America Runs on Bulova Time: A Trip Through The Brand's Archives
Watchonista spent a day at the new Bulova Museum in the Empire State Building.
As you all know, some of the most fascinating recent watch reissues have come from Bulova Archive series.
First there was the rebirth of the Moon Watch chronograph. Then there was the Chronograph C, which was based on the watch that Bulova submitted to NASA in the “space race” to be considered as the official government-issued watch of the astronauts (which lost out to the Omega Speedmaster). And who can forget the Devil Diver and the Computron reboots, which premiered at Baselworld 2018 and 2019 respectively?
There are two reasons why the Archive series resonates with buyers. One is because these watches summon up strong, cultural moments and movements. And two is because Bulova itself has a great archive of sales, advertising, and marketing materials to draw from.
Historian and former Bulova COO Carl E. Rosen took us on a tour of this archive, which has found a new home at Bulova’s New York City headquarters on the 29th floor of the Empire State Building. How new is it? When we visited in early April, we asked how long the museum had been open, and Rosen replied, “What day is it?” In fact, many of the watches had just returned from Switzerland where they appeared in a mini-exhibit at Baselworld.
It was a treat to have Rosen as our tour guide as few have a deeper knowledge of the product and the industry. He knows how to connect the dots of not just the watches, but the impact they have had on American life.
As Rosen tells us, the most American concept that Bulova brought to the watch industry was total standardization of parts. Every part of a Bulova watch is made with such precision (standardized to the ten-thousandth of an inch) and interchangeable with the same part in any other Bulova watch. This revolutionized the servicing of watches in the industry.
Which is not to say that some Bulovas were not unique. Rosen points out a 1931 watch that uses a sort of push pin mechanism on the back of the timepiece instead of a rotor to power the movement. “As you move it winds up and down,” he says. “I paid more for this than any other piece in the museum.”
The Art Deco lines of this era live on in the new Joseph Bulova collection of watches inspired by the Golden Age of American watchmaking. These watches all take their design cues from watches of the 1920s, '30, and '40s, drawing inspiration from the numeral fonts and other details from specific watches in the archive, including the Commodore, Bankers, and Breton models.
Bulova can claim many firsts, including the 1930 Watertite, one of the earliest waterproof watches (for context, the Rolex Oyster debuted in 1926). “Of the 4,500 assets in the archive, this is one of the rarest,” says Rosen. The Watertite shared many Art Deco design elements with other watches of the era — an engraved case with a matching metal bracelet‚ but its greatest asset was its ability to resist water penetration.
Rosen is proud to point out that Bulova’s innovation in the watch world was not limited to watchmaking: the Watertite also marked one of the first brand ambassadorships, with Olympic gold medallist Johnny Weissmuller (and future Tarzan) serving as the timepiece’s pitch person.
In 1926 they created America’s first radio commercial: “At the tone, it’s 8PM B-U-L-O-V-A Bulova watch time.”
THE GREATEST GENERATION
A Bulova was also the first ever legal commercial broadcast on TV. Broadcast on July 1, 1941, this 10-second spot was aired during a baseball game between the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies. The early ad featured a Bulova watch superimposed over a map of the United States with a voiceover declaring: “America runs on Bulova time”. This was just before the USA entered the Second World War. Before the nation became a global superpower.
During the war, Bulova’s Hack Watch — first worn by members of the U.S. Army Air Force —was worn by servicemen and women in the most extreme conditions.
After the war, Joseph Bulova's son Arde founded The Bulova Watchmaking School to help train returning GIs. To illustrate the enduring effect the school had, we met a friend who coincidentally works in the Empire State Building before our tour. It turns out that his grandfather was one of the WWII veterans who studied at the School (and who went on to start his own credit jeweler in Brooklyn). And the tour Rosen led before us was for the Veterans Watchmaker Initiative, which continues to carry Bulova’s tradition of tuition-free training.
Bulova has long been on the frontlines when it comes to seeking gender parity. The company 1924 unveiled its first full line of ladies' watches, including diamond-accented pieces. But instead of just making tiny cocktail watches with for women, Bulova has often produced collections that contained timepieces for both men and women.
For example, In 1949/50, Bulova entered into a four-year partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to produce a collection of 21 jewel Academy Award watches — the only brand to date, says Rosen, that has been allowed to use the iconic Oscar statuette on its packaging.
Quick aside, one of the joys of visiting the Bulova museum is the amount ephemera they have. Original ads, boxes and salesman samples really make the actual timepieces spring to life. It was, as they say, a different time and both men’s and women’s watches had a specific sort of Hollywood glamour.
The Accutron line also embraced equality and the idea of His and Hers watches. Especially in the 1970s, when fashion, in general, was more unisex. In an ad from 1972, In yet another first, in 1972, Bulova even ran an ad campaign called “Equal pay, Equal time.”
In 1960, Bulova once again revolutionized traditional watchmaking with the introduction of the Accutron. Way before quartz watches were a twinkle in the Seiko Astron’s eye, Bulova was working on technology that increased autonomy and precision. Eight years in the making, this fully electronic watch was the biggest breakthrough in timekeeping technology in over 300 years.
With a promise to keep time to within two seconds a day, the Accutron became highly prized by those who relied on accuracy. It’s tuning fork technology combined with a transistorized movement, was quickly adopted by railroads, becoming the first railway certified non-pocket watch.
It was also a hit with non-terrestrial travelers. The Accutron was a big advancement from earlier electric, watches because it had fewer parts (for example the movement has 12 moving parts as opposed to 26 in a battery watch). Fewer parts meant less maintenance, which attracted NASA’s attention.
While Omega was the official supplier of space watches, NASA asked Bulova to put tuning fork technology into some of their space equipment. (During the Apollo 15 mission, astronaut David Scott took his personal Moon Pilot Chronograph to the moon and back). The Bulova Archive Series limited edition Moon Watch was a tribute to this timepiece but this technology led to the development of the futuristic Spaceview watch.
The Spaceview was revolutionary in its design because it has no dial so that the inner movement can be seen. Rosen showed us a pristine Accutron salesman’s case. This briefcase contains a flipbook of technical points (“the first PowerPoint presentation,” he joked) as well as an oversized, 3D cross-section of the movement. According to Rosen, this selling tool inspired the Spaceview’s see-through face when a client suggested that rather than explain the technology, why not just show it?
Rosen also points out that the bold display also let to some pretty ground-breaking case shapes. In particular, he notes the fancy lugs of a 1961 Accutron Alpha — a transitional style from the more streamline moderne shapes of the 1950s — and the solid chunk of 1970s funk that is the Bulova 100th Anniversary Spaceview.
When Rosen greeted us before we entered the Museum, Rosen said, “I think you might recognize a few of these watches.” And he was right. While Bulova might not have the brand recognition it enjoyed in its prime, the timepieces are deeply entrenched in American life. A Watertite was one of my first vintage acquisitions. The images of icons like Muhammed Ali, Joe DiMaggio and Elvis Presley wearing their Bulovas brought back many memories. And since the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 is near, it’s doesn’t hurt to be reminded that Buzz Aldrin brought a Bulova Accutron timer as his backup watch when he explored the Sea of Tranquility.
We wish we had more space to write about all of the amazing assets in the archive. If you can’t make it to the Empire State Building, Bulova will soon have a digital archive online.
We also can’t wait to see which historic timepiece will be next in the Archive Series. We have already expressed our excitement about the Computron reissue, but if we could put a bug in Bulova’s ear, it would be to bring back this 1960s-era Sea King. The brand has already had success with the updated Devil Diver, but there’s something about this waterproof watch — and it’s super-swinging mesh rally bracelet — that really stands out.
Also, the price tag of just $71.50 (federal tax included), makes us want to build a time machine to buy all of the watches. But until that happens, a trip to the museum will make do.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)