Bulova - Return To The Old Continent

After an absence of twenty years, American watchmaker Bulova returns in style to Switzerland. By opening a European head office in Fribourg.

With two million watches sold last year by more than 6,000 points of sale and a turnover in excess of 160 million dollars, Bulova is today, as in the past, a leading player in the North American market. In Europe however, and in the rest of the world, it has adopted a low profile since its setbacks at the end of the 1970s. A situation that is set to change radically in the words of Robert Faessler (ex Swatch Group and Ebel), Director of Bulova Swiss SA, the company's European subsidiary, whose activities will commence officially on 1st January 2003 on expiry of the licensing agreement with Egana Goldpfeil (Holdings) Ltd.

The firm's origins date back to 1875, when a Czech émigré named Joseph Bulova (see photo), then barely 25 years old, left Tiffany to open a shop in New York to sell his own watches with a quality/price ratio that was unrivalled at the time. Over the years, the firm forged an image as a pioneer in many areas, adding line by line to a typically American success story. It was, for example, the first to promote itself on the radio. That was in 1926. Fifteen years later, it upped the ante by presenting the first advertising spot ever broadcast on television. In the meantime, Arde Bulova had succeeded his father and introduced the standardization of parts, which was revolutionary at the time. The firm added to its trailblazing credentials by opening, in aid of the war wounded, its own school of watchmaking - still active moreover - and by becoming the first watch company in the world to have its products sold on aircraft (see photo), at a time when mass tourism had yet to reach Rimini by rail!

An innovator at a promotional as well as a social and industrial level, Bulova also - and perhaps above all - made its mark in watchmaking history with the launch, on 25 October 1960, of the Accutron (see photo), a watch that revolutionized the market. Several million were sold prior to the beginning of the 1970s and the watch even took part in American space flights as a fixed timepiece in capsules. The company was at the height of its glory, employing more than 1,000 people in Biel and in Neuchâtel.

At the very time Bulova presented a ladies' version of its star model, the quartz watch appeared on the market and changed the watchmaking landscape for ever, bringing about a massive reduction of manpower in the industry. The prestigious 1960s were followed for Bulova by the terrible 1970s, with its series of industrial disputes and strikes that resulted in the closure of all of the firm's Swiss activities in 1982.

There then followed a long period in the wilderness for the firm, which had been acquired by the American group Loews (insurance, tobacco, oil). This came to an end in the 1990s with remarkable growth in turnover and sales. And it was to coincide with its 125th anniversary, in 2000, that the company decided to take back direct control of its operations in Europe.

Located at No. 41, route des Arsenaux in Fribourg, in the Swisscom building, the premises of Bulova Swiss SA occupy a surface area of 600 m2. The office will be responsible for all sales, marketing and distribution operations in Europe and will employ between five and ten people initially, although this figure is likely quickly to exceed 30. Although it has not been ruled out that in time the firm will produce its own watches, these will be manufactured, at least in the first instance, by subcontractors. The products will be Swiss made, in steel and/or 18 carat gold, specially designed for European consumers with classic, sport, sport chic and fashion styles. The average retail price will be around 500 euros, with much of the range situated between 450 and 600 euros. The initial sales target is "several tens of thousands of timepieces per year", firstly in the Italian and Swiss markets, then in other countries of Western Europe and lastly in Eastern Europe, achieved through in-house sales teams or approved distributors.

With this new venture, Bulova is putting into practice its slogan: "Think global, act local". In a similar vein, it recently acquired a Canadian clock manufacturer and, last year, the Wittnauer brand, which currently operates as a separate entity. These acquisitions have strengthened the group's brands (Bulova, Accutron, Caravelle) and those produced under licence (Harley Davidson, Frank Lloyd Wright and Smithsonian).

This new arrival will add yet more lustre to the watchmaking credentials of the canton of Fribourg.

November 21, 2002