Business

Watchmaker’s Tale: A Small, Independent Watch Brand From Bengaluru Is Building World-Class Watches That Tell 21st-Century Indian Stories

Karan Kamble

Nov 12, 2023, 06:42 PM | Updated Nov 13, 2023, 09:32 AM IST

MACH 1 Synchro is a limited-edition watch by Bangalore Watch Company to mark 25 years of India's Formation Aerobatics.
MACH 1 Synchro is a limited-edition watch by Bangalore Watch Company to mark 25 years of India's Formation Aerobatics.

On a hot and humid weekend in the early 2010s, Nirupesh Joshi and his wife, Mercy Amalraj, are a couple about town in Hong Kong — a densely populated lap of luxury — where Joshi leads a technical consulting team for a reputable technology company.

Since work keeps them busy on the weekdays, the weekends provide a breather to the couple, who are doing well for themselves and don’t mind attending to some retail therapy on their days off.

It is Hong Kong, after all; none can escape the tight clutches of luxury brands that closely dot the small city.

On this particular weekend, not unlike any other, Joshi and Amalraj, who don’t particularly care for watches, are spending time at watch boutiques.

It’s a hobby they have picked up recently, after tagging along on multiple occasions with a senior colleague of Joshi’s who is fond of watches and not shy of buying himself fine timepieces now and then.

At one watch store, Joshi’s eyes hover over the pieces on display before zeroing in on a certain kind, from the German brand Glashütte Original. The precise inner workings, visible through the wristwatch, strike him as particularly beautiful.

He is impressed, and his mind begins to race, making connections about similar creativity in jewellery designs back home in India. He is hard-pressed to think of Indian watches, though, with such intricate craftsmanship.

Joshi doesn’t know it yet, but this would turn out to be a breakthrough moment that, years later, would draw him into the watch business.

Hong Kong skyline at night (Photo by SHUJA OFFICIAL on Unsplash)
Hong Kong skyline at night (Photo by SHUJA OFFICIAL on Unsplash)

Watchmaking in the Garden City

Leaving behind a lucrative career in technology, Joshi now heads Bangalore Watch Company — a small, independent watch brand he founded in 2016 along with his partner in both life and business, Amalraj.

Operating from Bengaluru, which the iconic HMT Watches called home for the entirety of its life, Bangalore Watch Company produces world-class luxury wristwatches from India.

Funding the venture themselves, and partly by customers, Joshi and Amalraj have a small in-house team of about eight or nine employees sitting out of a studio just about one and a half years old and located a stone’s throw away from the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Bengaluru.

The watch company made their debut in 2018 and have since built an enthusiastic presence and energy around their wristwatches, which today find takers in over 30 countries. All their sales are online only, but they have thoughts of launching retail stores in Indian cities someday.

Unlike some of the bigger, more familiar watch enterprises, they make only a limited number of watches every year. Notably, these watches tell not just time — even the dashboard on a car or the washing machine can do that in this day and age — but special stories that, the couple believes, reflect the tastes and sensibilities of the India of today.

Through their unique timepieces, Bangalore Watch Company tells proud stories of Indian aviation, of Indian cricket, of the Indian space programme.

But the lives of its protagonists, Joshi and Amalraj, weren’t always heading down this road. It was a serendipitous journey, for which we head back once again to Hong Kong in the 2010s.

Timely Shift

The idea of a need for wristwatches to tell truly Indian stories traces back to Joshi and Amalraj’s couple of years living in Hong Kong — a place out of favour at the time among Joshi’s colleagues, who preferred the more comfortable option of Singapore.

“They (the company Joshi worked for) wanted me to head their technical consulting team for all of North Asia — which meant that I had to be based out of Hong Kong,” Joshi tells me over a chat in his studio.

Up until that point, watches had not played a significant role in Joshi’s life. Like anyone of us, he got a Titan watch as a child and later, as a grown-up, exchanged watches as gifts with near and dear ones.

“In Hong Kong, things changed,” he reveals.

Joshi says it was hard to escape the scores of luxury brands cramped into the small city of Hong Kong. “You get off the metro, you go to a restaurant, the brands are all around you.”

Hong Kong market (Photo by Paulo Evangelista on Unsplash)
Hong Kong market (Photo by Paulo Evangelista on Unsplash)

With this ever-greater exposure to luxury brands, luxury watches in particular began to catch Joshi’s eye more than ever before. “We took a new liking to the intricacies of mechanical watches and said, ‘Wow! This is a world we knew so little about’, and we almost didn’t know that this world existed.”

Joshi was particularly impressed with the German watchmaking art that is Glashütte Original. Their watches are pure handcrafted perfection, characterised by precision and care. They represent innovative watchmaking art of the highest artistic and mechanical standards.

For Joshi, this level of artisanship was unique for a watch, but not so for another category of products more familiar to him.

“We thought: ‘Hey, there are so many jewellery karigars (artisans) in India. But why are watches in India not coming with that kind of quality? Because the kind of finishing, craftsmanship (in Glashütte watches) is no different from the jewellery craftsmanship we see in India,” he says.

Glashütte watches left a lasting impact on Joshi, but a more striking experience — another of those breakthrough moments, if you like — came at another watch boutique.

He and Amalraj were at a store of the Bremont Watch Company, a British luxury watchmaker that specialises in aviated-themed watches. Right in the middle of the showroom, Joshi spotted an unmistakable cockpit ejection seat from an actual fighter plane.

Bremont’s big idea was that their aviation-styled watches were so sturdy that even if one were to eject out of a fighter plane wearing their watch, the timepiece would continue to work fine.

Interestingly, to own one of their watches, namely the Bremont MB-I, one had to have been a pilot who had ejected from a seat made by Martin-Baker, a British company that makes about 75 per cent of the world’s ejection seats.

For former pilot William Mnich, who had ejected twice from a plane, the MB-I is “a beautiful timepiece, but more importantly, it's a symbol of being pulled back from the edge of the abyss,” as revealed to Condé Nast Traveller in 2015.

Such was the level of storytelling around Bremont watches. “That, to us, was another moment where we were like, ‘Okay, storytelling is everything in watches’.”

Back home in India, Joshi found stereotypical imagery on timepieces — an Indian god on the dial or a colonial monument on the back, for example. “I can’t relate to any colonial monument any more because it doesn’t reflect the view of India that I have today. And here is a company, Bremont, that is doing something so modern and claiming ‘proudly British’.”

(Photo: Bremont Watches/Facebook)
(Photo: Bremont Watches/Facebook)

The wheels began to turn. Joshi and Amalraj launched into brainstorming sessions, which mainly took the form of “armchair discussions over dinner and drinks.” They noted the rise of many Indian brands that were taking off across a wide airstrip — coffee, clothing, beauty, liquor, you name it.

“They were all pushing the envelope and proudly producing products that could stand up to anyone, shoulder to shoulder, from an international brand and still compete toughly,” says Joshi. “They are making world-class products with Indian-origin. But with watches, there weren’t any.”

There lay a window of opportunity for Joshi and Amalraj.

But there was just one problem — Joshi had a full-fledged career in the technology industry. “My two year-stint in Hong Kong was coming to a close. The company wanted me to move on from there and probably move to Japan or Singapore to build the next team there.”

However, he wasn’t sure if he wanted to continue on with the same nature of job and career for the next 15 years.

“At that point, we said, ‘Look I have to pause now, because I don’t think that I can move every two years and subject my spouse to that, so we need a break now’.”

Soon after, the couple took a six-month sabbatical with the objective of ultimately making a decision whether to keep going with their technology careers. They travelled during this time, which included camping in Mongolia for two weeks.

They returned with new energy to “do something on our own.”

“We were very inspired by what was happening in India at that time. We saw a new India taking shape. This was 2016. And we said, ‘We want to be a part of this change that’s happening in India right now. We want to be building something here today for the next 50 years. Because now is the time to build in India'.”

Interestingly, what exactly they would build was “a secondary conversation.”

Joshi quit his job in Hong Kong and returned to Bengaluru, India. He and Amalraj had a few interesting answers to the question of “What next?” Chief among the ideas were running a ramen restaurant and building a watch company.

“We’d probably be running an Indo-Asian restaurant by now,” Joshi tells me with a chuckle.

In late 2016, the couple decided to build a watch company after a lot of research and drawing on their collective experience in consulting and product marketing.

Thus came to be Bangalore Watch Company.

Entry lobby of the Bangalore Watch Company studio
Entry lobby of the Bangalore Watch Company studio

World-Class, Made In India

Two core beliefs form the foundation of Bangalore Watch Company — that world-class products can indeed be built from India, and that the outdated grammar of design and storytelling around Indian products is in need of an overhaul.

The belief in India’s potential and ability to make truly world-class products stems from Joshi and Amalraj’s own personal life experiences and philosophy. 

“We like to think of ourselves as world-class executives,” says Joshi. “We have our origins rooted in small towns in India with very modest upbringing, but we’ve been able to go build teams in Boston, in Hong Kong, in Seoul, and build very successful teams and help very successful businesses.”

That’s true. Joshi was born and raised in Chennai, and later moved to Madurai for his education, where he met Amalraj, a Madurai local and his classmate in the Master’s programme. After completing their education, they moved to Bengaluru in search of well-paying jobs. Years later, they were leading teams in different parts of the world.

If they could do that, Joshi wondered, “Then, why can’t we build a world-class product from India? Why should we always think of Indian products as mediocre?”

A world-class product isn't merely mechanically great. It has a story to tell. Joshi feels Indian products feature designs that scream “India,” erasing any chance of subtlety or minimalism.

“They’ll have peacocks, elephants, snake charmers, the Taj Mahal, or the Ganesh picture. All due respect to people that value this, but that is not the India that we want the world to see. We (instead) wanted the world to see a modern India that reflects the sentiments of a 21st-century India, which we believe are our personal sentiments and hoped that that would be the sentiments of millions of other people like us.”

For Joshi, Indian aviation, the Indian space programme, and — How can you not? — Indian cricket constituted truly modern Indian themes that are close to the heart of the people living in this great land.

The path became clear. Joshi and Amalraj wanted to build world-class watches from India, while also changing the narrative that typically accompanied Indian products, which, according to Joshi, was “clichéd and stereotyped and still living in the 1950s.”

They got to work. Many small, independent watch brands in the United Kingdom and the United States served as a point of reference — and, more importantly, inspiration. The couple chose the route of in-house design and outsourced manufacturing.

Joshi, with his technical bent of mind, took on the engineering side of things, while Amalraj took charge of the operations.

“Mercy and I operate as left-brained, right-brained. Mercy is more detail-oriented — she can think about ‘How does this translate, how do we build, how do we assemble, how do we ship, how do we take care of customers?’ — more from an operational point of view.

“Whereas, I mostly stick to the big picture — ‘What’s the story, how are we going to position this?’ At the same time, I still do run products for our company, because I can look at a technical diagram and make sense of it.”

If customer is king, they drew on their rich kingly experience to know where to begin with the business of watches. “We knew what we want in a watch as consumers. That’s actually half the battle,” says Joshi.

“The other half is to find designers, engineers, production companies that can produce what you have in mind. I think that was just the internet. Without that, it wouldn’t have happened. So, we found a designer in Switzerland who we still work with. He translates our design ideas.”

Although Bangalore Watch Company has taken a couple of Indian designers on board over the years, they still predominantly work with the same Swiss designer because “it saves them a lot of cycles in R&D.”

“As a new company, we don’t have the luxury of spending two years trying to build a watch. You have to get it right the first time, (especially) because we have invested a significant part of our own life savings into this (business). We can’t take the risk of ‘Let’s build and see what happens’.”

Joshi and Amalraj come up with ideas for their watches and give the designer the broad vision, specifications, and sketches. After the engineering drawing is made and approved, they identify manufacturing partners who are able and willing to manufacture the components. The components are then assembled, and the watch ultimately comes together.

Although they have a team and a studio to work out of now, the couple initially did all the work by themselves. What's more, their endeavour was entirely self-funded.

“Mercy and I were the only two people (initially). We worked out of our own apartment. Until the first year and a half, we were literally labelling, packing, shipping boxes. We would only spend on R&D, production, engineering. That was the only spend, besides our own living expenses, which were very modest at the time,” Joshi says.

“Now we are a customer-funded company. Because customers pay us for what we do,” he says with some pride.

Mercy Amalraj (left) and Nirupesh Joshi of Bangalore Watch Company
Mercy Amalraj (left) and Nirupesh Joshi of Bangalore Watch Company

Storied Watches

For their first watch, Joshi and Amalraj played it safe. They came up with a simple three-hand date watch that paid a tribute to HMT Watches and other mid-century watchmakers.

“We did a simple dress watch, called it the Renaissance. It was a tribute to HMT. Because it’s Bangalore Watch Company, we are based here, (and the) headquarters of HMT was here.”

They made only 500 of these watches and sold all — even though they had to wait a year and a half since inception to make their first sale.

Learning from the experience of making the Renaissance and incorporating customer feedback, the couple decided to level up and tackle aviation-themed watchmaking.

“Aviation watches are quite popular. Many world-class companies make aviation watches, but there has never been a watch series that pays tribute to the Indian Air Force or Indian aviation, so our MACH 1 was the idea of doing that,” says Joshi.

They decided to tell the story of the MiG-21 Type 77 (NATO codename “FISHBED”) through a watch.

The Type 77 was the first supersonic fighter jet of the Indian Air Force, made by India’s state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited — which also hails from Bengaluru — under licence from the Soviet Union.

The fighter jet was inducted into the Indian Air Force in the early 1960s. It served the country for about five decades, until its retirement in 2013. During its service, it made its presence felt strongly, for instance, in the 1971 war for the liberation of Bangladesh.

“So much emotion attached with the MiG-21 — both positive and sometimes negative. But if you speak with anyone in the Force, they will say that it’s one of the best fighter planes the Air Force ever had. And that story is what we wanted to pick first and translate into a watch,” says Joshi.

Bangalore Watch Company honoured this great India-made — and also Bengaluru-made — fighter jet with its MACH 1 collection.

Joshi explains how the watch incorporates the actual aviation elements. “One is obviously the fin flash, (then) the digits on the dial that look like a cockpit, the shape of the hands, (and) the tip of the seconds hand looks like the nose cone of the MiG. And the crown is shaped like the afterburner nozzle of the MiG. It is conical shaped. And on the back of the watch, you see three MiGs flying in the V formation.”

The design aside, the watch is corrosion-resistant, since it is made of marine-grade stainless steel, and scratch-resistant, as it uses a sapphire crystal. It is also powered by a Swiss Automatic movement. “It’s a world-class watch built with an unapologetically modern Indian story,” says Joshi.

The MACH 1 collection has grown beyond the MiG-21-focused Aviator to include the variants Synchro, the Officer’s Blue, the Civilian, and, most recently, the Admiral.

The Synchro, for instance, marks 25 years of India's iconic Surya Kiran formation aerobatics team. It features a nine-aircraft diamond formation at the 9H position, while the red-and-white-striped minute hand is inspired by cockpit airspeed indicators.

The Officer’s Blue borrows from the design of the Indian Air Force Officer's Blue No 6 uniform, with the dial featuring that very shade of blue.

The Admiral, the most recent entry to the MACH 1 collection after its launch on Independence Day this year, has a dial made of steel recovered from the INS Vikrant R11.

The aircraft carrier Vikrant was inducted in 1961 and served the Indian Navy until its decommissioning in 1997 and scrapping in 2014.

MACH 1 Synchro is a limited edition watch to mark 25 years of India's Formation Aerobatics.
MACH 1 Synchro is a limited edition watch to mark 25 years of India's Formation Aerobatics.
The Officer's Blue is designed after the striking IAF Officer's Blue No 6 uniform.
The Officer's Blue is designed after the striking IAF Officer's Blue No 6 uniform.
The grey-coloured dial of the MACH 1 Admiral is reminiscent of the hull of the INS Vikrant R11 aircraft carrier.
The grey-coloured dial of the MACH 1 Admiral is reminiscent of the hull of the INS Vikrant R11 aircraft carrier.

With the MACH 1 collection, it was easy for Bangalore Watch Company to get stereotyped as a maker of military watches. Refusing to be tied down, the watch company moved to cricket-themed watches. “(It was) completely out of left field. Nobody expected us to make a cricket watch, but we did it,” says Joshi.

They named this series the Cover Drive, after the classic stroke in cricket. The watches incorporated several cricket elements: “You’ve got the three wickets at the 12 (‘O clock); you’ve got the 4 and 6 (‘O clock), which are boundary shots; and then you have the overs-tracking bezel. You can set to 50 (overs, for an ODI game) and track down, or you can set to 20 (overs, for a T20 game) and track down. And then, you have a right-hand batsman playing a cover drive shot on the back.”

“It’s a fun watch, and it’s got multiple fun colours also,” Joshi says, referring to the Outfield, Men in Blue, Yellow Jersey, the Pitch, and the Pavilion variants of this classic urban sports watch.

Each of the styles incorporates a classic colour from the game of cricket, such as the blue jersey of the Indian cricket team, the green outfield, the brown pitch, and the yellow jersey (for down south or down under).

From a cricket pitch on Earth to a crater on the Moon, Bangalore Watch Company also offers a space-themed collection of watches called the Apogee, launched in 2021. Machined from a single block of Titanium, the series includes the variants Manzinus, Earthshine, Horizon, Supernova, Deepspace, and Extraterrestrial.

One of the Apogee watches remarkably features a meteorite rock older than Earth and recovered from Scandinavia. “The rock is believed to be 4.5 billion years old. It’s older than Earth. It fell in Sweden about a million years ago. It was discovered in 1904. So, we cut a slice of that and put it in the watch and made 50 watches because we were celebrating space — and what better way to celebrate space than wearing an extraterrestrial object on your wrist? That was ahead of time,” says Joshi.

‘Limited Edition’

Bangalore Watch Company makes about 1,000 to 1,200 watches a year presently. These numbers are miniscule compared to the 15 million watches made every year by the well-known watch players. While the Bengaluru company intends to raise their volumes in the years ahead, they plan to retain the “limited edition” aspect around their wristwatches.

“If you look at watch companies in the world that are the most respected, they are not respected because of the volume of watches they make. They are respected because of the quality, the craftsmanship, and the stories of the watches.

"So, if you are making 20,000 to 30,000 watches a year, that is probably the point where we want to be. That is a 30x scale compared to where we are right now, but it is still going to be miniscule in front of the 15 million watches that anybody else is making at that point,” Joshi explains.

“We don’t want to become like some of the bigger names,” he states plainly. “We don’t think that this (Bangalore Watch Company) is a brand that every Indian will wear.”

Another reason why every Indian is not likely to sport a Bangalore Watch Company timepiece is its price point.

The timepieces aren’t light on the pocket — by design, of course. The wristwatches are priced around Rs 1 lakh, and therefore qualify as a product in the “affordable luxury segment.” For this reason, they probably carry an aspirational quality for the average person.

However, Joshi says there are two ways to look at it. “It’s aspirational for people who are buying the fashion watches today, who say, ‘Okay, someday I’ll buy this watch’. At the same time, it’s also unique for people that buy the more expensive watches. They say, ‘Okay — it’s an interesting story, respectable quality watch, at a decent price point. I have Rs 8 lakh, but I have a waitlist of two years to buy a Rolex. But I spend a lakh and a half, (and) I can buy a watch that’s made of India’s first aircraft carrier.’ Who’s gonna offer that? That’s how we see it.”

Ultimately, the story that accompanies a wristwatch is the principal draw today when any number of gadgets can tell the time.

“You don’t need a watch to tell the time. You need a watch only because you have an emotional connection with it. That emotional connection may be because it is your grandfather’s watch, it is your father’s watch, it is your first anniversary present from your spouse, or the watch that you bought with your first paycheck. What we are doing is putting stories with these high-quality watches that make these connections even stronger,” says Joshi.

“Yes, you are buying a first anniversary watch for yourselves. But you are also buying that with a space story and you work in the space industry. Or you are buying that with an aviation story and you are an aviation buff. These stories make those connections stronger,” he adds.

Many more stories are in the offing. Bangalore Watch Company have a new MACH 1 story releasing this Diwali, with three new watches planned for 2024.

There are few watch companies in the space currently occupied by Bangalore Watch Company. Ajwain, led by Vikram Narula, is a name that springs to mind. The microbrand which deals in bespoke mechanical and automatic watches even emerged around the same time as Joshi's watch company.

However, as they march on ahead, aiming to carve out a unique space for themselves in India’s watch business landscape, Bangalore Watch Company aren’t worried about competition. More than with any “competitors,” Joshi says they are “competing with the mindsets of people.”

“People have to believe that an Indian brand can make a world-class product and that I’m willing to pay what I would otherwise pay to a Swiss company in our category.”

“So, I’m going to spend Rs 1 lakh on a watch because I got a bonus,” says Joshi as he presents a scenario possible for a few. “Am I buying a Swiss brand, or am I buying this Indian brand?”

Customer is king and will make that choice after careful consideration. However, Bangalore Watch Company, with their world-class, made-in-India luxury wristwatches inspired by great Indian stories, will be determined to influence that choice in one direction only — on to your wrist.

Karan Kamble writes on science and technology. He occasionally wears the hat of a video anchor for Swarajya's online video programmes.


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