Once Upon A Time: The Pop Culture Impact of Mickey Mouse Watches
An in-depth look at the fascinating history of Mickey Mouse watches
Pop culture has always played a big part in the watch market. Think James Bond with his iconic Rolex and/or Omega. And how about TAG Heuer and Alec Monopoly? Or Jay-Z and Hublot? Tying one successful brand to another is simply a no-brainer.
But the most enduring collaboration between mass media and horology is the Mickey Mouse watch. The cartoon character has graced the faces of such high-end watch brands such as Rolex, Wittnauer, Bulova, and Seiko (as well as much cheaper models from Timex, Bradley, and Lorus).
The link between the mouse and timekeeping is so strong that even Apple made a deal with Disney to offer Minnie and Mickey Mouse as time telling options on its game-changing watch.
Here’s a look at the most exciting pieces in the Mickey Mouse club.
A Mouse For The Masses
During the Great Depression, Walt Disney Productions was casting about for ways to raise cash to keep its operations afloat. A man named Herman "Kay" Kamen approached Walt and Roy Disney with the concept of using Mickey Mouse's likeness on consumer goods. One of the first companies that Kamen connected with was the Ingersoll-Waterbury Watch Company of Waterbury, Connecticut.
In May 1933, the company submitted a patent application for the watch, which had a classic Mickey image with arms acting as the watch's hands and subdial with three little Mickeys chasing one another. The artwork was designed by August Shallack, who worked in advertising for United Artists, which was distributing Disney animated cartoons at the time, and the design was copyrighted in June 1933 by Walt Disney Enterprises.
There were two types of timepiece produced in that initial run. A wristwatch priced at $3.25 and a pocket watch for $1.50.
The watches were a runaway success and the money they brought in saved both Disney and Ingersoll-Waterbury from financial ruin. In the first two years alone, more than 2.5 million were sold, and in 1957, the 25 millionth watch was given to Walt Disney, who never thought the watches would sell.
While it was marketed for kids, what made Mickey Mouse watches a pop culture phenomenon was the adult stars that wore them. Grace Kelly, Sammy Davis Jr., John Lennon, Andy Warhol, Lauren Hutton, and television talk show host Johnny Carson all sported Mickey Mouse watches. Astronaut Wally Schirra brought one aboard the Apollo 7 spacecraft that orbited the Earth in 1968. Astronaut Gene Cernan took his Mickey to the moon on Apollo 10 in 1969.
Seiko and Style
To meet the ever-growing demand for all things Disney, between 1968 to 1972 the company licensed even more companies to produce watches, including Bradley, Helbros, Hamilton, and Elgin.
But the most interesting of these mass-produced Mickeys were made by Seiko from 1986 to the late 1990s.
At that time, buyers became more interested in fashion watches, and there was a kind of ironic cool in wearing a kid’s watch. We chatted with American Seiko and Mickey collector Kerry, who goes by the Instagram handle @vintagecharactertime about the importance of the Seiko era in keeping Mickey relevant. “Seiko steered towards adult markets with low-end watches coming in around $100 to $1,400 on the high end.”
“Seiko and Disney made some of the best-looking Mickey watches,” says Kerry of his attraction to the collaboration. “Not only under the Seiko brand, but subsidiaries like Lorus and Pulsar. There are literally thousands of different designs just from the low-end Lorus alone, but the Seikos are still highly sought after by collectors. For popularity, a watch called the Sunburst Mickey sold very well. The model had two sizes for men and women.”
The rarest Seiko Mickey, says Kerry, is a mechanical seven jewel piece produced for the Japanese market around 1970 that featured both Mickey and Minnie on the dial. “But the grail, in my humble opinion, is the 1990's solid gold 14K Mickey Mouse wristwatch. It was a very limited edition of 500 pieces and came in two styles, for men and women.”
Today, the Seiko Corporation still produces Disney watches. 99 percent are quartz movements, but there are still a handful of mechanical pieces. Any or all are worthy timepieces.
Wish Upon a Star
Walt Disney himself wore a Rolex — a yellow gold Datejust on a Jubilee bracelet — not a Mickey Mouse Watch. But Disney’s impact on global culture also affected the otherwise serious Swiss watch industry. Perhaps the most enduring effect is in the unofficial, aftermarket modification of Rolexes with Mickey’s image.
These customized Rolexes usually come on Oyster Datejusts and other similar, plain models because the dials are relatively clean and therefore closer to the Ingersoll-era Mickeys. They also favor the original Mouse design — the pants wearing Mickey with pupils is not popular in this realm — but with regular Rolex hands instead of cartoon arms to indicate the time.
While there aren’t any official Rolex Mickey Mouse watches, fans have spent decades trying to wish them into existence. In 2013, musician and watch savant John Mayer posted two custom Rolex/Disney mash-up concepts to his Tumblr —based on the Rolex Cosmograph Daytona ref. 116520. Mayer's versions had an appealing matte black PVD finish along with either an all-black or a white dial.
These concept watches made it to the prototype stage, but never went into production. But as J.M. Barrie, creator of another Disney favorite Peter Pan, once said, “Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough.”
Gérald Genta is the design genius behind the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak, the Patek Philippe Nautilus and the Pasha de Cartier. In 1969, Genta began manufacturing watches under his own name. The Gérald Genta brand became best known for producing several unique watches, including a Minute Repeater (1981) with a self-winding movement, and a Grande Sonnerie, which was the most complicated watch in the world at the time (1994).
He also produced a series of super complicated timepieces featuring Disney characters on the dial. The best collection of Disney Gentas has got to belong to Instagram’s @super.corgi (when we asked him what his grail Genta was, he replied: “I believe I own all the characters. I am not searching for a new one.”
For fans, says the Singapore-based @super.corgi, collecting Genta Mickeys is a niche within a niche. The first piece produced featured a giant Mickey Mouse printed on a white Mother of Pearl dial and a jump hour/retrograde minutes display. When it was in production, this white gold version of this watch was the most expensive Mickey in the world.
Genta’s Retro Fantasy collection also produced simple time-only watches and even a tourbillon. But the one common characteristic of the Genta Mickey’s is the way that the late designer incorporated Disney characters into the display so that the mouse and his friends actually feel animated. “My favorite is the Mariner,” says @super.corgi. Limited to only 150 pieces, this version has a blue rotating weather disc as well as Mickey’s finger pointing to the minutes.
Since 2004, George Bamford has been building a fan base by doing something once considered sacrilegious in some horophile circles — redialing luxury watches. His creations have ranged from blacked out Zeniths to redialed Rolexes featuring pop culture icons such as Snoopy and Popeye.
Unlike the modified Oyster Dates, Bamford Watch Department buys brand new Rolexes and then soups them up with advanced industrial case coatings, new hands, and special dial treatments. These Mickeys are then sold as limited editions or one-of-a-kind models for customers who want the ultimate bespoke Rolex experience.
These modified timepieces caught the eye of LVMH, who later officially partnered with Bamford Watch Department to make the brand an authorized personalization partner of Zenith, Bulgari and TAG Heuer. Jean Claude Biver, LVMH’s Head of Watchmaking, says that he got turned on to Bamford by his kids, who were in turn, tuned in to the pop cultural references in the company’s designs.
Bamford Watch Department also made it official with Disney in 2016, getting a license to use Mickey’s image for collaboration with pop art label The Rodnik Band. This timepiece was basically a Milgauss that came in dark military-grade titanium or coated in matte black PVD over stainless steel.
Ever the disrupter, Bamford Watch Department also went outside of regular watch retailers to sell these limited-edition timepieces. Instead, they went through the cult boutique Colette in Paris, Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and Dover Street Market in London.
What's next for Mickey? Perhaps it's best to ask Citizen, who just signed Disney to a multi-year contract to be the Official Timekeeper of Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort. Citizen had previously made Mickey Mouse Eco Drives and we're excited to see the results of this new partnership.