Bulova Accutron: A conversation piece.

on April 01, 2024
Words and Photography by Michael Pandolfo

It’s no secret that we here at The Watch Preserve have a love for all things Accutron. For the watch collector, the brand offers a wide array of wrist watches, distinct styling and iconic movements. Bulova Accutrons speak to a unique past that is rooted in American, and horological history. While much has been written about the history of Bulova and Accutron, I thought our love for the brand warranted a brief exploration of their story - and a closer look at some of my personal favorite Accutron models.

Joseph Bulova
Joseph Bulova

Bulova Time

The story of Bulova dates all the way back to 1875 when Joseph Bulova, a Czech immigrant, founded the J. Bulova Company in Queens, NY. By 1912, the Bulova company opened a manufacturing plant in Switzerland for the purposes of mass production, and the company quickly became known for their technological advancements and innovations in timekeeping. Their achievements didn’t stop on the watchmakers bench however, as Bulova ruled the airwaves through the early and mid 20th century. Their radio ad proclaiming “Bulova time” and their involvement in creating the first ever television commercial solidified Bulova as a household name. While their achievements through the 1950’s were already enough to earn them a spot in watchmaking history, the creation of the Accutron movement in 1959 would become their greatest achievement to date.

Hot on the heels of Elgin and Seiko who were already making advancements in electronic watches, Bulova knew they needed to lay their claim in the market. Electronic watches would run longer, and more accurately than traditional mechanical watches, and watch brands were quickly recognizing this as the way of the future. In 1950, Max Hetzel, a Swiss inventor, came aboard at Bulova to spearhead their electronic movement project. What he and his team came up with made history. The Accutron caliber 214 was the first tuning fork electronic watch movement.

Instead of a traditional mechanical escapement, the 214 used a tuning fork which vibrated at 360 hz per second and was placed between two transistors. This meant that the caliber 214 was accurate to up to 2 seconds a day, accuracy unheard of at the time. The patent was filed in 1953, and the 214 caliber finalized in 1959 with the help of an American engineer named William Bennett. First unveiled by Bulova’s chairman Omar Bradley, former Chief of Staff for president Eisenhower, the Accutron gained immediate popularity when it was released to the public in 1961. This connection to the White House was soon to prove especially beneficial for Bulova.

Journey to the Stars

As the Space Race intensified, Bulova partnered with NASA to supply timekeeping instruments inside NASA spacecraft. The 1958 Project Vanguard I, the first NASA mission to send a satellite into orbit, was fitted with Accutron  timekeeping technology. Even the famous Apollo 11 module was fitted with Accutron powered instruments. Accutron models were awarded by President Lyndon B Johnson and, by 1967, were fitted into Air Force One.

Gordon Cooper wearing an Accutron Astronaut on Mercury-Atlas 9

Bulova and Accutron have an indelible place in not only horological history, but the history of America as well. This once-great brand, responsible for so many firsts in the watch world, earned their spot as one of America’s great companies. While the brand exists to this day, their acquisition by the Citizen group in 2008 has left their current catalog feeling rather uninspired. While special edition watches exist to invoke the name of the Accutron Spaceview, or other iconic models, the true greatness of the brand lies, to this enthusiast at least, in their vintage models.

Iconic Accutrons

Here at The Watch Preserve, I’ve been fortunate enough to handle some incredible Accutron watches. While their catalog is nearly endlessly full of interesting cases and designs, these are just a few of my personal favorites:

Accutron “Lobster”. Available at The Watch Preserve
The Accutron Snorkel style watches have long been a favorite of the Bulova collecting community, but I thought something rarer than that should make this list. This is a 1974 Accutron Lobster compressor case dive watch. Originally water resistant to 666 feet, this tuning fork powered watch is quite rare in the secondary market, and this example is in nearly unworn condition with the original bracelet. My favorite part about this funky watch is the unique patina. I’m not sure how this was stored, or what conditions produced the smudged tropical patina, but it gives a real individual flare to this watch.
Accutron “Tomahawk”
The Accutron lineup is full of unique cased dress watches, but this “Tomahawk” style case is perhaps my favorite. I love the asymmetrical case design and the unique angles that are quite striking to the eye. The case is designed in two layers with different finishes. The sort of cross-hatch finish on the lower step of the case is just an example of how much attention to design and detail Accutron watches were made to. Those distinct details, and a full gold case, make this dress watch a truly interesting find.
Accutron Astronaut
Designed for daring aviators and astronauts, and perhaps a hopeful future amongst the stars, the Astronaut is one of the most iconic Accutron watches. The funky UFO shaped case, smooth tuning fork powered sweep, and functional bezel make this watch a real product of the Space Race era. This example is from 1967 and has aged beautifully. Plus, wearing the same watch real astronauts wore is pretty dang cool.
Accutron Spaceview

No list of Accutron models would be complete without the Spaceview. The OG, original Accutron models are some of the most beloved by vintage watch collectors. These two examples from 1966 and 1972 possess that original design that shocked the world on debut. If you really want to connect to the history of Accutron, these are the models you should pick up. 

The history of Bulova and Accutron is as rich as it is inspiring. I knew the brand was rooted in American culture, but the extent to which it ingrained itself into the American psyche in the middle of the 20th century is still amazing to me. It’s often said that owning a vintage watch is like owning a piece of history, and rarely is that more true than when you own a Bulova Accutron.

If you love Accutron, or you’re curious to see these watches for yourself, I encourage you to come by the store and see them, or browse our selection of models here. Whether near or far, we are always ready to share our love of Accutron with you!

Do you have a favorite Accutron model, or favorite historical tidbit you’d like to share? Don’t hesitate to reach out to us at community@thewatchpreserve.com to share your Accutron story.