Arriving at the HMT Heritage Centre & Museum in Jalahalli, Bangalore, feels a lot like climbing aboard a time machine and alighting into the past. The buzz of the main road dims, the quaint green four acres of the premises add a sepia-tinted slowness to the air, and the sight of the museum (established in 2019) in the two-storeyed 70-year-old bungalow — the erstwhile residence of the chairman — instantly brings to mind the glory days of one of India’s most beloved brands. GMT India calls Bangalore home, so it was only fitting that the team took a closer look at the historical legacy of an institution that remains so deeply rooted in the city.
Hindustan Machine Tools (HMT) was incorporated in 1953 by the government as a machine tools manufacturing company that eventually branched out into diverse sectors; the brand’s first watch factory was set up in 1961 in collaboration with Japan’s Citizen Watch Company. Visitors have access to information such as this and other milestones of the brand’s history in the first hall on the museum’s ground floor, where an elaborate timeline of the brand’s ventures is on display.
The development of the brand’s watch division will fascinate horophiles: they can learn all about the brand’s first watch factory in Bangalore that spanned 112 acres, the Ranibagh watch factory in Uttarakhand that produced some of the brand’s most iconic watches (like the semi-skeletal Jhalak), Braille watches, and pocket watches, and discover production details of the Tumkur factory that was set up in 1978. This hall also houses a piece of HMT’s legacy in the form of an inauguration certificate of a tool factory in Pinjore that dates back to 1963 — the signature on the certificate belongs to our first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
The hall leads to a room titled ‘Parts of a watch’, where the first thing that visitors will see is an extra-large version of the iconic Janata, the company’s very first watch that was launched by Nehru himself. This room shares details about the journey of HMT watches; there are pictures of former Prime Minister A. B. Vajpayee receiving HMT’s 100th million watch as well. Various watch components are on display here, including different kinds of straps, dials, and movements, whose parts have been dis-assembled and meticulously labelled. Horophiles will especially enjoy the section that allows them to take a closer look at different types of movements by using the microscope and magnifying glasses.
Serious enthusiasts will find plenty to learn in the next two sections that focus on the processes of watch manufacturing, and the tools and equipment used. From different kinds of casebacks to a wide variety of dials spotted on HMT watches over the decades, these rooms will truly thrill horophiles. A closer look at the dials on display is recommended: one will be able to spot a special MTR dial, dials bearing images of several religious deities, a Mickey Mouse dial (though vastly different from the iconic Gérald Genta creations, this is still likely to elicit a smile), and one that bears a small resemblance to the famous coloured rectangles of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. Against another wall is a section dedicated to the evolution of packaging of HMT watches over the years: from elegant wooden boxes with a vintage touch to more modern designs with brighter colours that pop, like the Disney packaging for the Zap watches. There’s one with Dennis the Menace as well.
These sections open out to a large space that houses the brand’s heavy machinery. To the left, one can see two small display cabinets, containing about two dozen watch models from over the years. This offers a little glimpse of what visitors can expect when they walk into the vast ‘Watches’ section next door. The pastel columns on the walls against which the watches are set add a cool, modern-day feel to the aesthetics of the space. On display are all of HMT’s watches ever produced; visitors are recommended to take their time to admire all the different categories. The rugged good looks of the hand-wound gents watches on display include the likes of Kohinoor, Vijay, and Avinash. These will bring to mind fathers and grandfathers who wore their HMTs with pride. The elegance of the ladies’ collection will make one think of Bollywood’s leading women of yesteryear and wonder which models were favoured by them — Priya or Asha or Dipti or something else altogether? Visitors will spot models that, despite dating back to the 90s, have a modern air about them and could very well have enjoyed a fan base in contemporary times. One such example is the Roman line, introduced in the early 90s, that highlighted the use of Roman numerals on the dial. A few models in that display cabinet flaunt oversized dials with stylish stainless steel bracelets that perfectly complement the slim Roman indices.
The next section is where visitors will be treated to a display of the brand’s most iconic watches. Available to admire here are models belonging to the slim Elegance line from the 90s, the unique four-hander Taurus (the fourth hand here indicates the date printed on the edge of the dial), and the iconic Janata / Jawahar models from the 60s. Also on display is the famed Gold Biscuit watch that has a one-gm piece of gold on the dial.
In the next room that houses the brand’s special watches is Chandana, a model from the 90s that came in a finely crafted wooden box, accompanied by a bottle of sandalwood oil. The festive aesthetic of the watch is further amplified by the fact that Chandana was available at that time in versions that came with various regional numerals as indices. The styling of all the watches in these rooms is especially endearing and evokes a strong sense of nostalgia. A case in point: the famous Pilot watch is displayed next to a couple of little toy planes that are bound to bring out smiles. The very last section on the ground floor is where visitors can take a look at the innovative Braille watches whose production dates back to the 1970s.
While the second floor is where the machine tools are displayed, on the landing of the stairs that lead up, watch enthusiasts will greatly enjoy the HMT watch advertisements from the bygone decades. From cheeky, witty copy that will bring out easy grins to a comic strip that handles the concept of time in a philosophised way and ads addressed exclusively to women and housemakers, the entire wall offers visitors a glimpse of HMT watches in their heyday.
On the way out of the museum, it is highly recommended that visitors stop by the little souvenir shop on the premises. It’s where one can pick up an HMT watch from an impressive selection on display, all of which carry the same spirit as the Museum & Heritage Centre: dollops of nostalgia that have the ability to slow down time, just for a little bit, as one acknowledges the undeniable fact that HMT’s reign as one of the country’s best-loved brands has been extremely well-earned.