There has always been harmony in India between ancient customs and cutting-edge modern design. The late 19th century to the early to mid-20th century was a prosperous time for European high-end fashion houses. Royal families in India ensured that the market there was incredibly prosperous.
Louis Cartier’s legendary tank watch, designed in 1917, (supposedly inspired by the shape of the tank in World War 1), quickly became a hit in London and Paris, and soon the maharajas desired one for themselves. Larger timepieces, such as the four carriage clocks the Nawab of Rampur commissioned to chime like European cathedral bells, and more bespoke goods were also made for Indian customers.
Today, most of us overlook that there is another world of classic and timeless timepieces that speak of a bygone period because we are so preoccupied with having watches that test technological boundaries, conjuring up new complications, and looking forward to the future. And to give you a piece of history, here’s the watch-collecting journey of Ala Khachar the 2nd, King of Jasdan. He was a concierge of wristwatches and art deco clocks.
Hailing from the royal family, his fascination for timepieces started when he was just 10 years old. In conversation with Shivraj Khachar, Prince of Jasdan, he said, “He was visiting his maternal grandmother who lived in a village, about 12 kms from Jasdan where he first saw a carriage clock. With the glass case surrounding the clock, the movement really fascinated him. Returning with it to Jasdan, the clock found a place of prominence in the Jasdan Palace, now placed above the fireplace.
The royal family always had a passion for watch collecting. The oldest pocket watches date back to the 1850s belonging to his great great great great Darbar Shri Ala Khachar the 1st and since then each generation has been adding to the collection.
Maharajas of India and their association with pocket watches and timepieces go way back. Brands came forward and indulged in customising watches for the royal families. Talking about the story about his grandfather’s custom Rolex and Jaeger-LeCoultre watches, he said, “My great-grandfather was a watch collector, therefore over the years he received many timepieces as gifts. A special watch was presented to my grandfather by my great-grandfather at his wedding. This watch has our state emblem engraved on the dial.
Another Rolex watch was presented to my grandfather by his father-in-law (Late HH Maharaja Pratapsinhrao Gaekwad) on his engagement with my grandmother. It has the Baroda state emblem engraved at the back.”
Vintage watch collections are always considered special. They strike a chord that transports you to a place of a special memory, good times and maybe even, euphoria. What makes Ala Khachar the 2nd watch collection so special? He said, “What makes this assemblage of pocket, wrist, and table clocks unique is that its collections span six generations and more than 170 years. Throughout history, all generations have appreciated and occasionally repaired these exquisite wristwatches. One of the timepieces in this collection was made specifically for the Ruler of Jasdan at the time. There are also numerous examples of art deco pieces.”
When it comes to art deco pieces, their maintenance is paramount to ensure they always are in working condition and hold great historical value. Talking about the preserving techniques he said, “Once a year after Diwali, we clean our watches and clocks. They are gently wound and put back in their cases. In fact, there is a special person appointed at the Palace who winds all the clocks across the palace and keeps time every day!”
Vintage pieces are often considered heirlooms and passed on to the next generation. Sharing his personal favourite he said, “The Universal Geneve custom-made for my great-grandfather with the Jasdan state emblem on the dial is the one. Apart from this, we don’t see many people wear pocket watches today, owing to the age of complications, technology and more. However, I have my eyes on my great-grandfather’s pocket watch with the angels ringing the bells. It is an early 1900s piece and the intricate craftsmanship truly intrigues me.”
Did you know his collection also boasts of a pocket watch that owes its name to the British but is Swiss made? It’s none other than West End Watch Company. We don’t know what the Bombay office was called until Arnold Charpie retired, but it wasn’t “The West End Watch Co.” Droz & Cie appears to have renamed the company “The West End Watch Company” after registering that trademark in 1885 when Charpie departed and Droz & Cie acquired full control.
On the other hand, Arnold Charpie is credited for realizing that the Indian consumer and Indian market preferred a brand with a “British sounding” name. Named after the aforementioned section of Central London, “The West End Watch Company” has locations in both Bombay and Calcutta, India. The “West End” label added an “imperial flair” to the Swiss timepieces, and the combination of Swiss precise engineering and an Empire label was a huge success. Thus, the company was able to expand into the massive Indian market and the rest of the British Empire.
From watches from the era of West End Company and HMTs to Universal Geneves, his collection shows the evolution of Indian watch history. Believe it or not, there’s nothing more fascinating than a vintage pocket watch.