The Lazrus brothers, three ambitious and innovative young men, saw in the steady decline of the pocket watch’s popularity an opportunity to re-imagine an industry. Oscar, the eldest and an attorney, took charge of their new company’s advertising and finances. Benjamin, a WW I veteran, managed operations. And Ralph, the youngest brother, applied his natural charm to the position of sales director. What to call the business? Proud of their Romanian heritage and strong sense of family, the brothers combined Benjamin’s first and last names. And so was born a classic American brand...BENRUS.
BENRUS found its first home in Manhattan’s Hippodrome building. The bulk of manufacturing took place in the company-owned factory in Switzerland – where BENRUS made history by appointing the first woman ever to run a major Swiss company. Cases were made in the company’s Connecticut factory. Through the 1930’s, as the superpowers of the era marched to the precipice of global war, the Benrus commitment to produce moderately priced wristwatches for the common man resulted in steady growth for the company. Soon enough, the Lazrus brothers would be called upon to stand tall for their country. It was a call they would answer with pride.
BENRUS was not the only American watchmaker to contribute to the national war effort. But it was the company’s well-earned reputation for precision and ingenuity – BENRUS helped pioneer the waterproof watch, and their version became standard issue for WW II frogmen – that led to the awarding of Top Secret government contracts for BENRUS to manufacture timing devices for use in bombs and other sophisticated weaponry. Throughout the war, BENRUS watches were the trusted combat companions of American airmen, soldiers, and sailors serving in the European and Pacific theaters. The most famous model (revered and collected to this day), the Sky Chief, had been favored by pre-war cargo pilots, and in post-war aviation would be sold as the “Official Watch of Famous Airlines.”
The contributions made by BENRUS to the war effort were officially recognized when, in October, 1943 the company received the Army-Navy “E” Award for “outstanding production of war materials. BENRUS workers at the Waterbury factory were singled out in the nation’s tribute to their “effort and great work in backing up our soldiers on the fighting fronts.”
The post-war years were good for America and for BENRUS. The Lazrus brothers turned their attention to civilian markets, designing uniquely beautiful watches that captured the optimism and prosperity of the time. Models like the “Embraceable,” with its one-piece bracelet like design, the “Citation,” named for the era’s dominant thoroughbred racehorse, and the wildly modernistic “Dial-o-Rama,” to this day one of the most famous and collectible of all so-called jump-hour direct read watches. Americans were in the mood to buy new watches – and with favorable access to inexpensive Swiss and German movements and parts, BENRUS was selling inexpensive, accurate, dazzling models as fast as they could be built. BENRUS would eclipse its rival Hamilton in the 1950’s and become the third-largest American watch company. No BENRUS watch had more than 17 jewels, all used Swiss movements, and the entire line was priced between $24.75 and $71.50. Peace, alas, would be fleeting, as America went to war first in Korea, then in Vietnam. Once again the country called upon BENRUS to apply the skills and creativity at its command to the needs of the armed forces. For the Vietnam conflict, BENRUS designed dive watches for covert operations, or “black ops.” And so were born the BENRUS “Type I” and “Type II.” Durable at depths of up to 1200 feet and non-magnetic to permit divers to work safely with magnetic mines, these designs were worn by Navy SEALS, Green Berets, and operatives from the CIA and other civilian and military intelligence agencies.
Throughout this period and beyond, BENRUS experienced change that, in its breadth and depth, mirrored the upheavals impacting American society. The company was sold to Victor Kiam (of Remington Razor fame) in 1967, a time in which unprecedentedly inexpensive Japanese quartz movements were devastating American manufacturers of mechanical watches. New ownership sold off BENRUS assets until only its still-powerful brand name recognition remained. A series of failed business strategies led the company to file for bankruptcy in 1977. Sale of BENRUS soon followed. An attempt to rejuvenate the brand, while initially successful, ultimately proved to be short-lived. Oscar Lazrus, who had survived his brothers Ralph and Ben, lived to witness the demise of his family’s business. He died, a nonagenarian, in the 1990’s. His son Julian, who had joined BENRUS after WW II, died in 2004. And so a legendary American brand, born in the hearts and minds of three creative, entrepreneurial brothers of Romanian descent, seemed to dissolve into the mists of history, its name recognized only by a handful of cognoscenti and collectors of rare timepieces.
Fast-forward to spring, 2014. Iconic entrepreneur Giovanni Feroce, a decorated Army officer and combat veteran whose love of country is as widely celebrated as his stunning business successes, takes a page from the Lazrus brothers’ book. Where others saw only the decline of a once-dominant American manufacturing legend, Giovanni saw opportunity. He would purchase the BENRUS name and transform it into a military-inspired lifestyle brand. By that summer, BENRUS, LLC had been formed under Giovanni’s leadership. And on November 1, 2014, BENRUS was presented to the world – a world once again ready to embrace timeless fashion that celebrates even as it helps redefine a dominant 21st century lifestyle. Giovanni brings to today’s BENRUS the vision, innovation, and daring that were the hallmarks of the Lazrus brothers. He will expand the BENRUS brand to include, along with wristwatches inspired by classic BENRUS models, apparel, eyewear, bags, backpacks, accessories ... with even more ambitious product lines envisioned for the very near future. Who can say what the future holds for BENRUS? All we can know for certain is that to chart the future, we must remember the past... and that three chairs in the BENRUS board room forever will be reserved for Oscar, Ralph, and Ben Lazrus.