Jayavelu's Alphonso and three lessons in export-quality.
Jayavelu was a short, burly man, one of few words. As a kid growing up in Chennai in the eighties, I saw him a few times during the summer and never again. There are two things that I remember about him distinctly: his pearly white teeth jutting out of a characteristic face, and his annual routine of delivering a carefully packed box of "export quality" Alphonso Mangoes to our home. "Export quality, sir, Engeyum Kedaikadu" (Tamil for - you won't find this quality anywhere else) he’d exclaim. The box of mangoes would then be rationed over the next few days between the kids, and eventually become a topic of conversation among my dad’s friends to find a source that can get them all export quality mangoes. Such was the demand, and the popularity of the words “export quality.”
Such was the popularity of the words “export quality.”
I was probably ten years old then, little did I realize that the essence of the term ‘export quality’ was rooted in a belief that the best products from the country were destined for overseas markets. Whether it be because of the premium that foreign markets were willing to pay, or perhaps the assumption that the domestic market wouldn’t be willing to pay, that flawed belief was prevalent.
Only in India is that assumption, to date that the market for some of the best quality products is always outside India. My wife Mercy and I lived overseas for a few years and traveled around the world, and that bitterness about the stigma around 'export quality' only grew stronger as we saw a very different consumption philosophy of locally sourced goods in other countries.
The market is always outside India.
Take Japan, for instance, the term JDM (Japan Domestic Market) refers to the practice of a portion of goods produced in Japan and set aside for domestic market consumption. Interestingly, JDM products often have the best quality, components, or features in the said category. One can see it in watches, automobiles, consumer electronics, the alcohol industry, and more. In the watch collectors' circles today, there is a cult following for JDM products where premiums are paid to find and source them worldwide.
So, why is it that Japan can keep the best for themselves, and India assumes that the best quality goods are meant for exports? I’m heartbroken when I see a ‘made in India’ label in footwear overseas with prices marked a premium. Don’t take my word, look around and see where Twinings sources their best tea, some of the world's leading restaurants source their seafood, and leading luggage makers procure their leather. You’ll be amazed at the overwhelming amount of the best quality goods proudly made in India, only to be exported overseas without being made available in the domestic market.
Heartbroken when I see a ‘made in India’ label.
Is it the residual effect of socialist policies from the 60s and 70s that pushed the domestic producers to seek markets overseas?, gross underestimation of the tastes of Indian consumers? Or worse, the perceived inability of the Indian consumer to tell a good quality product from the other? It could be all of the above, and we’ve been dealt a lousy hand all this while.
Upwardly mobile Indian consumers today are well traveled, well read, well aware of where products get made, and the process of how. They deserve to be presented with the best quality products, especially when produced at home.
We’ve been dealt a lousy hand.
Worry not! Bellow a new breed of brands from India. Be it single origin coffee, gourmet tea, perfumery with Indian accents, clothing made of upcycled materials, or single-malt whiskey; the tide is shifting to a counterculture where brands proudly proclaim their wares as produced in India, by sourcing the best in the country. These brands identify with the philosophy that the best shouldn’t necessarily be exported, that consumers at home should be presented with choices, and that they should be respected for their ability to make conscious buying decisions where they choose boutique and artisan over off-the-shelf.
Mercy and I founded Bangalore Watch Company in a firmly rooted belief that the watch industry in India is no different. Most limited edition models and bestsellers don’t even make it to the shelves of Indian retailers. We wanted to join the movement of brands that have begun to proudly proclaim their Indian origins and openly challenge the status quo. We’re confident that our debut collection is a representation of our beliefs that India shouldn’t be denied world-class watchmaking and a promise that our future collections will be no different.
They choose artisan over off-the-shelf.
I don’t know what Jayavelu is up to these days, but if ever bump into him, I will thank him for an all-important lesson that he’s inadvertently taught, and one that we’ll carry forever.