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How to be a budget watch collector

Your guide to starting a watch collection, without breaking the bank

HMT's classic lines like the Janata, the Pilot and the Kohinoor are much in demand, and understandably so.
HMT's classic lines like the Janata, the Pilot and the Kohinoor are much in demand, and understandably so.

I will never buy a Rolex. As fantastic as the Submariners and the Daytonas are, they are prohibitively expensive. The same goes for the Omegas and the Jaeger-LeCoultres and the Audemars Piguets and the Longines of this world...basically any watch over 50,000. Heck, even anything over 25,000! This doesn’t necessarily mean that it makes no sense to splash the cash on a gorgeous Rolex Oyster Perpetual or a Junghans Max Bill or a Grand Seiko Snowflake. Of course you can, if you only ever wanted one watch. But I am talking about a collection here. And personally, I will never have the kind of money to even think about buying such watches.

But you don’t need to break the bank for a fantastic collection. There are countless amazing automatic watches out there which are horological masterpieces and don’t cost the moon. When the watch-collecting bug struck me, at the beginning of the year, I had two watches, both quartzes, and both very dear to me. The first is an old Sonata that belonged to my father. The second is a beautiful guilloche tank watch from Timex which my sister bought me when I started my first job, 15 years ago. Both timepieces have served me just fine all these years. But I always liked looking at watches, reading about them, and, well, wanting them—especially the automatics and mechanicals. The ritual of winding a watch every day (if it’s a mechanical), hearing the ticking of the mainspring, watching the second hand sweep around the dial—it’s all indescribably thrilling.

So I visited a watchmaker in early February. He unscrewed the back of a vintage Omega he had just serviced and showed me the movement. The mesmerizing dance of the mainspring and the gear train and the sheer aesthetics of it all made me a true convert. A greedy convert. I left his shop with an old HMT Pilot and a vintage Swiss 1972 Henri Sandoz et Fils. They are both mechanicals, and cost me 3,000. And then came the pandemic lockdown and work from home. With no one to meet and nothing to do in my down time, I started relearning the guitar, and consuming everything I could about watches. And the more I read and the more videos I watched, the more my fascination grew. Today, I have eight excellent mechanical watches, including a 1965 Favre Leuba, which together cost less than one Seiko 5 Sports Automatic. So, if you want to collect watches on a tight budget, this is what you do.

Keep an eye out for bargains

From watch boutiques to single-brand online retailers to places like eBay and Amazon, all offer hefty discounts on timepieces at various times through the year. It’s a great practice to constantly monitor them. Because sometimes the price is just right to get your hands on a watch you have been admiring from afar. As a corollary to this, also look out for EMI details. Most multi-brand outlets offer a variation of no-cost, credit and debit card EMIs. If you don’t want to part with all the money for a watch in one go, this is a useful option. Remember, though, you are incurring a debt, so always stay on top of your monthly EMI payments and don’t be driven by greed into over-committing to your monthly payouts.

Another great practice is to search out and befriend a brick-and-mortar watch maker and repairer. It’s a dying profession, so chances are that the ones still plying this honourable trade are in their 60s, and difficult to locate. I found mine, and I can’t tell you what a difference it makes. If you do so, you are guaranteed great bargains on genuine vintage watches, and even better ones on more recent second-hand ones. This also takes care of your watch-servicing needs. Plus you get to hang out with someone who really knows what he’s doing, an indescribable feeling.

Some quartz watches are worth your time

To me, mechanicals and automatics constitute “true” watchmaking. But that doesn’t mean that you turn up your nose at quartz watches. For no matter what the luxury brands tell you about their automatic tool watches, the real rugged workhorses that you will take diving, hiking or running will, in all likelihood, be quartz watches. Casio and Citizen make fantastic multi-complication quartz watches. The latter’s Eco-Drive series and the former’s Pro-Trek and Pathfinder lines offer accurate, good-looking and tough-as-nails watches that you could literally bet your life on. I would also include Victorinox quartz tool watches in this category, though they are more expensive.

The Japanese connection

If you thought legendary horological brands are the sole preserve of Switzerland, think again. The Germans and the Japanese are just as good. High-end German watches with Bauhaus-inspired designs like Junghans and Nomos Glashütte are some of the best in the world, while mid-range brands like Zeppelin make excellent watches at ridiculously low prices. For the budget collector, however, the pride of place goes to two Japanese brands: Seiko and Orient. Both are owned by Japanese giant Seiko, which also makes the luxury range Grand Seiko watches. Seiko and Orient are separate brands though and both make extremely affordable automatic watches with in-house movements. Orient’s value for money is unbeatable. From its much loved Bambino range of dress watches to the seriously good-looking and seriously good dive watches Ray and Mako, there’s an Orient for everyone. When you factor in after-market rates, both Seiko and Orient become even more affordable.

HMT, India’s hidden gem

Up to the mid-1990s, when HMT’s super-cheap and super-durable mechanical watches dominated the Indian market, nobody really thought of them as horological collectibles. HMT could boast of two things: an extremely unique history and an in-house movement. Both these factors should have been played up to turn HMT into India’s very own Seiko. However, the company was allowed to rot with shoddy marketing, rudderless leadership, zero innovation and a weird focus on churning out watches by the thousands even when the Indian market shifted to cheap quartz watches.

Since the Union government shut down HMT in 2016, however, a new generation of watch aficionados seems to have woken up to the charms of India’s once supreme timekeeper. Classic lines like the Janata, the Pilot and the Kohinoor are much in demand, and understandably so. The various iterations of these lines (and others) sport beautiful, clean, retro designs (which, by the way, are seeing a comeback in international watchmaking), the ever-reliable 020 calibre movement, and perfect case sizes of 34-38mm. Most of the classic lines are still occasionally available on the HMT website and many more can be collected in the grey market. Watch out for fake “frankenwatches” though. Of my eight mechanicals, six are HMT, and none of them cost more than 3,000. For a mechanical watch, that is the best value you will ever get.

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