Antiques: Bulova – The American Timekeeper

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Much has been done in this space on major Swiss watch companies – and with good reason. Brands such as Patek Philippe, Rolex and Omega have been setting the bar high for many years. Nonetheless, American watchmakers have had their own successes. Although none survived the quartz revolution of the early 1970s or the subsequent boom in offshore production unscathed, several domestic manufacturers remain well known to watch enthusiasts. Among these, one of the most notable is Bulova.

An unusual Bulova tank watch, circa WWII.

Its founder and namesake was Joseph Bulova, a young emigrant from Czechoslovakia who, after completing several internships in related trades, laid his own shingle in 1875. The first years were difficult, but Joseph was supported by his son, Arde , joining in 1905 and the subsequent shift from pocket watches to wristwatches after WWI. The introduction of a line of ladies’ jewelry watches in 1924 found a new market and also helped boost the business.

In addition to the development of innovative products, Bulova has also been a pioneer in advertising. The company was among the first to use radio as a promotional medium and has successfully adopted the use of famous sponsors like Charles Lindbergh. Business exploded during World War II as many U.S. servicemen wore GI watches from companies such as Bulova, Elgin, Hamilton, and Waltham. When the war ended, many soldiers returned home with a penchant for such sturdy yet inexpensive timepieces.

Bulova has innovated both in its marketing and in its design.  This octagonal case is one example.

Soon after, Bulova found itself in an increasingly competitive environment and committed to developing a whole new type of wristwatch. The result after three years of work was the Bulova Accutron, introduced in 1955. Although not the first battery-powered watch, its breakthrough was timing through precise electronic vibrations via a tuning fork. There were no springs, no pendulum and only 12 moving parts. The Accutron required no winding and its accuracy was guaranteed to less than two seconds per day.

This watch was a game changer. In 1962 it was certified as the first wristwatch sufficiently accurate for railway timekeeping, and two years later it was named an official state gift by President Lyndon Johnson. It was then used aboard 46 space missions, and an original Accutron 214 was left on the moon by the Apollo 11 astronauts in 1969. As for mainstream models, some weren’t cheap. A Tiffany ad from the day featuring a gold Accutron cost $ 350, or about $ 3,150 today.

As for the here and now, Bulova Accutrons remain widely available at prices starting at a few hundred dollars. The original 214 was made in a wide range of configurations and production continued until 1977. In particular, the SpaceView model with its exposed electronic operation remains one of the most popular wristwatches of the time. . You can find them on eBay, in vintage watch and clock stores, and better antique stores like ours. Even after all these years, it remains a fascinating watch.

Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years he was an award winning catalog publisher and author of seven books as well as countless articles. Now he is the owner of the Antique Galleries in Palm Springs. His antiques column appears on Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at [email protected].

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