Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT

If you love a watch with a good story (and who doesn’t?) then you should check out the Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT, a watch that featured innovative technology and a history of high-altitude Cold War adventure. Nick at DC Vintage Watches let me try a nicely preserved 1968 model for this review.

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT

Bulova’s electric Accutron movement occupies a special place in watchmaking history. It was not the first watch to replace a mainspring with a battery, but it was arguably the best. I’ve owned a couple of conventional electric movements from the pre-quartz era. They used a battery to power a balance wheel and spring that gave them the inherent inaccuracy of a mechanical movement with the added inconvenience of the occasional dead battery. Add to this a reputation for fragility and you begin to understand why they didn’t revolutionize the industry like the accurate and durable quartz movements ultimately did.

The Accutron, on the other hand, took a different approach, replacing the balance wheel with a battery-driven tuning fork. This unit, the 214, vibrates at 360 Hz. The result was highly accurate (within 1 second per day), durable, and silky smooth.

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT

Because of the watch’s name, you would quite reasonably expect my next statement to be something like “and that’s why NASA issued them to the Gemini Program astronauts.” Well, it isn’t, because they didn’t. In fact, I can find no evidence that any NASA astronaut wore a Bulova Astronaut, but that is not to say the watches didn’t get close.

The Accutron's qualities made it a solid choice for high stress, high-temperature applications, so NASA employed the movement in the Apollo and Gemini cockpit instruments, and the US Air Force issued Bulova Astronaut wristwatches to hypersonic aircraft pilots in the X-15 and A-12 OXCART programs. Hodinkee published a marvelously detailed piece on this last year, "In Depth: Bulova's Accutron Astronaut - The Watch Chosen By The CIA For Pilots of The Fastest Plane Ever Made". I encourage you to read the whole thing, but I need to give you just two quick facts. First, X-15s were launched from the bellies of B-52s and flew so high that some pilots qualified for astronaut’s wings. Second, the A-12 was the precursor to the SR-71 Blackbird and flew recon missions over the USSR at the height of the Cold War. Sure, the Bulova Astronaut didn't fly to the moon like the Omega Speedmaster, but what it did here on earth was absolutely badass.

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT side profile

Now that the history lesson is over, we can turn our attention back to the watch in hand. As you would expect for a 1960’s vintage piece, the stainless steel case is mid sized, measuring just 38mm across. The width decreases from bezel to case back, creating a “v” shaped profile. Short flat lugs tucked under the bezel point steeply downward so they only add 0.7mm to the overall length. From most angles, you would miss them altogether. 

While the watch presents a very small footprint, it makes up for it in thickness - 13.5mm thickness from the case back to the peak of its domed acrylic crystal. The taper in its case prevents it from appearing overly heavy, but the height does lend it a substantial feel and a healthy presence on my 6.5” wrist. 

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT wrist shot

There is no crown on this watch. Instead, you set the time by means of a hinged ring recessed into the case back. It is a novel arrangement that works well once you get used to the unfamiliar motion. Next to the ring is a threaded hatch to access the battery. When the watch was new, it would have been a mercury cell, but for obvious environmental reasons, that type is no longer available. Modern silver oxide replacements do not last as long as the mercury batteries, and their life cycle can sometimes be unpredictable, but they are the only reasonable alternative to keep an old Accutron humming. By the way, I don’t just use that as a figure of speech - the movement literally hums. It’s not loud, but you can appreciate the distinctive sound if you hold it to your ear.

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT case back

This watch is in a well-preserved condition overall. The sunburst silver dial is perfectly clean; each of the luminescent hour and half-hour markers has fine black lines and apparently untouched original lume, the applied faceted markers remain in place, even the lume on the hands and GMT arrowhead is intact. Just the slightest bit of discoloration at the base of the hands betrays its age. I got a rise out of it with a UV flashlight, but as you might expect from a 50-year-old watch, the glow barely lasted long enough for me to snap this picture.   

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT lume shot

The only real issue for me is that the silver color looks gold under most light conditions. I suspect this is a function of the old acrylic crystal and not the surface of the dial. The crystal appears to be original and is old enough that it has hardened considerably, making it almost impossible to polish out its accumulated scratches. Some might opt to replace it, but then again, an item can only be original once. I’d leave it alone.

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT

Like the dial, the case has weathered the decades rather well. It shows signs of use, but nothing significant. All the edges are sharp and the vertical brushing on the sides shows a crisp, undamaged grain. Even the black and silver AM/PM bezel is intact, wearing only a few scratches. Watch nerds will recognize the Astronaut as a vintage piece right away, but everyone else will just see a handsome timepiece and likely wouldn’t guess that it predates the moon landing.

There is no bracelet included with this watch. Instead, DC Vintage Watches has fitted an 18mm strap in supple, pebbled brown leather and a minimal white stitch. The full kit also includes a NATO strap, spring bar tool, and a 1010 Series Pelican case for safekeeping.

The Astronaut is a fascinating piece. This one will run you $949.99. I have seen them change hands for less, but prices are definitely creeping upwards. A quick review of current listings shows a range from about $750-$1300, which puts it right in the ballpark. If you want a watch with jet-age design, innovative technology, and an impressive place in American history, a Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT should be near the top of your list. ⬩

1968 Bulova Accutron Astronaut GMT

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