American vintage watches 1945-1955

Watchmaking was all about function during WWII with most of the output from the major watch houses supporting military efforts.  When the war ended there was a sudden shift in demand to meet the needs of consumers.  Form rather than function became more important as manufacturers clamoured to attract the attention and money of the American consumer.  Whilst tastes in the UK and Europe continued to be fairly austere and conservative, the Americans wanted glitz, glamour and flamboyance.  The USA watch houses of Elgin, Bulova, Hamilton, Wittnauer, Waltham and Gruen amongst others competed with another to produce some of the most highly styled watches ever seen.

Using quality movements made in Switzerland, the US factories made wonderfully ornate cases with rolled gold, gold filled and solid gold.  Some designers returned to the clean Art Deco styled lines of the 1930s but many went more avant-garde leading the era known as Retro Modern which extended to around 1955.  This confusion of looking forward and backward lead to a mixed up fashion period which seemed to hark back to a bygone era, but yet was still adventurous and futuristic.

Hamilton released hundreds of watch styles, characterised with ‘fancy lugs’ each with it’s own particular design and associated name., like this Hamilton ‘Eric’ previously sold by ourselves. This watch had a 14K gold filled case and dated from c.1949.

Hamilton Eric c.1949

Hamilton Eric c.1949

 

This Bulova showed how the manufacturers were starting to play with dial design as well as case design and features a wonderful step sided case with chequerboard dial.

Late 1940s Bulova with 10K rolled gold plated bezel

Late 1940s Bulova with 10K rolled gold plated bezel

A common feature of the American pieces is their small size by today’s standards.  Bulova in particular produced many narrow aspect cases that measured no more than 23mm across and around 31mm in height.  This is tiny by today’s oversize watch standards, but at this time in the US, a man’s watch has to be small and elegant.

The collector’s second hand market for these pieces has been fairly slow over the last 15 years and they are still criminally undervalued compared to much more mundane offerings from the Swiss houses.   There doesn’t seem to be a clear reason for this other than the small case size and ornate looks, deterring the predominantly male collector.   They are often incorrectly listed as ladies watches but due to the smaller sizes they are now often worn by ladies in contemporary times.   The standard of watch making is excellent with Bulova, Hamilton and Longines making movements in Switzerland, importing for assembly and retail in the US.   As a purchase on the vintage market 6-7 decades later, it is essential to buy an example that has been recently serviced.  The achilles heel of these watches is their case design which allows water and dust to freely enter the case leading to the oils in the movement being contaminated and regular ‘gumming up’ of the oils. Despite the quality, time keeping is often erratic due to the complex overcoil hairspring, popular on many models, becoming distorted with age, or coilbound with oil contamination.  At best, timing  rates within a minute a day are about as good as it gets.  The overwhelming positive is a budget of £200  will buy a very clean, serviced example such as this 1955 10K gold plated model from Bulova, listed on our site.

Bulova 10K rolled gold c.1955

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  1. mrs holloway says

    can you tell me how to find out what model of avia ladies gold wrist watch with square face 18 jewels is it was bought by my dad for her wedding present in 1952, and expanding bracelet with link in middle then either side a double gold sort of frame thing, the middle bit moves up and down and has only got two hands one smaller one bigger thank you for your time

    • says

      This watch won’t have a model name or number, it will just be described generically as you have done as an Avia 18J manual wind ladies watch. The case material will be stated inside the case. The best Avia watches of this period had solid gold cases.

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