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Feature: The Elvis Watch That Got The Industry 'All Shook Up'

If you want to tick all the boxes of what a cult watch should be, look no further than Hamilton's Ventura model. Highly distinctive design? Check. Pioneering technology? Check. And as for celebrity kudos, you can’t get more A-list than Elvis Presley and one of the biggest movie franchises of the last two decades.

But the real talking point of the Ventura is the part it played in the development of non-mechanical watches, which had such a cataclysmic effect on the industry.

Aliens And Commies

The Ventura was a precursor for quartz-powered watches and personified an era of Cold War rivalry, schlocky sci-fi films about alien invasions and economic boom times. You may well smirk at the words “American invention” in the context of watches, but in some ways the US had the upper hand over Switzerland in the mid-1950s. Ten years after the war it was the world’s most prosperous country and its manufacturing industry was booming.

The Hamilton Ventura, released in 1957, was the first electric watch

The Hamilton Ventura, released in 1957, was the first electric watch

It was also engaged in a fierce competition with the Soviet Union to win the space race. Every technological innovation that came out of the US wasn’t just a chance for the country to gloat over its bitter enemy. It was concrete proof that those evil commies were still living in the stone age while Uncle Sam was a paragon of progress.

Born In The USA

By the time it released the Ventura, Hamilton had already been around for 65 years, making it older than Rolex. As with many watch companies it started off making pocket watches before switching to wristwatches after World War One. It had also been the chief supplier of railroad watches for the rapidly expanding US rail network, and it made marine chronometers for the US Navy.

The US had a thriving watch industry in the 1950s. Home-grown brands like Waltham, Benrus and Timex were pumping out watches like they were Hershey bars, while Elgin and Bulova were also working on their own electronic watch.

But it was Hamilton who struck out first by inventing a movement that was powered by the balance wheel receiving a periodic “push” from its contact with a battery-powered electromagnet. In other words, it was still partly a mechanical watch but it completely eliminated the need for a mainspring.

Hamilton announced the new watch at a press conference in New York in January 1957, hailing it “the first basic change in portable time keeping in 477 years”. It was a coup not just for Hamilton but America.

Elvis Gives Swiss A Miss

But it wasn’t just the technology within that captivated the public, it was the watch’s design. Of course Hamilton could have housed this new-fangled calibre in a conventional case. But this was 1957. The Soviets were about to launch their Sputnik satellite, teenagers everywhere were embracing rock 'n' roll rebellion, and the cinemas were full of films with titles like Invasion of the Saucer Men

Musical icon Elvis Presley wearing his Hamilton Ventura

Musical icon Elvis Presley wearing his Hamilton Ventura

Hamilton wanted a watch that was very much of its time, so they hired hotshot industrial designer, Richard Arbib, to come up with a case that was unlike anything else around. Until then Arbib had only designed cars and boats and he had recently been praised for his space-age concept car, the Astra-Gnome.

He had also illustrated covers for science fiction magazines, so it was no surprise when Arbib, who was given free rein to do as he pleased, came up with something that almost defied description. What was the Ventura case inspired by, exactly? Alien spacecraft? A shield? Or maybe it was a letter D – a stealthy nod to then-president, Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Whatever it was, the Ventura got people talking and it received a stunning publicity boost when it was worn by the biggest musical artist of the era, Elvis Presley. Elvis not only sported a Ventura in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii, he also wore it off-screen.

Retirement And Revival

Despite the big splash it made on its release, however, the Ventura model lasted just six years before Hamilton retired it. Bulova’s much more reliable Accutron watch, with its tuning fork, emerged as the electronic watch of choice, and then, of course, came the Japanese and the quartz revolution of the 1970s.

And so the Ventura faded into obscurity – an oddity from another age made famous by a singer who was now an overweight Las Vegas novelty act. Not so much the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll as the King of Sausage Rolls.

But another chapter was about to be added to the Ventura's story.

The blockbuster sci-fi film Men in Black started the Ventura revival

The blockbuster sci-fi film Men in Black started the Ventura revival

In recent years a version of the watch has appeared in every instalment of the blockbuster sci-fi franchise, Men In Black. Now fitted with quartz and automatic movements, it has secured a new generation of fans, and it even acknowledged its links with Elvis, releasing a limited-edition model in 2015 on what would have been the singer’s 80th birthday.

Still something of a novelty – even in a world of crazy watches made by the likes of Richard Mille and MB&F – the Ventura is nevertheless an affordable milestone watch that deserves its rightful place in the history books. A true piece of retro Americana that will always turn heads.

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