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IN DEPTH: Accutron Spaceview back on the launchpad

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It is 60 years since Accutron invented and produced its Spaceview, the world’s first electronic watch.

The brand’s current owner, Citizen Watch Company, has spent the past 10 years working on a modern day reissue that captures the moonshot spirit of the 1960s space race in a contemporary collection capable of attracting a new generation of fans.

The resulting Spaceview 2020 uses electrostatic energy in a watch that is inspired by the past but uses the very latest watchmaking tools and techniques.

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Watch enthusiasts have been pleading for the return of Accutron, a Bulova sub brand that invented a highly accurate electric watch mechanism in 1960. Unlike the quartz movements that followed it, the Accutron movement directed battery power into a tiny tuning fork, which performed the role of a regulator keeping the mechanical gear train in time.

The accuracy and reliability of this technology was so admired, it was used by NASA for cockpit instruments on almost 50 missions into space, including the Apollo moon landing program. Fun fact: there is still to this day a little piece of Accutron gadgetry on the moon because it was installed in a lunar vehicle that the Apollo 11 crew abandoned in the Sea of Tranquility in 1969.

Citizen Watch Company bought Accutron’s parent company Bulova in 2008, and little has been heard of Accutron’s innovative invention since. That is until this summer when we learned that, away from the public gaze, a decade of research and development has been poured into relaunching Accutron watches with an all-new electrostatic movement.

The Spaceview 2020, which launched in August, uses the same open dial design and signature green accents as the 1960s original, but more importantly uses electrostatic energy in an all-new movement. The new watch comes in a stainless steel case and bezel on a black leather strap. It goes on sale this fall for $3,450.

“These new timepieces, powered by electrostatic energy are the first of their kind and pay tribute to the iconic Spaceview design that gave Accutron the recognition of being an industry trailblazer,” says Jeffrey Cohen, President of Citizen Watch America. “Accutron will continue to maintain its position at the forefront of timekeeping accuracy and is committed to upholding an extraordinary legacy of excellence in design, style and technology.”

A second family of watches, also using the electrostatic movement, is the Accutron DNA, which takes the innovative spirit of the 1960s watch and applies it in a contemporary collection.

Accutron says the Accutron DNA collection is “reimagined for a new generation. It elevates the bar with modernist-minimal aesthetics mixed with sci-fi touches.”

There are four sporty skeletonized watches in the Accutron DNA collection, all retailing for $3,300.

Accutron’s name will also be given to a range of Legacy watches that take inspiration from across the decades since 1960. Mr Cohen describes two lines of Accutron as if it will be a brand with two personalities: one using the electrostatic movement in either a classic round case or an ultra-modern integrated case design; ultra-modern, large, bold case designs; the other a series of limited edition, 60s and 70s inspired, smaller case sized pieces using traditional Swiss automatic movements.

“We will continue to keep this dual personality in the line. Since there are so many popular designs from the past, we are sure to be able to bring new models into the Legacy collection for many years to come. As far as the electrostatic models are concerned we have only just begun to develop this technology and I am confident that our R&D team in Tokyo will be refining it with new bells and whistles as time goes by,” he suggests.

From a business standpoint, Accutron becomes a fifth brand under the Citizen Watch Company corporate umbrella in Japan. In the United States, it will sit alongside Frederique Constant and Alpina as part of Citizen Watch America’s Luxury Brand Division, although it will have separate customer care and retail support teams.

“We will be tapping into the sales talent we have in our organization to sell the Accutron brand, but it will not be as broadly distributed as our mid-priced lines such as Citizen and Bulova. With its higher entry price point and unique movement, this is a watch line that is best sold in upper tier luxury retailers,” Mr Cohen suggests.

The new Accutron is effectively a co-production between the United States and Japan. The brand was born in America 60 years’ ago, and its electric watch mechanism is hailed as one of the great horological inventions to come out of this country. The modern iteration of that movement was made possible by Citizen Watch Company’s research and development team in Tokyo.

“From Japan, Citizen Watch Company contributed the technological prowess that allowed us to make this new electrostatic movement. The movement was created by a team of engineers who worked for 10 years testing and re-testing the movement as well as a designer who was able to work alongside the R&D team to create the designs for the Spaceview 2020 and Accutron DNA watches,” Mr. Cohen expands.

“From New York, Citizen Watch America designers worked to recreate some of the most celebrated designs from the original collection into our new Accutron Legacy collection. Our New York based brand management and marketing teams are evolving the original Accutron brand ethos to make it a relevant brand for the 2020 consumer,” he adds.

Accutron will be a globally distributed brand, but early on there is no mistaking the importance of the American market, particularly in a series of collaborations to promote this year’s launch. “There is a huge nod to our American roots as evidenced by the collaborations we have formed with other historic American brands. Our partners include Hudson Whiskey, the oldest New York distiller, which has made a custom barrel of Accutron whiskey, La Palina Cigars, a 100+ year old American Cigar Company and Esterbrook Pens, whose pens have been used by many American presidents,” Mr. Cohen reveals.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF ACCUTRON

Bulova’s electro-mechanical Accutron watches, first sold in October 1960, were invented by Max Hetzel, a Basel native who joined Bulova in 1948.

They were the first to use a movement built around a 360 Hz tuning fork instead of a balance wheel as the timekeeping element. Instead of the ticking sound made by mechanical watches, the Accutron had a faint, high-pitched hum which came from the vibrating tuning fork.

A forerunner of modern quartz watches which also keep time with a vibrating resonator, the Accutron was guaranteed to be accurate to one minute per month, or two seconds per day, considerably better than mechanical watches of the time.

Among the most significant watch collections of the era was the Accutron Spaceview— a reference to the open dial and the way in which the tuning fork was exposed rather than hidden behind a traditional dial — but also apt because Accutron technology was used to keep time for NASA’s Vanguard project that fired satellites into space.

Accutron made the dashboard clocks of 46 spatial missions, including the Apollo program and one Accutron timing mechanism is still on the moon, having been part of a lunar vehicle that the Apollo 11 crew abandoned in the Sea of Tranquility in 1969.

Other transport-related Accutron stories are rather more grounded. In 1962, the Accutron became the first certified watch for American railroads staff because of their accuracy and reliability. Seventy-five other railroad companies across the world also adopted the Accutron technology.

In 1964, American President Lyndon B. Johnson gave an Accutron as the official State gift to visiting dignitaries. Accutron clocks were also equipped in the presidential Air Force One plane as well as the American army’s aircrafts and ships.

For Accutron’s 50th anniversary in 2010, Bulova produced a 1,000-piece limited edition of the Spaceview, an exact replica of the 1960 model priced at $5,000 each because of the complexity of making the tuning fork movement and that they were all handmade.

In 2020, 60 years after it was first launched by Bulova, Accutron is being relaunched again. This time it is a standalone brand, although under the same corporate umbrella of Citizen Watch Company, which also owns Bulova.

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Rob Corder

The author Rob Corder