Interview: Prateek Shujanya Talks About HMT and the White Pilot Project

This past June, I was browsing the Watchuseek Affordables Forum and stumbled across a post from Prateek Shujanya, a young man in India who wanted to know if anyone was interested in a custom version of an HMT watch. This piqued my interest, particularly when he said he only needed 200 orders and the watches would be $35 each, shipped internationally. I was not the only one. The humble HMT has a dedicated following among a certain sect of watch nerds and before long, there were 500 orders lined up for the White Pilot Limited Edition, a reissue of a discontinued model with unique blue hands and an engraved case back. 

Not long after the Limited Edition watch project was underway, he asked the community why there was no online retailer for HMT, and if there was any interest in such an outlet. HMT watches had been available through sellers on eBay in the forums, but their own site did not offer sales, and no one else had stepped to the plate. The thread touched off some heated debate, but in a matter of weeks, Mr. Shujanya had launched HMT Watches Online, and was taking orders for a large selection of watches.  

As the Pilot project moved forward, he kept the board updated with reports from the factory, photographs, and order updates. He also fielded questions, concerns, ideas, and more than a bit of second guessing. By September, the first watches were being shipped. I was impressed, and wanted to know more, specifically, what would possess someone to undertake these projects? With rare exceptions, most watch related ventures at this end of the market are labors of love, not profit, and nobody ever got rich by organizing a low volume group buy. Through the magic of the Internet, I contacted him and asked he would share some insight with The Time Bum.

Interestingly, Prateek is not a watchmaker, engineer, or retailer. He is a doctor in training in Dehradun, India who comes from a family of doctors. Like many of us, his love of watches began as child, much to the surprise of his physician father, who never wore one, and was baffled by his son's growing collection. His interest in watches waned as medical school studies consumed his time, but a chance encounter with a Casio Edifice on eBay changed that, and the hobby took hold once more. "I later learned from the Internet about mechanical watches and I fell in love with the Swiss escapement" he said. "I just love how that escape wheel locks and unlocks the pallet fork, I can watch that thing all day!" He could watch, but not buy. A search for an affordable mechanical led him to an HMT Pilot and the collection began to grow. "For me HMT was my ticket to mechanical watches," he explained. "It has a workhorse of a movement which keeps on ticking for decades.

I asked him about the role of HMT in the Indian market, as the watch is virtually unknown in the United States. To me, they seemed like an Indian Timex, which is to say, commonly available, inexpensive and reliable. "HMT used to enjoy the same position in India as Timex enjoys in the U.S., up to the 90's." Prateek explained, "They were less pricey than the Seikos but they by no means were considered cheap, in fact it was kind of like a status symbol in the villages. HMT was known to make reliable timepieces with excellent quality and sold more than 100 million watches. They are still recognized by the older people and they look at one with fond remembrance, but as of today, HMT has little to no market share. The Indian youth buys Titan, Timex, Seiko and a whole lot of fashion brands like Tommy Hilfiger and Guess."

If the future of HMT does not lie within India, then it must lie elsewhere, but in a world with inexpensive quartz watches and even automatics like the Seiko 5 series, they must offer something unique to international collectors. "HMT watches take you back in time," he replied. "the manufacturing processes are still the same since the 60's. These are like time capsules. It is like being able to get a vintage watch brand new with one year manufacturer warranty." Even so, he is concerned about the company's future. "The fact that production is still on is no less than a miracle. Somewhere in the 90s, a big chunk of the top managers left HMT to work for Titan, which is owned by the Indian corporate giant TATA, who also bought Corus, Jaguar and Land Rover. It has been a decline for HMT Watches ever since."

We turned to the White Pilot project. Specifically, why? "The F71 project is kind of like my tribute to HMT. I helped get 500 HMTs out to those people who really care about them, and that is a big enough for me." Personally, I was struck by the fact that he convinced HMT to resurrect a discontinued design, use unique blue hands, and custom engrave the casebacks. It seemed like quite an accomplishment for a small order. He replied that HMT frequently do logo watches, but this project was more of a challenge. "My friends at HMT helped me overcome those hurdles," he said. "HMT is a big organization and one has to face a lot of inertia in getting things done. It is a lot easier if you want to get the regular models made like the black Pilot, but resurrecting a discontinued model with your own design elements is not easy."

Given the obstacles and effort, would he do another custom order? "I don't know, should I?" he replied. "There is a lot of work involved. From taking orders on the forum to getting the watches made and shipped, it takes up a lot of my time. But I want to help HMT and I want to help my fellow forum members get some cool HMT watches, so you never know, I just might do it again."

On the topic of HMT Watches Online, I noted that he went from floating the idea of an online retailer to actually creating one rather quickly. This must have been a breeze, right?  "Nothing is as easy as it looks!" he said. "I had to do a lot of research and learn a bit of coding to get the store up and running. Even if you hire a coder and a designer it is better to know a little code to carry out routine jobs. But once you get a hang of it, it is cool." He explained that he saw a demand for HMTs in the forums, but only a few individuals selling them. Unlike most other brands, there was no convenient outlet for buying them. "I did the obvious." The online store is still a small operation, but he is receiving orders from around the globe. "HMT watches could be history any day now. It is a privilege to still be able to get them, so get one new while you can!"

Finally, any other watch nerd plans for the future Dr. Shujanya? "Someday I would like to start my own brand of mechanical watches, 100% made in India."

You can read more about HMT watches in my previous post and stay tuned for a review of my own White Pilot LE.

Photos courtesy of Prateek Shujanya

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