For purposes of assigning a date, Bulova watches break down nicely into three basic groups: 1) pre-1926, 2) 1926 through 1949, and 3) 1950 and beyond. Those three date ranges are differentiated by the presence or absence of certain case and movement markings as well as the nature of any such markings, as explained below.
In general, for all time periods, it is important to understand that Bulova watches never provide an obvious date of manufacture anywhere on the watch. Rather, the date must be 'de-coded' using symbols, serial numbers, and two-character codes placed on various parts of the watch. These codes and the manner in which they should be interpreted is the subject of this article.
Many observers of Bulova watches are confused by the sometimes seen patent dates stamped on the inside of some Bulova watch cases, and they misinterpret such dates as the time of manufacture. In point of fact, those patent dates apply only to certain aspects of the case design and indicate only when those general designs were patented. Those designs were used on many watches produced over a number of years, and the applicable patent date in no way indicates when any particular watch was produced. Below are images showing the two patent dates that often cause confusion.
Check your Apple warranty status. Enter a serial number to review your eligibility for support and extended coverage. In fact, I own a watch that is likely from 1999 and the serial number begins with 99 even though the chart above suggests that number should really be 90. Perhaps, different watches have different serial number patterns. The serial number is a unique identifier for the category of your watch, its model year, and the specific number of your watch in the production run. View our serial number guide below to learn details about your watch. We encourage you to register your watch through our watch registration page to ensure your watch is covered under warranty.
|Inside case with June 10, 1924 patent date||Inside case with January 11, 1927 patent date|
Watches manufactured prior to 1926 are difficult to date with certainty. For example, movements made prior to 1924 do not bear the standard movement date code found on watches dated 1924 through 1949. (For a list of those codes, visit Bulova Date Codes.) Additionally, the case serial numbers on those early watches tend to begin with '1' or '2' and appear to bear no correlation to the date the watch was made. Therefore, determining the date of one of these early models is difficult and often impossible to accomplish with absolute certainty.
There are, however, several clues that can be of assistance in at least narrowing down the date. One such clue is the case signature. Very early Bulova models do not have 'Bulova' stamped on the case. Rather they bear one of the 'American Standard' case signatures. The case signature begins to include the Bulova name around 1924. For a detailed analysis, and examples, of Bulova case signatures through the years, Bulova Case Signatures.
Additionally, a very early movement is likely to bear a different Bulova signature than the signature seen in later models. Specifically, very early movements read 'Bulova W. Co.', rather than 'Bulova Watch Co.', as seen on slightly later models. This change quite likely coincides with the April 1923 re-incorporation of the J. Bulova Company to the Bulova Watch Company, thereby providing an important date reference for these watches based on the movement signature. That is, any watch movement with the signature 'Bulova W. Co.' likely pre-dates April 1923. Moreover, that change corresponds nicely with the introduction of movement date codes. So, we may further extrapolate that any watch without a movement date code, with 'Bulova W. Co.' on the movement, and with an 'American Standard' only case signature, pre-dates April 1923. Narrowing down the date beyond that with certainty may not be possible based on current information. Below are examples of the two movement signatures seen in early Bulova watches, with the example on the right becoming the standard signature after April 1923.
|Pre-1924 movement showing 'BULOVA W. Co.' signature||Post-1923 movement showing 'BULOVA Watch Co.' signature|
Of further assistance in determining the date of these watches may be the movement caliber, if one is printed on the movement. Consultation with online movement lists may provide at least ballpark information regarding the date of the watch. For one such movement list visit Bulova Movements. However, it is important to note that all such movement lists are based on observations of examples rather than any official Bulova documentation. So, the lists may be incomplete and even inaccurate to the extent that they contain information on movements that are not on-hand and available for examination and verification.
I have recently begun to develop a theory regarding certain 'markers' that may help us identify the date--at least with a reasonable degree of certainty--of these very early watches. Dating a watch this way requires opening the case and noting every detail of the movement and case and then comparing those details to the list below to see where the watch best fits in the timeline. It is important to note that the conclusions conveyed below are based primarily on ladies' models, as we have very few examles of men's watches dating prior to 1925. Another fact to consider is the still relatively small data set for this time period. Though we have far more of these early watches than we did a year ago, we still have relatively few upon which to base conclusions. No doubt, some aspects of these conclusions will change over time as more examples are collected.
For anyone interested in reviewing the data upon which, in part, these observations were based, visit Watch Data 1917 - 1925. Early advertisements also support these conclusions and can be found at 1918 - 1929. Relevant trademark records are discussed in Searching for the Beginning and Bulova Case Signatures.
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Dating a Bulova watch becomes quite a bit easier beginning with models manufactured in 1926. At that time, Bulova started using with regularity standard date codes on the movement. Additionally, in many instances, the case serial number on these later models can be used as a date reference. For models manufactured before 1950, there is typically no date code on the case itself (though there are exceptions seen in the later 1940s). However, as stated, the case serial number can often be used to date the case, while the movement code indicates the date the movement was made. Thus, most watches have two manufacture dates, providing a useful tool for determining whether a particular case and its movement were originally intended to be paired.
The movement code is a small symbol, such as a square, circle, or triangle, which corresponds to a particular year within each decade. For example, a triangle may indicate 1926, 1935, or 1945. The full list of date codes is available at Bulova Date Codes. Similarly, the date of the case often can be partially determined by the case serial number. That is, the first digit of the serial number indicates the year of manufacture within each decade, with some exceptions, which are explained in more detail at the end of this section. For example, a pre-1950 watch with a case serial number starting with '1' would indicate 1921, 1931, or 1941. It is important to note that both the movement code and the case serial number provide only a year within a decade, but they do not give any clue as to the correct decade. Instead, the appropriate decade must be determined by examining the style of the watch in light of the styles of each decade. Below is an example of a 1926 watch, where the year of manufacture has been determined using both the symbol on the movement and the matching serial number, along with an examination of the watch's characteristics.
|Triangle movement symbol (circled in red), along with other watch characteristics, indicates 1926 as the manufacture date||Case serial number beginning with '6', along with other watch characteristics, indicates 1926 as the manufacture date|
Important factors in identifying the proper decade of the watch's manufacture based on it styling include the size and shape of the case, engraving placement and patterns, dial and hand designs, and movement calibers. A very good place to study styles by decade is right here on Watchophilia. The large collection is organized by decade, and all watches for a given decade can be viewed together on one page, making it easy to scan the page and note the styles used during that time period. Becoming familiar with other examples and with the available advertisements will also help determine when elements, such as dials, hands, and straps, are not original to the watch and should not be considered when determining the date. The only way to know which decade applies to the watch at hand is by careful study of available resources, including vintage advertisements and actual watches. Matching the elements of the watch to a particular decade becomes easier over time, as more watches are studied and compared to the available advertisements.
Another factor to consider in dating a pre-1950 watch is whether there is a serial number printed on the movement, as, for the most part, Bulova stopped that practice after 1932. A few strays with serial numbers have been observed through the mid-1930s, but by far the majority of movements made after 1932 do not have a serial number. So, if your movement has a serial number, you can probably narrow down the date of the movement to at least pre-1940, and, quite likely, even to pre-1933. As with all things Bulova-related, there are exceptions to the rule, and a few pre-1933 movements have been observed without serial numbers, particularly in the 10AN caliber movements. So, the existence or non-existence of a serial number is just one of many factors to be considered when dating a watch. All factors discussed here should be considered together to make the best possible date assessment. Fortunately, dating a Bulova watch gets much easier in 1950 and beyond.
Before we move on to the 1950s, we need to consider exceptions to the serial number method of dating a Bulova watch. I hinted earlier in this section of the discussion that there were exceptions to the rule that the first digit of the case serial number indicates the date of manufacture for watches made from 1926 through 1949. There are actually at least five currently known exceptions to that rule, and the list keeps growing as more watches are studied.
For models dated 1950 and beyond--and even some made in the late 1940s--Bulova printed a two character date code on both the case and the movement. Typically, the case date code is found on the outside of the case back, but sometimes it is located inside the case back. Those two codes--which should be identical or no more than one year apart--indicate both the decade and year of the watch's movement and case manufacture. For example, the code 'L3' indicates 1953, while the code 'M4' indicates 1964. A list of the known codes can be found at Bulova Date Codes. Note that the full date chart includes variations of two-character codes sometimes seen on watches as early as 1946. By 1948, this practice was becoming more common, and by 1950 is was the norm. Below are examples of this style of date code on the movement and case.
|'L1' date code on movement (circled in red) indicates a manufacture date of 1951||'L1' date code on back of case indicates a manufacture date of 1951|
Ideally, the date of the movement will match the date of the case. Occasionally, however, that is not the case. In those circumstances, I subscribe to the 'latest date wins' theory only when the case and movement are dated within one year of each other. If more than one year separates the movement and the case, for me, the case date rules. The reason for that limitation is that movements can, and often are, replaced when the original one breaks. Therefore, any watch with a movement dated more than one year later than the case is assumed to be a replacement movement. For all watches in my collection, the movement date is noted for the record, even if it was not used to date the watch. I do believe that the case is by far the most important factor in determining both the date and model of the watch, and all other factors are to be considered but do not necessarily control the outcome, because all other factors--movements, hands, dials--can be changed. When purchasing a watch, I check both the case and movement date, and if they are more than one year apart, I assume that the movement is not original to the case. When selling a watch, it is very important to accurately date both the movement and the case and to inform potential buyers of that information. A watch that has mismatched parts should be fully disclosed as such.
I have a few examples where the watch has neither a movement code nor a case serial number. One such example is a very early, solid gold model. So, it has problems being identified, both because it is very early and because it is solid gold (see above for problems with serial numbers and solid gold cases as well as early movements with no date code). Additionally, I have some late 1970s models that bear no date identification that I can determine. These later watches are invariably made outside the United States, as many Bulova watches were at that time, and so they do not follow the usual marking conventions. So, if you run into one of these, don't be surprised. The methods of dating a Bulova watch discussed above work 99% of the time, but there are always exceptions. If your watch happens to fall into one of these exception categories, you can at least get close to the date by studying the style elements, as discussed above, and/or by finding a match in a vintage advertisement.