The Ultra-Deep: A Benrus Deep Cut

The Ultra-Deep: A Benrus Deep Cut

In the annals of American watchmaking, Benrus occupies an unusual place. The Benrus Watch Company never possessed Waltham’s world-beating industrial efficiency or Hamilton and Bulova’s technological innovativeness, nor did the company ever benefit from a partnership with a prominent Swiss manufacturer, like Wittnauer did with Longines for over a century. On the American stage, Benrus was younger, smaller, and had comparatively few resources than just about every other player. Yet what it did with what it had was more than enough to make Benrus a household name—a name that reverberates in watch circles even today.

Founded in 1921 by three brothers, Oscar, Benjamin, and Ralph Lazarus, the company (a portmanteau combining the “Ben” and “rus” of Benjamin Lazarus) sought to differentiate itself in a crowded marketplace by offering affordable yet well-built American-manufactured wristwatches with reliable Swiss movements. Such a business model meant that Benrus could avoid the massive capital costs required to develop its own calibers and build its own movement factories, allowing it to focus solely on the design, marketing, and distribution of watches and, most importantly, to undercut its larger rivals on price. While Benrus soon found competition at the lower end of the market from upstarts pursuing the same strategy, the Benrus name endures today because of the watches it made for the U.S. military, first in World War II and later in Vietnam (the DTU-2A/P and the Type I and II). That military heritage is precisely what motivated a private investment group to revitalize the brand in 2020 and reissue a heritage collection of Benrus watches to mark the brand’s 100-year anniversary.

These re-editions of highly collectible Benrus models have only renewed interest in the company’s vast historical archive, particularly original Type 1 and Type II models, which today trade at well above five figures on the collector market. But often overlooked in the Benrus back catalog is a duo of watches that perfectly conveys the company’s intrepid spirit and scrappy industriousness: the Ultra-Deep.

The Ref. 6088

An extremely rare and stunning ref. 6088 soon available through our shop here.

Pictured together, the two Ultra-Deep models that Benrus made in the late 1960s appear not as familial brothers but as distant cousins, born during the height of the Golden Age of Diving, a time that saw watchmakers the world over flood the market with tough, no-nonsense, purpose-built tool watches featuring clean designs and ready-for-anything specs.

A fine exemplar of this era, the Benrus Ultra-Deep Ref. 6088 is one of the most unique dive watches the brand offered during this era. At only 36 mm in diameter and 46 mm lug to lug, and with and a total case height of roughly 12 mm, the Ref. 6088 is positively diminutive for dive-watch standards, even for the time. Its small stature is due in part to the automatic Benrus FE 2D1 movement (based on an ETA 2452) ticking underneath, which is slim at only about 10 mm in height. A simple, sturdy, front-loading monobloc steel case—the same style employed widely by dive-watch makers including Technos and Aquastar—afforded divers of the era a water resistance of 666 feet, more than enough for any underwater challenge, even today. With a matte-black dial bearing baton tritium markers and featuring only one numeral—12—coupled with lumed sword hands, the Benrus Ultra-Deep Ref. 6088 comes together into a compelling package of form, function, and brutalist military aesthetic.

The Ref. 6089

Another knockout but this time in the ref. 6089 configuration. Available through our site here.

The most notable attribute of the Benrus Ultra-Deep Ref. 6089 is a Super Compressor case designed by the famed Ervin Piquerez, S.A. (EPSA), which has two crowns—one to control the time setting and another to unlock and modulate the internal rotating bezel to track elapsed time on a dive. Collectors of dive watches made during this era will recognize versions of the dual-crown EPSA case in models from Enicar, Lip, Bulova, Wittnauer, and Hamilton, among other manufacturers. As the name implies, the ESPA Super Compressor derives from a proprietary “compressor” system where the caseback compresses inward on the gaskets, creating a tighter seal as the watch submerges deeper under the water. This useful feature, coupled with Benrus’ history as a preferred timepiece supplier to the U.S. government, made the 6088 a popular choice among professional saturation divers and Navy SEALs. (As was revealed during a fairly recent Phillips watch auction of these models, a veteran of the CIA, U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sergeant James J. Stanford, wore both the 6088 and 6089 during service in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s.)

Though different in style and execution than its Ref. 6088 brother, the 6089 is similarly svelte at 36 mm in diameter and 12.5 thick. The 6089 also uses the same ETA base movement. The dial and handset have the same custardy tritium lume, while offering an unconventional twist on the Rolex Submariner Mercedes handset.

Like many American watchmakers, Benrus did not survive the quartz crisis and deindustrialization. The company underwent a series of mergers, acquisitions, buyouts, and changes in organizational structure before finally meeting its end. In one odd moment of its corporate history, Benrus failed in a hostile takeover of Hamilton. But the company name thankfully lives on today in a new form because of models like the Type 1 and Type 2, DTU-2A/P, the Sky Chief, and, though more under the radar, the Ultra-Deep.

Paul Barbagallo is a Boston-based writer and editor, working at the intersection of business, technology, and society. He focuses his watch-collecting on 1960s and 70s tool watches, notably from brands including Enicar, Zenith, Bulova, Lip, Seiko, and Citizen. He can be reached on his website.

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