The only tin toymakers in India find buyers of its hand-crafted products abroad, whereas domestic consumers prefer plastic
In this age of technology-driven playtime, an electronic shop adjacent to the oldest toy store in India is a sweet coincidence. If one happens to stop by Odeon Cinema in CP, the rare presence of a Tata-owned Croma store and Ram Chander’s 30-year-old toy store, one on each side of the theatre shall definitely make a person delve into the evolution of play among people of all ages.
Irrespective of India’s dying toy industry, it has recently found relevance after Reliance Retail recently bought the world’s oldest, 259-year-old British toy store Hamleys, a chain of 167 stores across 18 countries. It is indeed time to contemplate if there is anything that makes India special in terms of toy making.
While the idea of a toy was invented by the British, it was the Germans and the Japanese who took it further and explored it to the extent that they have. However, a tin toy manufacturing unit in Greater Noida is a hidden gem, a visit to the same shall make anyone swoon over the old charm that metal toys come with.
Welby Impex Private Limited, also known as Tin Treasures was founded by Paresh Chawla in 1989 that operated as a trading company until 1997 when he visited the Spielwarenmesse toy fair in the Nuremberg city of Germany to explore the possible export opportunities. In 2001, to further their growth, he ventured into the manufacturing of their core product, i.e. tin toys.
A rather quiet industrial neighbourhood, the factory is located in the Toy City of Noida. On a sunny Saturday, we happened to catch up with Tanushree Chawla, Chawla’s daughter, a designer by profession who looks after the design aspect of Welby’s products.
She sits across her table in a sizeable room that has equal amounts of sunlight and air conditioning, perfect for a North Indian autumn day. The room features old and new samples of toys from Welby’s, stacked neatly in glass cased cupboards, placed around the space that gives a person a glimpse into the product range they deal with. Her mother Roopa joins the discussion as she has seen Welby’s grow into the toy company that it is, having handled design and marketing for the company for the past 23 years.
While the toy market has been flooded with plastic products for years now, the charisma and nostalgia that tin toys come with were immediately recognised by western countries back in 2001 when Chawla first put up an exhibition of India-made tin toys in Germany. There has been no looking back for Welby’s since then. Even in a highly competitive environment abroad, they have managed to keep Indian craftsmanship alive.
The Toy City that was set up by Uttar Pradesh government around the same time when the Indian economy liberalised, led to many toy factories in the area shutting down and often go non-operative as manufacturers did not see their product at par with what countries like China were going to export to India. As Welby’s was already exporting tin toys to its international market and understood the value it had around the world, they decided to take over a dying tin toy unit they used to source from, to
continue the production of these one-off pieces. They became the only tin toy manufacturer in India at that scale and have remained one so far.
Their product range in 23 years has grown from five to more than 100 now. They started exporting to Germany first and now they are everywhere including China. “China cannot even make what we do,” affirms Tanushree.
From tin tops, vintage cars to dolls and musical carousels, these are all in fact reproductions of samples sourced by the Chawlas from Europe back in the days. The idea is to appreciate and preserve the age-old craft, tells Roopa, whereas Tanushree points at the toys kept in cupboards that she says are vintage samples collected by her father over the years, some made even before World War II.
“Germany was the pioneer in tin toys but stopped producing them as under Hitler’s rule all factories were shut to produce arms and ammunition. This is the time when Japan took over,” adds Tanushree.
According to Roopa, it is a big deal to make these things in this day and age, especially the interior with the elaborate gear systems. Its popularity in India is still a question as many prefer the plastic toys that are a rage in the market. Apart from that, Roopa is not very positive about the system of working in India where they have to chase buyers for payments, which further makes them hesitate to strike deals in India, apart from the instances where a retailer is genuinely interested in the product like The Pond and Nicobar have it in Delhi.
Tin toys often do not get the modern certification that is needed to be retailed as toys, especially for children, due to their sharp edges. This makes a good chunk of Welby’s merchandise, that once passed as toys, to now be classified as collectables. But what makes these toys special? Is it the material as opposed to plastic? Roopa says that these are eco-friendly, battery-less alternatives to polymer-based toys, are handmade that is a reminder of our childhood, at least for those who have played with tin toys in the past.
These saviours may not be the best buy for children but make for beautiful collectables for those who appreciate vintage, which is not the scene in India as of right now. Play among adults is often underrated in most societies and Roopa tells us about the looks she would get if she tries to endorse these objects as toys for adults. “I think society is open abroad. I have seen how our buyers get super excited every time they see a toy from us. How their eyes twinkle like that of a child. It is not the case in India,” she adds.
She also opens up about her suspicion regarding tin toys to work out in India as they have tried retailing through Amazon but ended up receiving most orders back over petty issues like size when such details have been mentioned in the product description. They do not retail through Amazon anymore and are absolutely production and export-driven for now. With their current size, it will take another team to initiate retail from their end.
This is the time when Paresh joins us and shares the details from his journey in creating the empire that he has. He says he loves these toys, which has obviously translated into growth that has taken place for Welby’s in all these years.
An engineer by education, he has been taught by the manufacturers who first handed him over their production facility and he knows how to use all tools in the factory.
Making these toys is a slow process as each step requires handwork and it is only his sheer love for it that makes him continue in this category. “If I do plastic toys in this same factory space with labour less than I have right now, I can still have at least 5 times the turnover I have right now”, adds the former president of India Toy Association.
Welby will be exhibiting at the upcoming Expo Mart in Greater Noida from 16th to 20th October.