162 years and still ticking. Janane Venkatraman and Anusha Parthasarathy tell the story of city's oldest watchmakers

Sprawled over 6,000 sq ft, this building on Mount Road has automatic doors and LCD screens. But the winding staircases, old-fashioned ceiling fans and long corridors are reminiscent of its long history that dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century.

Two brothers, Peter and Alexander Orr, arrived in Madras in 1843 from Scotland. Alexander was a lawyer, while Peter was a watch and chronometer maker. After selling ice at four annas per pound, they joined the watchmakers, George Gordon & Co. They took over the business after the retirement of Gordon in 1849 and turned around the fortunes of the fledgling company until it became an institution in Madras.

The iconic building housing P. Orr and Sons was commissioned by Peter Orr in 1879. It was built by the then consulting architect to the Government of Madras, Robert Chisholm, in a mix of Indo-Saracenic and the Byzantine styles, characterised by its elegant archways and tall roofs. The three-faced clock tower which used to be connected to the Madras Observatory is still in perfect working condition.

Apart from watches, P. Orr and Sons had a flourishing business in gold, diamonds and silverware, especially known for their ‘Swami’ jewellery which was popular in the West. Diamonds had become one of its more lucrative business ventures by the late 1880s with an illustrious list of patrons that included the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Prince of Wales.

Balaji, who has been with the company for 25 years in an administrative capacity, says, “Next to the watches, it was the jewellery that was in demand. Diamonds were particularly popular. We used to import gemstones from our branch in Rangoon. But we had to shut it down during War times.”

“We made silverware, trophies, survey equipment, crockery, clothing, arms and at one point, we also assembled and serviced cycles. Peter Orr actually came up with a mechanical process, powered by steam, to fire up the city’s ‘punkhas’. So it was an assortment.”

But sustaining such a diverse business was not easy, especially during the Second World War. Murugesan, 85, who has worked at P. Orr and Sons for 68 years, fondly recalls, “I joined the company in 1944 and at that time we were at the height of the War. We stopped manufacturing and servicing all non-essential commodities like jewellery, survey equipment and silverware. We started building aeroplane metres, arms, ammunitions, etc. I personally supervised the building of the plane metres. We also provided military training for men who were off to war. After the War, things slowed down and I was back to making and servicing watches.”

Things took an inevitable turn for the worse after the War and Independence. The company was made into a private limited company and was eventually sold to Karumuthu Thiagarajar Chettiar in 1967. Those were the lean years and the company saw a downturn in profits. It was then that they started to phase out other businesses slowly. All imports were stopped, as was the manufacturing of firearms and survey equipment.

It was time to go back to their roots. “The world changed. The services we provided were no longer considered essential. We had to let go what would hurt the company and fine tune ourselves. The real challenge was identifying what needed to be pruned without hurting the company’s identity,” says G. Nithyanand, chief executive of P. Orr and Sons.

Murugesan, the oldest serving employee, adds succinctly, “We had to go back to the beginning, back to when we were just a simple watchmaking company. Because that’s what we do; we’re watchmakers.”

SOME OTHERS

Gani and Sons

Behind four rows of rigidly parked motorbikes is a signboard made of stone that is now turning black at its edges. In 1906, Haji Mirza Abdul Gani Namazi, whose family had come to Madras from Iran, began a small watch shop called the South India Watch Company. When it didn’t take off the way they had expected, wellwishers suggested changing the name to something more Indian, upon which, in 1909, Gani and Sons began its journey.

“My grandfather was born and brought up here. He finished studying, went abroad to places like Korea, U.S, to work and eventually settled down here when he got married. That’s when he started this watch shop,” says M.M.J. Namazi, who has been in charge since 1974. Gani and Sons specialises in clock towers and grandfather clocks and has made clocks for the Royapettah Clock Tower, Anna University, Sterling Towers and Spencer’s Plaza to name a few. “We did a lot of clocks in the 1950s and 1960s. At that time, my uncle and dad were managing the store together. We sold watches, gift articles, clocks and also had a sales and service section. Now, while we do sell clocks and watches, we’re the service centre for a lot of international brands,” he explains.

The three-storey showroom that they moved into in 1914 is almost defunct, with only the ground floor open to the public as a showroom. “We’ve done clocks almost everywhere in the country and have a list of famous clientele who came to us to service their watches. Among them was MGR, who would come up in a car and put out his wrist. Our staff would then unbuckle his watch, service it and put it back, upon which he would drive away. I remember he had a lovely collection of watches,” says Namazi.

Quoteunquote

I built the ‘Tell Tale Clock’, which is still used in several banks and temples to monitor the alertness of security guards. Every half hour, the guards would be required to punch in the time on a rotating sheet. This would let one know whether the guard had been doing his duty.

-Murugesan, employee since 1944

It is still used in several banks and temples.

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