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Vintage watch designs, an introduction

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Call Me a Cab
Although there are fora that focus specifically on vintage watches, those fora usually concentrate on discussing model identification and other questions related to watches viewed mostly in isolation, or by comparing similar models for the purpose of identification.
I thought I'd post an overview of vintage watch designs of the period from the late 20s, when wristwatch production was finally approaching a consistently high quality standard, until WWII, after which the designs slowly began a transition into new aesthetics, at first becoming more fancy and slightly bulkier, in accordance with the fashions of the late 40s and early 50s, then by the late 50s adopting a newer, cleaner look with round cases, in basic designs that had been slowly adopted from WWII military watches.

The period of the late 20s to WWII stands out as being relatively cohesive in terms of design, and it exemplifies the aesthetics of 1930s fashions beautifully. I'm going to illustrate the differences in design within this period as seen on Bulova watches.

Feel free to discuss here anything loosely related to the topic of watch designs.

Image credits:
The photos with the brocade fabric were taken by a hobby watchmaker located in the UK, and a dear letter-friend of mine I might add, whom I am thanking for permission to use his high quality photos in these posts.
Having communicated with him extensively on the subject, I have found him to be singularly helpful in getting me started in the world of vintage Bulova watches. He has an eBay store, and I can only recommend his work.
The first collage is made from photos by Watchophilia (as indicated), one of the two main databases for vintage Bulova watches on the web, the other being MyBulova. The other photos are random auction pics.

On Bulova designs ca. 1929-1942:

It's impressive to see how thoroughly designs changed, resulting in distinctive style periods. Although each watch brand does have its own distinctive style, the mode of the time appears to be the most prevalent design element. I think it's safe to use Bulova designs as a blueprint for American watch designs of at least the mid 20s to mid 40s since they were among the market leaders. The large companies like Bulova, Elgin, Gruen, Hamilton, Illinois, and Waltham seemed to share the basic design elements during that timeframe.

Going by these designs, the late 20s and early 30s saw lots of fancier, heavily engraved bezels in square or nearly square, rectangular cases to accomodate the round movement which were the only movement shape widely used at the time, although oval movements were already available in principle.
The squarish case shape often called for slightly wider straps (16mm and up), although 14mm straps which were later to be become the most common width were seen in that early period as well.

Some typical early 30s Bulovas, with one 1933-36 model thrown in (1st row, 3rd). I can't help seeing the analogy to the more feminine suit cuts of the more fashionable suits of that period - narrow shoulders, fitted chest, heavy waist suppression, short body.

Examples of late 20s to early 30s fancy cases:


The early to mid 30s saw the beginning of rectangular, slightly elongated cases with stepped designs, to accomodate the round movements while giving the visual impression of being straight.

Examples of early to mid 30s rectangular and stepped cases:


In the mid to late 30s, longcases without stepped sides became possible due to the more frequent use of oval movements in the industry (*). They remained popular until the early 40s. The last Bulova cases with long and/ or stepped designs date to ca. 1942 with some odd exeptions like the 1940-46 President model.
The elongated case shapes often allowed narrower straps, mostly 14mm and 13mm. Needless to say they were still making stepped cases in that period, too.

* Actually, the first oval movements were produced as early as 1930 (the Bulova 6AE movement was produced 1930-39), but apparently it wasn't until the mid 30s that manufacturers like Bulova had a larger inventory of different oval movements that could be safely used for their men's models.

Examples of mid to late 30s longcases:


After WWII, the new designs of the 40s began to really set in, with fancy lugs and generally slightly bulkier-looking designs although the watches were still as small as the 1930s ones in overall dimensions.
The 50s were again very different, with much bolder designs and somewhat larger dimensions, but still very small by today's standards.

An illustration of how movements fit into a case:

Hexagonal crystal, stepped case,
1931-34 Kirkwood, this one from 1933:


The stepped designs were the first option, historically, to make elongated cases that looked rectangular. A neat trick, as seen on the Lone Eagle V below.

Rectangular crystal, stepped case,
1933-36 Lone Eagle series V, this one dating from 1933:


Slightly tonneau shaped crystal and longcase, same general idea as the straight longcases,
1937-40 Minute Man, this one from 1937:


The latest example of a rectangular, simple design in a 1940s Bulova that I know of is the 1946 President, one of the many slight variations in lug shape, bezel and dial of this highly successful model series produced in many variations from 1940 to 1949:


Strap widths:

Generally, most 30s Bulovas take 14 or 13mm straps, followed by 16 or 15mm, then very few 12mm and 18mm, 20mm.

14mm strap (left, 1941 Winston) versus 16mm strap (1936 Phantom). 14mm is a woman's strap width by today's industry standards, 16mm is a man's strap. Women's straps are shorter than men's, so where necessary straps will have to be sourced in a extra-short or extra-long size. For very thin wrists, a regular length woman's strap will be perfect.


On a side note, Bulova had the habit of recycling earlier model names, so it's always necessary to add the year or the timeframe of a specific design in order to avoid confusion. For instance, the 1937-40 Minute Man is an entirely different model from the 1944-45 Minute Man.

Similarities in design across brands:

Here is a very striking example, the two-tone gold/copper-dial with roman numericals on longcases in a design combination seen only during the years of 1938-1942 (wherever dating is possible, as it is for Bulovas). Bulova often offered several dial versions for one model. Benrus was not among the market leaders and often made third-party combination watches; they also copied designs.
The two dials are very much alike except for the subseconds dial which happen to be absent in the Benrus.
The dial design matches the shape of the case, with a tonneau shaped longcase.

Left, 1942 Bulova Minute Man in yellow gold, right, Benrus CII in rose gold case. Rose gold was all the rage during those years (late 30s to early 40s) and continued to be popular throughout the 40s. Benrus often made third-party cases and, not being among the market leaders, also copied designs here and there.



Call Me a Cab
Thank you, Dinerman, for the Guides copy. Glad you gents can make use of it.

I have ten serviced Bulova watches dating from 1931-1946, and eight more non-runners for future servicing, a pastime that I intend to indulge in as time permits. More topics will be added to this thread from time to time - feel free to ask anything. I can only help you with questions related to Bulova; for other makers I might be able to direct you to sources, but that's about it.

When I started out with vintage watches, I had trouble orienting myself on the market and finding a reliable seller as well as good sources of information on the web. I found most of the relevant information by way of the watchmaker I mentioned earlier, and having received so much help I wanted to pass some of it along to the Lounge. I'll therefore add a little more information on Bulova watches.

I stick with Bulova for many reasons - they're relatively affordable, surprisingly durable, good for repair with lots of NOS original Bulova parts still readily available at low prices, and I simply like their designs best overall. They had their own production of movements, cases and dials. As Richard just mentioned, some brands used outside sources or were producers for third-party brands themselves.
Bulova out-advertised most everyone else on the 30s-40s U.S. market, and the ads for most models that we encounter are still available. Being able to date by year and identify models, silly though it may be, has a certain appeal. They also had a knack for coming up with "easy to remember and hard to forget" model names.
Another reason is that I simply find it easier to stick to one brand for the purpose of getting to know these watches better. There were many other excellent makers during those years, and Hamilton is certainly one of them, that much I know.

How to find information on vintage Bulova watches

The two main databases, as already mentioned in the credits above, are MyBulova and Watchophilia. These sites are loaded with photos and technical details of watches, and they also have a nearly complete record of vintage ads (only a few unidentified models are left, mostly 20s models), all of this sorted by year. If you're looking for any information related to Bulova models, you're very likely to find it there. There are also records of date symbols and other information relevant for general dating.

Servicing mechanical watches of this age can actually be learned by anyone who is willing to invest the time and a reasonable amount of money; the tools are relatively affordable, and you'll need some cheap non-runners to get started, learning by trial and error. From what I paid for my equipment, I would estimate that the total cost for tools (excluding any non-runner watches you may buy to work on before proceeding to your better watch(es)) equals the cost of about two full servicings as carried out by a professional watchmaker, or maybe less than that.
There are two Youtube channels that were recommended to me and which have proved to be very helpful. The first is a professional watchmaker, so his equipment is more elaborate; the second is a hobby watchmaker who improvises as he goes along, and he does it well. You'll find his tone very refreshing, if not amusing, but he knows what he's doing, so don't let that fool you.
Watch Repair Channel

Text sources on servicing
How to Clean & Oil a Watch: A Beginners Guide
Restoration links by avintagewatch.com

The mechanics of a watch movement is explained in many online sources; here is one that I found to be very helpful:

Books on the general subject of vintage watch repair, watchmaking and servicing:

Chicago School of Watchmaking (1952). Master Watchmaking [in 35 lessons].
available online

The E & J Swigart Co (1952). Illustrated manual of American watch movements.

Fried (1949). The watch repairer's manual.

On dials and their finish

Dials can be restored and if done well, they will look the same as the original in terms of print font and positioning. The patina, if there was one, will be lost since the dial is printed completely anew, although of course older redials had enough time to develop patina by now. The print of a redial is usually not as exact as the original, but close enough. The tell-tale signs of a redial include irregularities in the prints, especially the smaller-scaled parts like the subseconds dial (if there is one), and subtler indicators such as slight dimpling to the surface paint when viewed under high magnification, or a register that is slightly out of its correct positioning. Original dials usually have an extremely clear surface print. However, refinishing a dial was common practice during the time when these watches were originally made. Since the cases were not designed to be fully airtight (and certainly not waterproof), the dials could get stained by cigarette smoke, as evidenced by many vintage watches on the market today. Sometimes older restoration dials look very similar to original ones to the naked eye and can be hard to tell apart from originals. Newer restoration dials are usually pretty easy to spot.

Here is an admittedly extreme example of two watches of the exact same model (Bulova Minute Man), both dated 1937 on the movement and case:

left image: a mint orginal dial, very unusal to see one without a trace of patina (has probably been stored most of the time, away from UV rays; it could also be an extremely and unlikely well-made redial)
right image: a decent redial overall, but the subseconds dial is much thicker in some parts than others of the same elements.


The register is always printed and, in the case of the post-mid 20s Bulovas with either gold or black raised numbers, so are the numbers. However, many 20s watches had lumed dials (radium dials), so you may have heard of dial painters - the radium girls, as the press used to call them following the early scandals of 1917.

In the case of the lumed dials, the numbers as well as the hands were indeed painted by hand with a solution containing radium. Those painted numbers and hands, aside from being obvious because of the design, are easily recognized. It's plainly visible that they're painted, being quite imperfect even on those watches that are obviously in excellent cosmetic condition.

Part of the paint or even all of it is has usually flaked off on these watches by now, after 80-90 years. Working with these dials is not to everyone's taste - I wouldn't want to handle them. Danger of contamination mainly comes from handling the opened case and working on the dial, thus spreading tiny flakes of the paint around and inhaling them. The dials themselves are still hot even after the paint has worn off. When the watch is closed, very little radiation will be registered, and the back - which has contact with the wrist when the watch is being worn - emits even less because of the thick metal case in between. Still, not for me. Working with these dials does at least pose the problem of contaminating the work bench and tools, as well as the watchmaker, although the amount is small.

The hands used on these radium dials are called skeleton hands. They're easily recognized when you see them in the two databases under 1920s watches.

Incidentally, on 30s-40s Bulovas the hands are always supposed to match the numbers - gold numbers for gold hands, black numbers for blued steel hands.


Call Me a Cab
Sorry to hear that, Richard. I think I can understand - watch servicing is a bit of a chore even when you're in perfect health.

I'm limiting myself to 1920s-50s Bulova wristwatches for now, so I won't be of much help in servicing your non-runners or putting different parts together to make new, "mixed" watches out of them, I'm afraid. But if you would like something specific done or just want to get rid of something, feel free to contact me all the same. 1920s-50s watches by brands other than Bulova start to get complicated for me only when I have to source replacement parts. With Bulova, it's fairly easy - I know where to get NOS parts and how to identify the model-correct parts. With other brands, I'd have to look into it first, doing some research.

Very nice, that Hamilton Martin. Looks like an early 40s design. The square case combined with the clean-looking dial design plus the beginning of a horn lug design fits in with that timeframe. Interestingly enough, a rounded square case like that is something that Bulova never did quite the same way during that timeframe, going by the databases and ads. It's an interesting case design, and nicely matched by the dial. There are just one or two early-mid 40s Bulova models with completely square cases (no rounded corners on these).

Edit: Some info on the Hamilton Martin can be found here:
According to this source, it was indeed an early 40s design, "introduced in 1941, disrupted by WWII, reintroduced in 1946 and made into 1948"

When evaluating watch designs of the 20s-50s period, it is noteworthy that while watch brands were generally very aware of current fashions and very eager to create new models and new designs every single year, some of them being design twists of older models, others being completely new inventions, they also had a repertoire of more conservative models that were in tune with the fashions of maybe 5-7 years back. To my knowledge, the one Bulova model with the longest period of production was the 1940s President (not to be confused with the mid 30s President, a very slender longcase). The 40s President was made in many different varieties and several dial options from 1940/1941 to 1949.

Of course, feel free to post anything you like, we'll see how this thread develops. Anything related to vintage watches is fine. Besides, we can turn any illustrated post into a discussion of watch designs. :D

Ask anything you like, too.


Call Me a Cab
Thank you, gents!

The size and dimensions of vintage watches


One subject that frequently baffles newcomers to the world of vintage watches is the incredibly small size of these watches. When I bought my first Bulova watches, I already knew the dimensions as provided in the databases, yet I was still surprised when I finally held the watch in hands. I've heard of others who had the same experience.

Below is a table of some of Bulova's 30s models, sorted by the length of the case measured from lug to lug. The longcases of 41mm and up all have curved cases in order to fit the wrist. Some of the medium-length cases have a slight curvature, like the American Clipper (36.5mm). Most of the 36.5-39mm cases are straight.

All measurements in millimeters


The Marshall with its 47mm length is a very long case indeed. On my narrow 160mm wrist, it's pretty much the longest case that I can handle. It's among the longest of all Bulova longcases, together with the rare late 30s Time King (47.4mm lug to lug).

Some late 30s longcases side-by-side:

Front to back: Marshall, President, Minute Man, Treasurer, and for comparison the American Clipper with only the slightest curvature. Strap widths are 15mm, 14mm, 14mm, 12mm, 13mm, respectively.

Incidentally, the American Clipper is a perfect example of a very balanced case design, a middle ground between the longcases of the late 30s and the more square, wider and often slightly thicker cases of the early 30s. Bulova had several mid 30s to earliest 40s models like that with cases in roughly 25 x 36.5mm dimensions - another popular example is the Lone Eagle V.
The longcases are probably the most striking and idiosyncratic designs of the late 30s. The first longcases began to appear in 1936, and the catalogues of 1937-39 are full of them. They disappeared from the catalogues around the time when the U.S. entered WWII. The last Bulova longcase model to be in production, according to the available ads, appears to have been the Marshall (1938-42).


Same in profile, left to right: AC, Treasurer, Minute Man, President, Marshall
As you can see, the Marshall with its excessive length requires a lot more curvature than the other models.


I also came across an unidentified late 30s Bulova model of 51mm lug to lug length (tentative, measurements by unknown eBay seller) which by all indications was indeed an original Bulova case, dial and movement, although I have found no reference whatsoever to other surviving examples of that model so far. I cannot exclude the possibility that the case is a third-party product, but it seems unlikely given the correct font of the "B-10K GOLD FILLED" engraving visible in the photo of the case back.
Here are the auction pics of this unidentified model, dated by the movement date code only, since there was no photo of the date code on the case exterior. The case has a serious amount of curvature, even more so than the Marshall. I should add that in period ads, a fair degree of artistic license is exhibited with regard to the curvature, exaggerating it to varying degrees, and often considerably.

1939 Unknown, 21j 7AP movement (one of Bulova's high-end movements, also used for the longcase President):


Size of vintage watches on the wrist

Seing these watches on a wrist may not be the most aesthetic way of presenting them, but it does give a better idea of the actual size when you're new to this. Note that my wrist is only 160mm in circumference, so the same watch may look even smaller on a larger wrist. Quality closeup photos, like the ones against the brocade fabric, will greatly magnify any tiny irregularity, any tiny scratch. This downscaled collage provides is a more true-to-life rendition of the actual appearance of such watches, both in terms of size and cosmetic condition when viewed with the naked eye.
Here is a 1936 Ambassador (38.1mm lug to lug) with 12mm strap that tapers to 10mm (top row) and a 1934 Lone Eagle V (36.5mm lug to lug) with 14mm untapered strap (bottom row). As you can see, the strap width itself also affects the perceived overall size of a watch.
Both of these are non-runners, so they're not polished yet.


The most common width for Bulova straps of the mid 30s to earliest 40s models is 13mm and 14mm. These watches often fit 13mm rather than the widely available 14mm straps.
12mm straps as on the Ambassador look very narrow; this particular watch, like many of its time, was designed for gold bracelets rather than leather straps. Here's the original bracelet mounted to the watch. Note the hidden lugs with filigree. This 1936 production has a personal engraving with a 1938 date.



Call Me a Cab
The two-tone "gold & copper" dials of the 1940s and other fancy dials

Two-tone gold & copper dials of the 1940s:

Around the year 1940, two-tone dials with yellow gold and rose gold paint became fashionable. Bulova continued to sell watches with such dials throughout the 40s, switching to case designs other than longcases after 1942. To my knowledge, no model was ever exclusively made in a two-tone dial, so this type of dial was one option among others, of which there were many more during the 40s than during the previous decade.

The particular design of Bulova's two-tone dials was very distinctive; below are seven watches with an identical design, by far the most commonly seen, and one watch with a rarer, different dial (on the Rite-Angle).
The lines of the dial register on vintage Bulova watches always follow the shape of the case and crystal, so the only modification betwen these dials is their rectangular, square or tonneau shape.
These two-tone dials seem to photograph very differently depending on how the light hits them. I cannot say for sure, but it's possible that the print of the later styles (last three watches in the collage) was somewhat different from the earlier ones. Going by the photos, it looks like the lines are printed a little thicker on the later ones. However, this could be a rare coincidence, such as if the later ones all happen to be refinished dials.
The two-tone dials were combined with either yellow gold or rose gold cases.

In reading direction: 1940 Marshall; 1942 Minute Man; another MM; 1941 President; 1938-40 Rite-Angle; 1942 American Eagle; 1940 Beacon; 1948 His Excellency GG.


The 1940 Marshall with and without flashlight:


The gold & copper dial is one of the most iconic dial designs of the 1940s and was used by other brands as well, in their own variations or, as post #1 illustrated, as exact copies borrowed from other brands.

Copper dials of the 1940s:

Another fashionable dial design of the 40s were plain copper dials on rose gold cases, which were made in many varieties. Here are three copper dials on rose gold cases in the "exploding dial" version, as the catalogues denominate it, with off-white, shadowed numerals, and either gold or blued steels hands.

In reading direction: 1944, 1942, 1948 President.


Black dials of the late 30s to early 40s:

Black dials had been another option, mostly in the late 30s and early 40s, but in contrast to the two-tone and rose dials, they were always special order. Most of the ones I've encountered on the databases and auction sites dated from the late 30s. Incidentally, black dials are a very common choice for newer refinished dials, so one has to be cautious.

In reading direction: 1937 President (the stick dial version), 1939 Ben Hur (always sporting the mixed stick and numeral dial), 1937 Minute Man (the mixed dial version).


Other types of dials:

There were a few more dial types in the catalogues. Judging by how few of them turn up, these other types appear to have been a niche product. Here is one of them:

In reading direction: 1938 Gallahead (identical to the 1933-36 Lone Eagle V except for the fancy dial), 1938 Rite-Angle.

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