Review: The classic Benrus Type I dive watch is back. Is it better than ever?
Rebooting a classic is no easy task.
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Everyone loves a good reboot. When done correctly, a reissue or reinterpretation of the past can resurrect a classic with modern touches and enough nostalgia to warm even the coldest hearts. When they’re botched, fanbases can turn on a brand forever.
American watchmaker Benrus is taking a gamble with new lines of watches inspired by old favorites — in this case, the Type I originally produced from 1972 to 1980. Now might be a perfect time; today’s buyers have a sincere appreciation for the past. Don’t believe me? Drop by your local car meet and watch how many people power-walk right past the latest exotics to ogle a ’90s econobox. Check the going rates on used guitars. People want to relive certain aspects of the old days, and after 2020 I can’t blame them.
The trick is to get the right blend of nostalgia and modern livability. Watch manufacturing has come a long way since the original Benrus Type I was issued to American service members, and consumers expect to reap the rewards. At the same time, you can get a lot of damn good watches for what one of these costs, so reverence for the past must play some part in your buying decision.
The original Benrus was created in response to a government need for a robust automatic watch that could work at 1,200 feet below sea level and 35,000 feet above it. The resulting watch was a smash hit with everyone from divers to EOD teams. It was so well-designed from the start that Benrus didn’t need to make any changes from 1972 to 1980. Unfortunately, the Type I wasn’t made available to the general public, and watch collectors have been scouring the market for used examples of the approximately 16,000 original watches and creating enough demand to keep these out of the hands of average consumers.
This modern take on the storied Type I makes it clear that the people at Benrus stayed true to the original where they could, updated components where they thought it was appropriate, and made concessions where they had to.
Now, some people can’t get enough of the unboxing experience. I get a little irritated anytime I realize some of my money paid for intricate packaging that immediately gets thrown away. Benrus surprised me with packaging I’d actually keep. The olive-drab soft clamshell looks the part and provides just enough protection without being burdensome. It’s just nice enough to enjoy without making me wish that money had gone into the watch itself.
To set the time, I unscrewed the crown and pulled it out to the second click. Why two positions? If the second position moves the hands, the first usually turns a date dial for a calendar window––which the Type I doesn’t have. Evidently, incorporating a system you don’t need is cheaper than paying for a single-function mechanism. This isn’t a problem, but it’s certainly a little odd. It feels like when a car stereo forces you to scan past satellite radio even though you don’t have a subscription.
How we tested the Benrus Type I
Unlike some of the other watches I’ve tested, the Type I doesn’t dazzle with technology and customization. I didn’t navigate through endless menus exploring apps and adjusting settings to my personal preferences. With this watch, what you see is what you get — and in the case of the Type I, that’s a piece of gear that’s old-school in all the right ways.
Daily life with the Benrus Type I
As an everyday watch, the Type I performed well. This size might have been standard a few years ago, but these days it feels downright compact. The asymmetrical case manages to be rounded enough to fit comfortably but sharp enough to create crisp, clean lines. It looked appropriate with everything from jeans and a T-shirt around the garage to cocktail attire at a wedding. If this were my watch, I’d swap out the strap for a tighter fit, and probably pick up a few colors to rotate through. Black looks fantastic, but this thing is begging for an olive drab band. Nylon is the way to go; I agree with Benrus on that.
But is it tacticool?
This is a dive watch, folks, and its 30-ATM rating means you can trust it to be waterproof to depths of more than 1,000 feet. I don’t know about you, but I consider that adequate. Rainy stints in the field are no factor. The same tight tolerances that keep out high-pressure water will also protect against sand and dust, so I wouldn’t hesitate to bring this along for a training exercise, deployment, or weekend of debauchery in the woods. The silver case isn’t stealthy, but there are plenty of tactical environments where that isn’t a dealbreaker. Besides, the automatic movement means this watch is completely self-sufficient. That’s a tradeoff I feel good about in most situations.
What we like about the Benrus Type I
Brilliance in the basics never goes out of style
For starters, automatic watches are always rad. I love a reliable piece of analog technology that refuses to quit, whether it’s a watch, a hand tool, or a good old-fashioned pushrod V8. The Type I never needs a battery and doesn’t require exposure to sunlight. The natural motion of your arm activates the Swiss ETA hacking automatic movement inside the 42.5-millimeter case that keeps it running. Indefinite service life is always a plus for any piece of gear you plan on bringing into the field.
The Type I is also remarkably durable. Watch purists might mourn the metal body’s bead-blasted appearance in contrast to the original, milled Type I, but that’s a cosmetic preference and not one that will affect its ability to shake off wear and tear. The hard crystal resists scratches so I never felt pressure to baby this watch at all. This theme of simplicity carries over to the bezel ring, which can be spun in either direction to create an old-fashioned stopwatch. Sure, it’s not as precise as a digital timer, but it gets the job done and is certainly more satisfying to use.
The old breed was on to something with this watch
The heritage factor is strong with the Type I: After all, this is what many U.S. service members wore into combat in Vietnam and during the formative test flights that created modern fighter jets.
Benrus committed to a limited run of 1,000 Type I watches, so you’d better grab one before they experience a collector price bump.
Do more with your money
Last but not least, there’s the philanthropic element of buying a Type I that may appeal to more socially-minded buyers. Benrus partners with the Boulder Crest Foundation to support combat veterans, first responders, and their loved ones in their struggle to overcome trauma. The nonprofit organization operates facilities in Arizona and Virginia where participants can begin their 18-month path to a peaceful, fulfilling life after hardship. Depression, anxiety, and PTSD are too common in the veteran community, and I appreciate businesses that chip in with more than products and veteran discounts.
What we don’t like about the Benrus Type I
Those of you who are truly steeped in watch nerd-dom knew that this Type I is a reissue long before I told you. The question must be asked, then: how does it compare to the original? That’s where nits start to get picked.
Your wrist is not the problem
The most noticeable difference is the strap. The original Type I used a single strap that was threaded through fixed pins for simplicity and durability. This one uses removable spring bars that open up a wider world of replacement straps but don’t have the same old-school military style. The strap is also built for large wrists. I certainly don’t have thick wrists but they aren’t unusually thin, and I could fit two fingers under the watch band at its tightest setting. Plenty of buyers are going to be looking for a replacement band right away, and that’s a bummer for anyone who just dropped $1,700 on a watch.
The devil’s in the details, but not all of them matter
Certain differences only matter to the most die-hard watch aficionados. This Type I doesn’t use the same type of crystal as the original, and the bezel is inlaid with some kind of black ceramic rather than acrylic. These are both improvements, though. Both changes result in a more durable product that won’t scratch, scuff, or crack nearly as easily. Collectors might scoff at the deviations from canon, but practical people who just want a solid watch will appreciate the upgrade.
This watch uses Super-LumiNova rather than tritium illumination. This makes the tritium-or-nothing crowd very sad because it means you have to expose the Type I to the sun or an artificial light source to make it glow. Should you care? Tritium glows constantly and doesn’t need to be charged. It lasts several decades, but it will stop working eventually. Super-LumiNova won’t. This material can be recharged indefinitely, meaning that it–not tritium–is the true endurance champion of illumination.
There was a time when baby-faced 2nd Lt. Murdock found himself at a colonel’s retirement party, surrounded by field-grade and general officers and desperately trying to keep up with the evening’s festivities. This was no stodgy affair; the old bastards could still drink and bullshit as well as ever and if the night turned rowdy I was pretty sure more than one of them could still throw a nasty punch. Wearing the Type I feels eerily similar.
Is there something they know that we don’t? Forget about apps and external device compatibility. Instead of USB charging and a battery-life indicator, the Type I has automatic movement that keeps it ticking as long as you have a pulse. All this is wrapped not in lightweight aluminum alloy, but 316L stainless steel (and plenty of it).
The Type I comes from a time when products were designed to do one thing exceptionally well. Muscle cars raced the standing quarter-mile. Quarterbacks ran the option out of the wishbone. Watches told time. One job was enough for each because they were so damn good at it. Times have changed, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate that kind of commitment and relentless focus to a solitary mission.
FAQs about the Benrus Type I
Q. How much does the Benrus Type I cost?
A. The Type I is a fine piece, and Benrus will need you to produce $1,695 for the pleasure of acquiring one.
Q. What sets the Type I apart from other military watches?
A. These days, the term “military watch” is associated with things like 24-hour digital faces, alarms to get you out of the rack on time, and maybe even GPS navigation. The Type I takes a different approach––an old-school approach. It offers precise movement, doesn’t rely on batteries, and feels damn near indestructible. Brilliance, as you and I know, is in the basics.
Q. What kind of watches does Benrus make?
A. The company has been in business since 1921, with their claim to fame coming in the 1960s and 1970s on the back of contracts with the U.S. military. Standard-issue watches earned Benrus a reputation for rugged dependability and lasting quality. In recent years, these hallmarks deteriorated and so did sales. Now under new management, the brand is recommitted to making high-end watches like the reimagined Type I. What better way to rekindle customers’ affection than to remind them why they loved Benrus in the first place?
Q. Is the Boulder Crest Foundation a credible charity?
A. The Boulder Crest Foundation is recognized by the Guidestar Platinum Seal of Transparency, America’s Best Charities, the Better Business Bureau, and Combined Federal Campaign. According to their 2019 financial report (which is publicly available), the organization spent almost $4.8 million on program services and less than $270,000 on management and general spending.
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Scott Murdock is a Marine Corps veteran and contributor to Task & Purpose. He’s selflessly committed himself to experiencing the best gear, gadgets, stories, and alcoholic beverages in the service of you, the reader.