History of BENRUS Watch Company
Copyright @ Kevin James
Benrus Watch Company was an American company. It was a family company. Founded in New York City in 1921 by three brothers - Oscar (d.1990), Benjamin, and Ralph (d.1960). The ambitious brothers were Romanian immigrants. The name "BENRUS" was a combination of Benjamin Lazrus first and last names. Hence "BEN"jamin laz"RUS".
Since it's invention in the 16th centurey the only choice in watches was the pocketwatch. But in the early 1900's watch manufacturers and jewelers were soldering solid lugs to small pocketwatches, adding straps, and wearing them on the wrist. A new type of watch was born; the wristwatch. The wristwatch gained very quickly in popularity, to the point that by the early 1920's worldwide pocketwatch manufacture and sales were on the decline. It was at that time that three young brothers saw an opportunity to begin a wristwatch company that produced moderately priced watches for the common-man; BENRUS.
On 14 May 1923, Lazarus acquired the legal protection of the trademark Benrus from the Swiss federal office for intellectual property.
Oscar Lazrus was the eldest brother. He was an attorney, and he was in charge of the advertising and finances for the company. The next oldest was Benjamin Lazrus where the company name was derived. Benjamin attended Columbia University, and fought in World War I. He was in charge of the operations of the company. The youngest of the brothers was Ralph. Ralph was a salesman at heart and so handled the sales aspect of the business. Over the life of the company the three brothers, at one time or another, ran the company as President.
The original company headquarters were located in the Hippodrome building on 44th street in Manhattan. While some watch assembly took place there, the bulk of the manufacture took place in Switzerland. Benrus owned a factory in la Choux de Fond where watch movements were assembled.
(An interesting side note: This factory was run by the first woman in Swizerland to run a major Swiss company).
At the time all Swiss watches and parts were controlled by the Swiss watchmaking cartel who provided Benrus with the movements and parts. Benrus also had a factory in Waterbury CT which is where they made the cases for Benrus watches. The company would later own factories in France, St. Thomas, and Virgin Islands in the late 50's early 60's.
(Another interesting fact: Benrus once purchased watch movements from Seiko long before Seiko watches were allowed to be imported into the USA).
The WWII years were a period of gigantic growth for Benrus. Contrary to popular belief, Benrus, like many other watch manufacturers of the time, manufactured watches for WWII servicemen. Most US companies (including watch companies) were brought into the war effort to produce items for military use. Benrus was no different. Indeed, Benrus was manufacturing items toward the War effort. They had top secret government contracts to manufacture timing devices for use in bombs and weapons. They also continued to sell watches to civilians as they were still able to ship their Swiss movements by sea via Lisbon. The extremely limited supply of affordable watches meant big profits for the company as consumers snapped up whatever watches Benrus could make.
When the war was over, some other family members would join the company. Jay Kay Lazrus and Julian Lazrus were Oscar Lazrus' sons. Julian would go on to run the Waterbury plant and would later become President of the company. Jay Kay graduated from Exeter and Harvard. He served in the Airforce as a communications specialist during WWII - he was a Lieutenant., and would eventually would become Executive Vice President of Benrus.
Production steadily expanded throughout the 1940's. Post-War, Benrus designers went to work fashioning beautiful and dazzling watches that expressed post war civilian life. Supplies of high quality Swiss movements were not only readily available, but were also inexpensive for Benrus to buy. This was due to high volume and a strong relationship with the Swiss cartel. Benrus even had a German company supplying ebauche movements and parts. The company was positioned perfectly... just as with cars and houses, America was ready to buy a new watch.
The resulting designs from Benrus were unique and exaggerated. Designs from this period, with fancy bezels and lugs. The company produced memorable watches like the "Embraceable" - a one piece watch that was slipped on like a bracelet, and also the "Citation" which was named after a famous racehorse of the time. The "Dial-o-Rama" which is probably the most recognized of all of the jump hour direct read watch which is highly collectible today. It was a very exciting time for the Benrus Watch Company who played a large role in the Retro-Modern period as we know it. Watches from this period are becoming very collectible today.
Hamilton v. Benrus
By the beginning of the 1950s, Benrus' had overtaken Hamilton and had grown to become the 3rd largest watch company in the United States, behind Bulova and Elgin (who each were larger than Benrus and Hamilton combined). They were a mid-priced watch company and that relied solely on using swiss movements. They had no watch with more than 17 jewels and generally marketed their watches with a retail price between $24.75 and $71.50.
Hamilton, in contrast, had a reputation of producing a higher quality watch and had factories manufacturing watches entirely made in the USA. They also imported swiss movements which they marketed under the Illinois name. Hamilton retailed their watches at $49.50 and up.
In 1952 a proposal by the U S Tarriff Commission had recommended an increase import duties on swiss watch movements. This would prove to be quite damaging to Benrus who relied solely on swiss made movements. In contrast it would prove to be beneficial to a company manufacturing watches in the US.
What Benrus did next was controversial. Benrus appeared to have its sights on taking over Hamilton Watch Company. Beginning in 1952, Benrus had begun purchasing shares of Hamilton Watch Company stock on the New York Stock Exchange. By mid-1952 Benrus had acquired 10% of Hamilton stock. By early 1953 Benrus owned over 90,000 shares or 24% of Hamilton's outstanding stock. This large stake in Hamilton's company allowed Benrus to have a such a large voting share that it would be capable of appointing one director per year to a three year term on Hamilton's board of directors.
At the same time Benrus held patents for an automobile clock that they were eager to market but did not have the manufacturing capabilities in the US to capitalize upon. Benrus, with it's influential block of Hamilton stock approached Hamilton and suggested a mutually beneficial deal be arranged.
Hamilton was feeling the pressure. They believed Benrus was attempting to obtain enough stock in an effort to carry control over the company and sued Benrus claiming violation of US anti-trust laws. Benrus contended that the shares represented an investment as a hedge against the proposed tarriff . Regardless, in 1953 Hamilton won an injunction against Benrus.
A few pieces of interesting history
- The company was the first paid sponsor of a TV program - "the Wizard of Oz"
- They were one of the first companies to develop a completely waterproof watch.
- They manufactured the popular Dick Tracy watch and also made some Disney watches.
- Other brands that sold under the Benrus name were SOVREIGN and BELFORTE. These were Benrus' less expensive lines.
The Decline of an Era
By the late 1950's Ben and Ralph Lazrus were in their 70's and ready for retirement. Oscar bought out his brothers shares to become the sole owner of the company. Ralph died shortly thereafter in 1960.
By this time they had operations in the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and also a brand new factory in Ridgefield, CT where the new Main offices would be located. The Waterbury CT plant was closed and operations were moved to Ridgefield.
The company was sold in 1967 to Victor Kiam, of Remington Razors... Victor Kiam was made famous in his advertisement "I liked the shaver so much, I bought the company". Unfortunately, this was the era of the cheap Japanese Quartz movement and inexpensive Timex watches which hurt most US producers of mechanical watches. Under new ownership the company was stripped of it's most valuable assets which were sold off. "Benrus" was used primarily for it's strong brand name recognition.
In the 1960's through the late 70's, Benrus made military issue watches used by the Army and Navy. These were issued to servicemen fighting in the Vietnam War.
By the mid to late 70's Benrus Incorporated was a diversified manufacturer of a number of consumer products. Companies included: Benrus Watch Co. - Watches, Wells, Inc. - Jewelry, and Destino, Ltd. - Christian Dior Products. An attempt to consolidate all the various manufacturing enterprises under one roof proved to be a much more expensive move than anyone calculated, and a final blow to the company which subsequently filed bankrupt in 1977.
The company was then sold, and after passing through several more hands, came under the ownership of the Hampden Company, which also owned "Fantasy Diamonds", with factories in both the Virgin Islands and Chicago. An attempt was made to bring back the Benrus brand under Hampden/Fantasy, which was somewhat successful but short lived. Among others, a reissue of Vietnam service watches proved very popular.
Oscar Lazrus died in the early 1990's (he was in his 90's). His son Julian Lazrus died Aug. 14, 2004 at the age of 85.
I would like to sincerely thank the late Naomi Lazrus (Jay Kay Lazarus' Wife) for providing me with valuable family and company history. I would also like to thank her son Michael Lazrus (Oscar Lazrus' grandson, and son of Jay Kay Lazrus) for the same...
Post note; currently, some companies are using the names of classic (defunct) watch companies like Elgin, Benrus, Waltham, and Gruen to market new watches. They sometimes purchase the rights to the brand names, and other times they simply use the brand names of companies where the trademark has expired. These watches may hold the name, and are sometimes styled as exact replica's of the original, but should not be confused with an original "vintage" watch. The watches are very different from the originals. Internally they use mostly quartz (battery) movements, instead of a mechanical one, and may not have the same quality or essence as the original. Please understand that I am not recommending against the purchase of these watches, only stating that the buyer should understand the difference.