Industry / Watches

How I Got Here: From Russia To Detroit With Watchmaker Leonid Khankin


For some people, luxury watch expert Leonid Khankin describing himself as a mechanic may seem surprising—but when you consider where he grew up, his clientele, and his own passion for cars, it makes all the sense in the world.

Khankin is managing and creative director for Ernst Benz, an independent Swiss watch company he and his family own and operate. Its North American headquarters is in Birmingham, Mich., an upscale suburb of Detroit, where the automotive industry still leads the local economy. That “Big Three” mentality is seen in events like the Dream Cruise, big supplier meetings, and the huge headquarters based nearby, including Ford Motor Co.’s in Dearborn and General Motors Corp.’s in Detroit.

The location as much as Khankin’s interest in automotive history and design are the reasons why the watchmaker thinks of himself professionally as a bit of a machine-minded repair guy. While the Ernst Benz brand is synonymous with aviation and luxury, it has also become known for auto sports and automotive enthusiasm, thanks to Khankin.

“Watchmaking is part art. But it also is part mechanic and service,” Khankin says, noting that he serves both sides of that equation. “A mechanic is not a designer—it’s about fixing what needs repair. A designer—that’s about creativity.”

An Ernst Benz favorite, the ChronoLunar Officer features a white matte dial, gilt applied luminous numberals, a polished stainless steel case, and a hand-stitched alligator strap.
An Ernst Benz favorite, the ChronoLunar Officer features a white matte dial, gilt applied luminous numerals, a polished stainless-steel case, and a hand-stitched alligator strap.

When you grow up in Detroit, you quickly learn that you will either work for an automotive company or work for a business that works alongside automotive companies. Khankin is somewhat of an import himself—he was born in St. Petersburg, but his parents, seeking to escape Communism, left what was then the USSR in 1976, when Khankin was about 3 years old.

Russia to Detroit? Khankin explains that when his father, Efim, a master watchmaker of international reputation, wanted to leave Communism behind, the family first had to move to Italy. From there, they waited to see what country would accept them.

“Our papers came back for Detroit,” Khankin says. His father and the rest of the family still operate Universal Watch Repair in Birmingham.

Ernst Benz is named after its founder, an aviator and inventor himself. Benz developed an aircraft instrument chronograph, which then became an industry standard worldwide. Inspired by aviators and a demand for that same precision in a watch, Benz created the Original ChronoScope, which evolved over the years into the version the company makes today. Khankin came in to work with Benz as a watchmaker, designing the brand favorite ChronoLunar. Benz sold the Khankin family the business in 2005.

“All of it was an incredible coincidence,” Khankin says. “I’m the son of a watchmaker. But I’m also the grandson of two men in aviation. One grandfather was a military pilot who had many medals. Another grandfather was a gunner who also was honored.”

The Ernst Benz ChronoSport Traditional features cathedral hands in a stainless steel case.
The Ernst Benz ChronoSport Traditional features cathedral hands in a stainless steel case.

It’s a job that makes Khankin happy every day. “Life just sort of happens,” he says. “You just do your best to execute on it.”

Today, Khankin creates watches not only for huge celebrities—sports stars Dan Marino and Carmelo Anthony, actors Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger, and tastemakers such as Gwyneth Paltrow—but also for automotive executives who are mini-celebs in their own right. He goes to car events for major luxury brands such as Ferrari and Land Rover. But his heart also belongs to vehicles like the Camaro and the Ford Bronco. He even references legendary names like Henry Ford and GM’s Bob Lutz in his everyday conversations—the true mark in Detroit of a “car guy.”

Khankin takes those opportunities to work with companies and individuals to raise funds for causes he cares about. For example, he and his watches have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities and nonprofits. In September, the store hosted the third annual Lace Up Detroit charity event called the Pink Party. The live auction and raffle raised more than $35,000 to support the Detroit-based charity’s mission to “make a difference in people’s lives one shoe at a time.”

Khankin is busier than ever now, traveling across the United States to the retailers that carry Ernst Benz timepieces, as well as working in the Birmingham store. He just participated in a car rally with an exotic car club in Florida, where he highlighted his Jupiter, Fla., retailer and latest Ernst Benz designs.

“That’s the thing about jewelry—it’s not so much about money. It’s about experience,” Khankin says. “We’re at service to the people who appreciate what we do.”

Top: Leonid Khankin is the creative yet mechanical brain behind Michigan-based Ernst Benz, an independent Swiss watch brand. (All photos courtesy of Ernst Benz)

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Karen Dybis

By: Karen Dybis

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