New home sought for historic British watchmaker J. W. Benson

JW Benson Logo

There is something about the way Covid-19 has buffeted business and society this year that has seen consumers seeking out anchor points from history and brands with the greatest authenticity.

That makes the opportunity to acquire the rights to a historic British watchmaking business all the more attractive to investors.

J. W. Benson — which can trace its history back to the mid 19th century but made its last watches in the 1970s — is just such an opportunity, and is being offered to investors by United Heritage, a specialist in reviving British brands and finding them the right home with businesses that can bring them back to their former glory.

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“United Heritage was set-up to identify, acquire and revive Anglo-Saxon luxury consumer brands that have particular features such a compelling heritage, notable patrons (often royalty) and a collectible archive of documents, photographs and, of course, product,” explains Robert Black, director at United Heritage.

J. W. Benson ticks every box.

J. W. Benson was a famous jeweller on London’s Bond Street.

The business and its watches have a fascinating history after being founded by brothers James William and Samuel Suckley Benson in 1847.

In its heyday, J. W. Benson was making watches, jewellery and other valuables in its East London workshops and selling them through stores in the Royal Exchange next to the Bank of England and from the same unit on Bond Street that is now occupied by Tiffany & Co.

J. W. Benson became an official watchmaker to the Admiralty and the War Department during World War I; manufacturing thousands of trench and service watches, but the war was less kind to the company’s premises at Ludgate Hill in the City of London, which was bombed during the blitz, destroying the steam factory, a retail premises and an inventory of 12,000 watches, as well as halting the manufacture of in-house movements.

A J.W. Benson’s watch accompanied Briton Sir Edmond Hillary on his mission to conquer Mount Everest in 1953.

It rebuilt after the war and even made a watch taken to the peak of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary in 1953, but its star was fading and the business was eventually sold to to the Royal jewellers, Garrards in 1973, and then to American retail giant Sears Holdings, which was assembling a portfolio of luxury brands but never made watches under the J. W. Benson name, pushing the brand into a lengthy hibernation.

United Heritage has recognised the potential to bring the brand back to life, and is looking for the right buyer that shares its vision.

Much of the painstaking work to revive the brand has already been done, making it a highly attractive package.

Archive documents are key to creating stories that show the history of a brand like J. W. Benson.

“I think the advantage of reviving J. W. Benson is that it is going to be hard for consumers not to appreciate the brand’s incredible heritage, but the acquirer won’t need to deal with expensive reorganisations especially of a retail network, nor has the brand been degraded by strategic or positioning errors,” explains Mr Black. “It takes years to register the trademark globally in strategic markets, acquire domains and to assemble a substantial archive. J. W. Benson has proven challenging on each of these fronts,” he describes.

Heritage brand revival is not simple, but it can be hugely rewarding for the right investor.

“Some of my favourite examples are the Moynat revival by Luvanis & Groupe Arnault, the Buly1803 revival by Ramdane Touhami & Victoire de Taillac, and the Panerai revival by Richemont,” Mr Black suggests, although he cautions: “A revival project requires a unique brand proposition, a carefully crafted strategy, and the necessary financial investment at a minimum.”

It will take time and money to bring J. W. Benson back to its full potential, but Mr Black feels there are a number of potential acquirers for the heritage brand.

Asked what the perfect investor would be, Mr Black suggests: “Aside from the big groups, probably manufacturers and retailers who might have been disintermediated by the vertical integration push by the big brands over the past decade, as well as buyers with an existing route to market. I’d say that it would be more difficult, though not impossible, for individual investors.”

So much value in modern watchmaking comes from historic stories, brand equity and archive watch designs, so the sale of J. W. Benson is expected to generate considerable interest in the UK and abroad.

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Rob Corder

The author Rob Corder