On the first floor of Sonam Quartz’s estate sits a control room with seven screens and two women monitoring the different stages of the clock-making process.
“Unlike men, women are more disciplined, productive, and don’t chew mawa (a mix of slaked lime, tobacco and areca nut rubbed on the palm before consumption),” laughs Jayesh Shah, Sonam’s chairman, and managing director. Taking a pen out his lilac shirt pocket, he ticks an invisible list off his fingers: with their “daintier hands”, women are better equipped for fine-skilled, rather than labor-intensive jobs. And precision, he says, is indispensable in the clock industry.
“Attrition is high because they leave after marriage, but it’s a way of life here to employ those who’d otherwise not find jobs in a conservative environment,” he adds.
The profession of the administrators
But Sangita Patel, a professor at Gujarat University’s sociology department, wonders if the women, who get an average of Rs 8,000-10,000 ($115-144) per month, are ever offered supervisory positions. That, and whether an industry on shaky legs can afford to have its women retain their factory jobs like it once could.
“I once spent a whole day at the Ajanta-Orpat factory and noticed that all supervisors are male,” she recounts. “One can argue that managerial positions require you to stay behind late or travel outside the district, which girls’ families may not be comfortable with. But are they given such promotions if there’s no issue?”
The question makes the company publicist Harish Khartharya uneasy. “Our system is to have men handle supervisory responsibilities. Women can assist them,” he replies flatly.
It’s in this context, where women are expected to follow rather than lead, that Alpa Patel stands out.
Anxiousness at its peak?
From her office off Lilapar Road, north Morbi, the lanky, bespectacled 30-year-old who founded Steven Quartz in 2014 is anything but anxious about Morbi’s clock sector. Hailing from a family that owns five vitrified tile factories, she jokes, made her realize that clocks were a less boring proposition.
“The only problem is that there’s no creativity in our industry,” Alpa feels, as she takes one on a tour of her facility. Although she takes pride in her “vintage-looking clocks”, there’s indeed nothing innovative about her 120 models. Instead, what’s admirable is her ability to beat down dealers who don’t take her seriously, build an 80-strong distributor network, and her optimism (one could argue blind).
“Morbi has a mentality that women shouldn’t work in the ceramic industry. Or that we shouldn’t push for a hard bargain,” she smiles. “I’ve enjoyed proving them wrong.”
Stupidity of spending
Back at Oreva, Jaysukhbhai Patel waxes eloquent about the stupidity of spending over Rs 5,000 ($72) for a watch. Making clocks for the masses—once Morbi’s USP—has become a hammer in the foot. Increased purchasing power means potential clock buyers would now rather spend more on style (aesthetics) than substance (movement quality). And those who are serious about their clock components will buy a Seiko, Citizen or Rhythm rather than a homegrown brand.
“Do you know how much Ronda’s (the Swiss company that makes watch movements for Rolex, Cartier, Omega and more) most expensive movement costs? About Rs 8,000. And that’s heavy-duty stuff you don’t even need in wall clocks,” he tut-tuts. “Yet, my own children prefer wearing branded watches that cost lakhs.”
The 2008-09 hike in the Gujarat state value-added tax (VAT) from 12.5% to 15% led to the shuttering of 15 clock manufacturing units, says Dangi of the Morbi Wall Clock Manufacturers Association. And while India’s switch to a national goods and services tax (GST)—18% for clocks, lower than the VAT rate combined with octroi and excise duties—may have bandaged heavier bleeding, it’s not a long-term reprieve.
As opposed to 12 Indian factories that once made and sold clock movements, only three—Ajanta-Orpat, Oreva and Sonam—make theirs in-house today. For a manufacturing hub, the availability of components such as rotors or molders with greater outputs can make all the difference. But such parts and machinery, says the elderly Jayesh Doshi, aren’t easily available in India.