Venerable old Bulova, the one time king of the American watch brands, consigned to the mall jewelry store by the quartz crisis, is having a moment . . .
The Citizen Group purchased Bulova in 2008 for a paltry $250 million (less than two year’s sales), The watchmaker’s new leaders promptly consolidated their wide and varied product lines and began working to polish the brand’s image. To that end, Bulova started launching watches that reclaimed the brand’s heritage of American style, innovation and affordability.
In 2010 they rolled out the remarkable Precisionist quartz movement with a crystal oscillating at 262,144 Hz, sweeping seconds hand and claimed accuracy of +/- 10 seconds per year. Offered in a collection of watches all costing well less than $1000, it brings a durable and extremely high tech movement to entry level buyers.
Recently Bulova has been looking to their past for inspiration. They’ve launched a flurry of interesting and generally faithful callbacks to models beloved by collectors. It’s these vintage-inspired pieces, found in the Archive and Joseph Bulova collections, that are likely most interesting to watch enthusiasts. Here are some of our favorites.
First up is the Oceanographer, known by enthusiasts as the “Devil Diver” because of its color scheme and 666 ft water resistance. With it’s tonneau-shaped case, cylindrical luminescent hour markers and double curved crystal it has a lot of 70’s diver style. Some may argue that the 44 x 15 mm dimensions are a bit big for a throwback watch, but compromises were necessary to keep the price low and ensure modern appeal. If you’re a dive watch person (and we all are, regardless of RF’s protests), the Oceanographer is a great vacation watch or daily driver with an MSRP of only $795.
Next up: the Special Edition Lunar Pilot Chronograph, a tribute to astronaut Dave Scott’s personal watch carried on Apollo 15, and worn on the lunar surface when his Omega broke. The Lunar Pilot is a full featured six-hand chronograph with no date window powered by the 262 kHz high performance quartz movement. Commander Scott’s old Bulova sold for $1.625 million, but you can put the clean Apollo-era looks of the Special Edition Lunar Pilot on your wrist for less $500.
If your taste runs to the dressier side, look no further than the Banker. Available in three unique variants on leather straps or a bracelet, these watches packs more Art Deco style than Bulova’s long-repurposed headquarters in Queens, NY. Powered by a Swiss automatic movement just like Joseph Bulova’s first fine watches in 1912, the Banker has a gorgeous dial with crisp Arabic numbers. It’s finished to a very high standard.
Though it’s 33mm case is on the small side for a modern watch, the case shape wears bigger on your wrist. I can attest that the Banker both looks and feels much more expensive than it’s $1000 MSRP. It gets bonus points for making the uninitiated assume you’re wearing a vintage piece passed down from a very stylish grandfather.
Last but not least are my personal favorites: two modern takes on military-issued Bulovas from the WWII-era. Bulova has real history to stand on here as a key supplier and manufacturer of all sorts of precision instruments for the war effort.
First we have the Hack, a modern take on a field watch with a 24 hour dial and hacking seconds (which allowed troops to synchronize their timepieces to the second). Powered by a Miyota automatic movement, it MSRP’s at $450. Two versions are currently available; my favorite is the Macy’s-exclusive reference 98A255. This model has a gray stainless steel 38mm case, a black dial, and is shipped with a lovely and very comfortable dark green leather strap.
Finally, here’s the new A-15 Pilot Watch – a callback to Bulova’s A15 Elapsed Time Watch from 1944. The new A-15 faithfully recalls it’s legendary ancestor’s uniquely American pilot watch look and retains the rotating inner bezels manipulated by dual crowns.
The outer bezel tracks elapsed time, while the inner bezel carries a 12 hour scale, allowing the watch to function as both a timer and to track multiple time zones. Very handy indeed! Powered by a Miyota automatic engine, the A-15 has a fairly thin 42mm case with a sapphire crystal. Bulova provides a lot of functionality here for a $695 MSRP.
The incredible affordability is a major selling point. As a mass market brand, deals are abundant. You’ll find a case full of Bulovas in every department store, and friends, they are ready to deal. No one pays MSRP – 20% off, 30% off, and stacked or combination discounts are the rule rather than the exception. If your favorite isn’t being discounted today, just wait until next week.
For a true lover of watches this is the best of all worlds. Who says a great watch has to be expensive? Why does it need to be sold in a fancy boutique in a high dollar locale? True watch lovers recognize a great watch when they see it. True watch lovers aren’t afraid to hunt for bargains at the mall. True watch lovers won’t be too proud to wear a modest and unassuming Bulova.
Frankly we’re lucky that Bulova ended up here. With their strong brand and history of innovation they were one of the highest profile victims of the quartz crisis. They could have easily been scooped up by one of the Swiss companies when things went south. If they ended up as part of Swatch or LVMH we’d likely be having a very different conversation today.
It’s a bit ironic, then, that one of the Japanese giant killers would eventually help the Bulova brand be reborn. Their Japanese parent has demonstrated they are in tune with the new, enthusiast-driven watch market. With a few smart decisions they’ve helped Bulova reclaim their heritage: technical innovation, style and quality for a very fair price. Omedato and arigato gozaimas. A nice moment indeed.