March 24, 2020
by Ariel Adams
Getting a square or rectangular watch done right is a real challenge, which is why elegant angular watches are relatively rare. Bulova’s Swiss Made collection of timepiece is now known as the “Joseph Bulova collection” (named of course after the brand’s eponymous founder). A few years ago the higher-end “Swiss Made” product at Bulova came under the “Accu-Swiss” collection, a name that has recently been deprecated. The reason for this change of name (and the watches are quite different, too) is that Bulova wishes to avoid name confusion with its owned mark, “Accutron.” Bulova is about to re-launch Accutron with a new collection, so making sure consumers are not confused is critical at this time.
Joseph Bulova collection watches right now include a small assortment of low- (or limited) production timepieces with Swiss Made Sellita mechanical movements and rather classic styles. I will, however, say that the classic styles are curated and transformed for today’s tastes. Rather than merely approximate the look and feel of an existing vintage watch, Bulova created entirely modern watches with a vintage-style twist. Right now, that is what Joseph Bulova products seem to be all about. This is a good thing because, while storytelling is hard with such products, user satisfaction is high. These are very wearable, very versatile watches with excellent character and the type of hassle-free ownership experience we expect these days.
Bulova was clearly inspired by Art Deco-era watches in making the generation of Joseph Bulova watches that this Breton model debuted in. The Breton (the reference 96B333 and 96B331) is the rectangular model and the only angular-style piece of the group. There is also the similar (but with tonneau-shaped case) Joseph Bulova Banker, and then the round-cased Joseph Bulova Commodore. Each of these three Joseph Bulova watch models channel a certain F. Scott Fitzgerald lifestyle particularly well. They are also Bulova-priced, so you know you are getting good value. For fashion-lovers who refer to themselves as watch collectors, or not, the Bulova Breton and other Joseph Bulova watches are certainly worth examining, especially if you like Art Deco style.
Given that square-style watches are so hard to pull off well (the proportions and shapes are really challenging to get right), I was keen to review the Bulova Breton ever since Bulova shared them with me at Baselworld. The polished steel case is just 32mm-wide, but that is actually totally fine for this case shape. More important is the lug-to-lug distance, which is about 46mm. (For me, a watch often looks large enough so long as the lug-to-lug distance is in the ~45-53mm range.) The case is also just 10.5mm-thick, which is enough to keep the timepiece masculine looking, but it can still go under a sleeve.
Water resistant to 30 meters, the dial is capped with a specially shaped sapphire crystal that has an excellent amount of AR-coating on it. This watch, and the rest of the Joseph Bulova, benefits from have very little dial glare. The crown is a bit on the small side. As this is an automatic watch, you don’t need to use the crown all that often, but it is not the most pleasant experience when you want to manually wind the movement. This isn’t a big deal, really. It is impressive to see the tiny “Bulova” text written across the small crown, however.
While these two Joseph Bulova Breton watches are the same timepiece, they differ in the dial color and the strap, both of which are different flavors. The 96B331 has a sandblasted base dial with Arabic numerals applied in a “painted” style, meaning they are raised up a bit and painted in luminant. With the black-colored hands (well-done, by the way, Bulova) the contrast is excellent, offering good legibility and attractive classic style. Oddly, however, only the dial (not the hands) is given luminous material. That means that, while the dial glows in the dark, you can’t really read the time because the hands are still mostly invisible. This is only for the 96B331, as not all dials of the collection are made this way. Trying to describe the dial color is hard, as it is somewhere between rose champagne, rose gold, copper, and what Bulova calls “blush.” Come to think of it, this really looks like a bronzer in tone.
The 96B333 has the same hands and dial layout but a different execution. Here, the dial is not sandblasted but given white lacquer with matching gold-colored Arabic hour markers. Let me point out another few things about the hour numerals. As someone who appreciates good fonts, I noticed that Bulova may have invested in some typography work here. The numerals are nuanced and artistic. They feel familiar but uncommon, with a hand-painted look. Little touches like the drop-shadow for each letter help add character and a sense of visual wealth to each of the Joseph Bulova Breton dials.
One of these watches comes on a leather strap that has a generic butterfly-style deployant clasp (which I really don’t prefer most of the time when offered a simple pin buckle) and a “lizard grain.” Actually, if you swapped out this strap for an actual lizard skin strap (20mm-wide, by the way), or something more interesting, then I think you’d have a really gorgeous piece that few people would first recognize as a Bulova. I’d love to see a honey brown or even a red strap matched with the Joseph Bulova Breton 96B331 watch.
The Breton 96B333 comes on a polished steel metal bracelet that I must admit is comfortable. It is also relatively thin and this feels way more refined than many of the overly thick bracelets we sometimes see. The design is so-so, however. It doesn’t really take away from the overall composition, but it doesn’t add to it, either. The brilliance of the case design is both that it is curved and not a perfect rectangle, as the edges are angled off. The icing on the case is the slightly sloped, faceted-style polished bezel. Like all good designs, the end result looks simple, but the work to get there was not likely easy. I truly consider this a handsome watch, and not too many watches get that title. Also, while I’ve enjoyed previous Bulova Swiss Made collection watches, this is perhaps the best-done I’ve personally reviewed so far.
Inside the watch is a Swiss Made Sellita SW200 automatic movement that isn’t especially decorated but is still good-looking with its still crisper-than-many-of-the-competitors’ industrial surfaces. The automatic movement can be partially viewed through a bisected circle sapphire crystal window. The movement operates at 4Hz, reportedly with 38 hours of power reserve (a seemingly conservative number). Bulova chose to display the date on the dial. Given Bulova’s bread and butter customer, this makes sense. That said, the next time around, it might be interesting to test this concept with a no-date watch, or at least one that does not remove the pleasure of seeing all of the hour markers.
While not the typical type of watch your average timepiece collector might discuss over a beer, the Bulova Breton is a cool watch and one that surely feels like nothing else in your collection. Compared to a Jaeger-LeCoultre, Girard-Perregaux, or Cartier, this Bulova Breton is a high-end looking square watch with looks and value at only around $1,000. As people seek value today above all else, this limited-edition series is one that I don’t think will last long once it is discovered.
To get the most mileage out of a Joseph Bulova Breton, I think it is wise to find yourself a new strap or bracelet. If Bulova decides to make more Breton watches in the future (and I hope they do), they ought to focus on an improved level of originality and harmony for the straps and bracelet options. The case is great, and of course the options to make the dial are seemingly endless. Price for the Bulova “Joseph Bulova” Breton reference 96B331 is $1,050 USD and the 96B333 is $1,150 USD. Learn more at the Bulova website here.
>Model: Joseph Bulova Breton (references 96B331 and 96B333 as tested)
>Price: $1,050-$1,150 USD, as tested
>Size: 32mm-wide, 10.5mm-thick, 46mm lug-to-lug distance.
>When reviewer would personally wear it: As a handsome-looking daily wear with a dressier vibe that calls attention to itself.
>Friend we’d recommend it to first: Fashion-lover who is willing to explain to others that this is a different kind of Bulova and that it really does represent the history of the watch well.
>Best characteristic of watch: Breton watch manages the difficult-to-achieve task of making a novel-looking and attractively proportioned rectangular case watch. Dial is legible, well designed, nicely printed, and, again, handsome. Case is comfortable to wear.
>Worst characteristic of watch: Some versions have luminous dials but strangely no luminous hands. Straps and bracelets are good efforts but, in my opinion, need a few more design revisions to really offer a beautiful match for this case shape. I do hope that Bulova keeps investing in the Breton collection.