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Wednesday, February 08, 2006 

Benrus

Benrus watchesBenrus Watch Company was an American (family run) company. It was founded in New York City in 1921 by three brothers - Benjamin, Ralph, and Oscar Lazrus. The ambitious brothers were Romanian immigrants. The name "BENRUS" was a combination of Benjamin Lazrus first and last names. Hence "BEN"jamin laz"RUS".

The early 1920's was a turbulent time for the watch industry as pocketwatch demand was cut in half - this was due to the rising popularity of the wrist watch. The three young brothers saw an opportunity to begin a wristwatch company that produced moderately priced watches for the common-man.

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. Benjamin attended Columbia University. He handled the operations part of the company. He also fought in WWI. Ralph handled the sales aspect of the business. Each brother 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, but the bulk of the manufacture took place in Switzerland. Benrus owned a factory in la Choux de Fond where watches were assembled. This was run by the first woman to run a major Swiss company. At the time all Swiss watches and parts were controlled by the Swiss 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.

Interesting fact: Benrus once purchased watch movements from Seiko long before Seiko watches were allowed to be imported to 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. They had top secret government assignments 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 and Julian Lazrus were Oscar Lazrus' sons. 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.

Post-War, Benrus designers went to work fashioning beautiful and dazzling watches that expressed post war civilian life. 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. 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.

Production steadily expanded throughout the 1940's and into the 1950's. 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. By the beginning of the 1950s, Benrus was the 3rd largest watch producer in the United States, second to Hamilton Watch, and Bulova. They had also earned a strong reputation for making quality timepieces.

A few pieces of interesting history - the company was the first paid sponsor of a TV program - "the Wizard of Oz". They were also one the first companies to develop a completely waterproof watch. They also manufactured the popular Dick Tracy watch and also made some Disney watches.

Other brands that sold under the Benrus name were
SOVREIGN
BELFORTE
These were Benrus' less expensive lines.

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.

Early in the 1960's Ben and Ralph Lazrus were in their 70's and ready for retirement. Oscar bought out his brothers to become the sole owner of the company. 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, and used primarily for it's strong brand name recognition.

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 is still alive today.

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.

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