(Editor’s note: This is the first article of IndieLux, which will explore the world of independent watch brands with models starting at at least $1,500).
Leonid Khankin, president and creative director of independent watch brand Ernst Benz, may have ignited his American story as a young immigrant with big dreams in the Motor City. But now he’s playing at the top of the watch game, crafting luxury timepieces with personal flair.
As the watch company’s leader, Khankin has breathed new life into the organization by fusing pop art with classic designs and took production from just a few hundred pieces a year to a few thousand. He also added another very important ingredient to the mix: endless customization. Clients can choose from a wide variety of options: a plethora of color choices and custom straps make each watch reflect the style of its owner.
“The collaborations we do are not really about watches, they’re about people,” Khankin said.
Khankin was too young to remember being smuggled out of communist USSR in 1976. He was only three years old when his parents fled the country hoping for a better life in the United States. His father Efim Khankin was a master watchmaker in Russia and had to find his footing in in a foreign land. He quickly found work with a jeweler and settled the family in Detroit, Michigan.
“My father always had me working with him,” Khankin said. “I wasn’t even tall enough to help wash watch tools in the sink. I had to stand on a crate to wash watch cases. But that’s how it all started – my father landed in the U.S. with 20 bucks. We came from nothing.”
Khankin’s father eventually took over the store and made his son a full time watchmaker. At 12, he could dissect and reassemble a Rolex datejust. By 17, Leonid could service perpetual calendar movements. “It’s not normal that a 17-year-old is cutting school to sell Rolex,” Khankin said with a laugh. The shop eventuall grew into one of the region’s premier luxury watch boutiques.
But all that exposure to watchmaking would pay off when the the worlds of Khankin and Ernst Benz collided. Starting as a watchmaker for Benz, Khankin designed the brand’s well-regarded ChronoLunar – a departure from the simple three handed designs of the company’s collection. In 2005, Ernst Benz himself handed creative control of the company over to Khankin.
“At first, they thought I was crazy with the Lunar,” Khankin recalls. “But when we showed them at Baselworld that year, they sold out immediately. It was crazy. Suddenly, we had taken the company from a few hundred sales a year to a few thousand sales with international points of distribution.”
“It was never my dream to run a watch company,” he added. “I just wanted to build watches.”
Focus on design and choice
At a recent event at Diamond’s Direct ECJ Luxe in Charlotte, North Carolina, Khankin sat with clients with watches spread over a table. Ernst Benz watches start with the typical design that goes back tot he company’s roots as an aircraft instrument producer. Modern pieces still use the the cathedral hands, but colors now vary widely: copper tones, orange, stripes, camoflage, turquoise… and a host of other options. Khankin works with clients to find the best combinations to match their lifestyles.
Inspiration for the kaleidoscope of color options comes from Khankin’s Detroit roots – the personality of classic automobiles and Motown vinyl seep into the watches’ character along with the original Benz design cues. These combinations give the design a certain soul.
“They say we are not in a good era of design,” Khankan said. “But I think we are in the most interesting era. We have so much to gather from. I grew up collecting watches and everything is an inspiration to something else. You can show me watches with five tourbillon movements and it’s not as interesting to me as an appealing design.”
Quality over quantity
Khankin says the company will produce 4,000 watches this year and he’s not concerned about ramping up production. Retail prices start at about $3,500 and reach five figures with diamond options. The 42-47 pilot inspired cases house top grade ETA movements.
“I don’t care about the ‘Swiss watch crisis’,” Khankin said. “I’m not participating in any crisis. I’m simply making watches and focusing on our clients. We’re not just trying to build as many watches as possible. That’s why you don’t see us on liquidation channels.”
As for the future, Khankin said he just wants to focus on continuing his vision to make a highly personal luxury product. “When I was young, we had no running water. Now, I’m presenting at Baselworld and running a company. This is all more than I ever thought was possible. And I’m really worried that people will realize that all I’m doing is having fun.”
Learn more about Ernst Benz on their website.