In the heart of Old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, inside the Haveli Haider Quli locality, and close to the Fatehpuri mosque stands a tall, three-storeyed building that reminds one of Mughal architecture. Located in a congested area, where pedestrians, auto rickshaws and other vehicles jostle for space, the 300-year-old haveli (in desperate need of repair) is home to Time Klinik, along with myriad other shops connected through rickety stairs.
At the Klinik, you’d find an ‘operation theatre’ of a different kind. To this shop, people from far and near send their vintage watches and clocks for repair when these time-keeping devices stop beating. In fact, one cannot miss the tagline the watch repair shop proudly displays, “Healthcare of Watches and Clocks”.
Time seems to stand still in this seemingly non-descript shop, run by watch expert Ikhlas Ahmed Shafi, who’s now in his mid 70s. As you enter the main hall, a spectacular view of wall clocks and cuckoo clocks, adorning the walls, and table clocks (some more than a century old) on shelves is bound to transport you to a bygone era, when luxury watches in India were a rarity. Lording over the pieces of nostalgia is not only Shafi himself, but two other men as well ― the caretaker of the workshop and a ‘watch doctor’, who silently repairs timepieces inside another room, armed with tweezers and eyepieces. Shafi patiently listens to every customer who comes to his shop to understand what’s ailing a watch.
The Watch Heritage
The septuagenarian has of course seen how the post-independence watch scene in India has evolved over the years. The watch business in the country has come a long way since the days when watches, especially those from foreign brands, were meant for just an elite few. “In India, the watch business is no longer in its primitive stage and brands like Titan are catering to a large section of society,” says Shafi. “Spares are now almost always available.”
His family has been associated with watches since the pre-independence days ― both his father and maternal grandfather were true-blue watch enthusiasts. “My father started this (watch distribution, assembling, and repair) business after completing his apprenticeship in his own uncle’s watch store in 1948,” says Shafi, in a warm voice.
In fact, his father was an old watch trader and distributor of Favre-Leuba, a historic watch brand. It may be noted here that in the mid-nineteenth century, watchmaker Fritz Favre visited India and launched his brand on the subcontinent, which over the years proved to be a significant market for the company. By the middle of the 1950s, the brand was able to consolidate its position in the country with an office in Bombay (now Mumbai).
So, when did Shafi decide to step into the world of watches and carry forward his family’s legacy?
Delhi to Switzerland to Delhi
After he finished school, his father asked him what he wanted to do next. “I was fond of tools, so I told him I wanted to pursue engineering,” says Shafi, as he settles into a sofa for a chat with GMT India. “My father then asked me, ‘Should I send you to Switzerland?’” This came as no surprise to him because being an old distributor of Favre-Leuba, his father knew people in Switzerland. “I was happy that I would go abroad to study,” remembers Shafi, who graduated from Delhi’s St. Columba’s School (1968 batch). “My father then wrote a letter to a Swiss company and they agreed to help me with the admission to an engineering course in that country.”
After studying micro-engineering (watchmaking was a part of the course) at a Swiss institute for four years, he came back to Delhi at his father’s insistence in 1974. “The original plan was to join the Favre-Leuba unit in Hyderabad,” says Shafi, who believes that “a watch is nothing but an engineering product”.
But fate had other plans. His father was persuaded by his friend that he could start a unit in Delhi itself. “His friend was a watch trader from Bombay and he said that we could just import parts from Switzerland, assemble, and market them under our own brand,” recalls Shafi. “So, my father called me back from Hyderabad and we started a unit in Sahibabad, 15 kms from the Old Delhi Railway Station, in 1977.” Owing to a host of red tape issues, the family later closed down the unit and Ikhlas started his watch restoration workshop in Haider Quli where he is still working at the age of 75. And thus the workshop in Chandni Chowk was born in 1992.
Married to Watches
Over the past few decades, Shafi has religiously stuck to his workshop routine “Every day, I come to the shop around 10 am and start working,” he says. “I also search for relevant watch parts, old and new. It’s a continuous process.”
So, what essentially makes him tick in a fiercely competitive watch world where change is constant? “It is the satisfaction that matters. When I revive the old, so-called irreparable pieces, after every watchmaker in the world has given up, the joy I feel is simply indescribable,” explains Shafi, for whom repairing or breathing life into really old watches, including heirloom pieces, is more than just a job.
He cites an instance. Once the Ambassador of Belgium to India gave him his rusty pocket watch for repair. Needless to say, Shafi took it up as a challenge and was able to bring the watch back to life, much to the diplomat’s delight.
A Broken Watch Is A Timeless Problem
There’s no denying the fact that watch repairing is indeed an art, blending meticulous craftsmanship with a deep understanding of intricate mechanics, and, sometimes, even historical context. It demands a keen eye for detail, steady hands, and a deep knowledge of the various types of watch mechanisms, from quartz to classic mechanical movements. While repairing watches, especially vintage or luxury models, a watchmaker often deals with tiny, delicate parts, requiring not only technical skill, but also patience and precision.
Essentially, the process involves cleaning, oiling, replacing worn-out components, and sometimes, restoring or fabricating parts that are no longer available. For instance, Shafi needs to create parts with his tools if he comes across components that have become completely obsolete.
The Time Klinik owner says that keeping your vintage watches locked away for 15-20 years is unwise ― loss of lubrication can wreak havoc on the watches. “Every five years, a vintage watch should be clinically checked for wear and tear,” he urges watch enthusiasts. “If the crystal or glass is cracked, it should be immediately replaced because humidity will creep in and damage the watch.”
An heirloom watch is not just a timepiece but a tangible connection to personal history and family heritage. Many watch enthusiasts see such timepieces as symbols of tradition; these watches can represent a rite of passage or a family legacy passed down through generations. When it comes to heirloom pieces, Shafi’s collection boasts a German clock, Junghans, which was presented to his mother when she got married (that clock has been ticking for 80 years), and a Rolex owned by his father.
The Present and the Future
Shafi refuses to believe that smartphones have usurped the pleasure of viewing time on our wrists. “It’s true that nowadays, watches are not worn for seeing time ― they are treated either as a status symbol or as something that makes one stand out from the crowd because everyone has a mobile phone these days,” he says. “But the easiest way to view time is to look at your wrist. You don’t want to see 5:50 (in digital), you want to see where the hour and minute hands are, and that is enough.” Personally, he prefers tourbillons because one can see the inner mechanisms.
The watch veteran does keep tabs on the latest global trends in horology. “Innovations are continuing in Switzerland (and in Japan) because nobody can surpass the Swiss when it comes to watchmaking innovations. Previously, the English were the pioneers,” he says. “However, luxury watch prices are only meant for the super rich. For people in the middle, a good-quality watch is enough.”
So, what does he have to say to youngsters who are considering a career in watchmaking? “I would say that watchmaking is a big step ― only a group can handle this, an individual cannot. The Tatas, for instance, are a group and that is why they are successful,” he stresses.