Why We Love It: The Bulova MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 Submersible
Picking up on its almost-forgotten prototype built for the U.S. Navy in the 1950s, Bulova has uncovered a gem of a dive watch, now available to the public for the first time in two stunning editions.
It’s been five years now since Bulova launched its Archive Series, a collection that sees the New York City-based company drawing on its past for design inspiration to offer watch aficionados modern-day interpretations of some of its iconic timepieces. Along the way, we have seen impressive revivals of the Lunar Pilot Chronograph, Chronograph A “Surfboard,” and the funky Computron, to name but a few Bulova classics that have been reimagined for a contemporary audience.
The latest addition to the Archive Series is, however, a little different. The fabulous Bulova MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 Submersible isn’t so much a reissue, revival, or tribute as a first-time product launch. That’s because the original design on which the MIL-SHIPS is based only ever reached the prototype stage, never becoming a full production piece that was commercially available.
Until now, that is.
How it All Began
The story of the MIL-SHIPS starts in 1955 when the U.S. Bureau of Ships put the “Contract Specification; Wrist watch, Submersible, MIL-SHIPS-W-2181” out to tender. The goal was to find a submersible wristwatch for specialist swimming and diving units of the U.S. Navy, including the Explosive Ordnance Divers and Underwater Demolition Team. The watch had to be robust enough to withstand the missions these divers were assigned, with water resistance, legibility, and a rotatable bezel being some of the specifications cited.
Bulova responded by presenting, in 1957, the first of several prototypes that were tested by the U.S. Navy in the field and which, by all accounts, received very favorable reviews. However, Bulova eventually chose to drop out of the running for the MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 contract. There’s much speculation as to why, but the bottom line is that the brand ceased further development of the watch.
Of the 12 total prototypes made, only six complete watches are known to exist. And as the decades passed, these rare prototypes were gradually forgotten until an NYC-based collector reminded the current Bulova company, in 2019, of their existence, not least because he owned a few of them.
Inspired by this revelation, and with the collector’s help, Bulova began work on finally bringing its MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 to market – over 60 years after the original prototyping phase!
The “New” MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 Submersible
And here we have it, in all its glory, the now publicly available MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 Submersible. There are two different editions: A standard, non-limited edition and a 1,000-piece limited edition, pictured here. We will go over the differences between the two versions, but first, let’s look at the traits both editions share.
The first thing that Bulova should be commended on is how it stayed faithful to the original series of 1950s MIL-SHIPS prototypes in terms of its distinctive look, unorthodox proportions, and atypical functionality.
Bar a few updates to reflect contemporary watchmaking practices – like using a modern, automatic movement; Super-LumiNova for the hands and indices; synthetic sapphire for the crystal; and sandblasting for the case and crown – this is pretty much a one-to-one carryover from the original test run.
Rarely Seen Moisture Indicator
The indications are strikingly clean and clear, with the cathedral hands, hour indices, and bezel markings boasting a fauxtina that stands out superbly against the black dial.
Remarkably, the vintage Bulova logo at 12 o’clock is counterbalanced at 6 o’clock by a two-tone strip of litmus paper. As per the original contract specifications, this changes color if moisture enters the case, thus alerting the user that the watch is compromised and may not perform optimally for the underwater mission in hand. That would have been a vital piece of information given a watch’s critical role in timing dives back in the day.
“Double” Domed Crystal
As per the prototype, the straight-sided, stainless-steel case is 41mm in diameter and 51mm lug-to-lug. While the height of the limited edition is 16mm and 14mm for the non-limited version, in both versions, about 4mm of that height is accounted for by the protruding contours of the spectacular “double” domed crystal. As such, the watch wears less “tall” than it sounds.
It also feels less wide, with the generously sized bezel – fitted with an anodized aluminum insert, another update – helping to add to the overall diameter. And as an added security measure, the bezel needs to be pushed down to rotate it, so there is no chance of it being knocked out of place, ensuring an accurate reading of elapsed time. The bezel lines up neatly with the indices, with 60 positions available for it to assume.
As for the tapered and drilled lugs, like the prototype, the width between them is only 16mm. That might sound rather slender, but the resulting NATO strap – made of finely woven nylon to withstand contact with water – looks very cool and wears really well.
The watch’s 200m water resistance is assured thanks to the screw-down crown, which grips nicely, and the caseback, where a central section is pressed into a seal that becomes even tighter as the pressure around it increases. And adorning the caseback is an embossed depiction of an old-school diving helmet.
The main difference between the two available editions lies in the calibre on the inside. The 1,000-piece limited edition houses the Swiss Sellita SW200 featuring hacking seconds, 4Hz frequency, and a 38-hour power reserve. Meanwhile, the non-limited edition is powered by the 3Hz Japanese Miyota 82S0, also with hacking seconds but possessing a longer autonomy of 42 hours.
Bulova’s use of a movement made in Switzerland for the limited edition has given it license to put “Swiss Made” on both the dial and caseback where the dive helmet decoration is more sharply defined than on the standard edition. The latter obviously has no “Swiss Made” inscription, though that actually renders it closer to the prototype, which didn’t have any such marking.
Another difference lies in the application of Super-LumiNova: While the dial and bezel of the limited edition are fully lumed, the dial and only the bezel triangle of the standard version lights up in the dark. In both cases, the level of illumination is really quite decent.
Finally, the limited edition MIL-SHIPS comes on a black strap, the standard iteration on a gray-blue one. And the exclusivity of the limited edition is underlined by its far fancier display case: A gilded diving helmet-shaped box, complete with serial card, storybook, and plaque.
Pricing & Final Thoughts
There are one or two limited edition pieces still available, and its Swiss movement, added features, and finite nature help to explain its higher price of $1,990. The standard version, meanwhile, is priced at $895.
Watch fans will know that both the movements used feature in other watches that come in at lower prices. But those other watches aren’t the MIL-SHIPS –with its incredible backstory, eminent wearability, and super cool look. It is extremely easy to fall for it, and many have already.
Finally, if Bulova continues down this avenue as it adds to its Archive Series, then we can only imagine the great models that are just around the corner.
For more information about the Bulova MIL-SHIPS-W-2181 Submersible, please visit the Bulova website.
(Photography by Kat Shoulders)