If you want to get a watch with a cartoon character on the dial for your kids it’s not a problem these days. Every cartoon that ever existed has tons of merchandise including watches. eBay, Amazon and other platforms are flooded with these goods. They are fun, colourful, cheap and serve as a gateway for the children to get into the hobby that you (and us all) love so much. A Sponge Bob watch today, a Nautilus in 30 years from now. However, not many know that the custom of putting cartoon characters on watches started 85 years ago with the most iconic animated character ever; Mickey Mouse. Disney’s most famous mouse is celebrating his 90th birthday this year (actually exactly today, 18th November 1928). We thought this would be a great opportunity to talk about how it all came about. It started of course with the Mickey Mouse watch.
Mickey Mouse came to life 90 years ago, in 1928. Though the funny cartoon character is not much of a watch wearer nor he is the friend of any brand, we wanted to pay tribute to him. For one, Mickey Mouse’s success as a watch dial ‘decoration” single-handedly changed the perception of watch design. Without the first Mickey Mouse watches and their worldwide success, there probably would not be a Speedmaster Snoopy today. Keep in mind that the first Mickey Mouse watches appeared just on the dawn of the arrival of wrist watches. So, it’s safe to say that since you can buy a mass-produced wristwatch, you can also get a hold of one with Mickey on the dial. This genius marketing move was no lucky coincidence. It was the result of a smart strategy by a brilliant sales guy. And he wasn’t Walt Disney.
It is widely known that Mickey Mouse first – publicly – appeared in Walt Disney’s animated short film “Steamboat Willie”. Well, this is almost true. It was the first Disney cartoon with synchronized sound and one of the very first sound cartoons. Not many know however that the character’s first movie was the silent picture “Plane Crazy” also from 1928. It wasn’t successful so nobody wanted to distribute it. Mickey Mouse was created earlier that year by Walt Disney and his main animator Ub Iwerks out of anger, desperation and in hopes of a successful new start. See, Disney Studios already had a contract with Charles Mintz a cartoon producer. Mintz used Universal Studios to distribute his cartoons. Due to the success of his animation films, Walt Disney wanted to negotiate a raise in the budget. Mintz, however, did not like the idea and actually wanted to cut Disney’s costs.
Reminding him that they have a contractual agreement and Universal owned the rights to the characters the Walt Disney’ studio created, Disney felt betrayed. It didn’t help that Mintz also told Disney that his current staff had already signed a new contract with him and Universal Studios. Walt Disney delivered Mintz his last cartoons of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit (a character he created earlier, often considered as the predecessor of Mickey) and then he was out of Mintz’s control. This was a great lesson that taught Disney to always own the rights to the characters his studio creates so he would never depend on anyone else. Without staff or a contract, he teamed up with his animator, Ub Iwerks and a handful of his old colleagues who stayed loyal to him. Together they started Disney Studio. Their first big hit; Mickey Mouse.
A deal above all
Steamboat Willie was a huge success but as a new studio, Walt and his brother and partner Roy O. Disney were always in need of financial backup. As a way to fund the business, the brothers decided to sell the merchandising rights to Mickey Mouse. In 1932 they contacted Herman Kamen a marketing salesman who had already gained experience in merchandising animated figures. Kay, as he was often referred to, was a natural born salesman who saw a great opportunity in Disney’s characters. Kamen hopped on a train and paid the Disney brothers a visit to California to persuade them. He succeeded as the Disney brothers gave Kamen’s company the exclusive licensing rights to Disney merchandising. The first merchandise Kamen contracted was the Mickey Mouse watch. Kay Kamen needed to find a partner who’d be able to produce these timepieces for him to market.
Ingersoll, a watch company established in the USA in 1892 by Charles Henry Ingersoll, introduced “The Dollar Watch” to the market. A mass-produced, cheap watch that sold for around $1 at the end of the 1890’s. Ingersoll sold more than 40 million watches during the course of its production. They also produced the first military watch in partnership with the armed forces. However, in 1921 Ingersoll went bankrupt. Waterbury Clock Company, who initially made the Dollar Watches for Ingersoll as a supplier bought the brand in 1922. Ingersoll-Waterbury, as it was now called, did not have financial difficulties anymore and they had a huge infrastructure and experience in watch production. This was perfect for Kay Kamen and he partnered up with Ingersoll- Waterbury to produce the Mickey Mouse watches. This partnership brought millions of watches to the market, and dollars to its beneficiaries until 1971.
Mickey Mouse watches
The first set came out in 1933. I use the word set because you could buy either a wrist- or pocket watch with Mickey Mouse on the dial. The Mickey’s hands were animated showing the time. The sub-second disc at 3 o’clock also had 3 Mickeys on it chasing each other as the watch shows the running seconds. Due to its cheap price and availability, the watch became popular overnight. A year later, Ingersoll of London, also started producing such timepieces for the UK market. Though at the time Ingersoll of London had not been part of the Ingersoll- Waterbury company for some years since the European subsidiary of Ingersoll was sold in 1930. Still, the watch they released was very similar to the US market product, with some slight design changes. Notably that the pants on Mickey were bigger. Hence their nickname became; Balloon Pants Mickey.
Throughout the course of 38 years while Ingersoll (and later Ingersoll-Timex) produced Mickey Mouse watches it became extremely popular and made millions of dollars for the Disney brothers, Kamen and Ingersoll alike. In the 60’s Minnie Mouse appeared first on Mickey Mouse watches. After it has proven to be successful, she got her own watch. This way the company did not target boys only, but girls too. Ingersoll made the first battery-power and water-resistant Mickey watches as well. The story came to an end – for some time – when in 1971 Ingersoll-Timex stopped making Mickey Mouse watches. After 71 many different brands gained licensing to the characters and made Disney cartoon watches. Brands such as Helbros, Lorus, Fossil Seiko and so on. However, the one and only true Mickey Mouse watch will always be the ones by Ingersoll. The re-branded Ingersoll still sells Mickey Mouse watches today with a lifetime warranty.
While Ingersoll and, after the early 70’s, other brands also had the license to make Mickey Mouse (or other Disney character) watches, brands like Omega or Rolex never had this right. Still, from time to time we see these odd timepieces popping up on eBay or other online sales platforms. Now, I’m not saying that there could not have been a private order to said watch companies coming from someone who bears the licensing right, to create a custom order. But nor Rolex, neither Omega made such watches in their regular collection. Furthermore, it is very likely that most of these timepieces sadly have been tampered with in the past to make them look “unique”. This could happen either by using an original dial and painting Mickey Mouse on it by a third party. Or creating a completely fake dial bearing the brand’s markings and the Disney character.
I think the most obvious cartoon watches when it comes to Omega are the Snoopy Speedmasters. We all know the story behind it (if not, here it is), it has to do with NASA. Omega also has a Speedmaster that collectors nicknamed; TinTin for obvious reasons. We all know how that project ended, so let’s not go there. Rolex used to make watches with special order dials. Just think of the famous Domino’s Pizza Rolex or the timepieces with Middle Eastern crests on them. As a matter of fact, like many at the time, Walt Disney himself wore a Rolex watch. There are many photos of Disney wearing a gold Rolex Datejust on a Jubilee bracelet. Sadly, no Mickey on the dial. Rolex, to our knowledge, never sold watches with Mickey Mouse on them.
We cannot leave out the legendary Gerald Genta from this article. Many know that he designed two of the most iconic watches that ever blessed the market; the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak (1972) and the Patek Philippe Nautilus (1976). However, Genta has his own brand under his actual name. The Gerald Genta brand was a favourite among the rich and famous often getting private orders by VIP clients. One such order was a watch (or watches) with Mickey Mouse in the dial. It is said that the client was the Sultan of Brunei. Seeing the popularity, the watch gained Genta decided to include similar models to his general collection. He obtained the rights from Disney and made a series of watches with retrograde movements and Mickey Mouse, as well as Goofy, Minnie, Scrooge and Donald Duck on the dials. The most expensive Mickey Mouse watches were born.
Swatch X Damien Hirst
For the 90th birthday of Mickey Mouse, Swatch teamed up with artist Damien Hirst for two Art Specials. There are two limited edition Swatch models for Mickey’s 90th anniversary, the Spot Mickey and the Mirror Spot Mickey. The Spot Mickey is limited to 1999 pieces and only available on this day (November 18th). It is a classic 34mm sized Swatch and retails for 165 Euro. The Mirror Spot Mickey is limited to 19999 pieces and available since last Friday (we already have a few on their way to Fratello members). This is a 41mm model and retails for 110 Euro. The Spot Mickey has a playful dial with Mickey on the dial and using the typical colours of the most famous mouse in the world. The Mirror Spot Mickey has slightly larger spots and the mouse is now placed on the mirror-like background. The strap of the Mirror Spot Mickey is transparent. On the backside of these watches, you will find the signature of Walt Disney.
More information (and ordering information) can be found here, on the official Swatch website.
Happy Birthday, Mickey!