An Alarming Situation – The Benrus Wrist Alarm

Benrus has made some noise with the recent release of the Wrist Alarm. As a leading expert in vintage alarm watches, here is my take on the controversy surrounding the Benrus Wrist Alarm.

The New Benrus Wrist Alarm.Image credit benrus.com

Benrus was a historic American watch company founded in 1921 in New York. When I think of Benrus, I think of rectangular art deco watches from the 1940s; a classic pilot’s chronograph called the “Sky Chief,” and military field watches. Benrus disappeared during the quartz crisis and was rebooted about a year ago. The revived Benrus showed up on my radar with a limited edition Type I diver based on a Vietnam War-era military design.

The New Benrus Type I. Image credit benrus.com

The Claim

The focus of this article is the recently released Benrus Wrist Alarm. The Benrus Wrist Alarm is described by Benrus as an updated everyday alarm watch. During their heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the alarm watch was not considered a luxurious complication. It was rather ordinary and practical as a wrist-worn reminder. The biggest purveyor of third-party alarm watch movements was Adolph Schild with the AS 1475/1568 and later the AS 1930 /1931 which operated similarly to manual wind Memovoxes but for a fraction of the price. Today alarm watches are uncommon and relatively expensive. The Tudor Advisor ($6,225) and Jaeger Le-coultre Master Control Memovox ($12,500) are the most common modern alarm watches available. However, in the earlier era, many brands used Adolph Schild movements for alarm watches including Benrus.

Vintage Benrus Wrist Alarm. Photo: Watchsteez

The Benrus Wrist Alarm of 2021 was advertised as an affordable limited edition series of 500 watches that featured an updated case size with modern conveniences like 50 meters of water resistance and a sapphire crystal. A big part of the appeal as an alarm watch enthusiast is that Benrus described the movements as a “treasure trove of new old stock AS 1931 mechanical movements from the 1970s… Never used, these movements were meticulously disassembled and fully serviced by master watchmakers in Switzerland to assure they are operating like brand new.”

Hold on a second…

We already have a problem. The AS 1931 was the DATE version of the caliber. The dial of the Benrus movement has NO DATE, and the movement shows no space for a date wheel. I’m just going to ignore this mistake and pretend the claim was for an AS 1930, which would have been an accurate reference number for the caliber in discussion.

No date wheel visible here. Photo: benrus.com

The markings on the movement are also unusual. Although two Benrus crests are engraved on the movement, the movement is also marked “18 jewels” and “SU.” The AS 1931 and the no-date version which was the AS 1930 were both 17 jewel movements. This was because the development of the calibers was influenced by the need for export to the United States, which to this day levies a higher import duty on watches over 17 jewels. Many Swiss watches have 17 jewels for this very reason. However, there is one alarm caliber that was made as a copy of the earlier AS 1475 and had an extra jewel (18) on the hammer pivot because it did not export to the United States. This would be the Poljot 2612.1 which continues to be produced today and is marked “SU” for its development in the Soviet Union.

The Benrus Wrist Alarm Caliber, from Benrus.com

However, Soviet-era watches would not be marked “SU” as the Soviet Union referred to itself as the “CCCP.” The Soviet-era Poljot 2612.1 movements were generally marked with the caliber number and not a country of origin.

Some of the modern production Poljot 2612.1 watches, on the other hand, do bear the SU marking. They are readily available and inexpensive.

$200. Image credit: moscowwatch.com

Another giveaway that the movement in the Benrus Wrist Alarm of 2021 wasn’t meeting the claimed specification is the bridge shape. Although both movements feature a tricorner bridge, the AS 1930 bridge is slightly wider and the Poljot 2612.1 has an extra hole. This is easy to miss at an uninformed glance, but anyone sleuthing for inconsistencies would likely have caught this bridge difference.

The functions of the two calibers are also different. The AS 1930 is based on the later version of the AS 1475 and both calibers share a feature that the alarm is armed when the top crown is out. The Poljot 2612.1 is based on the earlier version of the AS 1475 and is armed when the crown is pushed in. The Benrus Wrist Alarm of 2021 is armed when the crown is pushed in, so even without opening the caseback you can tell that it is definitely NOT an AS 1930 or a later AS 1475 and is either an earlier AS 1475 or more likely, the much more common Poljot 2612.1.

But honestly, all this is academic. It says it right on the movement.

From Benrus.com

A closer view.

Note the marking, “2612.1” in the lower right-hand corner. Photo: Benrus.com

Other differences include that the Poljot is about 0.6 mm larger than the AS caliber, the 18th jewel sits on the dial side and is the pivot stone of the alarm hammer, the wheels are slightly smaller, the alarm crown’s setting lever and cutout on the mainplate are different to accommodate the crown in position (being the alarm armed position), and the setting levers are held by small springs instead of screws. Most of these can be seen if the watch is dissembled. However, the differences are pretty subtle for a non-watchmaker.

It is clear just by handling the watch and observing that it has no date and that the alarm is armed with the top crown in the pushed-in position that it is NOT an AS 1931 or an AS 1930. Although it is extraneous at this point, another way to tell without seeing the movement is to put the watch on a timegrapher and observe the frequency, which will be 21,600 vph for the AS 1930/1931 and 18,000 vph for the AS 1475 or the Poljot 2612.1. This narrows it down to an early AS 1475 or a Poljot 2612.1. The pictures provided by the official Benrus website clearly show a Poljot 2612.1 and the movement is even marked as such. Any claim of Swiss manufacture of the movement is simply a fallacy.

Concluding Opinions

Clearly, this watch is not made with new old stock AS 1931 movements as advertised by Benrus. There is no evidence of any Swiss parts in the movement. Hodinkee has come under some criticism for inadequately vetting the piece and selling it in their store initially. I feel Hodinkee handled the situation appropriately. Once Hodinkee realized that there was a problem, they pulled the watch from their store, admitted the error publicly, and offered all customers (including myself) to either return the watch for a full refund or receive a $250 gift card. Unfortunately, the gift card is only for the Hodinkee Shop. Otherwise, I would consider using the gift card to buy a Poljot just for fun!

Benrus can be justifiably criticized for allowing this watch to come to market with an inaccurate marketing description that inflates the price point. However, I find it hard to believe that they would knowingly post pictures of what is clearly a Poljot 2612.1 movement so proudly and prominently on their website. I suspect that the real culprit is the supplier of the part who has managed to deceive both Benrus and Hodinkee. I guess this just goes to show that caveat emptor (the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made) applies to the so-called experts as well as to laypeople. Fortunately, good resources exist such as “The Alarm Wristwatch” by Michael Phillip Horlbeck to debunk such dubious claims and help us find the truth of the matter.