, spanning some inviting designs, yet none going against its founding essence. 

Showcasing the design breadth of the HMT Janata. The existence of multiple variants has turned the Janata into a collection of its own.

Without going into the much rarer versions, HMT Janatas predominantly have either of the following dial types:

  • Stick indexes with Janata printed in the Roman script
  • Stick indexes with Janata printed in the Devanagari script
  • Devanagari numerals around the dial
  • Art Deco numerals at 12-3-6-9
  • Horizontal lines on dial with Art Deco/Devanagari numerals at 12-3-6-9
  • Janata Deluxe and Super Deluxe models (which often had a slightly different case shape and, at times, Roman numerals)

The subtle variations within these broad categories are seemingly endless, with no real defined method behind it, really. I’m also personally conflicted about whether I find this arbitrariness endearing or puzzling.

However, I do have a soft spot for Janatas with Devanagari dials. It’s an obvious Indian hat-tip, but I found that HMT executed them rather well on their watches. In fact, the basic version of it with only Janata printed in Devanagari was the watch that initially drew me to HMT watches around 10 years ago. The Indian connection is integrated subtly enough and the fact that they chose to write Janata (or the public) in the local script on an otherwise plain dial, plays further into making it stand as The watch for Indian people, to my mind.

On the other end of the spectrum are Janata’s Art Deco dials with exotic typography used for the numerals. At the risk of sounding negative, the first time I saw an Art Deco Janata, I was in disbelief. This kind of flair seemed out-of-character for HMT. But once I saw a few more examples, I came to really respect the kind of elegant design choices they were making back in the day, setting the stage for the kind of cult status the Janata would go on to achieve.

Refinement in design was also showcased to a higher degree on the Deluxe and Super Deluxe variants. I found the Super Deluxe with a linen dial to be an exceptionally good example of this. It’s clear on looking at that watch that they were aiming for something greater with that watch; in no mood to not live up to the Super Deluxe moniker.

If you go looking for an HMT Janata, it’s worth noting that it isn’t uncommon to spot Janatas that weren’t necessarily born as such; repainted with adventurous colour schemes or ‘turned into’ a Devanagari/Arabic dial by those not affiliated in any way to the brand. Often they are done quite poorly, but their prevalence suggests many people don’t quite know this yet. Granted that people are at liberty to turn these watches into whatever they please; but the problem is that buyers start to associate HMT with these bright saturated colours and questionable dial design, even though the brand was far more capable than that. Those who have been around enough HMT watches can usually tell in no time if an HMT dial is original and untouched.

As an off-topic sidenote, this practice of repainting dials unsympathetically is quite a thing in India in general, not only reserved for HMTs. Many such watches have been misrepresented and sold overseas at throwaway prices, earning them the dubious nickname – “Bombay Special”.

Interest in the Janata and HMT today

Predictably, announcement of HMT’s closure led to an immediate, almost-dizzying spurt in interest in the brand, notably from those who hadn’t owned an HMT watch in the past. This coincided well with the increasing footprint of social media, resulting in greater exchange of information about the brand’s watches on dedicated hobby groups. The size of the watch enthusiast community in the country is only increasing, so we can expect the volume and quality of these exchanges to go up even further. I do feel like there are enough nuances still left to be explored within the community of HMT enthusiasts, at large.

This, of course, extends beyond just the Janata. 

The HMT Janata that spurred intrigue for the brand in the author. Seen here on a custom suede strap.

Another aspect that’s starting to make things exciting is experimentation with different straps on HMT watches by enthusiasts and owners. While the brand’s watches are robust and reliable, straps haven’t exactly been their strong point. The quality of straps they come on are quite unremarkable, to be frank. But a more considered pairing breathes new life into them, suddenly infusing more character. I’ve experienced this first-hand on several occasions and it certainly brings a fresh dimension to the enjoyment of these watches.

We’re increasingly seeing token HMT additions to watch collections as well. The charm, after all, is a bit hard to resist if one has Indian roots.

Subtle differences that make collecting HMT Janatas enjoyable

Summing up

The HMT Janata is a special watch by itself as well as for what it represents. It has its shortcomings and I’m not attempting to gloss over them. They, however, seem laughably insignificant if you consider what you get at the price you’re spending. Which is roughly the equivalent of a 3 course meal for two.

As a piece of history, cultural artefact or even just a basic mechanical watch, it packs in quite a lot for its simplicity and humble exterior. And going back to where we started, the HMT Janata remains the undisputed epitome of a quintessential Indian wristwatch.

For those who aren’t into mechanical watches, it’s also a 2000 rupee entry into physically being able to hear their ever-beating heart go tick-tock (literally), while having a fully functional timepiece with an unmistakably Indian soul. That sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn’t it?

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