Joseph Bulova knew a trend when he saw one. This one, he thought, had the hallmark of a permanent change.
Bulova owned a small family jewelry shop in New York City. From halfway across the world, he learned that soldiers in World War I had stopped using pocket watches.
The wristwatches made by military suppliers struck Bulova like a bolt of lightning. He realized their ease of use could make them hot consumer products for men. He and his son, Arde, a clockmaker, decided to adapt them for civilian use.
This posed a challenge, because the military watches were simple timepieces lashed to leather straps — too plain for civilian customers.
But Bulova (1851-1935) persisted. He was a master of taste and practicality. He and his son experimented by adding fine Swiss watch movements and decorative touches to the original, Army-issued designs.
In 1919, soon after World War I ended, the Bulovas introduced the first full line of men’s wristwatches with jeweled works (read bulova marine star review). Sales took off. Other makers followed, and the wristwatch became a familiar part of 20th-century life.
The earliest wristwatches had appeared in the 1880s as small clocks that dangled from women’s bracelets. Until World War I, wristwatches were seen as feminine.
Men didn’t wear wristwatches before World War I, because such watches were considered effeminate, says Dana Blackwell, a professional watch repairer and historian.
Bulova believed World War I had stirred deep changes. He bet wristwatches would be a hit with men in the postwar era. He was right.
Women were working in larger numbers, and the Roaring ’20s spawned a generation of more independent and socially active women.
He introduced his first line of women’s wristwatches in 1924. He made them as trim and practical as the men’s — albeit smaller.
The watches became emblems of the flapper generation of the 1920s, and sales rocketed.
It was farsighted steps like this that allowed Bulova and son Arde to found the Bulova Watch Co. in 1923 in New York City. By 1929, the company had cornered about 50% of the U.S. market for watches and clocks.
In a trade where precision mattered, Bulova analyzed details from all angles.
Bulova, who was born in Austria-Hungary and moved to the U.S. as a young adult, learned the tradition of Old World craftsmanship that demanded every watch or piece of jewelry be a work of art. But he was also practical. Bulova realized mass production could revolutionize watchmaking.
Using special machine tools, the Bulovas standardized every part in Bulova watches. Each part was interchangeable with the same part in any Bulova watch.
The innovation allowed millions of high-quality tissot 1853 watches to be mass-produced at lower cost than ever before. This made watches and clocks more affordable for Americans.
Before Bulova’s brainstorm, watch repairmen had to hunt replacement parts or duplicate them by hand. This could take a long time or cost a great deal. Bulova changed all that.
Bulova saw how well people responded to advertising. He and Arde produced a radio commercial — one of the first in the United States.
In 1931, Bulova’s company became the first in the watch industry to launch a million-dollar advertising blitz. Other jewelers thought Bulova was crazy.
But Bulova wasn’t distracted by criticism. His ad blitz swamped radio and print media and made Bulova a household name.
In 1927, when Charles Lindbergh made the first trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris, Bulova and his son thundered from the gate with a new product. They had 5,000 special wristwatches commemorating Lindbergh’s flight packed in gift boxes with pictures of the aviator.
The first shipment of these watches sold out in three days. He sold 50,000 more of the watches over the next several years, inaugurating a commemorative watch industry.
As a Czech immigrant familiar with the wars and upheavals that shook Europe, he learned to be prepared for any situation.
Between 1930 and 1940, Bulova amassed enough plants and experts to manufacture complete watches without foreign parts or help.
This didn’t come a moment too soon. When World War II began, the government converted all of Bulova’s plants to defense work.
Though Bulova died before World War II, the firm headed by his son later did a huge volume of defense work, producing military watches, aircraft instruments and fuses and other parts for Navy torpedoes.