A Closer Look at That Bulova Watch in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

One is more likely to come away from watching Netflix’s superb and hugely popular TV miniseries The Queen’s Gambit with a newfound interest in the game of chess than an appreciation for a certain 1950s-era ladies watch, but at least one viewer (me) finished the series with a lingering curiosity about the Bulova that appears like a tiny, tinkling bell in the fourth episode.

In the show, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, a teenage American chess prodigy who rises to acclaim in the late 1950s and flourishes in the 1960s (reveling in the fashions of the day as she ascends to glory).

In a brief, not particularly plot-critical scene, she receives a Bulova American Girl watch from her adoptive mother (Marielle Heller, pictured with Taylor-Joy, below) as a graduation gift. It is presented in an embossed box of a pretty blue hue and is engraved with the phrase “With Love From Mother.” The intimate exchange is fittingly accompanied by a champagne toast, and the watch itself is dainty and gold, with a faceted metal bracelet. It’s a feminine, elegant novelty that’s also a “precision timepiece” (actual marketing copy, see below)—a metaphor, perhaps, for how the male-dominated chess world initially regards Harmon’s tactical prowess on the chess board.

Queens Gambit stills showing Bulova watch
Bulova spotting on actress Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit (bottom photo: Phil Bray/Netflix, all production stills courtesy of Netflix © 2020)

It’s also a pitch-perfect period detail for the series, which is set in 1950s–1960s suburban Kentucky, in a variety of glamorous hotels all over the world, and at least one dingy New York City apartment.

According to Bulova’s archives department, Harmon’s watch is an American Girl K from 1957. Models bearing the American Girl name have been used throughout Bulova’s history; the first instance occurs in 1933, and the watch, in a variety of design iterations, enjoyed a heyday between 1957 and 1960, when it was heavily promoted in advertising.

An ad from that era prices the American Girl K at $59.50 (about $551 today).

Bulova vintage advertising
Bulova American Girl ephemera, from left: “The tiniest watch in Bulova history” (1962 ad); “one glamorous ensemble” (1950s display); an American Girl from 1955 (images courtesy of Bulova)
Ladies Bulova watches Queens Gambit
Contemporary Bulova watches with an American Girl flavor, $225–$275 each

Interesting to know is that the Amazon series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel also featured an American Girl watch, one from 1955 (cue up season three, episode five, to see Rachel Brosnahan’s Midge Maisel wearing it). Bulova’s archives department sourced and loaned the vintage jewel to the costume team for this purpose.

But Bulova told JCK that the American Girl K that appears in The Queen’s Gambit was sourced through unknown channels. A stealth move, you could say. Sometimes the element of surprise is a game changer.

Top: Game on: In Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, the main character Beth Harmon, played by actress Anya Taylor-Joy, receives a Bulova American Girl K as a graduation gift. It’s a detail perfectly suited to the time period as well as a storytelling vehicle—it marks Harmon’s transition from awkward teenage girl to sophisticated chess champion extraordinaire. 

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Amy Elliott

JCK Contributing Editor

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