The life of a micro brand watchmaker is not always easy. Oh sure, it looks glamorous from the outside: doodle up a new timepiece, send it off to the factory for production, then jet off to party with supermodels while those sweet, sweet Kickstarter dollars come rolling in. But in fact, making your own watch brand requires hard work, late nights, and the bloody-minded determination to endure Sisyphusian frustrations to create something you love. Case in point: the Airavata.
Back in 2013, full-time medical student and part-time watch enthusiast Prateek Shujanya commissioned 500 units of a unique new model from state-owned Indian watchmaker, HMT. It was funded by a group purchase through the Watchuseek Affordable Watch Forum, selling the watches for just $80 each. Nicknamed "The Badass Unicorn," it would have a case identical to that of the HMT Janata, scaled up to 40mm. The movement would be the venerable HMT 0231, properly finished and displayed through a case back window for the first time. The dial and handset were designed by a forum contest with the winners chosen by popular vote. It took some time, but everything was moving apace. Then came the announcement: the Indian government was pulling the plug on the unprofitable HMT.
Remarkably, Prateek pulled it off. He was able to secure his movement order from HMT and source the other parts from outside vendors. As it was no longer an HMT product, the name came off the dial although it remained on the movement. The production run was cut in half, and the price went up to $143. Former HMT employees performed final assembly. Now, in the fall of 2015, against all odds, the first Airavatas are being shipped, including my green #015.
Like the Janata, the Airavata has a slim, polished stainless steel case with angular lugs. I was struck by its size. I know 40mm is hardly considered large these days, but I've grown accustomed to that case in 35mm form so it was a bit of a shock to see it all grown up. Factor in the broad dial, domed acrylic crystal, and 48mm length, and you have a watch with considerable presence. In fact, I think it would have worked very well in a 38mm case. It filled my 6.5" wrist nicely and even thick-wristed guys should find it to be a good everyday dress size.
The back side boasts a display window with an engraved ring. Here you will find the name in both Hindi and English, serial number, movement info, and "f71" (the Watchuseek Affordable Watch Forum designation). Inside is the old reliable HMT hand wound movement, a hearty little beater has powered millions of Indian wristwatches since 1961 and the Airavata is likely the last. It may not be the prettiest movement, but it occupies a unique place in horological history, so it will be nice to flip over the watch and visit it from time to time.
Of course, the real action is on the dial. Three colors were offered: green, blue, and brown. All have a metallic sunburst finish, polished wedge markers, and small Devanagari numbers printed in a radial arrangement. The model name is printed in Hindi at the top, "Parashock, 17 Jewels" below. At the very bottom edge are the words "Made in India 0231." The polished hands are peaked and tapered with squared tips. It is a perfect layout, properly balanced with plenty of breathing room. My only gripe is the finish on the handset. Generally, it looks fine, but sunlight reveals an uneven, smeary surface. I don't know if it is an imperfection on the surface itself or a watchmaker's fingerprints. Either way, I wish it weren't there. Imperfections were always a part of an HMT's charm, but while that kind of thing is quirky in a $40 watch, it is a little irritating when you have spent $100 more. Schmutz aside, it is a lovely dial.
The watch arrived on a 20mm black leather strap with white stitching. It is comfortable, looks quite nice against the jade dial, and it's quality is leagues beyond those typically supplied by HMT. Still, I could not resist swapping it out. The lugs are drilled for easy spring bar removal. There is sufficient room between the bar and the case to accept a wide range of straps without interference. I chose a tan gator print RIOS, then a sandy leather number from NATO Strap Co. both of which popped against the green a dark brown cracked leather strap toned it down for a more sober look.
Overall, I am very happy with my purchase. True, I would love to get in there and polish up those hands, but I probably won't. In every other respect, the watch is a roaring success. The watch has the same 1960's aesthetic that made the original HMTs so endearing, in a modern size that broadens its appeal. Because the is a completely new dial, it accomplishes the transition gracefully. The Airavata neatly captures the HMT essence while maintaining its own integrity.
Prateek is not done. He is already soliciting ideas for his next project, most likely sourced from China with a Japanese mechanical movement, but still maintaining traditionally Indian elements. I look forward to the result, but for now, I am content to enjoy my Airavata - the last of the HMT line (sort of) and the first Indian micro brand.
Very few remain, but if you would like to get one, contact Prateek through Watchuseek. You will have to register first.
Pro: Vintage looks with Indian flair.
Con: Poor finish on the handset.