Book Review: “Bulova: A History of Firsts”

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“Joseph Bulova was the ur-example of the American Dream,” claims Aaron Sigmund in his forward to the new book Bulova: A History of Firsts from luxury publisher ASSOULINE. Grandiloquence? Indeed, not. Bulova’s journey from Romania to Ellis Island to a small watch shop in lower Manhattan to head of a radically innovative multi-national manufacturing, distribution, and sales powerhouse is, in fact, The 20th-century American Dream writ large. Bulova, Ford, Chevrolet, Hershey’s, Disney, Levi’s—these companies became so successful, their brands so ubiquitous, that they transcended their role as commercial enterprises to become shapers of American culture. To this day, they continue to infuse our lives with their symbolism and significance.Bulova is very much a part of my own family’s version of the American Dream. My orphaned grandfather left Italy alone at age nine, passed through Ellis Island, and labored in a tannery from age 10 up into his 70s. His son, my father, one of eight boys, was just 31 years old when President Dwight D. Eisenhower appointed him US Attorney—that’s a long way from the tannery. My father was the quintessential, self-made, mid-century Bulova man—demanding of quality, interested in state-of-the-art technology, and shy of ostentation; Bulova watches suited him perfectly.

When I turned 30, Dad gave me his 30-jewel gold Bulova (note the numerical symbolism), and I later inherited his cushion-cased Accutron, which he favored throughout the 1970s and ’80s. Simultaneously, I attended Charles A. Lindbergh Elementary, named after Bulova’s most renowned endorser. I can’t imagine how many now-grown kids were fascinated by the distinctive hum of their father’s Accutron; or how many recall an impossibly small Bulova on Mom’s wrist; or how many now cherish a Bulova as a family keepsake.

“Bulova, Ford, Chevrolet, Hershey’s, Disney, Levi’s—these companies became so successful, their brands so ubiquitous, that they transcended their role as commercial enterprises to become shapers of American culture.”

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For those not familiar with ASSOULINE, their books are top-shelf—from the images, package design, layout, paper, and binding to the expert writers, researchers, and historians they bring on board for their projects. For ASSOULINE to take on a Bulova book is its own kind of validation, as this is the publisher who has told the stories of Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Valentino, Bulgari, Cartier, Pierre Cardin, Jaquet Droz, and so many more.

As a brand, Bulova has always leaned toward the populist side of luxury, but there is no question that Bulova belongs in such company as an innovative, trend-setting watchmaker with a spirit and aesthetic that have always been tightly tied to the ambition, energy, culture, and physical forms of New York City. Bulova: A History of Firsts artfully tells that story.

Bulova: A History of Firsts is broken into individually penned chapters, each dedicated to a specific innovation. The list of authors is a veritable who’s-who of experts: Matthew Hranek (author of A Man and His Watch) and Aaron Sigmond lay out the earliest history; David Coggins (author of Men & Style) covers the early NYC years; author and editor extraordinaire Kate Betts (Time Magazine, CNN, etc.) digs into Bulova’s progressive women-centric trends; Jack Forester (of Hodinkee) contextualizes the Accutron movement; Jason Heaton (of The Grey Nato) covers the dive watches; award-winning watch journalist Roberta Nass gets us up to speed with the 21st century accomplishments; and legendary record producer Nile Rogers (CHIC, David Bowie, Madonna) spells out the uncanny synchronicity that links Bulova to The Grammys and his own American Dream story. That’s not everyone, but enough to give you a sense of the deep talent that’s gone into these chapters. Hosting multiple authors always risks inconsistency of style and mixing of messages, but the book’s editor, Aaron Sigmund, has managed to pull these voices together into an impressively coherent and enjoyable read.

“Bulova: A History of Firsts may not guide collecting, but it will likely inspire it.”

Bulova’s innovations are fascinating. The company pioneered mass-manufacturing techniques, broadcast the world’s first television ad, ran defiantly feminist ad campaigns, dominated the electronic watch market a full decade before the Quartz Crisis, provisioned multiple NASA space missions as well as now-declassified CIA black ops programs, and, more recently, Bulova developed the first curved chronograph movement. The astute writing and high-end presentation of this book honor these achievements in a way that makes them glimmer tastefully and without conceit—which is thoroughly in keeping with Bulova’s brand.

While the whole book is a treat, each chapter contains the requisite context to stand on its own. This is ideal for a book that I’m sure I’ll open up over the years to take in just a chapter or two at a time, and I’ll certainly be putting this one in the laps of visitors and saying, “Here, read this chapter; it’s fascinating.”

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And it will be fascinating because this book avoids the overly detailed, completist cataloging that prevents so many books about watch brands from sustaining reader interest. This book won’t help you suss out a specific reference number or distinguish, say, a December 1956 from a January 1957 model, but that’s a blessing because what we get instead is a sumptuously immersive experience. As such, Bulova: A History of Firsts may not guide collecting, but it will likely inspire it. As soon as I finished the book, I jumped on eBay and began perusing the vintage goodies that, as of this writing, return 5,159 listings for “vintage Bulova”—well, make that 5,158, as I just snagged a super-cool early-’90s Marine Star.

“It’s best to think of this book as an objet d’art featured prominently and enjoyed daily.”

Just as it’s best to experience a watch “in the metal,” it would be best to experience this book “in the paper,” as it’s a tactile and visual stunner. Gently running a finger across the embossed gold-leaf “B-U-L-O-V-A” on the black-cloth spine, I realized that the high craft of this book conveys the high craft of Bulova watches. Sliding the book out of its sturdy slip-case reveals the similarly embossed Accutron tuning-fork logo, an iconic symbol more than deserving of such elevated bookcraft. After flipping about five pages, I finally stopped trying to separate what I thought were stuck leafs and accepted that, yes, the 11” x 14” pages are actually that heavy. Remarkable materials.I typically can’t get through a book this long in one sitting, especially late at night, but I hit the end of Bulova: A History of Firsts at 1:30AM wishing for more. I effectively binge-watched this book. With over 100 illustrations of patent applications, personal letters, vintage ads, lush watch portraits, and more, ASSOULINE still manages to balance the white-space-to-text ratio gracefully. Their graphics department knows when to use a serif and when not to; they know when to let an image stand alone; and they know how to punctuate the reading experience with visuals that enliven and elucidate the reading experience without disrupting it. This book doesn’t just compete with so-called interactive media; it trounces it.

For those looking to adorn their bookshelves with horological classics, Bulova: A History of Firsts is a must-have, and $175 is more than fair for a book so meticulously researched, written, designed, and printed. It’s best to think of this book as an objet d’art featured prominently and enjoyed daily. I’m looking at it from across the room right now, supine on our credenza, and it’s elegance is unavoidable, even at a 30’ distance. As much as I loved reading Bulova: A History of Firsts, its physical presence is what’s convinced me to spring for my own copy.I’ll let the kind-hearted Nile Rogers have the final word here, as he encapsulates the spirit of this publication as well as my own circular relationship with Bulova: “To me, watches and clocks are the ultimate metaphor for life. Not because they track the passage of time, though that’s certainly a factor, but because everything, I’ve found, always comes full circle.”

To pre-order, click here.

Allen dedicates this review to the memory of his parents, Doris and Neil, whose Bulovas first inspired his fascination with wristwatches.

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At age 7 Allen fell in love with a Timex boy's dive watch his parents gave him, and he's taken comfort in wearing a watch ever since. Allen is especially curious about digital technology having inspired a revival of analog technology, long-lasting handmade goods, and classic fashion. He lives in a one-room schoolhouse in The Hudson Valley with his partner and two orange cats.
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