People & Watches

Talking Shop: A look at how Johnson & Company, one of the country’s oldest retailers, has stood the test of time

Established in 1950, the watch retailer has had a ringside view of how the Indian watch market developed
I am seated at a hexagonal table with the Madans – Anil, Ankit, and Akriti – the family that helms Johnson & Company watch boutiques, at their C-Block, Connaught Place, New Delhi, store surrounded by displays containing watches from Grand Seiko, Blancpain, Jaquet Droz, and Chopard. The area, in dark wood and with leather seating and an ornate chandelier, though plush, almost seems like an annexe, connected to the main boutique by a passageway. When I ask the patriarch of Johnson & Co., Anil ji, as he is fondly called by people in the watch business, about this, he explains that this area indeed was an addition, a second store renovated and connected to the main boutique in 2016, to make a space sprawling enough to house the many brands that Johnson & Co. has retailed over the past seven decades. “We opened this store in 1973, and expanded to other boutiques from here,” he says. Akriti and Ankit, his children, chime in, recalling how they grew up playing around the very counters we are surrounded by.

The Johnson & Co. multibrand boutique in Connaught Place, New Delhi

That ‘expansion’ that Anil ji (even for the sake of the article, I find it difficult to give up the deference) is referring to includes four mono-brand and one multibrand boutique (which we are at) retailing more than 15 brands, all in Delhi-NCR. At the multibrand boutique, brands like Breguet, Breitling, and Bulgari, rub shoulders with TAG Heuer, Girard-Perregaux, and Hublot, while the mono-brand spaces are dedicated to Omega, Longines, Rado, and Montblanc. “Next year, we complete 75 years in the business, and definitely have plans to go above and beyond, and open more outlets,” says Akriti, who handles marketing and communications for the brand. 

Anil Madan with daughter Akriti and son Ankit

Johnson & Co.’s journey to the substantial portfolio of brands it has today started from humble beginnings. “It was a little before the 1950s that my father, UC Madan, and uncle, AL Madan, came from Multan in Pakistan. They started with a window for servicing and repair of watches for a few months, and soon after took a shop opposite Rivoli Cinema in Connaught Place – we started there with the name Yogi Watch Company,” recalls Anil ji. “It caught fire within six months, which made them shift operations to a store in Regal Building [Connaught Place].” This shift, serendipitously, gave the family the name that has now been associated with them for the better part of a century. “Since getting a license in the 50s was very difficult, my grandfather and granduncle took over the company license from someone who was operating under the name Johnson and retailing perfumes at the Regal Building store," says Ankit, who handles sales, purchasing, and accounting for the brand. “Using the same name, we started our watches trade.” 

Founders of Johnson & Company, brothers UC Madan (left), Anil Madan's father, and the late AL Madan (right)

Navigating a fledgling industry
The 60s and 70s were a time when there were few brands in the country, and Johnson & Co. put its energies into repairs – Anil ji’s uncle had learnt watchmaking, and his cousin even went to train at Enicar in Switzerland in the 70s. At that time, Omega was the most important brand, selling for up to Rs 600. Camy, Favre Leuba, and Sandoz were other popular brands. By 1973, the Block C, Connaught Place store had opened, and it was the same year that Anil ji joined the business. “I used to head to the Regal Building outlet straight from college. It was my training school even though there was no one there to train me - I learnt on the floor,” he says. By that time Johnson & Co. had started retailing HMT, TimeStar, and Jayco watches, all rationed to a total of about 10 pieces per brand. Further challenges came because there wasn’t too much awareness of watches, but at the same time they were being sold in the black market. “In fact for a period of time in the 80s, all foreign brands were banned in the country. It was during this time that HMT, TimeStar, Jayco became really popular,” he adds. 

The 2022 GPHG nominated watches at Johnson & Co.

The tide turned in 1984, when the birth of Titan gave the watch industry in India a much needed shot in the arm. Anil ji adds that this momentum was further buoyed by Walter Von Kanel, the legendary former CEO of Longines, who between 1985 and 1990 worked hard to set up a base for Swatch group brands Longines and Rado in India (Swatch group was eventually incorporated in the year 2000), which including setting up Rado services centres here. 

A unique Jaquet Droz Charming Bird being admired at WatchTime India and Johnson & Co.'s showcase at the boutique

Retail success
By this time, Johnson & Co. had been in the country for more than three decades, and was the top choice for brands to partner with, and for customers to buy from – Anil ji recalls how in 1999 on Dhanteras they sold 1400 Titan watches. Not only did it enjoy goodwill but its client base was spread far and wide. “I would say 80 percent of the brands who came to the country, started with us,” he says. This included Cartier in 1993-94, Raymond Weil in 1997, Corum between 1997-2000, and in 2000, Rolex.  “When Benoit de Clerck [current CEO of Zenith] was with Panerai, we started retailing Panerai in the country. And then added IWC and Jaeger-LeCoultre,” adds Ankit. “By 2008-09, we also had A. Lange & Sohne and Vacheron Constantin. The entire Richemont portfolio was with us exclusively for a decade, from 2003/4-2013.” There was even Richard Mille for a while in 2012 and 2013.

Johnson & Co. was a single store multi-brand boutique before expanding to the adjoining space

The buzz around the store further built with celebrity visits and store openings – actor Hrithik Roshan came to the Rado boutique in 2016, the same year Abhishek Bachchan was seen at the Omega boutique. Aishwarya Rai-Bachchan made multiple visits to the Longines boutique over her 20+ years the brand's Ambassador of Elegance. In 2009, when Johnson & Co. has a standalone TAG Heuer boutique at DLF Emporio in New Delhi, Shah Rukh Khan marked his attendance there. 

While all these in themselves could very well be counted a milestones for the brand, what Anil ji considers his achievement is the client base that he has built. “We have relationships that have sustained all these years. You want a watch, we make sure you get it. I have had customers call me at 2:00 AM asking about watches. Our clients will always only come to us to buy a watch,” he says. Ankit adds that there is a loyalty factor that almost borders on the emotional. “Many of our clients come to us whether we keep the brand or not, and ask us if it is possible to get that watch for them. The after-sales services that we offer, the attention that we give them – our clients have become family. That’s our legacy,” says Akriti. 

Anil ji with long-time Johnson & Company patron Om Arora

It was this attention to its patrons that resulted in the Johnson & Co.’s collaboration with Chopard last year. The two tied up to create the L.U.C Quattro Spirit 25 – Ganesh Edition and the L.U.C XP Urushi Ganesh Edition on the behest of Johnson & Co. A limited number of 15 pieces in total, the watches sold out immediately.

Chopard - L.U.C Quattro Spirit 25m - Ganesh Edition

Future Forward
Today, the third generation of the family, in Ankit and Akriti, is set to take the brand forward. Ankit honed his skills studying Business Administration at Business School Lausanne in Switzerland, and part of his course entailed visiting different watch headquarters and factories. “I was doing my homework there,” he laughs. “Our work was also one of the reasons I wanted to do my post graduation in Switzerland. I was 30 minutes from Geneva, so I was very close to the capital of watches.” Akriti joined the business in 2018,  and though didn’t study watches in the conventional sense, she says that hardly posed as a problem. “It’s in my head – watches were always a dinner-table conversation in my family.” Today, they are both working in tandem to build the brand’s profile and repertoire. So what’s in the immediate future? “Adding Rolex to our portfolio, and hopefully soon,” says Akriti smiling.

Images: Johnson & Co.

Launched in 2012, WatchTime India is the result of a collaboration between America's most-read watch magazine, WatchTime and, India's leading media house, Malayala Manorama. With an aim to popularise and celebrate the evolving watch culture of the country, the publication is your one-stop destination for everything related to fine luxury watches. From the latest tests to reviews, to exclusive features on the history and horological heritage of some of the most spectacular watch brands of the world, the WatchTime India portal has a lot to offer. Stay tuned for an exciting journey, through the fascinating world of watches!

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