The Prince of Belair
Ernest Grunwald has seen the rise and fall of pin-lever watches, personally rivaled the Swiss when it came to assembling movements, and remembers the days when “everyone thought the world would end with the introduction of quartz,” the founder of Belair Time Corp. told JCK during a recent visit to his Lakewood, N.J., office. Grunwald turned 100 on March 28 and, though retired, still wears a suit to the office almost every day, while his son Alan serves as Belair’s president and owner.
Born in Bielefeld, Germany, Ernest attended medical school in Italy until World War II led him to immigrate to Virginia in 1941. During this time, the family of his German girlfriend (and later wife) Ilse, who had also moved stateside, happened to be in the watch business in Uruguay and asked Ilse to sell their watches in the United States. When Ernest learned that American medical schools wouldn’t accept all of his credits, he reluctantly joined Ilse in the business’ American outpost: J. Kalberman Co. (after Ilse’s father, Julius Kalberman).
In the mid-1950s, the company became the U.S. distributor of Enicar, a then-prominent Swiss maker of high-end timepieces. Soon, they began distributing Cyma watches, and operated both Enicar Watch USA and Cyma Watch USA from New York City.
Alan and Ernest Grunwald
In 1962, Ernest and Ilse opened their own assembly operation, Belair, in the U.S. Virgin Islands as part of a government program to allow duty-free entry of watch movements. “In those days, it was cheaper to buy from us than from Switzerland,” says Alan. When customs rules changed, Belair began manufacturing complete watches duty-free. (A St. Croix factory remains open today, with 31 employees, down from 118 in its prime.)
Eventually, Ernest moved the office to a 30,000-square-foot industrial space in New Jersey. With 3,000 active accounts—most customers buy from Belair’s inventory of about 300 private-label styles—the company continues to thrive, due in part no doubt to the longevity of its founder.