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Bulova

Click here for Bulova timepieces currently for sale.

Bulova watches are some of the most plentiful to be found in the vintage marketplace, so they are a good choice for the beginning collector looking for lots of variety at reasonable prices. To be sure, there are some scarce Bulovas, too, but by and large they are quite affordable.

The story of Bulova begins in the 1870s, when Joseph E. Bulova (born 1851, died 1935) emigrated to America from Czechoslovakia, bringing with him his talents as a jewelry maker. In 1874, he opened a retail store in New York City, but is was not until 33 years later, in 1907, that he began importing pocket watch movements from Switzerland. By 1919, Bulova realized the coming trend toward wrist watches and established a watch factory in Bienne, Switzerland.

The factory imported millions of watch movements over the decades. Joseph and son, Arde, founded the Bulova Watch Co. in 1923 in New York City. Like Gruen, Bulova is considered a Swiss watch, even though the company was founded and headquartered in the United States.

Bulova’s rise to preeminence in the market during the 1920s was result of Arde and John H. Ballard. Ballard started with the company as an office boy at age 14, and eventually became president and would remain at the helm for 30 years. Arde supplied the product, and Ballard sold it. By 1929, they controlled 50% of the U.S. watch and clock market.

The pair are generally credited in the advertising field as the pioneers of spot advertising, that is, blanketing the radio airwaves in multiple markets between programs. "Spots" can be typically found in 10,-20-, 30-, and 60-second durations, but Bulova’s was short and sweet. "B-U-L-O-V-A ... 9:00 p.m. Bulova watch time." That was it. But it was heard and remembered by millions of Americans. The company also did a lot of print advertising as well. In fact, in 1931, Bulova became the first watch company to top an annual advertising budget of $1 million, an amount unheard of at the time.

In 1929, he dismantled an entire watch factory and moved it to New York so that the flow of movements could not be halted by international upheaval. The cutoff Bulova feared never occurred even during WWII. During the second world war, Bulova produced almost $50 million worth of military watches, aircraft instruments, bomb fuses, telescopes, and torpedo parts. Bulova produced two wrist watch calibers for its military watches: the 10AK and the 10BNCH. Both have 15 jewels but the latter has a hack mechanism which stops the second hand when the crown is pulled out to the "set" position.

In 1945, Bulova purchased a large tract of land near New York’s LaGuardia Airport and created a new corporate headquarters. Named "Bulova Park," it housed the company’s production facilities for its 21, 23, and new 30-jewel watch movements, its corporate headquarters, and the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking. The school operates to this day.

It is also during this time that Bulova began marking many (but not all) of the backs of their cases with date codes. The code is a letter followed by a single number. "A" stands for the 1940s; "L" for 1950s; "M" the 1960s; and "N" for 1970s. The digit after the letter indicates the year within that decade. So if you have a Bulova marked "L4" on the back of the case, you know the watch was manufactured in 1954. (It is not known why Bulova jumped from A to L.)

The company’s production of mechanical wrist watches in the 1960s was eclipsed by the Accutron. Accutrons are discussed elsewhere on this web site.

Bulova did, however, continue to produce mechanical wrist watches. It was a tumultuous time for mechanical watchess, with the market split dramatically between the low (Timex) and high ends. Bulova sought the middle ground with its Caravelle line and did succeed, but at the cost of its reputation as a "quality" watch maker. For example, the New Yorker magazine, during this time, would not even accept Bulova advertising. Most Caravelles are not considered collectible in the vintage world.

Bulova continues to operate today from its Woodside, N.Y. headquarters. But it is a totally imported product, and its movements come from mostly from Japan.

The Watches

Some of the more collectible Bulovas are:

The "Lone Eagle", a watch issued to honor Charles Lindbergh's crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1927. They sold 55,000 of them within a few years, complete with a box that bore a photo of the aviator. The company is credited with "inventing" the commemorative watch, and many other companies would follow Bulova's lead.

Single-button chronographs.

The "right angle" watch. It is thicker at the top than at the bottom, and angles for easier viewing by wearer.

The "photo watch" with a case within a case. A spring lever at the bottom of the bezel releases the "inner case" to reveal the inside of the outer case where a photo can be stored.

A long curved case Bulova that is all yellow gold filled. At 51mm in length, it resembles some of the longer Gruen Curvexes.

The side-of-the-wrist LED quartz watch is considered quite collectible by a niche market that collects early LED watches by Pulsar and other makers.

Bruce Shawkey

BULOVA SERIAL NUMBERS:

A8=1948 A9=1949 L1=1951 L2=1952 L3=1953 L4=1954 L5=1955 L6=1956
L7=1957 L8=1958 L9=1959 M0=1960 M1=1961 M2=1962 M3=1963 M4=1964
M5=1965 M6=1966 M7=1967 M8=1968 M9=1969 N0=1970 N1=1971 N2=1972
N3=1973 N4=1974 N5=1975 N6=1976 N7=1977 N8=1978 N9=1979 P0=1980
P1=1981 P2=1982 P3=1983 P4=1984 P5=1985 P6=1986 P7=1987 P8=1988


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