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Cooke & Kelvey – A Master Creator

You may or may not have heard of Cooke & Kelvey. The exclusivity that this brand has maintained over the years could be a lesson in luxury for today’s global brands. We immerse ourselves in this world of legacy, and try to learn more about them, while talking with Mr Massod Huq about their future

Cooke & Kelvey clockCooke & Kelvey (C&K) is a name which has been whispered through the years, generation to generation. Those who are ‘in the know’ understand that C&K is the destination for all their silver needs. And this group includes erstwhile Maharajas, industrialist, politicians and many popular personalities. Don’t ask us for names though. We have been requested not to divulge the names of their high-profile clientele!

Historical perspective
Founded by Robert Thomas Cooke and Charles Kelvey in Calcutta (now Kolkata), in 1858, C&K was frequented and desired by many in British India. The company was helmed by seven successive owners before passing onto the Khemka family in 1946.

But its silver goods are not the only thing that attracted an influential group of buyers. Their status as watchmakers was a puller too. Records indicate that the first C&K branded quarter-repeating pocket watches were received in Calcutta, from Cooke & Kelvey, London, in the early 1870s. Till the advent of wristwatches, C&K remained the most coveted name in master-crafted timepieces in British India. Its range of personal watches and clocks, case-stamped in England, boasted of finest Swiss movements, including that of the peerless Audemars Piguet.

An example is the Grand Sonnerie Carriage Clock of 1899 vintage, by none other than the French-Victorian master, Henri Jacot, which surfaced for sale in Devon, UK, in 2010. It bore the label of the retailer under its original carrying case – “Cooke & Kelvey, Watch, Clock & Chronometer Makers to H.E. The Viceroy & Governor General of India”.

A Cooke & Kelvey Bracket Clock – incorporating hourly audio and animatics – still mesmerises visitors at the Salar Jung Museum in Hyderabad, where it was shifted from the Nizam’s palace in 1951. This bespoke piece of art and engineering was commissioned personally by the Nizam of Hyderabad.

Cooke & Kelvey pocket watchThe Cyclopedia of India: Biographical, Historical, Administrative, Commercial (Volume 1, 1907), recognizes C&K as contractors to Government and manufacturers of station and office clocks, of which they supply large numbers to the different Railways in the country. Their chronograph watches, in fact, have been used by the Calcutta Turf Club for timing all important races.

Their expertise and history of fine watchmaking eventually led to an association with Rolex. But before that, C&K also dabbled in wristwatches alone. An evidence of this showed up at the Gorringes Auction Galleries in Lewes, East Sussex, UK, in September 2010 under Fine Art, Antiques & Collectibles. Lot 1296 showed a Cooke & Kelvey Calcutta-branded “Lady’s Early 20th Century Swiss 15k Gold Wrist Watch”. The photograph showed a delicately-crafted hand piece with age showing on the dial.

Leading Singapore-Malaysia purveyors, Passions, recently proved that C&K was a sought-after co-brand for Swiss luxury watchmakers. Their Stock 7511 displayed a handsome, ultra-slim Ebel in steel – with Ebel featuring below the 12 hour, and Cooke & Kelvey above the six.

Cooke & Kelvey and Rolex wrist watchBetween the 1920s and 1970s (when import of watches was suspended for the next three decades), C&K had an envious relationship with Rolex in India. Some of the classiest models from Rolex were retailed and serviced in Calcutta, Delhi and Lahore (till 1948), by C&K. One of them which came under Christie’s hammer in November 2007 was “A Highly Unusual Lady’s 18k Two-colour Gold Square Wristwatch with Bracelet & Concealed Dial (Signed Rolex, Precision, circa 1950)”. The Christie’s listing further said that accompanied by a Cooke & Kelvey presentation box, the watch was made on special request for a prominent family in Asia.

Several variants of the extremely rare Rolex Sporting Prince Chronometer (rectangular, curved, 15 jewels, four-body masterpieces produced in the 1930s), with the Rolex and Cooke & Kelvey signatures on the dial, keep surfacing in different parts of the world. The best and rarest by far is the one which had Christie’s in raptures again (October 2006 auction, NY, Rockefeller Plaza) – “Circa 1931…. the front lid with raised monogram beneath the Pakistan symbol of the star and crescent, monogram repeated and engraved on back….

Though strange since Pakistan didn’t even exist in 1931, collectors have been intrigued by the watch, and have noticed the Rolex and Cooke & Kelvey’s shared branding on the dial.

Cooke & Kelvey Rolex wrist watchThe Rolex Oyster Imperial played the most frequent host to the Cooke & Kelvey name on its dial. A mail communication from Rolex SA, Geneve, dated September 21, 2011, confirms:

…. Concerning this vintage Rolex (Oyster Imperial) piece with ‘Cooke & Kelvey Calcutta’ printed on the dial….. Our Heritage Department investigated in their books and archives, and this watch was effectively corresponding to a Ref. 2574, although they couldn't trace its serial number. This model was on current production from 1935 until 1945”.

The times today
Roused by the heritage of C&K, we interviewed Mr Massod Huq, senior brand consultant, Cooke & Kelvey, to seek what the present and future looks like for the company after such an illustrious history.

“C&K ceased to be watchmakers in the 1930s or thereabouts. As silversmiths, they have been and still remain front-end players in the luxury segment. We no longer have any ‘national’ silverware brands of pedigree. C&K is the only one. C&K’s clientele includes customers from different parts of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and even Singapore and Malaysia (all ex-British dominions where C&K was well known for its silverware),” said Mr Huq, summarizing their current status.

Being the oldest franchise partner of Rolex in India, Mr Huq terms their current relationship as “happy and rewarding”, but refuses outright that we’ll ever see a co-branded watch again.

Cooke & Kelvey pocket watchWith numerous luxury brands venturing into India, however, and with quite a number of silverware brands too taking birth, how does C&K compete in the contemporary times? “We are Victorian era silversmiths. Our craft and designs came from England. Our ‘native’ craftsmen in Calcutta were handpicked and trained by British artisans. By the 1880s, almost all of our mastercrafted ware was being produced in Calcutta. Eighteen families of craftsmen employed by C&K then are still employed by C&K. Some members of these families have been relocated to Delhi to broaden our production base. The case with the other big names, Hamilton and Barton’s, was the same. But, alas, those heritage enterprises wound up,” says a passionate Mr Huq.

That’s, however, not the only reason for which consumers should enter C&K’s threshold. Mr Huq reiterates that its attribute of mastercraftsmanship is unrivalled. There are players who have entered with machine-made ware, but there will always be takers for mastercrafted silverware. C&K’s quality assurance makes sure you don’t rap any other door. “The C&K customer knows he’s getting 92.5 Sterling Silver. No compromise there. Sell it, melt it 10 years later and you are the richer by God knows how much,” says Mr Huq.

Mr Huq also has confidence in the magic that C&K instantly spreads just with its name. “Without mentioning the name – there’s been a case when an Indian goes to England, buys out a dying, lesser-known English brand and launches it in India. That hardly makes a dent in C&K’s business. Because tradition matters, craftsmanship matters, the assurance of 92.5 matters.”

The brand, though, is stretching its muscles to match up to the high speed and demand of its consumers. An expansion plan and image rebuild is in order. “For one, we wish to erase the painful memories of labour unrest and return to retailing in Calcutta where things are looking up for business. We cannot reopen in Lahore. Shimla may not be viable any more. But other metros, yes,” says Mr Huq.

A brand which commands respect till today, Cooke & Kelvey has seen a glorious past. The allure of C&K is so great that connoisseurs world over collect heritage C&K creations. As it gets ready for an even more dazzling future, we wish that their tradition, heritage and commitment to quality remains untouched.

Coordinates: 3 Scindia House, Janpath, New Delhi, India