Oct 2020 | Harish Bhat | 1,592 words | 6-minute read
B G Dwarakanath (fondly called BGD) is a long-time Tata veteran, having worked for three decades with the Titan Company. He is a restless horologist, technologist and expert photographer, with an earthy sense of humour.
In 1997, BGD and his colleague, Subramanya Bhat, decided to meet the late Xerxes Desai, the legendary Managing Director of Titan. They wanted to discuss an audacious project with him, one that no other Indian Company had ever undertaken before.
They walked into Desai’s sixth floor corner office at the Titan headquarters in Bangalore. BGD lost no time in putting forward his proposal.
“We would like to manufacture the slimmest watch movement in the world,” BGD told Xerxes Desai, “a movement as slim as a credit card. Just 1.15 mm. thin, including the battery. A movement which is robust, and can be mass manufactured for use in beautiful, ultra-slim wrist watches. First time, anywhere in the world.”
A movement is the engine inside every watch that keeps it moving and tells the time accurately. Both Desai and BGD knew that slim movements were extremely rare because they were so challenging to design and manufacture. Even the few ultra-slim European and Japanese movements which existed then were produced in very small quantities and were very expensive. In some cases, their reliability was in question and therefore, they were virtually museum pieces.
BGD looked at Desai expectantly. “Sir, this will be a real breakthrough for us, something that is world-class and beyond.” He saw that Desai was looking at him carefully. His eyes had widened and there was absolute silence. Finally, Desai spoke, in his polished, soft Oxford accent.
The search for answers
BGD and Bhat rushed out of Desai’s room, their hearts beating hard. Their leader was willing to take this risk and invest in something that had never been done before. While they had indeed designed a slim watch movement a few years earlier which had also won an award in 1996, the proposed ultra-slim 1.15 mm movement would be in another league altogether.
A project team was quickly constituted, including technologists, manufacturing experts and designers. BGD insisted that the team should have the best minds and not people who could be spared for a project which was in the domain of wishful thinking.
“I want each of you to be part of this huge success story,” he told his team. They were excited but also apprehensive. More importantly, they were eager and restless.
This was the beginning of the search for many answers. The first big question, how do you develop such a slim movement, with high time-telling accuracy? This would require a step motor with high torque, yet with low electric power consumption. The team resolved this challenge by working with Audemar, a Swiss company, and then married the step motor to an inhouse-developed circuit board which was equally thin. Later, the step motor was indigenized by the team with even better performance.
It was important that they ensure long battery life of the watch. No customer wants to change a watch battery often. To ensure this, the entire internal mechanism had to draw very little power. All parts had to be miniaturized with strict tolerances. Here again, the technical team worked relentlessly in their laboratories. Eventually, what they achieved was marvelous: the electric power required to light up a 40-watt light bulb for just one hour can power this ultra-slim watch for more than fifty years!
Challenges and more challenges
By the year 2000, a working movement was ready. The initial proposal was to sell the ultra-slim movement to Swiss watchmakers, but the Swiss companies refused outright to buy an Indian watch movement. BGD recalls how a representative of a famous brand told him at the Basel Global Watch Fair that an Indian-produced movement would dilute their strong brand image.
BGD came out of that meeting crestfallen but determined. He had great pride in what his team had developed in India and so did his boss Xerxes Desai. Once they were back in India, Desai decided that if the Swiss companies were unwilling to buy the movement, Titan would use it to launch its own branded ultra-slim watch.
Once again, this was a bold decision, because there was no consumer research that Indians had any need for ultra-slim watches on their wrists. But that is what courageous marketers do. When they have a breakthrough product, they don’t rely on research. Instead, they work to generate desire and demand for it.
However, Desai also quickly alerted the team into the reality of what this decision meant.
“Our ultra-slim watch has to be made for Indian consumers to wear every day. So, it must be water resistant,” he told the team, “otherwise it cannot survive Indian conditions. This is essential.”
Once again, BGD and his team went into a huddle. Here was a new challenge. How could such a slim movement and a watch with such thin surfaces be made water resistant?
This would require the watch to be housed in an external case which had very thin walls but was extremely strong and robust. Here again, BGD along with his colleague BV Nagaraj, approached Swiss manufacturers who were the most experienced in the world of watches for help. Once again, the Swiss refused. Swiss factories were unwilling to accept this challenge or help Titan. Would this now spell the end of the project?
When the going gets tough…
Of course not, because the Titan team were unwilling to give up on their cherished dream. BGD recalls that the team came together and decided that if the Swiss would not help, we would do it ourselves, back home in India, in our own beloved Titan watches factory at Hosur, in Tamil Nadu. What Switzerland can or cannot do, India can do even better, and we will open the eyes of the world to what we can do, the team determined. When that sort of spirit comes alive, all impediments melt away.
And the challenges did melt away. After several iterations, the external case, and a watch with the required water resistance up to a depth of 30 metres were created by the Titan team themselves. The team decided to use a sapphire crystal on the watch rather than glass which would shatter if it were to be ground to such slim dimensions. And then, the team used a technique of all-round fitting on the back cover of the watch so that it could be easily opened for servicing and battery replacement. Vinay Kamath’s excellent book on Titan contains many more interesting details of this challenging product development journey.
In the meanwhile, Michael Foley, the lead appearance parts designer on the project, was working closely with Xerxes Desai to finalise the aesthetic design of the watch. “I was excited by the prospect of creating a watch that was virtually invisible,” says Michael, and he adds. “We wanted the watch to celebrate the ultra-slim movement inside, to feel as thin as an edge, and not really a surface.”
To celebrate this beautiful design philosophy, the unique watch was named the “Titan Edge”. Not just a watch which looked like the thin edge of something but a horological marvel which was at the cutting edge of technology excellence.
The entire watch, including the internal movement and external case, was just 3.5 mm thin, and feather light, at just around 14 grams in weight. The slimmest watch in the universe, and perhaps the lightest watch too. Priced affordably as well, because Titan had manufactured this product at a fraction of what it would have cost to make in Switzerland.
Titan Edge was launched in Bangalore in May 2002. In the launch advertising, the watch was shown sideways to emphasise its slimness. Since then, many new designs have been introduced. The Edge has been a huge and enduring success in India, and in several countries worldwide. Most recently, a ceramic version of Edge has been launched, which is the slimmest ceramic watch in the world. The Edge has also been recognized as one of the finest product innovations to come out of post Independent India.
That’s why thousands of Indians wear the Titan Edge with pride. Not merely because it is so sleek and beautiful, but also because it is a technological marvel made in India.
BGD recalls that he wore the Titan Edge to the Basel Watch Fair in a subsequent year. There, on the sidelines of a media event, he met the grand old man of Swiss watches, Nicholas Hayek Sr., Chairman of the Swatch Group. He showed Hayek the Titan Edge watch, with pride. Struck by the slimness of the watch, Hayek held BGD’s hands for a long time and kept peering at the watch. He also had it photographed. And then he turned to BGD and said, “Amazing!”
BGD attributes the outstanding success of the Edge to the team that came together for this project and to the leadership of Titan which ensured that the team worked freely without any fear of failure.
An Indian company of the Tata group, Titan, delivered what looked impossible by relentlessly chasing a dream. This was truly “Make in India” at its very best. Technology, design, belief and persistence had come together to create a product which is today ranked amongst the most iconic watches in the world. When we believe, we make it happen.
Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons.