The year 1957 wasn’t an especially significant one in the decade of the 1950’s but like most all years, it had its claims to fame. In the month of January alone, two events in particular are noteworthy: the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower to his second term of office as President of the United States and the introduction of the world’s first commercially available wristwatch powered by a battery. The Hamilton Electric was born and no other wristwatch in the new Electric line summed up the “Fabulous Fifties” like the Ventura.
Consider the time in which it was born. The 1950’s saw an entire new wave of design come into maturity that mirrored the optimism of the times. Everything, from appliances to furniture, accessories and even homes, reflected the future modern touches of the designers of the time.
Tail fins soared on automobiles, the rocket era was in full swing and with the introduction of the Electric line of wristwatches, Hamilton wanted something that beat with the times. They turned to industrial designer Richard Arbib and from his pen a number of striking designs found themselves rendered into precious metals. The Ventura was the first such design and it has been the most enduring.
The original Ventura, referenced in sales literature of the time as the Ventura I, was introduced on January 4, 1957, along with a more traditional design model, the Van Horn (a safe-bet watch, just in case the new design didn’t go over well with the public) and from the moment it hit the stores, it was a runaway success, despite its somewhat lofty price of $200.00 Crafted entirely of 14k gold (US market versions), the Ventura featured a case design unlike any others of the time with a bold, triangular shape and lugs reminiscent of automotive fins.
Originally fitted with the somewhat troublesome Hamilton 500 electromechanical movement, the Ventura, when properly maintained and cared for, was accurate and never needed winding, although battery replacements were fairly regular, usually about once a year. Within a short time, the more refined and improved Hamilton 505 movement found its way into the Electric of watches.
The first Ventura wristwatches were made available in a yellow gold case with either a black or a silver dial that featured the hours denoted by golden dots with tracer lines that radiated inward. A jagged electric line transected the center of the dial, connecting the 3 and 9 together, the total effect of which suggested electricity with a hint of the atom. A unique two-tone leather strap in black and gold came with the first Venturas but was quickly phased out due to manufacturing costs and a tendency to not hold up well.
The following year, a white gold version was introduced, although it never sold in numbers like the yellow gold versions and consequently is a rarer find today. Additionally, an 18k rose gold version was produced at some point for export only, making it probably the rarest of all Hamilton Ventura watches.
In a sea of ubiquitous wristwatches, the Ventura and most of its electric brethren stood out and this uniqueness soon found its way onto the wrists of some notable television and movie personalities. While this was unintentional at the time, product placement was something that Hamilton would take advantage of in future decades.
Rod Serling, the producer of “The Twilight Zone” wore a gold Ventura with a silver dial in his opening and closing monologues on many episodes of the show.
The futuristic, space-age design of the Hamilton Ventura was a perfect fit for both Serling and his hit TV series and he wore the watch for many years after its small screen debut but it was undoubtedly the big screen debut of the Ventura that immortalized the watch in the minds of many fans, linking it forever with the biggest name in the music industry, Elvis Presley.
Presley wore a yellow gold Ventura in the movie “Blue Hawaii” and the watch was highly visible in many scenes, including one brief closeup. It is unknown if the watch was a studio supplied watch or not but apparently Presley liked the Ventura because he added a white gold version with a dealer-installed expansion bracelet to his personal collection. The Ventura later became known as the “Elvis Watch” because of the association with Presley.
The Ventura was produced for six years and was sold by Hamilton jewelers until all the supply was used up. Eventually Hamilton discontinued the Electric line after significant inroads had been made by Bulova’s humming Accutron, as well as the advent of the Quartz controlled wristwatch but the Ventura story was far from over.
Fast forward a quarter of a century to 1988. Hamilton, which had been purchased by the forerunners of today’s Swatch Group in Switzerland was looking to get their name back in the minds of watch buyers. In a market flooded by mostly inexpensive quartz watches of boring design and questionable pedigree, Hamilton had to find a way to both penetrate the existing market and to do something that would stand out from the crowd.
Instead of looking at the existing trends, they decided to look inward at their own history and from their archives, they drew inspiration that started a new trend. Pulling designs that had proven popular in the past, they came out with a new line of old watches, authentic reproductions of timeless classics, reissued to resonate with a modern world.
From the 20’s came the Piping Rock and from the 30’s, the Boulton, Ardmore and Wilshire were reborn, among others. Topping the range of models, Hamilton reintroduced the Ventura to a new generation of watch fans who had never seen it before and were immediately taken with the design. The vintage watch trend was born and has continued more or less unabated to this day.
Hamilton made four versions of the “new” Ventura available for purchase by mail order in magazines and later, in retail stores: yellow gold-plated with silver or black dial, white gold-plated with black dial and rose gold-plated with black dial. These new versions of the Ventura were authentically detailed based on the original designs and a very close approximation of the original Ventura. Each came with a color coordinated Teju lizard skin strap, depending on the dial color.
Powered by a modern Swiss quartz movement, the new Ventura was the perfect blend of modern, reliable timekeeping technology encased in a proven, classic vintage design. The wearer of a Ventura was virtually guaranteed that his watch would draw attention when worn and over the next nine years, the new Ventura became a staple in the growing portfolio of the Hamilton Watch Company, now a part of the Swatch Group. Although the appearance changed little, the yellow and rose gold-plated models were eventually phased out as the white gold-plated version with black dial became the standard-bearer.
In 1997, the release of the feature film “Men in Black” reintroduced the Hamilton Ventura to the movie going public as part of Hamilton’s campaign to get their watches on the big screen. The movie became a big hit and the Ventura became a bigger star as the watch of choice worn by Tommy Lee Jones and Will Smith, the stars of the movie.
A chronograph version of the Ventura was released for the sequel, as well as new versions of the classic model, now in stainless steel with dial choices in black, silver and salmon color. While constructed of better grade materials, the post-MIB Ventura models differed from the original Electric models in details as well as movements. Dials were now flat instead of gently domed and the word “Electric” had never appeared on a modern Ventura. The back of the watch was thoroughly modern in design and the tang buckle was replaced by a modern deployant buckle.
In 2007, Hamilton celebrated a milestone with the 50th birthday of the Ventura and released two special editions of the watch. The 50th Anniversary Ventura came in two versions: a larger sized version with an automatic movement and a skeletonized dial for viewing the movement and a traditional version with a quartz movement.
The quartz movement version drew the most attention, featuring a case that much more closely approximated that of the original 1957 Ventura, both front and back. Stamped from new dies, this 50th anniversary edition included a sapphire crystal and a domed dial with a unique pattern not seen on a Ventura before. While still evocative of the times in which the Ventura was born, the new dial was different and for the first time in fifty years, the word “Electric” reappeared on the dial. This version is the only quartz powered Ventura to ever feature that word on the dial. A slightly wider 18mm crocodile strap with a vintage tang buckle rounded out the package, as well a commemorative box.
Only 1,957 examples of the 50th Anniversary Hamilton Ventura were crafted for the US market, making this version of the watch one of the rarest of the Ventura line. The automatic also came in a strictly limited and numbered run of 1,957 examples.
Two other versions of the 50th Anniversary Ventura also were produced by Hamilton but these were made for the Asian market and were never sold in the United States. Two runs of 1,957 watches were crafted, one in yellow gold PVD plate and the other in rose gold PVD plate, both featuring dark bronze dials with the original atomic dial indexes of the Ventura I. These were the first new Hamilton Ventura watches in several years to feature a gold tone case and some of these found their way to the US via online retailers like Ebay. Both are considered to be very rare in the western hemisphere.
Not one to let a good thing end, Hamilton decided in 2010 to issue two new special editions of the Ventura to commemorate the 75th birthday of Elvis Presley and these are considered by many to be the most authentic reproduction of the original Ventura to date.
The first one was crafted in stainless steel with a steel expansion bracelet similar to the style of bracelet Elvis wore on his personal white gold Ventura purchased in the 1960’s. The black dial retained the signature jagged line across the center and the atomic themed dial of the original Ventura.
A yellow gold PVD plated version, also with an expansion bracelet in gold, was available, it too with a black dial and a unique red second-hand similar to the ones found on the rare 18k gold models of the past. Even more unique, both watches could be had with a two-tone leather strap in either black and silver or black and gold, depending on the case material. This was the first time Hamilton had offered such a strap since the original 1957 model debuted. The strap, many collectors believe, show the watch in the true way that its designer, Richard Arbib, intended for the Ventura to look….cool, futuristic, striking and unique and on that front, Arbib and Hamilton succeeded.
Today, the Hamilton Ventura is considered to be a truly iconic watch of American design and enduring style. It is available in a variety of versions, sizes and features, from the original design reproductions to the automatic, the chronograph and, since 2010, a modern 21st century reinterpretation that redefines the Ventura in a modern world. No other American watch design is as well known or as long lived as the Ventura and its popularity doesn’t seem to be slowing at all.
If you want to own a watch that is both reasonably priced, iconic in design and steeped in history, look no further than the Hamilton Ventura.