The year was 1921. On an autumn day, presumably after he had attended the General Assembly of the League of Nations (the predecessor to the United Nations), Maharaja Sir Bhupinder Singh, the ruler of the princely state of Patiala, made his way to a rather new store on the Rue des Moulins in Geneva. Accompanied as he was by his two wives and a posse of bodyguards and secretaries, the entourage must have made quite the impression, but that was not all. An unabashed collector of all things fine—the Maharaja is also said to be the first man in India to own private aircraft—he went on to comb through dozens of pendants, bracelets and watches, before making his purchases for a whopping sum of 150,000 CHF.
Not surprisingly, this visit, made to the Vacheron Constantin store, finds a detailed mention in the brand’s archives. Among the most remarkable pieces acquired by the Maharaja on that visit was a pocket watch in 18ct yellow gold. Fitted with a chronometer, non-perpetual astronomical calendar, single-pusher chronograph, alarm clock and moon phases, the pocket watch even won the third prize at the Geneva Observatory precision trials in 1912.
Another interesting timepiece he picked up was the savonnette watch, also in 18ct yellow gold. Boasting a chronometer and a 30-minute split-seconds chronograph-counter, this piece enjoyed the distinction of winning the third prize at the Geneva observatory competitions and the first class bulletin at the Geneva and Teddington observatories.
Long before the Indian watch market came to be what it is today—bustling with timepieces from the leading brands of the world that are available through both online and physical retail—India was so much more. For one, it was where many of these storied brands’ founders flocked to in droves, looking as they were for a private audience with the elite in India, most notably its Maharajas, aristocrats, the ruling British class, and even sportspersons and historical figures. The following sections navigate the profound bond that India has fostered with the world of European horology across centuries.
Maharajas: The Travelling Indian Clients
Aside from the Maharaja of Patiala’s luxurious pursuits, a closer look at the Vacheron Constantin Heritage Collections and Archives unveils a plethora of anecdotes capturing Indian royalty’s unflinching love for the brand. The Geneva boutique’s guest book alone chronicles a lot of their visits and purchases: while the Maharaja of Bharatpur signed it on a visit in 1937, Maharaja Sir Pratap Singh of Nabha and the Maharaja of Kapurthala signed it in 1951. Similarly, the entries for 1957 document a visit by the Princess of Palitana.
Also dotted with many India-related milestones is the rich history of Cartier, the eponymous French brand. Francesca Cartier Brickell, a direct descendant of the Cartier family and author of the best-selling book, The Cartiers: The Untold Story of the Family Behind the Jewelry Empire, shares that the 1920s and ’30s were a time when many Maharajas travelled to London and Paris, and made it a point to visit and shop at the Cartier boutiques in both cities. “For instance, the Maharajas of Patiala and Kapurthala frequented Cartier Paris, while the Maharaja of Nawanagar was not only a good client of Cartier London but also became a close friend of Jacques Cartier (the youngest of the three brothers who ran Cartier London),” she says.
Tikka Shatrujit Singh, whose great grandfather, Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, is credited with being among the biggest patrons for French luxury brands, recounts how the Maharajas and princes of that era (pre-Independence) would travel for months on end and make the most of their trips to Europe. “The main mode of travel being that by sea, my grandfather and great grandfather would splurge on fine luggage—think Louis Vuittons—and return to India with these trunks filled with luxury items, including the trendy timepieces of that time.”
The Pocket Watch Obsession
Much like the worldover, pocket watches were hugely popular in pre-Independent India, especially till wristwatches caught on after World War I. Nitin Nair, Specialist, Christie’s Watch Department, Middle East, reveals how royalty and aristocracy from the Indian subcontinent traded in luxury goods, especially pocket watches, with Europe as far back as the late 19th century. “During the late 19th and early 20th century, many pocket watches were made in Europe for the Indian market. Photographs were typically sent to the artists so that they could render the enamel portraits of the Maharaja or nobleman commissioning the watch,” he shares, giving the example of a minute repeating pocket watch with a portrait of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala. The 18 ct gold pocket watch, which came with an enamel coat of arms on the reverse and a white enamel dial, was part of Christie’s Maharajas & Mughal Magnificence auction that took place in June 2019.
Among branded pocket watches in the 19th century, names such as Vacheron Constantin—among the oldest watchmakers in the world—and Cartier seemed to do remarkably well. With the former enjoying much success in the Indian market, John Roux, grandson of Jacques-Barthélémy Vacheron, even moved to Mumbai (then called Bombay) in 1869 in order to do his own prospecting, and he stayed there till 1872.
The brand continued to see soaring demand in the following years; a notable client then was tennis player Sirdar Nihal Singh. The son of Maharaja Sirdar Gulabh Singh and, more importantly, the first Indian player to play in Wimbledon, Sirdar Nihal Singh is said to have celebrated his reaching the third round in singles and the second place in doubles in 1910 with a Vacheron Constantin pocket watch.
Another sportsperson to splurge on the brand’s offerings was cricketer Ranjitsinhji Vibhaji Jadeja, who went on to become Maharaja Jam Sahib of Nawanagar in 1907, and even has India’s premier first-class cricket competition, the Ranji Trophy, named after him. In 1919, he is said to have visited the brand’s Geneva boutique and purchased timepieces worth thousands of CHF, including pocket watches.
It is important to note here that the Indian elite didn’t gravitate towards just Swiss timepieces. Sharing the example of a late 19th century pocket watch from the British firm Charles Frodsham—that was also sold by Christie’s at its Maharajas and Mughal Magnificence auction in 2019—Nair adds that it’s not necessarily Swiss pocket watches that were sought after by Indian royalty. “Right up to the beginning of the 20th century and before industrialised production, British watchmakers were extremely popular as well,” he says. Other prominent British brands that sold pocket watches in India then included Marcks and Co (based out of Bombay & Poona) and Calcutta’s Hamilton & Co.
For French jewellery brand Cartier, success in India came in the early 20th century, thanks to—among many reasons—Jacques Cartier’s visits to the region. Says Francesca, “Just as many of Cartier’s Western clients were attracted by the brand’s Indian-inspired pieces, so many of its Indian clients appreciated the Parisian-inspired elegance, simplicity and quality of Cartier’s timepieces (both pocket watches and later, wristwatches). This trend started with my great grandfather Jacques’ visit to the Delhi Durbar in 1911, the year of King George V’s coronation.”
An account in Hans Nadelhoffer’s book, Cartier, explains how the Maharajas he (Jacques) met across India were always welcoming but were “chiefly interested in pocket-watches, which were then high fashion in Paris and London”. Cashing in on the demand, the French jeweller is said to have sold a blue enamel pocket watch to the Maharaja of Kapurthala, a gold pocket watch to the Nizam of Hyderabad, a platinum one to Maharaja of Nawanagar, and a diamond-studded one to the Aga Khan. The following year (1912), Jacques visited Baroda, where he sold Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad III numerous platinum timepieces, even as he was wowed by the Maharaja’s diamonds, pearls, gem carpets, golden carriages, and even his bejewelled elephants.
However, the most fascinating pocket watch anecdote of them all would probably be the one penned by none other than the Mahatma in his journal.
The Mahatma’s Pocket Watch
Shunning material wealth, Mahatma Gandhi may have been known for his adherence to an austere life, but he did make a few concessions to this rule. And noteworthy among these was his Zenith silver pocket watch that was gifted to him (reportedly between 1915 and the 1930s) by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister.
The Swiss luxury watchmaker is said to have started selling its timepieces in India as early as 1901 and such was its reputation for precision that this pocket watch became Gandhi’s regular companion; he even relied on the timepiece’s alarm function for his daily prayers.
As luck would have it, it was stolen from him on a train journey to Kanpur, but the guilt-ridden thief returned it to him after six months and asked for his forgiveness. The entire episode finds a mention in Gandhi’s personal journal.
Years later, the pocket watch, along with Gandhi’s famous round spectacles, a bowl, dish, and a pair of his leather sandals, is said to have fetched a record sum of US$ 2,096,000 in a 2009 Antiquorum auction (Indian businessman Vijay Mallya reportedly bought the lot).
On its part, Zenith went on to replicate this pocket watch model; one equivalent aimed at the European market has had similar features (alarm function, radium dial and hands, a hinge opening at 12 o’ clock, and a movement based on a Le Phare basis), barring a slightly different pendant, with thinner width and a modelled contour.
The Era of Wristwatches
The early 20th century saw wristwatches—earlier worn almost exclusively by women—become popular among men as well, and showing the way was the military, who needed more practical horological devices to plan their manoeuvres, especially during wartime.
Once considered not so stylish, the wristwatch was now much appreciated by soldiers for the convenience and usefulness it accorded them as they wore them on their wrists while fighting in the trenches.
In India, the Maharajas, keen on staying in step with the trends, took to wristwatches with much gusto: a case in point is the 1928 Cartier Tank à Guichet (with jumping hours) that was bought by Maharajah of Patiala, Sir Bhupinder Singh.
Other Indian royalty that owned European wristwatches in that period were Hari Singh, the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, who wore a 1920s yellow and white gold Vacheron Constantin wristwatch, and Maharaja Rana Bahadur of Dholpur, who purchased a diamond embellished platinum wristwatch from the same brand in 1931.
The years 1930-31 proved crucial for another iconic Swiss watch: the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso. “In 1930, Swiss businessman César de Trey was travelling in India, where British army officers had taken up polo. Challenged to find a way to protect the glass and dial of their watches during matches, de Trey had the idea of a case that could be flipped over. He approached his friend Jacques-David LeCoultre to produce it and, through their connections with Jaeger S.A., engaged René-Alfred Chauvot to design it,” points out Matthieu Sauret, product and heritage director at Jaeger-LeCoultre.
The following year—on March 4, to be precise—a patent application had been filed in Paris for ‘a watch capable of sliding in its support and being completely turned over’. And with that, the groundbreaking Reverso (which means ‘I turn’ in Latin) was born.
“Only a few months after the patent was filed, the first Reverso models hit the market, particularly in India, where British officers were stationed,” adds Sauret. Now, much like Lacoste’s polo shirts on tennis court turfs, wristwatches had become fashionable and ergonomic, which made them even more desirable.
Shivrajkumar Khachar, who hails from the royal family of the erstwhile princely state of Jasdan (a province in Gujarat’s Rajkot district), vouches for his ancestors unrelenting love for wristwatches. “My own love for horology may have started with wall clocks but it soon extended to the world of watches, especially those collected by my ancestors, Ala Khachar the first and Ala Khachar, the second. Our family has been privileged enough to own many timepieces from the pre-Independence days and each generation has added its own pieces to it—be it Rolex, Longines, Jaeger-LeCoultre or even American brand Benrus and the British brand Mappin (of Mappin & Webb, that retails Swiss timepieces in the UK today),” he shares.
Pretty and Precious: Bejewelled and Enamelled Wristwatches
With the increasing exchange of cultural influences between India and Europe, this (the early 20th century) was also the time when Western brands looked to the East for inspiration.
Cartier, for one, borrowed heavily from India’s love for rich colours. In a nod to “Indian-inspired style” (later called the ‘Tutti Frutti’ style), the brand began mixing coloured gems together to create designs deemed rather unorthodox in the West. And while the influence played out more strongly in its jewellery line, Cartier did roll out a Tutti Frutti watch in 1929 that was but a cocktail unto itself, set as it was with diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies.
Francesca recalls a quote from her great grandfather Jacques that summed up the impression India made on him. “He is said to have observed, ‘Out there everything is flooded with the wonderful Indian sunlight. One does not see as in the English light, he is only conscious that here is a blaze of red, and there of green or yellow. It is all like an impressionist painting’.”
Along with gemstone pieces, India’s traditional enamelling technique also became a craze in Europe. In 1936, Jaeger-LeCoultre released a special Reverso, the Reverso Beauté Indienne. The watch came with an 18 ct yellow gold case that was decorated with a miniature painting in enamel. The portrait is said to be that of a Maharani of an Indian State, but her exact identity has not been confirmed till date.
Archana Kumari Singh, who hails from the royal family of Pratapgarh in Rajasthan and married into the erstwhile royal family of Badnore (also in Rajasthan), reiterates that Indian royalty would exhibit a predilection for bold wristwatches in precious metals. “Omega and Rolex were the preferred brands, and gold mesh straps were in vogue back then. Among women’s wristwatches, the delicate jewelled ones were rather popular. More often than not, classic styles in gold casing and with slim gold straps, and some with their bezels set with gems were chosen over the chunkier ones. Art deco styles also did well,” she points out, showing us her favourite—an Art Deco-era white gold diamond bracelet watch (with a hint of enamel), from the French jewellery house of Boucheron.
Platinum watches had many takers too: the Maharaja of Patiala is said to have selected a rather special ladies wristwatch on one occasion. The timepiece’s tube movement made it possible for Vacheron Constantin to craft a real watch bracelet with pierced and chiselled platinum, one where the time is read in profile.
As captivating as the above instances may be, perhaps the most intriguing wristwatch lover would have to be Tikka Raja Paramjit Singh, the son of Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala. Citing a snippet from her book (co-authored with Brigadier H.H. Sukhjit Singh), Prince, Patron and Patriarch: Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala, historian and author Cynthia Meera Frederick shares how the Heir-Apparent Tikka Raja Paramjit Singh, despite wearing more than one watch at a time, would be chronically late for his appointments. She says, “The Tikka Raja used to wear multiple wrist watches at a time, while carrying a pocket watch or two, and yet he would always be tardy, drawing admonishment from his father, the Maharaja. The latter would tell him, ‘Tikka, will you kindly explain to me why you are never punctual when you wear six watches at a time?’”
Cynthia is also quick to assert that his fine taste in fashion more than made up for his delays. “From his dashing Savile Row suits and au courant men’s jewellery accessories to the wristwatches he wore on each wrist, Tikka Raja Paramjit Singh was impeccably dressed and it was easy to be impressed by his sartorial elegance.”
A Stronger Presence in India
While most of these brands won their Indian clients over by wooing them on their visits to Europe and /or by undertaking journeys to India, there were some that went one step further: they even set up offices and/or stores in the subcontinent.
a. Favre Leuba
Dating all the way back to 1737, when an official document first mentioned Abraham Favre as an independent watchmaker in Le Locle (Switzerland), Favre Leuba is among the oldest watch brands in the world, said to be second only to Blancpain. Interestingly, the brand’s roots in India can be traced down to 1865, the year Fritz Favre—one of Abraham’s descendants—travelled to the country. The encouraging response he received then paved the way for the launch of the brand in India in 1867.
The following years also saw the brand perform rather well; in fact, India became a very important market for Favre-Leuba. Having firmly entrenched itself in the Indian market by opening its own office in Mumbai (then Bombay), the brand was in a stable position even after the Second World War. Building on this, the company earned back its standing in other regions, including Europe, America, and Africa.
b. Zenith’s Collaboration with Favre Leuba
So well-known was Favre Leuba in those days that when Zenith entered India as early as 1900-1904, it chose to do so through a tie-up with them. Their association continued into the 1960s, and the Zenith timepieces retailed in India by Favre Leuba during this period included the exact model of the pocket watch that Gandhi owned, and the brand’s famous double signed dials, notably of its 135 Chronometers.
c. West End Watch Co.
The British Raj in India also made it easy for European brands to enter the watch market here and cater to the government officials; the West End Co. was one such company.
Named after the West End district of London and set up by Alcide Droz & Sons in Switzerland in 1864, the brand rolled out its first lot of watches in 1886 and distributed them soon after in the Indian market. By the 1900s, most Indian railway companies were equipped with West End watches and clocks.
When World War I broke out in 1914, the company went on to produce 50,000 wristwatches for the soldiers of the British Indian Army who were fighting in Iraq; the brand is said to have become famous in the Middle East during this period.
With business in India flourishing, the year 1917 saw the company record another milestone: it registered its sub-brand under the name, Sowar. A term referencing the cavalryman in the British Indian Army, the Sowar line is manufactured even today.
But it was in the 1920s that the brand reached its peak in India. Working with a commercial network that covered the entire subcontinent and having main offices in Bombay and Calcutta, West End Watch Co. now called itself the largest Swiss watch brand in India.
Testifying to the clout of the brand during that period, Shivrajkumar Khachar of the House of Jasdan says, “One of the oldest timepieces owned by my great great great grandfather, Shri Ala Khachar the first, was a pocket watch by West End Watch Co. The history of the watches owned by our family goes back to more than a hundred years ago and back then, West End was a leading name.”
Standing the Test of Time
While the presence of Favre Leuba and West End Co. shrunk notably after Indian independence, some British-era enterprises continue to conduct business in the country.
d. Cooke & Kelvey
Established in 1858, Cooke & Kelvey is one such brand. It took its name from its founders, the Kolkata-based Robert Thomas Cooke and Charles Kelvey, who were clockmakers, silversmiths and jewellers, all rolled into one. In its heyday, the brand made stunning timepieces, such as diamond-set gold pendant watches with enamel work and Grande Sonnerie pocket watches, along with retailing perpetual calendars and minute repeaters from reputed Swiss brands, such as Audemars Piguet.
Moreover, some of the famous Cooke & Kelvey clocks in India from the pre-Independence days include the ones in the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, the Bhim Chandra Nag sweet shop in Kolkata, and the Fairlie Warehouse in Kolkata.
Today, more than 160 years later, the brand—run by an Indian family and with showrooms in New Delhi and Raipur—is known not only for its silverware, but also for being India’s first appointed official retail partner for Rolex since 1946. Additionally, they offer watch servicing and bespoke enamelling, and sell timepieces by Tudor (Rolex’s sister company) as well.
e. P.Orr & Sons
Founded by Peter Orr from Scotland, P.Orr & Sons started out by making clocks and then branched out into other timepieces (including retailing Rolex) and even selling gold and silverware.
The brand’s story began when Orr, joined by his younger brother Alexander, landed in Chennai (then called Madras) in 1843. After six years, Orr took over the business and relocated to 628, Mount Road, and the company was named as P.Orr & Co.
Committed to the business of selling timepieces, Orr sent his sons, James and Robert, to Switzerland to study watches and jewellery in the 1850s. In 1866, Orr senior went back to London, leaving the business to his younger son, Robert.
More than a decade later, in 1873, the brand moved into the Byzantine-style landmark building that stands even today on Mount Road, Chennai. Another interesting fact: installed at top of this building was a three-faced tower clock that was connected to the Madras Observatory and was corrected hourly to ensure accuracy.
Today, P.Orr & Sons—owned by Karumuttu Thiagarajan Chettiar’s Loyal Textiles Group—is a chain of stores that continues to sell multi-brand watches and clocks of all types: right from alarm timepieces to wall clocks, grandfather clocks, tower clocks, and survey instruments
The Allure of Made-to-Order
If Indian royalty and aristocrats showed an unwavering commitment to the leading European brands of the day, they had good reason to do so: the brands gladly accommodated the former’s custom-made orders.
As Tikka Shatrujit Singh shares, “Both my great-grandfather (Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala) and my grandfather (Tikka Raja Paramjit Singh) had an exquisite collection of watches, many of which were made-to-order pieces. After all, they had watches for each occasion—from hunting, boating to tennis, picnics, casual breakfast and fine dining—and more often than not, they came with a personal monogram.”
With royalty driven by a true fascination for custom-made watches and European brands ready to oblige, business was brisk. “It was common practice to place orders for timepieces with our monogram added—be it Rolex, JLC or Universal Geneve. One of my favourite watches would have to be the Universal Geneve with the monogram of the House of Jasdan,” enthuses Shivrajkumar Khachar.
Indeed, watches with the official crests of their respective princely states made up a significant chunk of Indian royalty’s demand for timepieces. Cynthia Meera Frederick observes how commemorative watches were highly prized. “Agents from Indian-based British jewellers, such as Hamilton & Co, Cooke & Kelvey, and P. Orr, were often sent up to Indian hill stations like Shimla and Musssorie to take orders for timepieces that were often gifted to officials during ceremonies,” she shares, adding, “and of course, the Kapurthala affiliation, as patrons of the finest European watchmakers, including Cartier, Patek Philipe, and Jaeger-LeCoultre, remains legendary.”
Many from the industry will also remember the Patek Philippe pocket watch that was custom-ordered by Tata Group founder Jamsetji Nusserwanji Tata in the late 19th century. An 18 ct pink gold timepiece, it was gifted by the pioneering industrialist to English architect James Morris in 1890. The more-than-140-years-old timepiece is said to have a dedication engraved on the back of the watch in recognition of Morris’s work on the Tata family mansion, Esplanade House, in Mumbai. It was auctioned in Hong Kong in November 2017 for a whopping $72,000.
Religion and deities too influenced customisation requests; a well-known example is the Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso Rama watch from 1949. With its Jaeger-LeCoultre Calibre 411, this steel and 18-carat yellow gold Reverso was specially made for an Indian client. The caseback, wearing an image of King Rama—the seventh avatar of the Hindu god, Vishnu—was produced in polychrome enamel, using a technique adapted from the traditional Indian art of miniature painting.
All desires and whims aside, it is the personal touch that seems to have elevated the buyer-client relationship back in the day. “Buying watches in those days was an incredibly intimate experience. The brand’s founder would sit down with the client, and have a personal dialogue—often over a meal—which in turn helped forge a special bond. So it went beyond the transaction. That was luxury in its purest form and not the mass market version we see today,” signs off Tikka Shatrujit.
At a time when social media, NFTs, and even AI are underscoring watch sales, the nostalgia of a simpler bygone era is no doubt an indulgence unto itself.