Marine Star Glory Days Part 1

The Golden Age of the Bulova Dressy Diver

1997 96BJ07 Blue and Silver bulbous projections galore

I finally had to sit down and start to write about my Bulova Marine Star collection. Its been a few years since I started. Throughout the time I’ve been researching and finding these little jewels, I’ve also been trying to figure out what it is about them I find so intriguing. I would love to know what the design and marketing team of these wild creations were thinking at the time. Most watch enthusiasts would quickly say the glory days of the Marine Star were the now vintage ones from the 1970s, when the mechanical chronographs with Valjoux movements were made in Switzerland.

The glory days I’m referring to were the 1990s quartz years with crazy two-tone dressy diver-style designs that have been in recent years available in good condition for around $100. The Hong Kong era. Its probably a niche genre of the watch world. Its a particular style of watch that is hard to define probably does not appeal the mainstream enthusiast. They are an acquired taste.

Part of the interest is the amazing number of variations I have discovered. It’s hard to believe a company could produce so many similar, yet different models over a 10 or 15 year span. Another thing attracting me is the diver-style design language used on most models. I am a fan of the diver watch aesthetic and of course, the romance of the sea and exploration. Also with dive watches there is the purpose-driven aspect of dive watches as tools for use on and under the water. On top of that, the Marine Stars of this era have the bling factor that makes them great dress watches.

Gold to go

Product of the Times

As I write this in 2024, I must say that I do not like the current Bulova Marine Star family or really any Marine Star of the last 15 or so years. The ones I collect are from the late 1980s to the mid 2000s. Watches were still small, in the 36mm to 42mm range and had a quirky, eccentric Bulova feel to them. Once Citizen acquired Bulova around 2008, the trend was for bigger, visually simpler and if I may, more macho designs. The Japanese brought technological advances, new materials and manufacturing processes and a dizzying array of features. Of course, the current autos, are a completely different beast from these old quartz ones. They also left us with is what I deem as gaudy, monstrous, cyber-watches that look like props from a Transformers movie.

As a late Baby Boomer, I have lived my adult life across the span of technology from typewriters and phone booths, then the birth of the WWW, to cloud storage, cell phones and AI. I was studying art and design in the ’80s. I was always a forward looking champion of modern product design. I got an Macintosh IICi in 1989, by God. If style and design appeal of watches is subjective, my personal experiences have led me to a point where I now appreciate vintage/retro/off-beat,i.e., Tag Heuer 4000 from ’94 rather than tech-led streamlined Apple watch. I have flipped: I like old or old-looking stuff. I’ve started to resent being a slave to technology updates. I like the feeling of being disconnected when I accidentally leave my smart phone at home.

As I have written earlier in my posts on 1990s Gruens and Eddie Bauer labeled time pieces, I missed the 90s watch world. At that time it was not a big part of my life. Wait ’til you get older! Now I am interested in the ’80s and ’90s. In my posts I find myself trying to piece together the history of those times through my watch collecting. I also have written that our tastes change. I would probably have been repelled by a Tag Heuer S/el in the 1990s had I known of them. Now I find them fascinating. I have always had a bit of a rebel streak and nowadays am more of a contrarian. I like to stake my own ground.

Like each of us, we at times follow trends and other times shun trendiness. This is an important concept, I think, in watch collecting. Collect what you like. Social media can get us spun up on certain watches and lead us into purchases we later regret. You can always come back to a type of watch down the line. I also find myself breaking my own rules at times by falling for a watch that has characteristics that I had determined were forbidden. For example, “I’ll never get a 44mm watch”, or “I hate green dials, never”. Then you see a green dialed 44mm watch you can’t resist. So, even though I find the current Marine Stars to be hideous, there are a couple of Series C models, I almost like! If only they were a little smaller, half the price, more detailed, more curves, more colors…etc. I have decided, for this topic, I will endeavor to find current Marine Star at a dealer to see how they really feel on the wrist.

Blame it on Tag Heuer

1987 Tag Heuer S/el WG1120.0

While its a slim chance that I would be caught wearing a current Marine Star, I’m sure there are many who would cringe at the sight of my neo vintage Marine Stars! I have been on a sort of feeding frenzy the last few years. I have over twenty examples, and am watching still more. I would have even more. There are many I loved but that got away as I balked at spending more money. They may not be good investments. They are more of a passion. There is a vast array of Marine Star designs, but most of mine fall under what I call the Tag Heuer 80s-90s look. As I see it, Tag Heuer was a mainstay at the time and being copied left and right. They were mall watch royalty. There was still a middle class in those days. The gap between middle class and upper middle class was smaller. The new wave of mechanical luxury watches was just starting and quartz was the way to go for most.

Even with the recent surge in vintage reissue and retro styling, I don’t think any company has dared to revive the 90s Tag Heuer diver vibe, much less the 90s Marine Star vibe! That said, TH have reissued the Heuer chronograph look. There is hope because fashion always repeats itself with new touches. I am all in on modern versions of old looks, so the reissue type Bulovas of today are great to me. I just don’t like most of the modern Marine Stars and some other lines. I also own my share of vintage mechanical watches and many neo vintage quartz watches so I know the financial pitfalls of buying and maintaining vintage. I know the pain of sourcing discontinued low-end quartz movements.

I would be collecting more 90s Tag Heuers because they are awesome, but I still really can’t afford to that like I would want to, so to me, these Marine Stars are the ticket. After all this is Lowly Caliber, and I’m here to talk about the watches most won’t. I don’t think I’ve spent over $180 for any one of my Marine Stars? Most between $75 and $100, a few under $50. This cost has increased on a couple of them as a few have had replacement movements, crystals or other maintenance.

Some of mine are New Old Stock, or preowned but barely worn; therefore in great shape. A few were well-worn finds. I get the feeling some of the “barely worn” ones were gifts from well-meaning wives that the receiving husbands could not bring themselves to wear! Another angle is that many were on the dressy side, not tool watches, so not worn as everyday watches. I find most of the designs visually pleasing. Its subjective, right? Some are more subtle, others over-the-top, and a few were borderline keepers with me. But, as a collector, I like a range of styles over the years to show the evolution of the designs. If the price is right, I add styles I don’t like as much. Others are must haves. Generally the earlier the better, but 1997-98 seems to have been a great year. Starting about the millennium, things started getting less interesting.

I’ve said this before, too; a lot of my collections are from the 90s because about this time, people start getting rid of old stuff that is laying around the house, for various reasons, for 30 years. So, they have been plentiful and relatively cheap. The supply is drying up though, like so many things in this current vintage propelled flipping economy. People are not collecting as much as buying and selling.

I probably should start digging in to the watches! Maybe I will start with the oldest? As I will be writing the posts to cover this collection I will undoubtedly be adding more examples, which means I will also be updating these posts.

91C21 Silver-Grey dial of 1989

My oldest Marine Sta, a 91C21, dates from 1989 and could have been produced in Hong Kong with a German movement? Citizen has refused to work on it because of its age and discontinued movement, as well as other parts. It is one of my favorites because of the dial color and the subtle overall appearance. The case and bezel finish is a soft, blasted, not polished one. The silver bezel with minimal numbers has lots of texture detail. It has a very Zodiac feel to it? You could say its not at all like the mostly two-tone, louder Marine Stars I have. The 80s were a turbulent time in the watch industry and Bulova at the time was splitting up into pieces and owned by more than one investor company. Some watches had been assembled in Switzerland in the 70s, then moved to Hong Kong in the 80s. The bracelet is a three piece link, oyster style with semi-circular links, made in a combination solid/folded stainless steel links could be made in Hong Kong by Stelux and maybe the whole watch assembled there. It might be a replacement bracelet since it is not signed, but I need to research it more. The sizing is great for me and very appropriate to the period, at about 35.5 mm case, about 9mm thickness, and an 18mm bracelet. It has a light classic diver feel. It has had some moisture incursion over the years and the lume on the classic diver pill/circle hour markers is dark and pretty much dead. The green lume on the hands still has some life and good color.

small and classic 1989

Its so fun to wear with its period feel, understated, but lots of character. I have seen a gold finish model of similar style somewhere, but it did not have the same finish softness?

90C78 from 1991 caught my fancy

One of my earliest Marine Stars is still a project…Its a 90C78 from 1991 with a German movent. Its one that I took a gamble on, not really knowing its ails. As it turned out the movement should be replaced. I found it after I had already collected many later models, but the styling struck me as very bold. The case/bezel/dial are fairly conservative, then you have that wild bracelet with two big gold rows!

Bracelet with impact

It had more wear than I would like, but then it was also sort of different and unique as well as being an early ’90s example. Again, its the dressy diver theme. The diver-style watch has been put on a dressy bracelet? The case is only 37mmx44mm, not including crown guards, but it looks bigger? It has the three-lug set up with a semi integrated connection. The bold bracelet is 20mm and doesn’t taper. The bracelet links haven’t taken on the organic S/el shapes yet, but the gold is starting.

I like the beveled hour markers on the what appears to be a black dial. The water resistance rating within the circular star logo is in feet: 330ft instead of 100m. It has day and date where the majority of the majority of the Marine Stars from this era were date only. It has a very cool open spear point second hand. The bezel insert looks like aluminum and a navy blue color, but has some scratches. This one is all about the bracelet which is over-the-top with gold. It also has what I call a small jewelry-type clasp. Hopefully I can find another PUW250N-253N movement of the right type and get it running.

Whole lota gold on that bracelet!

While that one was

1991 90A07 Chronograph and 1993 90D04 4-Eye Alarm

Next up in the time line are a couple from 1991 and 1993. These two are before the styling went into the more elaborate Tag Heuer S/el influenced two-tone gold/silver phase. They are fairly classic, but start to illustrate the variety of directions the Marine Star went. They both offer the alarm function technology of the pre-cell phone times in quartz movements. I was smitten by the contrasting gold/black of the 40mm 90A07 chronograph with its bezel insert. At first I thought it was navy, but the bezel insert seems black and the dial a dark charcoal. The bluish lume must have thrown me off. I got it later after I already had several later 3-hands. When I first saw it, I assumed it was from late 90s or early 2000s with its cleaner lines and square corners. Even though I don’t normally have a practical need for chronographs, I wanted some Marine Star examples. This model came on a 20mm black leather strap originally, but my pre-owned came on this silicone strap and I haven’t felt the need to change it.

Troublesome movement repairs

Truthfully, the watch has been a headache. Citizen doesn’t want to work on it, the 3S31 movement is hard to find in working condition and apparently not very robust. Most watches I find with this movement do not work or are out of my price window. Most watch makers do not “repair” this type of quartz movement. Movements are replaced until not available. These chronograph alarm movements from this period are not the most user friendly especially if it is not an everyday watch that you use frequently. It has a recessed crown at 4 o’clock and four other pushers. Either the chronograph complication is not working, or I don’t know what I’m doing? I don’t really have a need for a chronograph or alarm, but I like the way the watch looks and I still use a wrist watch every day. In fact, I usually wear more than one watch a day, switching for different activities.

Another unique Looker

When I first saw this 1993 90D04 four-eye, I had to have it! The white dial, flat brushed rotating bezel, gold “wire” trim and the four panda sub dials all make a compelling watch. It’s compact shape with short lugs is great for me. The case is about 35mm but flares to 37mm at the crown and alarm pusher. Lug-to-lug is only 43mm. What a cool little object it is! It is one of my favorite Marine Stars. I have it on a 18mm Hirsch leather 2-piece. Again, I don’t need the alarm. Its just a fun little watch with lots of unique details.

Everything is petite; the applied hour marketers the polished sub dial surrounds and hands. There are fine, simple baton hands and a open spear head second sweep similar to the 90C78 above. Functionally, it not easy to set the various dials. I’m not sure I can remember how to set each dial when I need to? At 3’oclock is the day, 9 o’clock the date. The identical top and bottom sub dials are for a 24hr or second time zone and the alarm.

To me, this is a type of watch that could be reissued by Citizen. This kind of look with a modern movement to contrast with the G-shock type look? Not mechanical, not digital, a sort of cross-over appeal?

Moving into the Zone

Next up are a couple of Marine Stars from 1994 and 1996. They are getting into that mid 90s zone of two-tone glory with decorative details. The Tag Heuer/Breitling/Zodiac influence with a Bulova twist is starting to show.

1994 two tone 98B46 with gold details
Low and wide 37mm x 42mm

This 1994 98B46 really says 90s to me. It has a Swiss quartz movement, but the rest may have been made and assembled in Hong Kong? Most of these Marine Stars were rated 100m WR, but over time some of mine have succumbed to deteriorating gaskets I presume. This one looks like it has become a bit tarnished and cloudy under the flat beveled crystal as moisture has crept in? An inside cleaning and new gasket should do the trick. I like this one because most of my Marine Stars are white dialed. It is in the 37mm size range which I love and sits low on my wrist. The case is a pvd gold as are the projections on the unidirectional bezel. The case surfaces are flat and have sharp corners. It is very light being on leather and feels less robust of construction than the later Marine Stars with bracelets and lots of curves. It has a cheap manufacture feel to it; even the small 1989 example feels more solid. It is still a good example of the decorated diver style of this era.

1996 Two tone 98B74 36mm

This 1996 98B74 an example I found that was never really worn. I don’t think there was a scratch on it when I got it 27 years later. Its a perfect example of the dressy diver I’ve been trying to describe. However, this one has little diver design to it? It also is fairly conservative of design compared to what comes later. So, it a transition from the more mainstream late 80s designs and starts to bling a bit like the previously discussed 98B46. I love a full gold bezel on a finely brushed silver case with a white dial. Its also got gold hour markers and hands.

The 18mm bracelet is an indicator of things to come because most of the Marine Star iterations in this period had a unique bracelet design, rather than sharing standardized ones. This one has a center section of each link with a gold chevron shape that I just love. It integrates into the shape of the case projection. The links are solid and the watch has a sturdy well made feel. Overall there is soft edges and the case has curved sides. The S/el-like bezel curves down from the flat crystal. Things are starting to get curvy.

The rotating bezel on this watch also illustrates how these Marine Stars are not so much tool watches or divers as they are dress watches. The dial does not really look like a diver style dial? Aside form the rotation bezel, it could also be a sports watch with integrated bracelet. The gold coated bezel has no numbers on it, just marks at each minutes and a more pronounced mark at each 5min. or hr. increment. It is not easy to rotate. There is some weak lume on the hands and each hour marker, but they are small thin surfaces.

The chevron or arrow head with straight sides is repeated throughout the design; the case, bezel, hour markers, and bracelet, even the hands use it. I call it the Chevron. Its a fun one.

Look Familiar?

1987 TH S/el, left, and 1995 Bulova, right

This Marine Star from 1995 leaves little to obscure its design influence. It took a while for the people at Bulova to move into this territory? The Tag Heuer S/el was not well received by the dedicated Heuer fan base when it appeared in ’87. I don’t know if Bulova waited because of legal concerns or to see how the public responded to the controversial styling. The thing is, as much as any specific Marine Star looked like a Tag Heuer, they were not exact copies. Bulova mixed various elements form multiple TH lines into their Marine Star iterations.

This Marine Star, 98B57, Looks a lot like and S/el but also uses a bezel more like a TH 4000, and does not take the Mercedes sty hands. It also modifies the hour markers towards the dress watch look and slightly away from the diver look. Another thing I like about this particular ’95 MS is the pale gold dial. I have few with this color dial. TH did do lots of different gold dials across its lines in the 90s.

1995 98B57 Gold dial, two tone

When you have the TH and the Bulova in-hand together, the difference in build quality is noticeable. But for consumers unable to afford the price of a Tag Heuer, these Marine Stars were the next best thing. You could say the same is true now, for preowned after 25 years. And if the Bulova was still too much, there was and even cheaper Gruen-labeled offering that copied the S/el, too! The famous links introduced with the S/el are not copied, of course, but in the vast array of Heuer-flavored Marine Stars, they are mimicked lots of ways. This one may be one of the closest? I will show some more it the continuing posts on this topic.

Capt. Nemo design 98B78
Unique bracelet/links

I recently acquired this 1996 white dial 98B78. I had seen it before but avoided it because it was even too much over-the-top design for me! But, it grew on me. This particular watch was one I got from a seller who said that her husband never wore it. As such, it is like new. I’m glad I got it and love wearing it. Its just nuts and a lot of fun. Besides the looks, it has a solid feel and is well built.

The brushed case is about 35mm and has two swallow-tail or fin-like lugs. On these fins are two gold fake screw heads! The bracelet integrates into the fins with curvy v-shape one-piece solid links that have a gold coating on the middle section. The dial is great; its a wavy concentric fake guilloche texture with classic diver-style applied lume-filled gold rimmed hour markers. The bezel actions is smooth and there are two gold coated projections at 12 and 6 that line up with the bracelet gold when straight up and down.

This is a wonderful example of the Marine Star stylings of this era and with quirky designs that leave me scratching my head, wondering how they came to be.

1996 96B00 Grey, 96B32 White Back to classic

I’m going to close up this post with two nice brushed silver bezels on polished cases form 1996. I really like these two! Just when I’m building up to the wild two tones, Bulova brings this simple, classic look back. They measure in at 36.5mm by 42mm and only 8mm thick. They have a nice quality finish to them.

The movement is probably a Miyota, and they were most likely made in Hong Kong. The bracelets taper from 21mm to almost 16mm. The bracelet integrates into the three lug case and are a 5-section solid link, with three semi-circular sections and two flat bar sections. Maybe these fall under the Jubilee category? The center section is brushed, the rest polished.

Tapered bracelet, double clasp

These two move back from the dressy to a more sporty diver look. Still, the unidirectional bezel is not that grippy, but there is more lume on the diver-style dial layout. The Mercedes-style hands are back. The white has a textured wave dial while the grey is a flat sunburst. I got the 96B32 white is new condition. The grey came with more wear; scuffing and the small lume pip in the bezel triangle gone.

Low profile

A major attribute of these old Marine stars is the small, compact feel they have. An advantage of the quartz movement is a flatter watch. When on bracelets, like most of them are, they still have some weight to them, but they remain small and solid. These two watches conjure up many vintage diver cues for me while still remaining dress watch like. I absolutely love the flat brushed bezels (no insert) and how the projections flare out at the 15 min intervals over the rounded tooth texture.

I’ll be back with more Marine Stars picking up at 1997 when a flurry of designs appeared.


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