Determining the Authenticity and Identity of a Bulova Watch
Matters of Authenticity
The first step in identifying a Bulova watch is to ensure that the watch is a legitimate, genuine Bulova. Part of that litmus test is that the case, movement, and dial must bear one of the signatures known to have been used by Bulova, as explained in the bullets that follow. Any watch missing one of those three key signatures should be viewed with suspicion. (Note, however, that some watches made in the late 1970s--such as LEDs, LCDs, and quartz models-may not have the Bulova signature on the movement, and they may not have a traditional dial, but those instances are limited and obvious.)
- The dial must be signed "Bulova", or, if an Accutron, "Accutron" or "Bulova Accutron" (or Accuquartz). There may be instances in very early watches--such as those that apparently date to pre-1920--where the dial is not signed, but those rare examples are the only instances where a Bulova dial does not read "Bulova". From the early 1920s to today, a Bulova watch will have a Bulova signed dial.
- The dial should not read "Movement" under the "Bulova" signature. Such verbiage is an announcement that the only thing genuinely Bulova about the watch is the movement--the dial and case were made my someone else. Here's an example of a watch with "Movement" on the dial. The movement was in fact made by Bulova, but nothing else about the watch was. There are many examples of these non-Bulova watches, sold as genuine Bulovas, on popular auction sites.
Example 1: The word "Movement" on the dial indicates a watch that was not made by Bulova
- The movement should be signed "Bulova W. Co." (pre-May 1923) or "Bulova Watch Co", or, in very early and very late models, simply "Bulova". With only one known exception, a Bulova watch should be signed "Bulova" in one form or another. That one exception is a very early line of watches--perhaps Bulova's very first line--called the "Rubaiyat". We do see some examples of Rubaiyat models with movements signed "Rubaiyat Watch Co.", but that is a single example of a non-Bulova signed movement, and it is quite rare. The vast majority of Bulova made watches will bear some form of "Bulova" on the movement.
- The case signature can take one of many forms, but it will, with very few exeptions, include "Bulova" somewhere on the case. A detailed description of Bulova case signatures, as well as the signatures of other case makers that Bulova used, can be found at Bulova Case Signatures. It is important to be familiar with the information contained in that page, as anything outside of those specified parameters should be carefully considered.
Please note that Westfields and Caravelles, which were made by Bulova, have their own signature parameters, which are not covered in this discussion. Information on Westfields can be found at Westfield by Bulova.
Integrity and Originality
Once it has been verified that the watch is fully signed, the other elements of the watch (e.g., dial, movement, hands) must be examined to determine if they are original to the case. All too often we see watches that are fully signed, but the various parts were not intended to go together, and the resulting watch does not "make sense". Determining the integrity of the watch as a whole takes practice, and an important part of that process involves verifying the date of the movement and case, which is addressed below. Other factors are:
- Do the movement and dial fit the case snuggly, or do they rattle around? Rattling could indicate that something is simply missing--like the dust shield and retainer ring, or the screws that secure the movement to its holder--or it could indicate that the movement was not intended for that case.
- If the dial has not been refinished, does it show signs that it has been in that case versus another case (e.g., is there a visible line fo dirt/wear on the dial that matches the bezel shape)? If not, the dial (and possibly the movement also) may have been taken from another case.
- In some older models from the 1920s and early 1930s, you may find a set of Roman numerals on the edge of the movement holder. If these numbers match the first three digits of the case serial number, you know that the movement and case were intended to go together. Finding these numbers is not typical, so don't be surprised if they are not there. An example of these numbers is shown below in Example 2.
Example 2: roman numerals on movement holder match last three digits of case serial number in very early model
- Similar to the last bullet, in some models it is possible to verify that the back of the case was intended to be paired with the top of the case. In some, but not all models throughout the decades, the inside edge of the top of the case is hand-inscribed with the Roman numerals that match the last three digits of the case serial number. Below is an example of this phenomenon. These markings are particularly useful in early watches where the hinge is broken, leaving the back free, and in later models that have separate backs that snap on to the bezel.
- If the dial has inner and/or outer tracks, do they mirror the shape of the bezel as they should, or do they have an entirely different shape (e.g., a square dial track in a tonneau shaped case/bezel)? The examples below show dials that clearly do not belong in those cases. Note the difference between the shape of the outer dial tracks versus the shape of the case bezels. These are obvious examples; the differences in lines and proportions can be much more subtle. Note, however, that there are a couple of known examples where the outer track does not mirror the shape of the bezel in the original watch, as made by Bulova, but those examples are by far the exception rather than the rule (see 1930 Sky King and 1932 President without wandering seconds dial).
Examples 3 and 4: dial does not belong to case, as evidenced by outer minutes track not following lines of the inner bezel
Determining the Date
The next step is to identify the date of manufacture of both the movement and case. This process is important to determine if the watch is genuine and authentic as well as to identify the model name. The process of dating a Bulova watch is a bit complex; a detailed explanation can be found at Dating a Bulova.
Once you have determined the date of the movement and case and, if they don't match, determined which date should be used, you can examine other elements of the watch to determine if all elements are original or period-correct. Dials and hands changed styles through the decades, and you need to acquire a basic understanding of the various styles in order to know if all the elements of your watch work together as a cohesive unit. Learning the styles takes time, but Watchophilia offers a great place to start. By simply spending time looking at the watch posting for each decade, you can identify typical features for that time period. Trends in hands and dials, and changes in those trends through the years, will start to become obvious as you spend time studying the examples.
Finding the Model Name
Bulova elected not to include any indication of the model name on the watch itself. Moreover, the current owner of the Bulova line of watches claims to have no records regarding models older than 1960, and, in some cases, older than 1980. So, Bulova collectors must find another avenue for determining the model name assigned to each watch. The following information is intended to explain the process by which that may be accomplished.
Once the date of the movement and case have been determined, and assuming all parts of the watch form a cohesive whole, there are several useful pieces of information that are helpful in identifying the model name. The most helpful of these is a vintage advertisement that clearly depicts the watch and gives complete details regarding its features. The effort to gather vintage Bulova advertisements is ongoing. They can be found here, on eBay, and elsewhere on the Web. For every watch in my collection, I have attempted to match the watch to a vintage Bulova advertisement or another reputable publication, such as "The Complete Price Guide to Watches", by Richard E. Gilbert, Tom Engle, and Cooksey Shugart. Where no advertisement or book reference is available, crystal specifications may help, but they should be relied on with caution, as discussed in detail below.
In determining a match with an advertisement or book reference, the case design is, by far, the most important factor. Some consideration is also given to the dial and the jewel count. However, many dial variants are seen throughout the years, and many of those variations, especially in the early models, are not shown in the available advertisements. So, in my view, the dial alone should not control the ID unless the advertisements clearly prove that a different dial signifies a different model, or model variant, in an otherwise identical case.
Similarly, differences in jewel count may or may not be important. In early watches, the advertisements very rarely show the same case with different jewel counts as bearing different names. Therefore, in early models, differences in jewel count between the only known advertisement and the watch have been noted, but where the movement date and case date are the same, the difference is deemed inconsequential, as the movement is assumed to have been an alternative offered at the original point of sale. (It has never been assumed that Bulova advertised every option for every watch, during every year of availability.) Where the movement is dated more than one year later than the case, there is a strong presumption in favor of a movement swap, but that fact alone does not negate the model ID, but rather indicates that correction is in order to restore the watch to its original condition. Where the movement is dated a year or two earlier than the case, it is assumed that the case was supplied with a surplus movement from a previous year at the time of manufacture. It is reasonable to assume that Bulova would have used any available, appropriately sized movement in a current model, rather than discarding perfectly good movements because they were "out of date". If the model is more recent, such as a 1960 or 1970-something model, then the jewel count must be given very careful consideration, as some well advertised models and their many variants were known to have a particular jewel count. Any departure from the ad specification could simply indicate a movement swap in need of correction, or it could indicate a different model altogether. In all cases, the available ads must be thoroughly scrutinized to resolve any discrepancies.
In later years, Bulova often named watches as variants of a model, e.g., Senator A, Senator B, and so on. Differences between variants could be the case shape, or just the dial design, the gold color, or even the band or bracelet. The advertisements must be carefully scrutinized to identify a variant's particulars. Some argue that even a band or bracelet must be an exact match in order to name the variant, even if all other factors are a match, and even if the band or bracelet on the watch now is clearly not original. I disagree with that approach on the basis that rarely do we see a vintage watch sporting the original bracelet or band, and the ads--taken as a whole--may show that, because of the case shape and dial design, the watch is most certainly the named variant. For example, with some exceptions, the late 1940s His Excellency line and the early 1950s Academy Award line vary according to case shape, so it makes sense to identify them by the variant name rather than to name them all His Excellency or Academy Award without regard to the very different styling. I do strongly believe that a thorough knowledge of all available ads is very important to the naming process, particularly when identifying a variant, and, if in doubt, no variant should be selected. In my collection, in cases where the variant could not be confidently named, the watch has been named without the variant specification; e.g., Senator, rather than Senator A.
Some collectors are willing to name a watch based on crystal specifications alone; that is, where the watch case has been sized to a crystal, which has been identified as belonging to a specific model. I have concerns about relying on crystal specifications alone as a way to identify a model. First, in my experience, all too often the model name that has been identified as belonging to the specified crystal by a so-called "crystal expert" was not based on reliable information, e.g., the watch was seen listed for sale on eBay under that name, so that name must be the correct one. NOT! More commonly, the conclusion is made that, if a crystal resource (catalog or crystal storage package) names a crystal as belonging to two models, and one of the two models has been identified via an advertisement, then the first watch to appear with the same crystal dimensions must be the other named model. There are numerous problems with that approach.
First, it assumes that the crystal resource named every watch ever made that took that size crystal. That is too much to assume, in my opinion. Other watches that take that same size crystal could have been produced at any point in time and not have been listed by that particular resource. Moreover, that approach assumes that all other factors regarding the crystal are the same as the original crystal that came with the watch. Beyond the basic size and shape of the bottom of the crystal, which would align with the bezel of the case, the top of the crystal could be one of many shapes, including, for example, rounded, flat, or gabled. Those are things that cannot be determined by looking at the case alone. So, if the watch in question has no crystal, or the crystal on it is not original (and how would one know whether it is original or not without an advertisement?), it is impossible to know for sure if the identified crystal is correct for that watch.
Another problem with this approach is that crystal resources will simply name a model without a date. So, for example, a catalog may name a crystal as belonging to the Director, but which Director? There were many Directors through the years, and the same is true for most model names, i.e., they were used over and over again, while the style of watch to which they were applied changed drastically. I have seen this very issue lead to significant confusion and misunderstanding regarding the identification of two different models.
Having said all that, I have tentatively identified a few models based on crystal specs alone. I have done that only when 1) no other information is available to provide an ID, 2) the crystal specifications and corresponding model identification were derived from a reliable source, such as a catalog or crystal package, 3) if more than one model is identified in the crystal resource, all other models are "known", and 4) other characteristics of the watch (case size, shape, relative to date), make it unlikely to misidentify the watch using this method. Those tentative model identifications have been clearly noted and explained in the notes section of the corresponding watch details page.
It should always be kept in mind that new advertisements turn up routinely, so all assumptions and conclusions based on the advertisements available to date are inherently tentative. For that reason, all model IDs are subject to change based on new information.