Welcome to Watches You Should Know, a biweekly column highlighting little-known watches with interesting backstories and unexpected influence. This week: the Benrus Sky Chief.
Founded in New York in 1921, a once notable but now relatively obscure historical watch brand called Benrus will be 100 years old next year, and one of its most notable models will be 80. Released in 1941 when many military pilots were using simple three-hand watches, the Sky Chief is a rare example of an aviation-focused chronograph during this era — and from an American brand, no less. At the time, it was advertised with the charmingly clumsy slogan “Official Watch of Famous Airlines.”
The niche purposes behind the designs and features of many vintage watches are often what make them interesting from a modern perspective. The “pilot’s watch” might sound like a narrow genre, but watches meant for flying took a wide range of forms over the decades. Their features reflected specific purposes — as well as the state of aeronautical technology — and watch designers identified different needs of pilots and took different approaches to addressing them.
To understand just what the Sky Chief offered to pilots, it helps to consider the state of aviation at the time of the watch’s introduction. It was largely military-driven, since much of the world was at war. Across the Atlantic, German fighter pilots were wearing watches like the Beobachtungs-Uhren (B-Uhr) in the cockpit, and British pilots were using the likes of the Omega CK2129. Across the Pacific, Japanese pilots used the Seikosha Tensoku. Note that these are all legible and very robust but mechanically simple watches compared to chronographs, and militaries didn’t really start using chronos like, say, the famous Type 20 and 21 watches, until a bit later.
Many of the watches enthusiasts associate with the pilot’s watch genre today have military backgrounds, but the Benrus Sky Chief was, rather, meant for the very young industry of civil aviation. Flying a plane and relying on calculations done using a wristwatch is hard to imagine from a modern perspective, but was the norm in the first half of the 20th century. Note the 3 o’clock subdial that tracks the chronograph minutes: it prominently highlights the markers at 4, 8, and 12, which is because pilots would need to use such intervals for navigation.
Pilot and noted watch collector Jeffrey Kingston maintains that the more common 3-6-9 subdial marking were also used for flying — rather than for timing telephone calls, as many believe to be the case. He notes that when doing time/distance/ground speed calculations, ground speed is expressed in miles per hour, which must be converted to fractions of an hour. Easily divisible intervals help with this.
Also useful for pilots, the Benrus Sky Chief was among the early wristwatches to feature the ability to measure up to 12 hours, via the subdial at 6 o’clock. This functionality came courtesy of the manually wound Venus 178 movement, but the brand later switched to the Valjoux 71 and 72. The Sky Chief was developed with aviation companies and adopted for use by several major airlines like Northwest (NWA), Trans World (TWA), Delta, and KLM Royal Dutch. (Some vintage models can still be found with caseback engravings indicating the airline to which they belonged.) Indeed, that the Sky Chief found use among pilots during a seminal era in the development of commercial aviation is a large part of its historical appeal.
Relatively reasonable prices for vintage examples is in part due to the Sky Chief being small by contemporary standards at 35mm wide — though tastes are changing and smaller mens watches are gaining in popularity. Due to an almost complete lack of water-resistance, vintage Sky Chiefs also often feature “tropical dials,” where age, sun, and moisture have caused black dials to turn a rich brown patina that’s a desirable trait for some collectors.
Benrus exists as a brand today and is recently under new management. With the Sky Chief turning 80 in 2021 (the brand says it was released in 1941, but some sources say it was 1940), we can perhaps expect a modern reprise, and knowing the watch’s story gives deeper context to pilot watches, chronographs, and even to aviation itself.