P Orr and Sons has been in the news in Chennai for thev past fortnight or so. They have a heritage building on the arterial road of the city where metro rail work is underway. The heritage building has been damaged and people have been protesting.
The Hindu today says: ”
A dramatic find on Wednesday evening could turn out as the conclusive proof that could save the 120-year-old P. Orr & Sons buildings from demolition. The foundation stone, with an inscription detailing the date of construction, disproves the claim of Chennai Metro Rail Limited (CMRL) and Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) that only a portion of the building is a heritage structure and the rest are not. What the new evidence establishes is that the entire building was completed in the later half the 19th century and that only twenty years separate the front and rear side.
The foundation stone, located at the portion earmarked for demolition, establishes three dates beyond doubt. First, that P. Orr & Sons was established in 1849 in Chennai. Two, the firm moved into the current premises in 1873. The third point is that the building was expanded and workshops were enlarged in 1893. To be precise, the foundation stone was laid on July 6, 1893. The date is special: the foundation stone fondly recalls that Prince George, Duke of York, who later became King George V, and Princess May of Teck, who later became Queen Mary, were married on that date…………………
The new evidence appears to prove that the entire building is more than 100 years old — one of the benchmarks that is normally used to designate a heritage building. The CMRL decision to demolish bulk of the P. Orr & Sons building was challenged in the court by INTACH, Chennai chapter, and the judgment is awaited.”
The following is an article that I wrote on 17-7-2007.
It has stood the test of time. For almost 160 years, this old shop on the busy Mount Road in Chennai has been keeping time. A British company named Peter ORR and Sons set it up in 1849. For several decades the company served just the royals, selling gold and diamond jewellery, watches, cycles, cutting tools and even rifles. After India’s independence, the company was sold to Tamil Nadu based Karumuthu Thiagarajan Chettiar in the year 1967. Since then it came to be known as P Orr and Sons [pronounced PR] synonymous with watches of all kinds, Indian or international brands, from a few hundred rupees to over a lakh – if it’s a time machine, it is here!
As Manikam Ramaswami, Chairman, P. ORR and Sons puts it, “The trust we have built, and we really value that, we will do everything to retain it. But we never fell into the temptation of selling any smuggled watch although we were offered many smuggled watches, would have been extremely profitable for us. But we stayed away from all that. So customers know when they come to us they get a genuine product.”
Over the years, this good old shop has changed with changing consumer tastes. Earlier owning one watch was considered a prized possession. Today one watch is passé. With so much of disposable income, a watch is now more of a fashion statement.
Like IT professional Shobana, who is watch hunting at PR for her sixth watch explains, “You are not happy with just one. You want to have several watches, which go along with different accessories. I have friends when they buy a new dress they also buy a watch that gets along with it.”
Even clocks have evolved. Today the clock has to match the mood and décor – be it at home or office. PR is known to be the hub for antique clocks. Some of these clocks are older than the shop itself. When at PR don’t forget to take a look a look at the grandfather clock, which for the connoisseurs is PR’s speciality. It costs Rs 78,000. Guess its age? Well this grand old clock is all of 200!
Over the century this shop is estimated to have sold over 40lakh watches, which is equal to the population of Chennai. That’s not all. Many of the city’s important landmarks are adorned with clocks from P ORR sons. No wonder some customers like Krishna Sharan Mishra say, “They’ve become timekeepers of the city.”
The shop commands 35% of the after sale service of watches in the city of Chennai, which largely contributes not only to their profits but also to the goodwill and reputation they’ve built.
Its a place that has become a slice of Chennai’s history taking old timers down memory lane and at 156, P ORR and Sons is still going strong with big plans to capture atleast 35% of watch retail business across Tamil Nadu, by establishing new branches.
Peter Orr created their Hindu equivalent. The line was aptly called the “Swami jewellery”. Many Indian rulers presented several pieces of this novel range to the Prince of Wales. Satisfied with the high quality of the creations, he appointed Peter Orr’s establishment “Jewellers and Silversmiths to His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales” in 1876.
Scenes from Hindu mythology made for spectacular designs, glimpses of which could be seen from the firm’s catalogue; featured on items including goblets, tankards and salt-and-pepper shakers.
Capitalising on the phenomenal success of the “Swami” designs kept the workshop of Peter Orr and Sons busy for the next 30 years. The “P.R” of my childhood radio jingle was indeed Peter Orr, the registered watchmaker, who came to Madras in 1843. Downtown, the trusty, three-faced clock tower on Mount Road/Anna Salai which bears the name of his establishment — P.Orr & Sons — is a testimonial to that forgotten “golden age” of Indian silver. Flashback if you can to a time when a young woman in London wearing the “Gajalakshmi pendant” was the height of chic!