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Mickey Mouse is one of the world’s most iconic and recognizable characters and the smiling face of Disney Entertainment, whose vast universe of properties today encompasses everything from Cinderella to Spider-Man to Star Wars. The world first discovered Mickey way back in 1928, in the groundbreaking black-and-white cartoon Steamboat Willie. It was one of the very first cartoon films with synchronized sound and a milestone achievement for Mickey’s co-creator, Walt Disney, who had founded his eponymous animation studio with his brother Roy O. Disney five years earlier, in 1923. Today, that studio is a worldwide force in entertainment and Mickey Mouse’s image can be found on just about every type of merchandise you can imagine — including wristwatches from a surprisingly diverse range of producers and at a wide range of price points. Nearly a century after first appearing on a watch’s dial, Mickey Mouse continues to claim a small but enduringly popular niche in the world of horology. Here is a brief overview of Mickey Mouse watches from the 1930s to Disney’s centennial year of 2023.
Mickey’s instant popularity with audiences was such that it was only five years after his debut that the character found himself on the dial of a wristwatch. The circumstances behind the creation of the first Mickey Mouse watch, produced by the American watchmaker Ingersoll-Waterbury in 1933, owe much to the era in which it occurred. The United States was in the throes of the Great Depression and even Mickey’s creator, animation pioneer Walt Disney, was not immune to its effects. Struggling to pay his animation studio’s bills, Disney made a deal with Herman “Kay” Kamen, a savvy former hat salesman originally from Nebraska, to license the beloved cartoon rodent’s image on merchandise like school writing tablets, plush toys, wallpaper, books, and most impactfully, watches. Kamen approached Ingersoll-Waterbury, an American watchmaking company that traced its roots to 1882, to make the watches: one, a pocket watch selling for $1.50 (the style had not yet fully fallen out of favor with American consumers), the other a wristwatch priced at $3.75. The watches established the clever design using Mickey’s arms as the hour and minute hands, used by later makers of Mickey Mouse watches in subsequent eras.
The deal was mutually beneficial for both Disney and Ingersoll-Waterbury, which was itself on the brink of bankruptcy in that difficult economic era. Ingersoll-Waterbury’s Mickey Mouse watches proved to be just the jolt of positivity and humor that Depression-era America needed; they sold by the thousands, saving Ingersoll from ruin and establishing the Disney character as a marketing powerhouse. Ingersoll-Waterbury, in its various incarnations throughout the 20th Century, continued producing Mickey Mouse watches, as well as products like wall clocks and alarm clocks, up until 1971, after which other watch-industry players entered the game.
Among the watch manufacturers that took up the tradition of putting Mickey Mouse on its watch dials was Seiko, the Japanese brand that pioneered the era of quartz watches that dominated the watch market throughout the 1970s and ‘80s. Seiko made Mickey Mouse watches under its subsidiary brand, Lorus, established in 1982. The most noteworthy of these models were the so-called “Musical” watches, which depicted Mickey on the dial telling the time with his arms and also featured a distinctively Disney bonus, courtesy of its quartz caliber: at the push of a button on the case, the watch would play the song “It’s a Small World,” the theme of Disneyland, as the seconds hand bounced in harmony with the notes. Seiko also made Mickey Mouse watches under its own brand, the rarest and most collectible of which include a piece made only for the domestic Japanese market featuring both Mickey and Minnie Mouse on the dial, released around 1970, and a solid-gold-cased limited edition released in the 1990s.
Mickey Mouse watches entered the realm of haute horlogerie, somewhat controversially, in 1984, courtesy of one of the luxury watch industry’s acknowledged rock stars, design guru Gérald Genta. Renowned throughout watch fandom for his two most iconic creations, the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak in 1972 and the Patek Philippe Nautilus in 1976, Genta founded his own eponymous watch brand in 1969 and turned his focus from avant-garde design to sophisticated high complications. One of his specialties in the latter area was the jumping hour/retrograde minutes style of timekeeping, in which the hour is displayed digitally in a window by a numeral disk that “jumps” every 24 hours while the minutes are indicated on a semicircular 60-minute scale by an analog hand that snaps back to zero every hour. In 1984, through an arrangement with Disney, Genta placed Mickey Mouse on the dial of one of these complex timepieces, using Mickey’s arm and white-gloved mitt as the retrograde indicator.
Many of Genta’s peers in the very stodgy and traditional Swiss watch industry were incensed at the audacity of putting a cartoon character on the face of a “serious” Swiss watch. Nevertheless, Genta was undaunted and continued to produce watches with Mickey on them, as well as, eventually, other beloved Disney characters like Donald Duck, Goofy, and Mickey’s main squeeze, Minnie Mouse. He even got more creative with the animations of the retrograde minutes display, using not only characters’ arms but also objects — i.e., Donald Duck swinging a golf club — to indicate the passing of time along the minutes scale. Other versions, called “BiRetrograde” (as above), added an additional retrograde display, and an additional character on the dial, to indicate the date in analog fashion.
Italian watchmaker-jeweler Bulgari bought the Gérald Genta brand in 2000 and absorbed much of its designs into the Bulgari watch collection by 2011 (the same year that founder Gérald Genta died), effectively discontinuing all of the Gérald Genta-branded models, including the Mickey Mouse editions. In 2019, however, Bulgari relaunched Gérald Genta as a separate brand once again, and the following year paid tribute to its fondly remembered (and now quite collectible) Mickey pieces with the Arena Retrograde “Smiling Mickey Mouse,” a 150-piece limited edition in polished steel, equipped with an in-house-made Bulgari movement, Caliber BVL262, whose dial depicts a frolicking Mickey pointing at a 210-degree arcing minutes scale with his arm, while a round aperture at 5 o’clock displays the jumping hour. In 2023, the resurrected Genta brand followed up with a BiRetrograde model, with two semicircular scales (60-minute and 31-day calendar) juxtaposed with the image of Mickey kicking a soccer ball while pointing to the time.
In 2018, Citizen Watch Company of Japan entered into one of the watch industry’s biggest corporate partnerships, with the vast Disney Entertainment conglomerate, an alliance that encompasses everything from Citizen-branded clocks at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts to brand signage at Marvel Films red-carpet events to a host of collaborative timepieces inspired by the characters and heritage of Disney animation as well as the popular Marvel and Star Wars franchises. As the icon of all things Disney, Mickey Mouse has found his way to the dial of numerous Citizen watches that have emerged from the partnership. The styles range from classic Ingersoll-inspired dials with the Mickey figure swinging his arms to tell the time; to dials depicting Mickey in famous Disney movie scenes, like the robed wizard in The Sorcerer's Apprentice; to specialty dials placing Mickey in various roles, professions, and settings, like the moon-landing-inspired “Astronaut” watch pictured above, released as one of several timepieces commemorating Disney’s 100th anniversary in 2023. Like nearly all of Citizen’s Disney-licensed watches, it is powered by the company’s light-powered Eco-Drive movement.
Mass-market fashion brand Swatch is no stranger to pop cultural associations, artistic collaborations or licensed special editions. All three are on display in a quartet of Mickey Mouse editions released in 2021 with dials designed in partnership with the foundation of the late pop artist Keith Haring. (Swatch had previously collaborated with another artist, Damien Hirst, for a Mickey Mouse limited edition released in 2018 in celebration of Mickey’s 90th birthday.) Haring, who died in 1990, was known to put Mickey Mouse imagery in his iconic graffiti-inspired artwork and had collaborated with Swatch as early as 1986 on a series of watches that are now highly collectible. The watches in the Disney Mickey Mouse X Keith Haring collection are diverse in their funky designs and colors but are all distinctly Haring as well as recognizably Mickey. The “Mickey Blanc Sur Noir” model, for example, re-creates a 1981 Haring drawing in a stylish black-and-white dial and 41mm case execution, while the “Mouse Marinière” model is smaller, at 34mm, and has a red-striped motif over the Mickey figure, both etched directly onto the crystal over the dial, making the artwork more prominent. As mentioned above, the celebration of Disney’s 100th anniversary in 2023 has brought Mickey Mouse perhaps the highest profile he’s enjoyed in years; it only remains to be seen what new heights his popularity will reach at the character’s own centennial in 2028 — and what other new timepieces may emerge as part of the inevitable celebration.
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