The Accutron line of watches from Bulova has struggled for many years with an identity crisis. Born in October of 1960, the revolutionary turning fork timepiece, hailed at the time as the most accurate wristwatch ever made (or for that matter, the most accurate timekeeping device of any kind), it held the spotlight in the watch world for about ten years and was the major stepping stone between mechanical watches and quartz, until it was surpassed by the very watch it paved the way for. Hoping to cash in on the tremendous brand value it had created as a higher-end Bulova watch, it made the transition to quartz but as this technology went from being very expensive to very cheap in a very short timespan, it found itself awash in a sea of very inexpensive, unremarkable watches that could all lay claim to the same level of accuracy. As the industry made the switch and prices fell, there was very little to differentiate the Accutron brand from even a standard Bulova, much less watches from Timex, the low price leader of the time.
Relaunched in the late 1980’s with a new marketing push, Accutron watches became Swiss made, arguable of higher grade construction and materials, with an emphasis on design and an impressive 25 year warranty, probably a first in the industry. Still featuring quartz movements, Bulova tried to tie the quartz movement to the tuning fork by highlighting the design of the quartz crystal that vibrated within it, and while they were classy in design and well made in construction, it wasn’t enough to reclaim lost brand equity and distinguish itself from the mainstream Bulova and low price sibling Caravelle.
By the time the 21st century rolled around, the Swiss watch industry had pushed back and mechanical watches returned stronger than ever. Many of the lesser known brands had been pushed out by the quartz crisis, and those that remained built upon the public’s renewed interest in these mechanical marvels, growing the Swiss watch industry to epic proportions and mostly leaving the quartz market to Japanese makers like Seiko and Citizen. Bulova chose to straddle this market by moving the Accutron brand even higher into mechanical watches, while the Bulova and Caravelle line would defend their market share in the quartz arena.
While this had the effect of giving Accutron a reputation as a higher-end Bulova of quality construction and with a Swiss pedigree, it was an anathema for many watch purists who hated to see the Accutron name applied to any kind of mechanical watch. After all, the name came from “Accuracy through Electronics” when it was born, and the Accutron had been designed specifically to supplant the kind of watches that its name was now to be associated with. Still, Accutron enjoyed some level of success with these watches and it allowed many consumers to enter the realm of Swiss, mechanical watches at a favorable price point.
By the time, 2010 rolled around, Bulova had been bought and was owned by the Citizen Watch Company for a few years already, with the intent to be an independent company functioning within the Citizen stable. It was during that year that Bulova launched an entirely new line of wristwatches, the Precisionist, which featured a unique kind of movement that was a kind of super accurate quartz and which used unique, proprietary engineering to produce accuracy to within seconds a year. Of most interest to watch fans, the movement featured, for the first time, a second hand that flowed smoothly along, much more so than any mechanical wristwatch could achieve, and which immediately recalled the original tuning fork Accutrons and their “smooth as a satellite in orbit” second hand.
The one-beat-per-second, hacking second hand has always been a telltale sign of a quartz watch, and to be honest, many watch snobs whose eye might be drawn to a strikingly designed watch will immediately lose interest when they see that hacking seconds hand. What was once remarkable in a wristwatch, and a sign of status, was now a badge of shame for most watches. Precisionist helped to change that, although Bulova wasted a tremendous opportunity here. Instead of investing in an entirely new line, many thought that this would have been the perfect vehicle to launch an entirely new Accutron, and as it turned out, this would be tried later but by then the opportunity had been squandered.
Precisionist launched to much fanfare but once the novelty had worn off, the problems of design were easily apparent. The watches were huge, even by the oversize standard of the time and most of the designs were oddly different rather than uniquely distinctive. Some of this was attributed to the need to cram a very large battery into the watch, but given that there were women’s sized Precisionist movements, these could have easily been adapted into watches more mainstream in design and size. Over the next four years, Bulova would only introduce a handful of new designs to the line and as of 2017, one line is still being produced virtually unchanged from the one introduced in 2010.
In January 2013, Bulova named Gregory Thumm as President of the company. Thumm had enjoyed a successful career in the watch industry, having worked for companies like the mammoth Fossil Watch among others. He was also unique in that he happened to be a certified watchmaker and could speak with full knowledge to those that actually design and craft wristwatches. Many observers thought he would be perfect to lead the company with his background and possibly help it to recapture some of its mojo. During the three years he headed the company, a number of changes were made, both within Bulova and Accutron. 2014 seemed to be the big year for change, as a number of them were made that year.
First, the Accutron line more or less vanished from sight and the Bulova Accutron website was taken down. Soon thereafter, Bulova reintroduced many of the same watches and a few new ones in the collection, now rebranded as “Bulova Accu-Swiss”, which may or may not be one of the worst naming changes in the watch world. Introduced at a price range between $795-$3900, the watches featured primarily mechanical movements and higher end cases, all of Swiss provenance.
Having cleared this path, Bulova then introduced a completely new watch called the Accutron II, a complete collection of watches that featured designs directly interpreted from models in the original tuning fork Accutron line. These watches featured a second generation, smaller Precisionist class movement, which gave the timepieces a reduced overall footprint than the larger, clunky Precisionist line and they featured the unique gliding second hand as well. Within the collection were several sub collections including the Alpha Spaceview, Moonview, Surveyor, Snorkel and Telluride, in a variety of metal colors and dial selections.
Bulova then made a change to the Bulova font across all their watches and announced that the corporate tuning fork logo that had originated with Accutron (but in the 2000’s began to be used across the entire Bulova range) would no longer be featured on any Bulova dial other than the Accutron II series, which Bulova seemed poised to position as the hereditary torch bearer for the original Accutrons. A press release from Bulova stated that ”
You may have noticed that we recently updated our logo, refreshing our graphics and changing our use of the tuning fork symbol to emphasize its proper place in our history. This renowned corporate icon will be featured on the dials of our new Bulova Accutron II exclusively, and will no longer appear on Bulova or Bulova Accu•Swiss dials.
A proud symbol of Bulova’s leadership in technology, the tuning fork initially signified the revolutionary tuning fork movement of Accutron, the world’s first fully electronic watch. Our new Bulova Accutron II brand, like the original Accutron, is powered by a highly accurate electronic breakthrough, the Precisionist-class quartz movement, and features a continuously sweeping floating second hand. As the logical successor to the Accutron tradition, only Bulova Accutron II will include a tuning fork on its dial, emphasizing the meaning of the symbol itself.
Soon all Bulova branded watches, as well as Precisionist watches, began to appear with the tuning fork emblem gone from view. The Accutron II watches came out in mid-2014, positioned higher than standard Bulova’s and lower than the Accu-Swiss line. A
Fast forward to the end of 2015 and suddenly, word came out that Gregory Thumm was out as President of Bulova and a few months later a new President was named. Bulova continued to introduce a few new Accutron II series watches but then began phasing out other lines such as the Moonview, Snorkel and Telluride series. Then in 2017, with no reason given, Bulova suddenly pulled the plug on both the Accu-Swiss line and, shortly afterwards, the Accutron II line. Both disappeared from the websites and older promotional photos were removed from the Bulova Instagram account. No reason was given and Bulova just soldiered on as if these two lines of watches had never existed in the first place. Most recently, the tuning fork Accutron emblem has began appearing again on the standard Bulova range of watches with no explanation why the policy had changed.
I finally reached out to Bulova on social media to see what I could find out. Regarding the Accutron, Bulova stated “We no longer make the Accutron but are planning something for the Accutron’s 60th Anniversary in 2020, so stay tuned!”. On the tuning fork logo, Bulova stated “the reason we brought the logo back was due to popular demand”.
My thoughts on the reasons for all this are purely speculative but it seems that after having spent a lot of money on design, advertising and store displays, as well as repositioning entire lines and rebranding others, that Bulova just suddenly wanted to erase all the changes that had been made under Thumm’s tenure. Perhaps there were creative differences or other reasons. Other initiatives by Thumm seem to have disappeared without a trace as well, such as the 24 karat gold Bulova Percheron watch and the company’s association with Manchester United.
So basically, the long run of the Bulova Accutron, at least for now, is over. Having gone from a revolutionary breakthrough timepiece, to a run of the mill quartz, then to a higher end Swiss line, then back to its roots for a short period, the Accutron was unceremoniously put to rest without comment and no real reasons given. I don’t profess to be a marketing guru and everyone likes to be an armchair quarterback, but I do think there were a number of things Bulova could have done differently that might have made the Accutron a unique and relevant timepiece again. So what would I have done differently? Let’s go all the way back to 2010 and start from there.
First, I would have never have introduced the Precisionist line of watches. When Bulova came out with that technology, it missed a golden opportunity to reintroduce the Accutron to the world as a new generation of superior, hyper accurate watches and with that gliding sweep second hand and accuracy, it was the logical successor to the original tuning fork Accutron. Having invested in making the Accutron a higher end Swiss mechanical watch, Bulova may not have wanted to abandon that strategy but they still had some brand equity in the name when it came to its original meaning and the Precisionist would have more than fit the bill. I would have marketed a mix of modern and retro styles, and avoided the large, oversize monsters that the Precisionist became known for.
Second, Accu-Swiss would have never seen the light of day. Bulova has always liked to play with the name, having an Accutron, Accuquartz and then AccuSwiss. The name was probably some sort of hybrid of Accutron and Swiss, but together they just sounded weird. Instead, I would have marketed the higher end Swiss watches under something like “Joseph Bulova” with designs in the classic mold of fine Swiss watches. This would keep the tie in with Bulova but would differentiate the watch as something a bit more upscale and dressy.
Still, I am pleased with one thing Bulova is doing, and that is the Bulova Archive Series. While there are only two lines in the collection at present, both represent models from Bulova’s heyday, including the Moonwatch, modeled after a one-off they made for Apollo Astronaut David Scott, and now the Chronograph C, which Bulova made for only one year in 1970. Both use Precisionist chronograph movements and are very closely modeled after the originals. The Chronograph C is nearly indistinguishable from the original, only slightly larger.
If Bulova continues to issue really cool watches from their archive series, I think they will find a receptive audience of watch lovers, especially given the competitive price point and historical touches on each. Time will, as they say, tell.
In the meantime, we have a few years to look forward to what Bulova will do with Accutron in 2020, the 60th anniversary year of the legendary watch. I hope it will worth the wait.