Benrus Returns: An Inside Look At The Relaunch Of The American Watchmaker
Benrus has just been rebooted, and to celebrate, we revisit the watchmaker’s greatest hits.
If you’re not familiar with the American watchmakers Benrus, we don’t blame you. In the company’s heyday, it rivaled Bulova and Hamilton for brand recognition. The greatest heroes of the 20th century — Charles Lindbergh, Babe Ruth, Steve McQueen— all wore Benrus watches.
Like many once-famous watch manufactures, Benrus could not compete against inexpensive Japanese timepieces in the 1970s. The brand was bought and sold over the decades, and the name faded into obscurity.
But a brand so rich in history can’t be kept down. Benrus is back in business with its tightly edited Heritage Collection — a selection of accessibly priced watches based on its most beloved timepieces.
NEW YORK STORIES
Benrus started out as a watch repair business in New York City. Founded by brothers Ben, Oscar, and Ralph Lazrus, the brand took its moniker from the first and last syllables of Ben Lazrus’ name. The young men pooled $5,000 in savings to begin importing watch movements from La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, and casing them in New York. Benrus quickly became one of the first lifestyle brands, creating well-made watches for style-conscious consumers.
In 1926, they were one of the first companies to hire a celebrity (aviator Charles Lindbergh) to market their wares. They also developed a "sports aviation" watch (i.e., a pilot watch meant to worn by non-pilots), which was promoted by Babe Ruth.
In the 1940s, Benrus focused on its most celebrated model, the Sky Chief. The success of this chronograph coincided with the rise of commercial aviation, and the Sky Chief became known as the "Official Watch of Famous Airlines.” You can even find vintage pieces with inscribed case backs that declare them to be the official property of TWA, PAN AM, or KLM, among others.
By the 1950s, Benrus had also become a prolific producer of military timepieces. Steve McQueen wore a civilian version of these black-dialed, mil-specs in the classic movie Bullitt. McQueen is still the King of Cool, and the watches he wore are among the most collectible vintage timepieces in the world.
While the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s were heady times for Benrus, but the company had a hard time surviving the quartz crisis. The company went bankrupt, and its intellectual property was bought and sold several times over, losing a little bit of luster with each transaction.
Perhaps its karma that after all of this wheeling and dealing that the brand has been revived by a private investment group led by mergers and acquisitions lawyer Michael Sweeney.
Recognizing Benrus’ cache on the secondary market, Sweeney is bringing the brand back in 2020 — just in time to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2021.
Benrus is currently focusing on timepieces inspired by past design classics like the Sky Chief and the Bullitt Benrus but is hoping to reissue the most collectible vintage timepieces from its archives.
In the meantime, let’s have a look at the Benrus Heritage Collection.
It’s also worthy to note that Benrus has also re-set up shop in its original home: the iconic Hippodrome on New York’s 6th Avenue.
It’s evident the history of this brand is important to Sweeney and his group. Which is why the brand is starting with a soft launch, focused on three distinct families.
First is the Classic. This series of three watches features a Miyota automatic movement, with date and 42-hour power reserve, housed in a sandblasted or polished stainless steel case. There is a retro vibe to the crisp white, black, or blue dial with unique indexes and super luminova markers and hands. But there is also a very clean, modern design sensibility which allows for a nice, legible read. Finally, the Classics are available with either a beige NATO, leather, or mesh strap.
Next up, the Field series. Sweeney’s interest in Benrus was piqued by its military watches, and this series delivers everyday functionality with field watch design cues. There are three models in the Field watch family.
One version comes in a sleek black ion-plated stainless steel case with a grey dial and camouflage NATO strap. The second has a satin-finished stainless steel case and a supple tan leather strap with stitch detail. Finally, the third showcases a silverized white dial, polished stainless steel case, and brown genuine leather strap with stitching. All of the Field watches feature a Miyota automatic movement with a date window.
And, last but not least, the third family is the star of the Heritage Collection: the Air Chief Chronograph series. A nod to the iconic Benrus Sky Chief, the instruments in this quartet are powered by a Ronda Swiss split time chronograph movement. Visually, the Air Chiefs express many design cues of the 1940s, like the high-hat dome crystal. But, there are many more contemporary elements, such as the super luminova stencil dial and the satin-finished stainless steel case. Dials in this series come in black, panda, and slate grey, and straps are available in NATO, leather, and mesh.
21st CENTURY WATCH
Even if you’re not a vintage fan, there are many reasons to be excited about Benrus 2.0. Mostly because the Heritage Collection is a nice, tightly edited group of accessibly priced ($895 for the camouflage Field Watch to $1,395 for the Classic with the mesh bracelet) mechanical watches.
While the official launch will take place later this year with the reissue of select “highly collectible” vintage timepieces, the Heritage Collection is now available online and in-store at Westime in Beverly Hills and Goldtinker in Red Bank, NJ.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)