Sunday, May 10, 2009

HISTORY OF BENRUS WATCHES



The name Benrus is well known. When most people hear it they immediately think of watches. However, very little is known about the Benrus Watch Company.

The company’s founder, Benjamin Lazrus, was a Romanian born in 1894. He would eventually immigrate to the United States . Sometime before 1921, he would open a watch repair shop located at 206 Broadway in New York City . Not long afterwards, he was making watch cases and bands. To some small degree, his brothers were also involved in the business. However, at this time, I am not sure just exactly what that involvement was.

I have read that the Benrus Watch Company was started in the early 1920s. I don’t think this is a completely accurate statement. I believe that, until the late 1920s, Benjamin was simply selling watch parts and cases. He registered the name Benrus (taken from Benjamin & Lazrus) in 1922. In 1924, Benjamin was located on Beekman Street in New York City . Again, he is listed as an importer and wholesaler, but not a manufacturer. His first recorded appearance as an actual manufacturer of watch cases would not be until the mid 1920s. By 1930, he has moved again & is now making cases at 200 Hudson Street . He also maintains a “main” office, in the heart of the jewelry district, on 47th Street .

You’ll notice that some people refer to Benrus as a Swiss company while others say it an American company. This may be because; at sometime in the 1920s, he also rented one floor of a watch factory located in La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland . Benjamin’s earliest watches were simple Schild movements that were shipped to the US and put in to American made cases. His early cases are unmarked. In order to understand why he needed a "factory" in Switzerland if he was simply buying movements there, one has to first understand the Swiss watch industry at the time.

Ebauches is a name commonly used when referring to Swiss watches. However, not many truly understand what an Ebauches movement was. Basically it meant a movement that was not completed. They had no balance assembly or escape wheel. Lazrus, like many other companies, would purchase these Ebauches movements. Then, his "factory" in Switzerland would complete the watch movements and ship them to his “factory” in the US . Once the movements arrived in New York they would be placed in Benrus watch cases. The company also purchased dials and hands from various Swiss companies in the same manner. So, yes, all of the movements used by Benrus from the 1920s up to the 1960s were Swiss. However, they made their watch cases in the US for over 40 years. In fact, you will see Benrus listed as “The Benrus Watch CASE Company” in many old records.

By the mid 1930s, Benrus was beginning to produce a few watches that actually had a little "personality". Their early rectangular and cushion watches were starting to show some style. This helped to pull the company away from all the others & enabled them to start “standing out” in the crowd. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) this would not be the only factor that pushed Benrus ahead in the watch industry.

With the outbreak of World War II the other American watch companies (such as Waltham , Elgin and Hamilton ) were pressed in to service & required to make watches for the US Military. Some of the watch companies also had to “re-outfit” in order to make other goods (completely unrelated to watches) required by the war effort. Since Benrus had neither a watch movement factory nor the machinery needed for it here in the US , they were not required to do this. They managed to continue bringing Swiss watch movements into the US during the war and were able to keep selling their own watches. This gave them a great advantage when the war ended.

It was during the 1940s that Benrus produced some of their best watches. The most notable of these would have to be their infamous calendar watch which was introduced in the late 1940s. This was a manual wind watch that featured a “window” in the dial to show the month and a “hand indicated date” that had the days of the month running around the outside of the dial. The date would advance as you pushed the crown in. This would turn out to be the most mass produced “complicated” watch of all time.

In the 1950s Benrus would introduce some of their most innovative watches. Their Dial-a-rama watch was a futuristic version of the old jump hour watches of the 1930s. The Dial-a-rama used the old technology of the jump hour but added a star wheel or “seconds” wheel in the center. They also had windows in the dial to show the hour and minutes. The earlier jump hours only had windows in the case. It was also during this period that Benrus introduced a watch with a “winding indicator”. This feature would tell you how much the mainspring was wound without actually winding the watch. The Benrus alarm watch, also introduced in the 1950s, probably outsold every other brand of alarm watch being marketed at the same time.

Benrus Watch Company was very quickly changing. They went from being just another boring old watch company to one that was now continually introducing more and more complicated, “state of the art” watches. In fact, they became so big in the 1950s that they almost bought out the Hamilton Watch Company.

Through the years Benrus would continue to introduce new & innovative watches. Many of them had interesting or unusual features. Anyone familiar with Benrus watches most likely knows that they sold a lot of watches in waterproof cases. These cases had a 2 piece winding stems and a 2 piece case. They had to be put in a “press” in order to open or close them. This 2 piece waterproof case was later replaced with a one piece "drop in" style case. With this style you had to remove the crystal in order to pull the movement out through the front of the case.

Benrus also ventured in to clock making. One of their more interesting clocks was a self winding automobile clock. These clocks were mounted into the center of the car’s steering wheel and the turning of the wheel would wind it. These were factory accessories for Chrysler and other cars.

The first automatic watches that Benrus produced were "bumper" style. They had an oscillator that did not rotate around the watch. Instead, it would swing part way until it hit a spring that would bounce it back. Later the modern style automatic replaced the bumper.

In the 1960s Benrus also introduced 2 lower lines of watches -the Belforte and the Sovereign. While most of the Belforte watches had the same movements as the regular Benrus line, the Sovereign seemed to always have lower quality movements. It appears that Benrus actually spent some money advertising the Belforte watches. I have several ads including some featuring comedian Jerry Lewis. I don't think many of us are really going to believe Jerry actually wore a Belforte watch on a regular basis but I guess it looked good at the time.

Technipower was another one of the Benrus “off-shoots”. They made electronic parts & the name Technipower appears on some of their electronic watches. Technipower (Benrus) also made missile guidance components and one of the Benrus plants actually had a missile on display. Long after the plant closed, this “display” missile was found in the basement of someone’s house. The bomb squad was called in only to find out that it was a “dummy” with nothing inside it. So, it appears that Benrus did finally get to do their part for the war effort.

Most movements for the early Benrus Electronic watches were made in Switzerland . Some were also made by Lip in France . At some point in the 1970s they switched to Seiko movements that were made in Japan . It was around this same time, that Benrus would also begin using dials made Taiwan instead of the Swiss dials.

The 1970s were a bad time for the entire watch making industry. Most of the old Swiss companies either closed entirely or stopped manufacturing movements. Instead, they were now using ETA or Schild movements. Companies such as Omega and Longines, who had always used their own distinct movements, also began using Schild and ETA movements. This meant that regardless of which brand of watch you bought it would probably have the same movement inside. It would simply have a slightly different look or finish on the outside. This was also the time period when companies began using up leftover ladies movements in their men’s watches. It simply wasn’t economical to just throw them away.

The competition, created by these cheap electric watches, hurt everyone including Benrus. In order to stay competitive, they also began using cheaper movements and ladies movements. They introduced the Destino line in the 1970s in order to sell cheap fashion watches. It continued this way through out the 70s until they eventually became just a watch “name”. They were no longer a manufacturer in any sense of the word. They were simply having their name put on watches that they bought from other companies. The company has changed hands several times in the last 30 years. They now sell a line of quartz watches.

The Swiss like to point to Benrus and call them a Swiss watch company. While they did use Swiss movements for the first 40 years the cases were always made in the USA , at least until the 70s. I think a better description would be that Benrus was an American company that used Swiss movements.

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