Bulova is one of the most iconic names in American watches. Indeed, it is iconic among the world’s watch brands. If you’re of a certain age, there’s a good chance your parents both wore Bulova watches. And then there’s the first electric watch, the Bulova Accutron. The name rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? But… we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Joseph Bulova, a Czech immigrant to the United States, set up the Bulova Corporation in 1875. For the first 35 or so years, Mr. Bulova & Co. manufactured clocks. By 1911, the company had expanded into pocket watches, and within a year Bulova had established a plant in Bienne, Switzerland, dedicated to jeweled movements. They also maintained plants in Woodside and Flushing, New York.
By 1919, following the huge rise in popularity of wrist watched during WW I, the company introduced its first line of wrist watches. By 1923, the company had followed Samuel Colt and his famous pistol, and refined their manufacturing processes so that parts were interchangeable between movements. This was a major achievement for a watch company, and Bulova was there first.
Joseph Bulova died in 1935, but the company he had founded sixty years earlier was thriving. By 1941, they’d produced the first-ever television commercial (maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned that…). Joseph’s son Ard was now at the helm of the company and he continued his father’s innovative ways.
In 1945, Ard founded the now-famous Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking, in large part to help disabled veteran of WW II learn the trade of watchmaking. You can search eBay today and find the text from that school. I personally know at least one boutique brand owner who is self-taught using these materials.
The Bulova Accutron Spaceview - a sales prop for retailers that turned into a whole line of popular watches.
Through the 1950s, the company began to work on new electronic methods of timekeeping. By 1960, the Bulova Accutron was ready to see the light of day. With a tuning fork excited by voltage instead of a balance oscillating on a hairspring, the Accutron hummed rather than ticked.
While the Accutron couldn’t beat out the Speedmaster on the wrists of the astronauts, it did make it into the cockpits of their space vehicles. And in fact, Accutron timers were left behind on the moon to time experiments that were still transmitting data after the moon walkers left.
By 1976 however, full blown quartz movements were ready to replace the Accutrons. The tuning fork watches rode off into the sunset in 1977, while the quartz models still carried the name Accutron.
The company was purchased by the Loews Corporation in 1979, and continued with a line of firsts, including several advances in wall clocks.
The Bienne plant was closed in 1983, a casualty of the quartz revolution. But the school continued to operate until 1993, long after the quartz revolution had left its mark on the watch-wearing public, but before much of the current mechanical revival had really taken hold.
Citizen bought the company in 2008. Today, the company still operates as Bulova, and also manufactures its line of Caravelle New York, Wittnauer Swiss, and Marine Star watches. And they still make inroads in accuracy. In 2010, the Precisionist was released, accurate to +/- 10 seconds a year.
So, although Bulova is owned by a Japanese horological juggernaut, it’s still very much an American watch company. In fact, their global headquarters are in the Empire State Building in New York City. How much more American can you get?