Founded in New York City in 1875 by Bohemian immigrant Joseph Bulova, the Bulova Watch Company has been responsible for numerous watch world milestones in its century-plus of existence, and continues to innovate well into the 21st Century. Here we look at 10 important timepieces from Bulova’s history and discover what they meant for the brand and for the watch industry as a whole.
Bulova had already become known for several watch-industry firsts — such as standardization of watch parts, launching the first full line of ladies’ watches, and airing the first radio commercial — by 1927, the year in which legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh became the first man to fly nonstop across the Atlantic Ocean. This accomplishment earned Lindbergh the Bulova Watch Prize of $1,000 and the opportunity to be the face of the company’s Lone Eagle wristwatch, which commemorated the record-setting flight. The original Lindbergh Lone Eagle, which was priced at $37.50, was described by Bulova as a “handsomely engraved 14-k white gold filled case with non-breakable crystal in back to protect the movement from dust. Has 15-jewel reliable Bulova movement.” With Lindbergh touting the watch in advertisements as “my pleasure to wear, keeps accurate time and is a beauty,” the Lone Eagle became Bulova’s best-selling watch of the era.
In the early 1940s, with World War II threatening and American involvement in the conflict imminent, Bulova entered into a contract with the United States government to produce instruments that would aid the American war effort. Many of these had little to do with timekeeping, including altimeters, variometers, telescopes for range-finding on artillery, and time fuses for explosives. However, Bulova also provided the wristwatches that were issued as official gear for American troops. The so-called Bulova “Hack” Watch was equipped with a special lock-down apparatus that allowed for precise synchronization, an asset in the planning of wartime missions. As one of the few American watch companies, Bulova took its patriotic duty quite seriously: many of the company’s male employees joined the armed forces, leaving the Bulova factories of that time manned largely by women. The company also devoted 25 percent of its advertising to the promotion of war bonds and stamps, a service for which it was awarded a distinguished service certificate by the Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr.
The Bulova 23 series — named for its 23-jewel, self-winding movement — debuted in the 1950s and brought wide popularity to a Bulova invention first used in a watch in 1953: the mechanical “Wrist-Alarm,” a breakthrough in the industry that would later be adopted by other brands. Bulova 23 watches were known for their “unbreakable” mainspring and shock-resistant, waterproof cases, which at the time were made entirely in the United States. This series was one of the first of many successful launches under the leadership of Omar Bradley, the decorated World War II general who had recently joined the Bulova company as Chairman of the Board of its Research and Development Laboratories.
The 1960s saw Bulova’s most famous and influential contribution to the science of watchmaking — the Bulova Accutron, the world’s first fully electronic watch. Rolled out under worldwide scrutiny at the World’s Watchmaking Fair in Basel, Switzerland (now called Baselworld) in 1960, the watch incorporated a revolutionary new technology that utilized a 360-Herz tuning fork, powered by a one-transistor electronic oscillator, to drive the timekeeping functions rather than a traditional balance wheel. The brainchild of Bulova engineer (and Basel native) Max Hetzel, this technology ensured an oscillation rate of 360 times per second — nearly 150 times faster than that of a mechanical, balance-wheel-driven timepiece — and guaranteed an accuracy to just one minute per month. The Accutron was distinguished by its telltale humming instead of ticking, a sound generated by the vibrating tuning fork. The first Accutron model, called Spaceview 214 and featuring its now-famous open dial showing off the high-tech movement, also deviated from traditional wristwatch design with its lack of setting stem and crown on the side of the watch; these elements were instead placed on the back of the case. The Accutron has been the cornerstone of Bulova’s portfolio ever since. In 2010, its 50th anniversary year, Bulova released a special, limited-edition replica of the Spaceview with a modern movement.
Bulova also lent its expertise to the U.S. government during the late-1960s Space Race with the Soviet Union. During its decades-long partnership with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), Bulova helped outfit numerous satellite missions with Accutron timekeeping technology, starting with the Vanguard 1 in 1958. All timekeeping instruments, including instrument-panel clocks, aboard NASA’s manned spacecraft missions leading up to and including the legendary first Moon Walk on July 21, 1969, were equipped with Bulova Accutron tuning fork technology. (At the time, even NASA scientists could not know how a mechanical timekeeper would function in low-gravity conditions.) Of course, watch history buffs are well aware that it was the Omega Speedmaster Professional (now appropriately nicknamed the Moonwatch) that won the right to be official NASA watch and hence the first watch worn on the moon during the historic Apollo 11 mission in 1969. Fewer may realize that astronaut Buzz Aldrin also placed a Bulova Accutron timer in the Sea of Tranquility to help transmit critical data transmissions. In commemoration of its role in the Space Race, Bulova subsequently released a limited-edition Accutron “Astronaut” watch, with Buzz Aldrin’s signature on the caseback.
A Bulova Accutron chronograph wristwatch finally made it to the lunar surface in 1971, on the wrist of Apollo 15 mission commander David R. Scott. Scott wore the watch, which had been specially engineered to withstand lunar conditions, as a backup after the crystal on his NASA-issued Omega, according to records, had popped off. Scott’s Bulova watch — the only privately owned watch ever to visit the moon — recently sold at auction for $1.62 million. To commemorate the record-setting sale, Bulova released its Special Edition Moon Watch Chronograph — aesthetically a very faithful re-creation of the original (which was never made available commercially), but outfitted with a modern UHF (Ultra-High-Frequency) quartz movement, which Bulova says gives the watch an extremely high degree of timekeeping accuracy, losing just seconds per year. It also powers a continuous sweep seconds hand for the chronograph function, a feature rare in quartz chronograph watches. The classical tricompax dial features what the brand calls “super-luminous” treatment on the hands and hour markers and is surrounded by a tachymeter scale for calculating speeds. One other consolation to modern tastes and convenience is the small date window at 4:30. This watch is currently available at retail for $550.
Nicknamed the “Stars and Stripes” by collectors for its combination of red, white, and blue elements, and introduced to the market in 1970, the Bulova Chronograph “C” is among the most collectible of Bulova watches, as it was discontinued just about a year after its debut. Design-wise, the watch stands out for several reasons — its 43-mm steel case, which was very large for the era; its colorful dial and oddly shaped hands; its bezel, which is notched but does not rotate; its lack of traditional lugs; and its heavy mesh bracelet that attached directly to the underside of the case. The movement, which is front-loaded, is a mechanical Valjoux 7736, which powers the timekeeping and stopwatch functions. Despite its brief time in the spotlight, the Chronograph “C” is appealing to many for its “patriotic” theme and represents a touchstone to the United States bicentennial year of 1976, even though the watch was long off the market by then.
As electronic watches and quartz watches began growing in popularity throughout the late 1970s and 1980s, Bulova continued to forge ahead with innovations such as the Accutron Quartz, the first quartz-crystal watch sold in the U.S.A., and boasting a case made of 18k gold. Shortly, Bulova catered to the era’s growing demand for digital timekeepers by adding a line of Accuquartz watches with digital LCD time displays, and eventually the all-digital Computron LED, with its very unconventional and (at the time) somewhat futuristic trapezoidal case with LED display on the side. This style is often called a “drivers’ watch” because its layout enables a driver to check the time without moving his wrist from the steering wheel; in the case of the Computron, the angled time display — the wearer would press the command button once for the time, and again for the date — also addressed the problem of glare from direct sunlight impairing the visibility on an LED watch.
In 2008, Japan’s Citizen Watch Company acquired the Bulova brand. One of the most significant new product releases under the new management regime was the Bulova Precisionist, billed as “the world’s most accurate quartz watch with a continuously sweeping seconds hand.” Citizen developed and manufactured the Precisionist movement — whose oscillator vibrates at 262,144 times per second, eight times as fast as a standard quartz crystal — exclusively for use in Bulova watches. The oscillator has three prongs instead of the standard two and functions as a “torsional resonator,” meaning that instead of vibrating back and forth like a standard quartz-watch oscillator, the prongs twist to and fro, as in an electric guitar. Unlike other high-precision watches that rely on external time signals or need to sent away for recalibration after a battery change, Precisionist watches use lithium ion batteries that can be as easily replaced as those in other quartz timepieces.
At Baselworld 2016, Bulova introduced what it calls the world’s first curved chronograph watch, the Bulova CURV. In an engineering feat, Bulova took one of its proprietary ultra-high-frequency quartz Precisionist chronograph movements and bent it. Then it fitted the movement into an ergonomically designed, slim, curved case. The CURV collection consists of sports and dress models priced from $599 to $899. The leader model, shown here, has a see-through dial, a titanium case ($899; it also comes in steel at $799), a transparent back (rare for a quartz watch), and a black rubber strap. The CURV’s movement has a frequency of 262 kilohertz, which is eight times greater than a standard quartz watch movement. At that rate, the watch’s seconds hand does not skip from second to second as on a standard quartz watch, but moves in a continuous sweep around the dial, in the manner of a mechanical-watch hand. With the development of this very distinctive watch and movement, Bulova demonstrates its devotion to continuing its long history of watch-world firsts.