Bulova Chronograph C (96K101) review

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This is a watch that has intrigued me for some time and for a reason that makes it perfect for Bulova to market in a way that is sure to generate sales.

The 96K101 is different to other watches and impossible to define for many people. It looks like a 1970’s watch because the design is from 1970 when the original was born, and Bulova has made sure that it is very much a clone from 47 years ago. The original was 43mm in diameter which is huge for a vintage watch- watches really started to get small in the 1980’s, but in the 1970’s brands like Bulova did not worry about size too much and this worked well to highlight the colours, the design and the general look of the watch.

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As you can see in the advert above, Bulova promised a lot and largely delivered in a product that did what it needed to and by all accounts better than much of the competition. If you want to purchase the original today you will need about £2,000 for one that is in good condition and I can only presume that the uniqueness of the design is the main reason added to the fact that the size makes it fit in with today’s preference for larger watch dimensions.

I must admit that my first impressions of the 96K101 were not too favourable. This could be because I am currently wearing an Oris Aquis Date which feels like a product in a completely different league. The build quality, presentation and everything else about the watch makes it one that you could enjoy for decades and it has certainly become a watch that I genuinely enjoy every day. For me it is almost faultless and looks and feels like a high-end product that sits well above the likes of Seiko, Bulova, Citizen and other manufacturers who sell watches well below £1,000.

The problem for the Chronograph C is that my Oris cost £900 and the Bulova offering is retailing at +£500 at this time. That is a lot of money for a watch which does not feel like a high-end product and from the perspective of ‘bang for the buck’ it simply cannot compete with any Oris.

So, I shall ignore Oris at this time and look at what this watch offers otherwise the review would be pointless.

In the box

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The ‘Archive Series’ box is a step up from the standard Bulova boxes and you get a blue leather strap and a strap adjustment tool alongside the watch. The manual is a standard high frequency booklet so is not aimed at this particular watch, but it tells you what you need to know. For me, the blue strap actually looks nicer than the mesh strap that is attached to the watch, but it would be nice to see an easier way to change it than the classic ‘scratch the hell out of your watch’ tool that is supplied.

I love the fact that there are no lugs on this watch, which is yet another area in which Bulova has cloned the original, but I am not so convinced by the 20mm strap width in comparison to the large 46mm diameter face. Historically a thin strap on a big round watch accentuates the dimensions in a positive way, but here it feels just a little too thin aesthetically. Overall, however, the box contents and presentation are good enough for most buyers to be please with the package. It adds a sense of completeness even if those who truly understand watches can see the gimmickry and lack of quality in was is on offer here.

The watch

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It is big at 46mm for sure, but it does not feel big on the wrist in any way. I have 7.5” wrists which are not huge and the lack of lugs ensures that at no point does it feel too wide. I would say that my Oris feels larger when worn and is heavier for sure. The lack of weight here suggests what the watch really is, a quartz offering that is not using the best materials. I don’t mean to sound demeaning to this level of watch, but pick up a new Seiko Turtle for £350 and you will see that the quality and feel is much higher than the Bulova.

However, this watch is not about quality or offering a timepiece that you will wear for many years. You could do that of course and will enjoy it, but to me it feels like a homage that has been made to be exactly that. It is designed to offer something new in a world of similar watch designs and it succeeds. Where it fails is that it feels like a copy of a vintage watch rather than a modernised version of the same product. It is hard to explain, but the Bulova Snorkel was a clever re-design which feels well built and the same is true of the new Seiko Turtle, but this feels just a little light to me and there is a sense of building to a budget rather than to a standard.

And then there is the face which is of course the stand out feature that sets this watch apart from the rest. The colourful combination is striking and makes for extremely clear chronograph dials, but at the expense of the clarity of the overall face. Telling the time requires more than a glance and at times it feel far too busy to be practical in any way. To me this is a problem because for a watch to not offer a clear view of the current time is a bit like a car with an engine which is far too small for it. I get why the face is the way it is and understand that it is a clone, but good design has to be practical as well as beautiful looking and this watch only offers one of those.

There is no date window which make sense and the buttons work perfectly well for timing things with lots of information surrounding the face for timing speed etc. Strangely for a high frequency watch the second hand moves twice a second rather than 16 times which is what you may be used to in recent watches from Bulova. There must be a good reason for this, but considering the tiny hands and large dimensions of the watch, I wouldn’t expect battery power to be a problem here.

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The crystal is nicely domed and offers a decent balance between clarity and offering a sense of strange perspective when viewed at a certain angle. For me, this is a highlight of the design which lifts the form a little and I have no complaints about the form or how it looks on the wrist. I just wish it felt more substantial and less like a budget copy of a real watch.

Conclusion

I’m struggling to like this watch to be honest. I should like it because it is a 1970’s design, it is made by Bulova and it is big, but I feel zero attachment to it. When you try a new watch it can be difficult because reasons to like or dislike a watch are impossible to quantify. Sometimes a watch will feel perfect and other times it just won’t work for you which makes it a personal choice as to what you really like. For me, however, the new Chronograph C suggests that Bulova is aiming for the look and the memories of the original rather than taking the time to make a good quality product. A big chance missed.

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