Brief History: Bulova Watch Company

Including Date Codes and Date Symbols

1875 - Present

New York and Switzerland

Joseph Bulova

Joseph Bulova

In 1875, Joseph Bulova, a Bohemian immigrant, started the J. Bulova Company in a store on Maiden Lane in Lower Manhattan. Begun as a wholesale jeweler, the company produced small table clocks and good-quality pocket watches, By 1912, driven by the increased demand for wristwatches, Bulova built a factory in Bienne, Switzerland that was capable of mass-producing fully-jeweled wristwatch movements in large numbers. For the most part, these movements were cased and timed in the USA before shipment to retailers. Under Joseph Bulova's guidance, Bulova became a world-leader in the mass production of reliable, good-quality wristwatches.

Bulova sold relatively few pocket watches (compared to their huge production of wristwatches), though they did produce a few basic pocket watch models in the 30's, 40's and 50's. The ultra-thin "Phantom" model, produced in the 1920's, was a finely-made, platinum-cased pocket watch that is prized by collectors today.

A Company of "Firsts"

Bulova was an innovative company, and can be credited with many industry "firsts." They were the first watch or clock company to broadcast and advertise on the radio, and later became the first to show a commercial on television. They were the first watch company to market watches specifically to women, and the first company to open a school for disabled veterans that provided them with care, employment opportunities, and a marketable skill after the war (more below).

The Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking

One of Bulova's most significant contributions to the world of horology was the creation of the Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking, founded in 1945 by Joseph Bulova's son Arde Bulova (then Chairman of the Board). Arde Bulova "wished to repay, in some small measure, the sacrifice and service of returning disabled veterans after the Second World War."*

The Bulova school helped train an entire generation of American watchmakers. The school provided tuition-free education to teach disabled servicemen the skills of watchmaking "under the most expert supervision and with an all-inclusive curriculum in a pleasant environment where similar interests and problems developed a close-knit, affable group of men working toward common goals." *

By the early 50's, as the demand for skilled watchmakers increased in America, the Bulova school opened its doors to disabled civilians as well, and graduates of the Bulova school went on to pursue meaningful careers as not only watchmakers, but also as instrument makers, instrument repairers, micro-machinists, and other trades requiring the precision skills and dexterity of a watchmaker. Over 1500 jewelers pledged to hire Bulova graduates, so employment upon graduation was assured.

The school provided a well-equipped facility for its disabled students, and was a pioneer of "accessibility" with automatic doors and extra-wide elevators. Facilities included a medical department on school premises which housed an infirmary, dispensary and exercise room. The services of a physician, physical therapist, full-time registered nurse and a "physical medicine consultant" were provided free to the students. The school also housed an extensive horological library, recreation facilities, and a full kitchen and dining room.

The school received its financial support from the Joseph Bulova Foundation.

* "Joseph Bulova School of Watchmaking Training Manual", 9th edition, pub. 1968.

Bulova Innovations:

Classic Bulova with two-tone dial, ca. 1948

Classic Bulova with two-tone

dial, ca. 1948

In the early 1920s, Bulova constructed an astronomical observatory atop a skyscraper in mid-town Manhattan (at 580 Fifth Avenue) for the accurate measurement of sidereal time. On the top floor of the Observatory an expert mathematician took readings that were simultaneously recorded on a chronograph located in the lower floors of the building. There, the Setting and Timing units used the data to set the time on all of the company's timepieces in the most accurate way possible.

The company was also very innovative with its advertising and marketing. In 1926 Bulova sponsored the first nationally broadcast radio commercial, signaling the hour with "At the tone, its 8 o'clock BULOVA time." Again in 1941 Bulova proved itself as an advertising innovator when it ran the world's first TV commercial: a simple ad showing an outline of the United States with a superimposed Bulova clock and the caption "America Runs on Bulova Time". The ad appeared at the start of a broadcast of a Brooklyn Dodgers - Philadelphia Phillies game and the cost of the ad was $9.

Accutron: The World's First Electronic Watch

Beginning in 1952, Bulova began exploring and developing technologies that would create the first revolutionary change in timekeeping technology in over 300 years: the Accutron. Using a vibrating tuning fork rather than an oscillating mechanical balance as its time reference allowed the Accutron to achieve unparalleled accuracy of +/- 2 seconds per day. In about 1958 at the behest of NASA, Bulova applied the Accutron technology to devices which could be used for precision timing on satellites. Engineers and scientists were unsure if a mechanical timekeeping device would work properly in zero-gravity, so it was desired to have both the reliability and accuracy of the electronic Accutron movement.

More than 4 million Accutron watches were produced until Bulova ceased production in 1977, due to the increased availability and popularity of inexpensive quartz movements from Japanese manufacturers. Most Accutrons were produced as wristwatches, but Bulova also produced an Accutron pocket watch for a brief period in the 1970's. The Accutron was the first wristwatch certified for general use by railroad personnel and was also used aboard Air Force One.

Accutron watches are still quite popular with collectors, but parts are getting harder and harder to find (especially those pesky Accutron index wheels). While the modern Bulova company still produces watches which are sold under the Accutron brand-name, these watches no longer use the original Accutron tuning-fork movement (most are using ETA automatic movements).

Bulova in Space

Bulova has a long history as an important part of the US Space program. Bulova first worked with NASA on timing devices for the Vanguard I satellite in 1958, and continued to collaborate with NASA for the next several decades. Bulova and Omega competed to be chosen by NASA as the watch Apollo astronauts would wear on missions to the moon. Ultimately, the Omega Speedmaster Professional was chosen, but Accutron movements were used in instrument panel clocks and other timing instruments on the spacecraft itself, and in experiment packages left on the surface of the moon. Bulova also flew aboard Skylab, providing special timers which were launched aboard Skylab in 1973.

Modern Bulova Watches

To the best of our knowledge, the Bulova brand is currently owned by Citizen who still produces watches under the Bulova name. These watches have no connection (other than brand name) to the mechanical watches produced by the original Bulova watch company.


Determine the Age of Your Bulova Watch:

Bulova Watch Date Symbols and Date Codes

In 1924, Bulova started using a system of date "symbols" on their movements. These date symbols can be used to date pre-1950 Bulova watches. Though some Bulova watches have serial numbers on the movements, we do not know of a way to date a Bulova watch using the serial number.

Table of Bulova Date Symbols: 1924 - 1949

Marks indicating age of Bulova movements

Year Date Symbol
Year Date Symbol
1946 46
1947 47
1948 48
1949 J9

Table of Bulova Date Codes: 1950 - 1999

After 1949, Bulova used a 2-digit date-code which was stamped on the case back (usually near the serial number) and sometimes also on the movement (usually near the set-screw).

The first digit indicates the decade and the second indicates the year.

For example, date code L5 = 1955, date code P2 = 1982.

  L M N P T
0 1950 1960 1970 1980 1990
1 1951 1961 1971 1981 1991
2 1952 1962 1972 1982 1992
3 1953 1963 1973 1983 1993
4 1954 1964 1974 1984 1994
5 1955 1965 1975 1985 1995
6 1956 1966 1976 1986 1996
7 1957 1967 1977 1987 1997
8 1958 1968 1978 1988 1998
9 1959 1969 1979 1989 1999