Clocking Couture: Bulova’s Forgotten Collaboration with Dior
More than 50 years ago, Bulova and Dior combined their skills in a collaboration that still deserves celebrating.
Remember when brand collaborations were drop-everything appointment shopping? The right pairings delivered seductive, out-of-left-field products that would generate an immediate dopamine rush and lasting bragging rights.
Sadly, all too often these days, brands enter into these collaborations not to put an exciting new twist on one of their products but to use them as a predictable method to gin up attention with minimal effort or creativity. The formula is simple: Take a familiar product from Brand A + Stamp it with a logo from Brand B = Clicks and likes.
However, during a recent visit to Bulova headquarters, amid the brand’s archive of more than 3,000 items and 6,000 digital entries, I saw traces of an old-school collaboration with Dior that drew in equal parts from the technical resources of the New York-based American watch brand and the creative vision of a counterpart from the loftiest tier of French fashion.
Amazingly, Bulova’s nearly decade-long collaboration with Christian Dior has flown under the radar of virtually everyone, save exceptionally intrepid eBay shoppers, but it is a collaboration worthy of the “drop-everything” designation.
The Christian Dior Collection by Bulova
Launched as a pilot collection during the 1968 holiday season, the original Christian Dior Collection by Bulova consisted of nine watches, each with a dial featuring both brands front and center.
More importantly, this collection of manual-wind 14-karat gold watches ranged from $165 to $550, which means that even the most expensive of these models were more accessibly priced than one of the fashion house’s dresses and thus served as an entry point into the rarefied world of Dior for a fraction of the cost. Unsurprisingly, the watches sold out almost immediately.
(Fun Fact: Adjusted for inflation, the original Christian Dior Collection by Bulova models would range in price from approximately $1,447 to $4,822 in 2023.)
Then, the following year, the collection doubled to 20 models thanks to a “100 percent sales increase over last year,” according to a 1969 Women’s Wear Daily article quoting then-vice president and national sales manager Michael D. Roman.
Of course, the prestige didn’t flow just one way. As Bulova’s in-house historian Carl Rosen explained, each brand brought value to the other: “Bulova had the technical expertise with the movements and the distribution into the retail channels that Dior wouldn’t have been able to crack into.”
Meanwhile, Dior “gave a whole fashion approach to the watches; these aren’t like any other Bulova watches that existed beforehand – they were very uniquely Dior and very different.” The French label’s imprint even extended even to the watch packaging, which bore its signature gray color and both brand’s logos.
The Dior is In the Details
Most of the earliest releases were of the delicate size typical of the moment (circa 24mm), but they flaunted outsize attention to detail. Textured gold bracelets – woven mesh, engraved – were integral to each watch design and were paired with cases and dials – mostly oval and round – executed with the same techniques or contrasting smooth, polished surfaces.
Additionally, much ballyhoo for the couture-like fit of the watches was made in the press. An advertisement from 1969 boasted: “So when you select a Christian Dior watch, the jeweler carefully measures your wrist. Then he tailors the band to fit your wrist exactly.”
As people’s memories of the Summer of Love faded and the Me Decade wore on, the shapes became increasingly groovy. Chunky link bracelets, a wider variety of case shapes (rectangular, octagonal, marquise), clasps formed from the “CD” logo, and off-center dials reflected a confident, capital-F fashion sensibility.
The range of materials expanded too. Tiger’s eye, lapis, and enamel amped up the color palette. Then, in 1974, the collection featured sterling silver in slick, Barbarella-worthy Space Age shapes, with steel to follow soon.
But the most offbeat pieces of the partnership didn’t come out until the late 1970s, when the Dior-Bulova relationship was nearing its end. For instance, one model featured a black and ivory Bakelite cuff that would have looked just right on heroines of the moment like Rhoda Morgenstern or Mary Tyler Moore.
Born from Bulova
Though “Dior drove the design process” of the collaboration, according to Rosen, Bulova was no stranger to creating highly decorative designs. In fact, the company began its life in 1875 as a jewelry boutique in downtown Manhattan, only entering the business of manufacturing clocks and pocket watches – first in New York City and Providence and later in Bienne, Switzerland – in 1911. The intervening decades saw its rise to prominence through innovations like introducing the world’s first full collection of jeweled women’s watches.
Moreover, the 1970s stand out as a signal decade for the brand, marking the launch of many of its most sought-after icons, like the bullhead-style “Parking Meter” chronograph (1973) and the Devil Diver, which achieved its diabolical nickname for achieving water-resistance of 666 feet.
Of course, those standout releases targeted male consumers. The Bulova-Dior partnership “helped balance things out with a focus on the ladies,” said Rosen. And while watch options for men were also available in the Christian Dior Collection by Bulova, they were in shorter supply. Fun Fact: These watches were included in the collection because the fashion house introduced its first ready-to-wear collection for gents in 1970.
Dior’s longest-serving creative director Marc Bohan was at the maison’s helm during the entirety of the fashion house’s partnership with Bulova. He took on the mantle in 1961 (Elizabeth Taylor bought 12 dresses from his debut) and stayed until 1989. Achieving that degree of long-extinct fashion gig longevity, through nearly three full decades of shifting hemlines and cultural norms, might have been owed as much to his talent as his often repeated dictum “N’oubliez pas la femme.” Or “Don’t forget the woman.”
Throughout the nearly decade-long collaboration, communicating with women and addressing their status as independent, self-directed individuals was the focus of the collaboration’s advertising. Indeed, cheeky campaigns with copy that would’ve made Don Draper envious make for fascinating reading.
A 1972 ad, for instance, extols the latest collection as “The liberated watch for the liberated woman.” Meanwhile, another example in Bulova’s archives shows watches draped around a model’s foot (!) and bears the heading “The poor girl’s rich watch.”
Both underscore the collection’s status as accessible luxury and the belief that women should feel free to buy watches for themselves rather than waiting for a gift; the notion was once radical but (thankfully) is standard operating procedure today.
(Photography by Liam O'Donnell)