When I was 3 and a half years old, my parents made me watch the 1969 landing on the moon live on television. It is the earliest memory I can recall and I have been fascinated with space ever since. In my adult years, my love of watches naturally led to an appreciation of space watches and timepieces. My most recent addition to my collection is a watch I wanted when it came out five years ago but have only just recently purchased-the Accutron Astronaut Limited Edition. High initial price was the main reason I didn’t get one then but I never forgot about it and I was lucky enough to procure a new one a few weeks ago at a much better price than the original issue.
Issued by Bulova in 2007, the Astronaut LE pays homage to the original Accutron Astronaut that was a product of Bulova for most of the 1960’s. The original Astro, like all Accutrons of that time, contained the revolutionary electronic tuning fork drive movement that was the father of the modern quartz watch (Hamilton’s Electric was the grandfather). The movement combined the jeweled gear train of the mechanical watch and the battery power source of the electric watch with solid state transistors and a small tuning fork which split a second into 360 equal pulses, which at the time allowed for unheard of “accuracy through electronics”-hence the name Accutron was born. The watch also was unique in that it didn’t tick like a mechanical watch….it hummed with the steady and pleasant F-sharp tone of the tuning fork. The original Astro was a bit larger and beefier than the dress Accutron watches and it featured an additional 24 hour GMT hand and a GMT scale deeply engraved in the rotational bezel. This watch quickly caught on with test pilots, many of whom became the first astronauts and their choice of this particular model earned it the permanent name of Astronaut in the Accutron lexicon. Accutron tried diligently to be named as the official wristwatch used by NASA in the Apollo program but this honor went to Omega-still, Accutron got its share of the publicity because it went with them-the on-board space capsule timers and chronometers were all Accutron units and several Accutron timing devices were set up and left in place on the moon to record various things.
By the mid 1970’s, the Accutron (with the tuning fork movement) was consigned to history, replaced by the cheaper and even more accurate quartz watch. Since then, original Accutron watches have become collector’s items and those who had original ones lovingly preserved them. Untold thousands of them are still humming today and keeping very accurate time, a testament to their build quality and simplicity to repair (so long as parts are available). Probably the most collectible Accutron is an original Astronaut, which was available in steel and in yellow gold. Prices for an original Astro can range from $500.00 for a running example to $2500.00 for a pristine condition and fully serviced one.
The Astro LE is a modern interpretation of that famous watch that is very faithful to the original. Crafted in solid stainless steel with accurate dial markings and fittings very similar to the original, it is a standout watch in a sea of lookalikes. Below is my review of each aspect of this unique watch.
A classic ETA 2893-2 GMT caliber movement, automatic with 21 jewels, modified and decorated by Accutron (Bulova). This movement is keeping very accurate time and running well. Of particular note is the rotor-obviously, most watches that use ETA movements don’t decorate much more than the rotor itself but Accutron outdid itself with this one. The rotor uses three Accutron logos as a bridge between the central turning portion and the outer swinging weight. You can see the movement through the logos, all of which are a tuning fork logo, the mark of the Accutron (and now it seems, Bulova’ s main line of watches as well). Because of the superb running rate of this movement and the extra care that went into the rotor, I am rating this higher.
Solid Stainless steel case and back. The case is finely finished with polished sides and unique lugs that were indigenous to the original Astronaut and a couple of the Spaceview models. The lugs hug the case and are conical, tapering outwards and upwards towards the 4, 8, 10 and 2 positions. The back of the watch features a half-moon sapphire aperture for viewing the movement on the lower half and a matte finished upper half with various hallmarks engraved. A polished surface bisects the upper and lower halves and connects to a polished circle that spans the circumference of the back. Engraved on the circumference are the words “Bulova, Swiss Made, Stainless Steel, 100M Water Resistant, Sapphire Crystal, A7” and the serial number of the watch. The center bisecting bar further reads “Limited Edition 0161/1000” which indicates number 161 of a limited production run of 1000 watches. Finally, the upper half of the back features the Accutron tuning fork in bas-relief and the engraved signature of Astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to step foot on the moon and the first man to wear a watch on the moon surface (an Omega true, but Aldrin has testified to the use of Accutron timers and their dependability in other aspects of the moon mission and he is currently a spokesperson for Bulova). The finish on this watch is flawless and the entire watch just says quality.
The crystal is sapphire and it rises about a millimeter above the bezel and then domes gently, giving it a similar look to the old Submariner crystals from the 70’s. There is no AR coat on this crystal which is fine with me as the bend of the crystal plays well with the light and looks very retro vintage. Clarity is sharp and the crystal slightly magnifies the dial. I cannot fault it or think of a way to make it better.
The bezel of this watch is a puzzle because it doesn’t turn-it’s fixed in the stationary position. It is a GMT bezel with what appears to be an aluminum bezel ring showing the 24 hours of the day around its circumference. The upper half is black with silver numbers, indicating night (1800 hours to 0600 hours) and the lower half is silver with black numbers indicating day (0600 hours to 1800 hours). The font used is straightforward and looks like 1960’s typeface, very modernist in its look. The outer bezel features fine saw tooth teeth which would normally be used to grasp and turn the bezel but as I stated above, it doesn’t turn. That aside, the bezel LOOKS great and it sets the watch off and it makes it look like the classic Astro. I can live without the rotation but having that feature would have allowed it to be used for up to three different time zones rather than two.
The crown is easy to pull, wind and set and is polished with the Accutron logo laser etched into it. The crown is recessed into the case and is barely noticeable when viewing the watch face forwards. This pays homage to the original Astro which had no crown on the outside of the case at all-they were set via a special crown located in the back of the case so the watch had perfect symmetry on the arm. The new Astro LE has the standard crown but its importance is downplayed considerably.
Dial and Hands:
The shiny black Astronaut dial is very close to the original in look although a little more luxury has been added to the dial in the form of chrome surrounding each luminous hour marker. Additionally, each hour of the 24 hour scale is represented by a dot of luminous material. When combined with the luminous hour and minute hand, this watch dial really lights up at night with 26 individual luminous lights. The hour and minute hand are Dauphine style with lume and the minute hand is a straight pointer with an Accutron tuning fork logo at the counterpoint. The GMT hand is chrome with red paint to highlight itself and gives a splash of color to the otherwise monochrome watch. The dial features the turning fork logo under the 12 position with the word Accutron underneath it in classy letters. Above the 6 position is the word “Astronaut” in the same place and the same 1960’s font as the original. At the 9 position are the words “Automatic, 21 Jewels” and the calendar aperture is at the 3 position. Overall, the dial is readable, functional and aesthetically beautiful to look at.
A feature of the original was a bracelet that came to be known as the “bullet bracelet”. Made for Bulova by J.B. Champion, the “bullet” was a perfect compliment for the conical lugs of the Astro. Virtually identical on this new model, it is a bit wider and flatter but still features polished sides that bevel inward like the original had. The surface is brushed finish with two small bands of polished to give it a more striking look. It is almost a clone of the Omega Speedmaster bracelet but has the unique beveled sides to make it stand out more. The bracelet is attached to the case lugs by spring bars and the connectors fit flush to the case. Vintage Accutrons were known for their quality bracelets and this new one is no exception-the bracelet is extremely well made and it feels rich on your wrist. It has a dual butterfly deployant clasp with two buttons to release the clasp. This bracelet is a perfect companion to the watch it comes with.
Gain of about five seconds per day.
Very comfortable to wear but might be weighty on someone with a small wrist. Size wise, it is really no bigger than a Rolex GMT or Submariner but it feels every bit as substantial. The bracelet drapes around the wrist with a precision feel and the clasp sits well.
The Accutron comes in a beautiful wooden inner box with the Accutron logo and a small NASA lapel pin. The other cardboard box clearly states that this is a Limited Edition Astronaut. All are made with quality.
When I first saw this watch, I could not fathom paying $1695.00 for a Bulova watch in this day and age when there were Swiss companies out there producing good products that had more brand panache for the same money. By waiting a couple of years, I got it for a good bit less money but after getting the watch, I realized I was being unfair in my assessment of its worth. This watch is attractive, superbly crafted, makes use of the highest quality materials and is not a mass-market product with only a limited production run of 1000. With proper care and service, this watch would last me for a lifetime and is not a disposable timepiece by any stretch. Those characteristics were also ascribed to another watch brand 50 years ago….the original Accutron. When it came out, it was considered one of the finest watches money could buy. An Accutron tuning fork logo was something the owner of that watch could be very proud of. Consider this too…in 1960, an Astronaut in solid stainless steel sold for $175.00…..this is the equivalent of $1259.00 in today’s dollars. At the same time, a Timex watch could be had for $10.00, with a mechanical movement. People bought Accutrons with the thought that this would probably be their last watch and that it would last for decades….and they did! Watches were bought or given with pride and worn with pride for a long time.
I am very happy with this particular watch and am glad that Bulova released it in lots to stretch out the time it could be had-this allowed me to still be able to get one two years after it came out. I would strongly counsel that if you want one, you had better be hunting one down now as there are fewer and fewer available. I intend to take very good care of mine because it will be hard to replace it if it is lost or damaged.
On a personal note, being an avid mechanical fan, I love that this watch has a mechanical movement. To me, a quartz watch has no “soul”, no life in it…but it sure would have been cool if Bulova had dropped a tuning fork movement in this watch. Having two of the original Accutrons, I love hearing them sing their note and watching how the second-hand glides as smoothly as a “satellite in orbit” without the slightest hint of a jerking motion. This is something that even the best mechanical watch cannot duplicate unless you want to pay out for a Seiko Spring Drive and it costs a fortune. I think if they ever started building tuning fork watches again, there would be a market for people who value the accuracy it provides (still better than the best mechanical watch) and fact that it has moving gears and levers like a mechanical. The Accutron delivered the world’s first “hybrid” before that word was popular in environmental circles. There is a challenge for Bulova….or someone….to think about!
Note: This review was written and published in 2009. While I have updated a few statements, it is presented for the most part in its original form.