The roots of Benrus go back to a watch-repair shop founded in New York City in 1921 by a Romanian immigrant named Benjamin Lazrus. One of three brothers, Lazrus quickly branched into the manufacture of watch cases, which he’d fill with movements, dials, and hands assembled in, and imported from, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland. During the 1930s, Benrus watch cases got more stylish, and unlike a lot of other watch manufacturers, the firm did not have to produce watches for the U.S. military during World War II, although it was compelled to manufacture timing devices used in munitions.
By the end of the 1940s, Benrus had released a sophisticated calendar watch, a stylish chronograph called the Sky Chief, a slender ladies wristwatch of diamond-studded platinum, and a gold-plated timepiece for men with a mother-of-pearl dial. The 1950s saw a foiled hostile takeover of Hamilton, as well as the introduction of the Dial-a-Rama, the Wrist Alarm, and a winding indicator that showed the wearer how tightly the watch was wound at a glance, without requiring them to wind it perhaps more than was advisable in order to find out. One of its most unique watches of the 1950s was the one-piece Embraceable, which was put on the wrist like a bracelet, and Benrus also made character watches featuring the likenesses of Dick Tracy and Mickey Mouse.
Automatic, self-winding watches appeared in the early 1960s, which is also when the company made automobile clocks, which were mounted in a car’s steering wheel and wound themselves when the car was turned in one direction or another. The ’60s were also the decade when comedian Jerry Lewis was hired to pitch the Belforte, one of two modestly priced Benrus lines (the other was Sovereign). But in 1964, Benrus was found guilty by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission of misleading consumers when it came to pricing, due to its practice of setting its retail prices at artificially high levels compared to what retail customers actually paid for the watches (the FTC objected to the false impression given to consumers that they were getting an amazing deal—a year later, an appeals court upheld the FTC’s ruling).
In 1967, Benrus was sold to Victor Kiam, who also owned the Remington Razors. In an effort to diversify in the face of inexpensive wristwatches from Japan, Benrus made military watches for soldiers in Vietnam, tried to go after the costume-jewelry market with its Destino line, and made products branded as Christian Dior. But it was not enough, and by 1977, the company was bankrupt. Recently, in 2012, the Benrus brand was acquired by a high-end, luxury wristwatch company in Belgium, which is offering two Benrus models, the N°1 and the Philo, the later of which comes in two flavors, each limited to a run of just 100 timepieces.