February 21, 2020
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Xerxes Desai (1937-2016) Titan

Desai gave India its first quartz watches, a respite from watches that had to be set up and wound every day. J.R.D. Tata instantly liked the idea of launching a watch brand.

Xerxes Desai (1937-2016) Titan
Photograph by Getty Images
Xerxes Desai (1937-2016) Titan
  • Titan has sold 15 crore timepieces globally


Master’s from Oxford in philosophy, economics and politics will certainly imbue the student with a sense of history. You wouldn’t ­expect him to make timepieces. But Xerxes Desai only took a step in tune with the times when he set up the Titan Industries Limited. The motivation was simple, as Desai once said. The only brand available was the state-run HMT. India of the 1970s was an economy of scarcity, hemmed in by ‘licence raj’, which capped the output of most products. One had to book a watch. Without decent watches, and clockwork, how could a nation chart its success?

 Desai gave India its first quartz ­watches, a respite from watches that had to be set up and wound every day. J.R.D. Tata, doyen of the Tata Group, instantly liked the idea of launching a watch brand. By then, he had gained wide experience in various Tata verticals, such as chemicals, hotels and steel.

 “The prevalent economic philosophy was to conserve resources and gradually free them up,” says Rupen Bilimoria, retired bureaucrat and former managing director of HMT. “That’s why each industry was given a production quota. Good watches had to be smuggled in. Desai unleashed the pent-up consumption of something as basic as a watch.” Through political machinations, HMT tried to stop Titan from launching a watch brand. Those were not the days of free markets.

Setting up the Titan factory in Hosur in 1986 took almost a decade. It wouldn’t have been possible without some help from the Tamil Nadu government, but went on to became a household name. The brand later diversified into a ­successful jewellery vertical, Tanishq, under Desai’s guidance.

The other facet of Desai was his love of cities, which he liked to be livable, green and friendly. He spearheaded the New Bombay project with renowned architect Charles Correa. He was an urban planner who worked to make cities smart long before it became a mission in the hands of the Modi government. He loved dogs too; he owned several breeds and would bring them to work. The best tribute to Desai, who passed away last year, comes from Bijou Kurien, former chief operating officer of Titan: “He was a man ahead of his time.”

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