How Bulova Used a Universal Genève to Get to the Moon, and How You Can Get One Today

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I recently got myself the Bulova Moon Watch, a reproduction released by the brand earlier this year. For those of you unaware, the watch is based on an unofficial prototype worn by Astronaut David Scott during the Apollo 15 mission. That watch first came to light in 2015 when it was auctioned and sold for $1,300,000 at RR Auctions. Bulova naturally seized on the hype, and released their homage to that now iconic watch later that year.

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The Bulova Moonwatch re-edition.

Now, as fascinating as this all is, I prefer to dig a little deeper on the watches I buy, so I started doing some research. Specifically, I wanted to know the differences between the original and the current reproduction, so I started with the movement. In my research, there was confusion whether the original had a Valjoux 72 or 7736. But let’s shelve that for now, because as I dug deeper, I found bits of information suggesting the original watch was actually a variant of the Universal Genève Space-Compax! That was totally unexpected, but being as curious as I am, I found find myself falling down a rabbit hole, one that I learned was filled with many dubious leads.

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Unsurprisingly, most Internet forum chatter is hearsay. Claims are often presented without any substantiated research or proof. These claims then turn into facts through the echo chamber that is Online watchdom.

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David Scott’s  Bulova moon watch.

But the claim that Bulova’s moon watch was actually Swiss and not American was simply too juicy to ignore, so I set out to explore that claim. Now, I’m no stranger to this subject. Two decades ago, I helped Chuck Maddox on his moon watch research. In his most often cited page on the moon watch (seriously, go read it if you’ve never had the pleasure), I was responsible for providing the Jack Swigert Rolex annotations. Chuck gracefully credited my contributions. Back then, I spent days looking through various books, micro-film, and perused all the publicly available NASA image libraries. To put a fine point as to how good Internet-age collectors have it, today this type of research would take an afternoon.

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The story goes like this. Bulova, among others, failed the initial moon watch testing in 1965. In 1972, brands that previously failed got a second chance when NASA embarked on the Second Qualification Program, something that was heavily promoted by General Bradley, President of Bulova. According to Kesaharu Imai’s seminal research, Bulova lobbied Senators into action by requiring new and current participants to comply with the “Buy American Act.” This law, dating back to 1933, required 51% of a government-issued product to be manufactured in the US. Out of the 16 participating firms, only two eagerly complied—Omega and Bulova. Bulova, at the time an American company, assumed the law would automatically provide them a shield.

Kesaharu Imai’s Time Capsule.
A memo dated March 8, 1972 mentions the possibility of Bulova watches being used for future Skylab missions.

Omega devised a workaround and turned to two companies to help them comply with this Act. The stainless steel case was manufactured in Luddington, Michigan by Starr Watch Case Company. The complete case and crystals were then sent to Hamilton Watch Company in Lancaster, Pennsylvania for inspection and testing. Finally, the watches were sent to Switzerland for final assembly and installation of the movements by Omega.

Bulova at the time did not have any chronograph movements. Instead,  it is believed that Bulova procured 16 complete Swiss chronographs from their subsidiary, Universal Genève, having acquired ownership of 
UG in 1967. After a NASA audit, however, Bulova’s claims were brought into question. In a series of communiqué, Bulova argued that they met the 51% requirement of the Buy American Act, reasoning that they had invested considerable amounts of money into tooling and R&D for these watches.

imai-scans-bulova-1

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“Bulova thought that because it was an American company, it was to be expected that NASA would use its products.”
NASA made a trip out to Bulova to verify the brand’s claims.
NASA obtained a component breakdown of the chronograph to determine Bulova’s compliance with the Buy American Act.
The memo confirms that there were indeed 16 prototypes produced by Bulova/UG for NASA.

On page 124 of Imai’s Time Capsule, he provides scans of all the letters and audit notes from NASA to Bulova. The letters cite the fact-finding mission on behalf of NASA officials and Bulova’s responses. The letters specifically cite the 16 watches procured through Universal Genève, and in them is a cost breakdown of all components. Ultimately, officials concluded that the Skylab missions would continue with the Speedmaster and, while unconfirmed, it’s likely that Scott was eventually gifted one of the prototypes.

bulovauniversal-geneve-modelnumber_similarity
Note the similar model numbering.

Since we now know Universal Genève provided the chronographs to Bulova, I still wasn’t sure of the model. David Scott’s Bulova was believed to be a one-of-a-kind prototype. The model number designation follows the same numbering scheme of Universal Genève’s chronographs such as the Space Compax, but the latter looks nothing like the Apollo 15 Bulova or any of Omega’s Speedmaster offerings. It would be logical to assume that in 1972, Bulova performed extensive cosmetic changes to the dial, hands, case and pushers to make their watch a clone of the Speedmaster, a watch already familiar to Apollo Astronauts. This would strongly corroborate Bulova’s initial rebuttal to NASA’s audits.

Then I stumbled across this vague catalog image that I had seen shared on forums before.

universal-geneve-auction-lot
Antiquorum, 1994.

Take a close look. the watch on the far left is a spitting image of Scott’s watch, sans the Bulova logo on the dial. w&w’s managing editor Ilya Ryvin suggested it could have been an auction lot given the numbers along the bottom of the frame, so I focused my search there.

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Trying to find the source, I scoured auctions from Philips, Christie’s and Antiquorum. The search, I must admit, was rather haphazard as it mostly resulted in broken links. Nothing came up under “Space Compax” so I widened my search further until I found a lead (pro tip: I cropped the other watches in the snap into their own separate images and did a reverse image search). This yielded multiple hits to an Antiquorum auction result at the Geneva, Hotel Des Bergues on April 9th, 1994. Jackpot!bulovauniversal-geneve-unusual-prototype-antiquorumAnother moon watch had been found. Classified as an “unusual” prototype, it fits the description of David Scott’s watch: the size, dial, pushers and hands all match the visual description of Scott’s Bulova.Here is a side-by-side comparison of Scott’s example.

ugbulova-side-by-sideThe watch sold for $2588 CHF, which is roughly equivalent to $3,000 US at the time. Considering the newly discovered Bulova, the owner of that watch now has something incredibly rare at an absolute bargain. It may not have flown to outer space but it’s limited rarity makes it a special watch.

The overall picture is a bit clearer now. One can conclude that Universal Genève did in fact produce multiple copies of that particular watch, and that the Bulova prototypes are indeed Swiss in origin. And that initial question about the movement? Well, based off other Universal Genève Space Compaxes, we can assume that David Scott’s Bulova is powered by a Valjoux 72. Also, the auction’s movement description clearly reflects a Valjoux 72 (13 ligne) over a 7736.

The entire narrative of the Bulova watch that went to the moon proves that for watch lovers, there remain many discoveries still left to be made. And with every new inquiry, more questions arise. Who owns that mystery Universal Genève won at auction in 1994 and where is it today, and are there more prototypes floating about that we’ve yet to discover? And of course, there are still pending questions regarding Bulova’s relationship with NASA.

For fans of the reissued Bulova Moon Watch, owning a timepiece connected to an awesome bit of history need not cost an arm and a leg. The Bulova Moon Watch is readily available and at a price that doesn’t break the bank, and now that I know more about its history, mine just got even cooler.

As a collector who splurged during the glorious dotcom 1.0 days, Hung acquired a sizable collection of Swiss watches. Now married with two kids and a mortgage, his watch tastes and pursuits are more down-to-earth. His other interests involve design history, technology, and collecting Star Wars Action figures. He brings a seasoned perspective to the worn&wound team. Hung grew up and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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  • Great article, well done.

    • I had to come back a day later for another comment. First, I did not know Bulova bought UG, which brings up another question. The UG chronos are great looking & ever increasing in price. Why in the world doesn’t Bulova come out with a reissue (go UG), in 25 -38 mm. How could it not be an instant success?

      • mrspeedmaster

        Bulova no longer owns UG. I think that was sold off in the 80s. Citizen owns Bulova now.

        • thanks mrspeedmaster, but my sentiment remains. Why don’t they reissue?

  • Peter D

    A Superb article.

  • Svetoslav Popov

    If you judge by watches, you might think that at least 1000 people have visited the Moon carrying a 12 pieces watchbox each.

  • Miguel -MO

    Great article … thank you for the research and sharing your findings!

  • JFPisa

    Amazing piece. Thanks for the article. Such a shame Bulova went 45mm. If it was 42mm or below it would be on my wrist…

  • harryst

    Boy that was good…

  • Никита

    Hung, thank you for an excellent investigation.

  • Mark Koester

    Hung, thank you for this mate. Great read!! My moon watch just got cooler as well.. Goes great with my speedy. Now time to find a prototype to add to the vault.

  • Min Lee

    fantastic article!!! I’ve been wondering about the history of this watch, it’s origins… this article answers all of it. thank you very much. great job!

  • egznyc

    Really interesting story behind this watch. As a side note, it’s ironic how usually a manufacturer bends over backwards to get the “Swiss Made” designation; here it appears the opposite is true – though Omega appears to have managed somehow to both be “Swiss Made” AND (contradictorily) American made, at least for statutory compliance purposes.

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