For Collectors, a Race for a Space-Age
HEN it comes to the futuristic, nostalgia can be a
Take the collectors who have made a cult item of what was
once the most futuristic watch in the universe, the Bulova
Accutron. Introduced in 1961, it was the first successful
transistorized watch, far more accurate than any other watch
then on the market and a major advance in timekeeping
Worn by test pilots and used in NASA vehicles, the Accutron
dripped with glamour. For a few hundred dollars, anyone could
wear this emblem of the space age and the new worlds being
opened by technology.
Bulova recently sought to cash in on the cachet of the most
famous of the original Accutrons, the Spaceview, by issuing a
Spaceview 21 for the 21st century (suggested price, $950 to
$995, depending on choice of metal). It has a see-through face
like the original, so that the watch's guts can be viewed.
It also includes a technological advancement: a quartz
movement that runs perpetually through a self-charging
battery. Such a feature might have seemed likely to appeal to
the same technophiles that loved the original. But that's
where Bulova lost collectors like Martin Marcus, a retired
machinist and Accutron repairman in Marblehead,
Having a watch that makes no noise holds little interest,
he said. For Mr. Marcus, the hum of the original watch was
crucial to its attraction. "If you put it over a hollow part
of the dresser, you can hear it ringing throughout the room,"
The original Accutron's electronic movement relied on a
miniature tuning fork. Two tiny electric coils were placed on
either side, creating an electrical field that caused the fork
to vibrate. The vibration moved a ratchet that pushed the
watch hands forward. The second hand advanced in 360
increments per second, a smooth motion in comparison with the
nine leaps per second for the finest mechanical watches.
Instead of a tick-tick-tick sound, there was the continuous
tuning fork tone.
"People ask what is it, I say, `It's a hummer,' " said
George Neville, a retired detective in Missoula, Mont., who
bought his 1966 Accutron Spaceview in a PX in Da Nang while
serving in Vietnam with the Marines. He holds it up so that
people can hear the distinctive high-pitched Accutron
So while the new limited edition Spaceview 21 sells on eBay
for $200 less than its list price, the original Accutrons are
so prized that unscrupulous repairmen manufacture counterfeit
Mr. Marcus said he bought a stainless steel Spaceview in
1964 to lift his spirits in the aftermath of the assassination
of John F. Kennedy. For him, the appeal lay in wearing a
scientific instrument. "I was fascinated with technology," he
said. "Every other day there was a new jet in the paper, and
anything to do with that was of interest."
At the dawn of the space age, the watch's association with
test pilots, who were given free Accutrons, intrigued buyers.
"They did a great promotional job," said Daniel Nied, director
of the School of Horology run by the National Association of
Watch and Clock Collectors. "When it was introduced was
perfect timing. They supported the product and gave away the
right models to the right people."
The notion of what timepiece was most significant to NASA's
space program is the basis of a rivalry between Accutron
owners and Omega Speedmaster owners.
The Speedmaster was endorsed by NASA in August 1965 and
became the official astronaut's watch. The Accutron was used
as a timer in satellites and scientific devices and on the
instrument panels of many capsules that traveled into
Buzz Aldrin, the second man to set foot on the moon and now
a spokesman for Bulova, contends that the Accutron has a
legitimate claim to space. The Accutron was used in the
displays of devices that were more crucial than a wristwatch,
he said. Astronauts essentially only wore watches as a backup
for timers on the spacecraft, he said.
But as well loved as the original Accutron is, time is
running out for collectors. Parts are scarce, repairmen few.
"In a few years," said Mitchell Feig, a part-time Accutron
repairman in Coral Springs. Fla., "you won't be able to get
one repaired, no matter how much you are willing to pay."
Bulova stopped making the tuning fork for the Accutron in
1976 but set aside parts for an estimated 15 years of
When owners of the original Accutron 214 send Bulova a
watch with a broken coil, they are told that the watch cannot
be repaired. (Owners of the later, less sought-after 218 model
can have a quartz movement installed.) "We are completely out
of the coils, forks and index wheel assemblies," said Bob
Weber, a vice president for operations at the Bulova
Corporation, based in Woodside, Queens.
Yet some callers seem convinced that Bulova has a secret
cache of parts, Mr. Weber said. If there is one attribute
uniting Accutron owners, he added, it is their tenacious
attachment to the watch.
Not that owners don't have cause for worry, with some of
the easier-to-find Accutron models being altered and sold as
genuine Spaceviews. Converting a watch into what looks like a
Spaceview may entail little more than removing the dial and
painting hash marks on the crystal. Mr. Feig, the part-time
repairman in Florida, estimates that 80 percent of the
so-called Spaceviews in use are actually converted.
LaHugh Bankston, an Accutron collector who is the registrar
at the University of the District of Columbia, says that
hunting parts is part of the fun of ownership. Mr. Bankston,
who received an Accutron 214 for college graduation in 1968,
now trolls eBay and old watch shops for bargains. "I got lucky
once," he said. "A guy had about 25 coils I purchased. I found
some guys with index wheels that sold them to me at the price
they paid when they bought them."
Why go to such trouble when there are more accurate watches
on the market, as well as collectible mechanical watches that
will never die? Mr. Marcus, the repairman in Marblehead,
Mass., compared the phenomenon to baby boomers' restoring cars
that thrilled them as teenagers.
"It's a connection with our youth," he said. "The
watch is better than a car. The car is out in the garage.
The watch is in front of your face all of the