Timekeepers: From workmanship to the history

We speak to some watch fanatics of Kerala
A few watch collectors at the Time Graphers’ meet up in Thiruvannathapuram
A few watch collectors at the Time Graphers’ meet up in Thiruvannathapuram

At 10:56 pm (EDT) on July 20, 1969, one of history’s greatest adventures unfolded as American astronaut Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on the moon. The astronauts of the Apollo 11 were able to mark the time accurately thanks to Omega Speedmaster Professional, the watch chosen by NASA for all space missions. Later, this chronograph came to be known as the Moonwatch.

“However, on Apollo 15, the fourth crewed mission to land on the moon, astronaut David R Scott had to don his backup watch, the Bulova chronograph, after the crystal of his NASA-issued Omega Speedmaster popped off. For the remainder of the mission, it was Bulova Lunar Pilot which helped David track time,” says Sohan Balachandran with a gleaming face, as tied to his wrist was also a high-frequency quartz Bulova Lunar Pilot.

The 28-year-old is the founder of the watch collectors group Time Graphers, which has over 1,000 members across Kerala and beyond. Since its inception in 2019, the group has been conducting monthly meet-ups in Kochi and Thiruvananthapuram to share and learn everything about watches — their history, repair techniques, and more.

And the Thiruvananthapuram native, who is a student at IIT Mandi, owns a collection of around 40 watches. “I bought my first watch — a Casio — in 2013. I have been passionate about watches since then. Owning a watch also means being part of its development,” says Sohan.

More than the design, what attracts this youngster to a watch is its technical details — “compass, date window, tachymeter and the like.” His favourite, however, is the simplest and the cheapest of the lot. “It is the Casio F91, which is under Rs 1,000. It’s been a bestseller for the past 30 years. It’s an iconic watch and was worn by Barack Obama,” Sohan says.

Another die-hard fan of watches is 32-year-old businessman Shyam Nagarajan, who owns around 20 chronographs. For Shyam, owning a watch is also preserving memories of moments and of dear ones.
“I became an official watch collector only a few years ago. But the fascination began at 12 when my aunt and uncle gifted me a Quartz watch on my birthday. I also treasure a Seiko 5, which was owned by my grandfather since 1960. This watch is a time stamp for me, filled with his memories,” Shyam says.
Another precious watch in his custody is a Tissot, a gift from his wife. “Watches,” Shyam reiterates, “are a symbol of memories that never perish.” 

An investment

While that may be the case, there are also others who see watches as an investment option. Like Abdul Basith, a Perumbavoor native and a college professor in Ernakulam. “I waited to receive my first salary to buy a watch. It was in 2010, and I bought a Casio Edifice, which cost `6,000 then. It was a dream come true moment for me,” says Abdul, who’s been a watch collector for over six years and owns about 20, including HMT, Titan, Timex, Fossil, Swatch and, Casio. 

His dream watch though is a Rolex. “It is a style statement,” he says. Then there are those who collect watches to preserve a shard of history. Like Adoor native and Ortho surgeon Pradeep K Nair. The 50-year-old started collecting them after falling in love with Indian-owned HMT watches. He’s been at it for more than 10 years now. 

“I have around 600 HMT watches in my collection. I cherish the Indian brand and its history. HMT’s Pilot and Janata models are my favourites,” Pradeep says. Class 10 student Niramay Lami is the youngest in the group. Sohan, the founder of Time Grapher’s group, is his uncle. And this passion has won him the sobriquet, ‘Watch Pranthan’. 

“I grew up listening to tales about watches, their history, and about the passion that drives people to collect them. I was enamoured,” says Niramay, who uses his knowledge of watches to help friends to buy watches or gift them. The 15-year-old has 20 watches in his collection, and his favourites are Citizen Eagle 7 and DWC Heritage Collection. “For me, watches are a trove of memories,” says Niramay, whose dream watch is the Omega Speedmaster.

A craze among women too

The craze for watches is not restricted to just men. Kottayam native Pooja E owns a collection of seven watches. Though it was only this year that this 24-year-old business development associate became an official collector, her fascination for them began long ago.

“I was smitten by the workmanship. It all started 10 years ago when my father bought an Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean watch. I was the one who was tasked to regularly wind it. I was 14 then,” Pooja says. She became an official collector this year after buying watches for her parents. “I bought my mother an Omega De Ville Mini Tresor.” 

Though she owns Rolex and Tissot, her favourites remain the humble HMT Maitri and the Omega Seamaster Professional Diver 300M. She rues how watchmakers today don’t make them like before — as utilities, i.e. to tell time. “Since 2010, watches have become jewellery with little innovation in women’s dial sizes,” she says.

For 30-year-old Shaba K Jabaz, who hails from Kochi, simply collecting watches alone would not suffice. She is more interested in the technical aspects, keeping in line with her family business of watch servicing. It was started in the early 80s by her late father, K M Jabaz, who was instrumental in updating watch technicians about the latest methods.

“When there was a shift from mechanical watches to quartz, my father self-learned the technique of repairing them. He shared this knowledge with others in Kerala. In the 80s, when quartz started to rule the watch world, my father was chosen as a national service partner by Seiko. Since then, we have been the official national service partners for Seiko in India and in the SAARC countries,” says Shaba, who received her training from Tokyo, the hometown of the Seiko.

She has also been aiding watch collectors in properly maintaining their chronographs, changing their caskets, batteries, needles, etc. 

Preserving history of time

Kollam native Punthalathazham Biju owns an enviable collection in the circle of horologists. The 51-year-old’s treasured collection includes over 600 watches, and HMT accounts for 80% of them. An employee of the Kerala Water Authority, Biju began his hobby ten years ago when his father asked him to repair his hand-winding mechanical Seiko watch.

“He had owned that since his 20s when he was working in a textile shop. It was his style statement. From him, I learnt the importance of a watch. Since then, I have started to treat these pieces as more than just a time-tracking device,” Biju says.

Biju is a celebrity among collector groups, including Time Graphers. And his favourite is none other than the watch on his wrist — his father’s Seiko. Some of his rare watches include the Swiss-made Dalil Supra Qiblat Muslim Devotional Automatic watch, which enables the wearer to find the direction of Mecca; HMT Braille watches; HMT Pilot, which the Indian Air Force fighter pilot Captain Abhinandan Varthaman bought from him; HMT Shiv, released in memory of Amarnath Yatra; HMT skeleton automatic, a very popular model with American diamond stones, and Seiko Bell-Matic, a mechanical alarm watch.

Time Graphers’ collections:

The Zeno-Watch Basel is a Swiss-made quartz and mechanical watch which is popular among aviators. It was used by pilots during World War II

Gruppo Gamma’s limited edition watch with Arabic font. Nishad S N, one of the admins of the group, owns one of the only 50 pieces that were released

Casio’s G-Shock, which is both drop-resistant and water-resistant, is a fan favourite

Swiss-made Hamilton Kakhi, owned by Pradeep K Nair, is another aviator watch. They were used in wartime to set the time of bombs and cannons

The recently introduced American brand, Hoffman’s Chronograph series, owned by member Gautham Sid has a flyback function, which helps reset the timer function even when the chronograph is running

Another popular item is the Swiss-made Swatch Irony watch, which is fully assembled by robots

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