Cartoon time: watch collectors dial into a century of Disney
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It was five years after Mickey Mouse made his screen debut that the cartoon character first appeared on a dial, on a timepiece unveiled at the Century of Progress exposition (the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1933. The first watch licensed by the Walt Disney Company became a “cultural phenomenon”, says Nicole Carroll, manager for research at Walt Disney Archives.
US watchmaker Ingersoll sold about 900,000 Mickey Mouse pieces, which were adult-sized but “heavily marketed towards children”, between June and December 1933, she says. “Macy’s in New York City had a record in 1933 of selling around 11,000 watches in just one day, so it was huge for Ingersoll, huge for Disney.”
One of the original watches will be on display at London’s ExCeL centre from October 13 as part of a Walt Disney Archives exhibition celebrating Disney’s 100th anniversary. Watchmakers are also releasing new designs to mark the centenary, which falls on October 16, putting a spotlight on a segment of the market already popular with collectors.
While there had been licences for other items since 1929, Carroll says it was watches that “really launched consumer products” for Disney. A Three Little Pigs and Big Bad Wolf design came out in 1934, the same year Ingersoll released the first international Mickey Mouse piece — a pocket watch in England — and many different character watches soon followed.
Other watchmakers made their own agreements with Disney. A Hamilton-Ricoh quartz piece (c1965), one of 25 from the first limited-edition Mickey Mouse watch for adults, which Walt Disney gave to his top executives, sold at Christie’s for $12,500 in 2019.
However, the vintage pieces of particular interest to collectors are those by Gérald Genta, the watch designer behind beloved models such as the Patek Philippe Nautilus. He started combining Disney characters with high watchmaking under his own brand in 1984, a move that Arthur Touchot, watch specialist at Phillips, says was “very controversial” in the industry.
“This was just after the quartz crisis, so there was an effort by watchmakers to showcase ‘serious’ watchmaking and this went the other way,” he says. “This was much more joyful.”
Collectors today appreciate the designs. In June, Sotheby’s sold a Gérald Genta Retro Disney (c1999), showing Donald Duck playing baseball, for $20,320, more than four times the high estimate.
Vincent Brasesco, watch specialist at Sotheby’s in the US, says there has been “tremendous interest” in Disney watches this year, with the Genta pieces performing well because of the combination of “high complicated mechanical watchmaking”, the Genta name and Mickey Mouse. Most feature jumping hours with retrograde minutes complications, meaning the hours are displayed numerically on a disc that jumps after 60 minutes while the minute hand moves in an arc rather than a complete turn of the dial.
Brasesco says, despite other characters being available, Mickey is the “fan favourite”. In April, a limited-edition Gérald Genta Fantasy Retro (c2005), made in collaboration with Hong Kong Disneyland, achieved HK$152,400 ($19,500), nearly double its high estimate. A popular Gérald Genta design shows Mickey playing golf; Sotheby’s has sold a white gold version and one in stainless steel with a green dial this year.
While nostalgia plays its part, Touchot says growing interest in such pieces over the past three years has been driven by the wider interest in watches from the 1980s and 1990s, plus the launch of two limited-edition Gérald Genta Mickey Mouse designs by Bulgari, which bought the brand in 2000 and was itself acquired by LVMH in 2011. Phillips sold a Gérald Genta Arena Retrograde with Smiling Disney Mickey Mouse, one of 150 pieces in a limited edition launched in 2021, for HK$239,400 in December, nearly three times the low estimate.
Earlier this year, LVMH announced that Gérald Genta would operate as a standalone brand manufactured at La Fabrique du Temps Louis Vuitton, the Swiss watchmaking facility founded by Michel Navas and Enrico Barbasini, who worked with Genta. The revived brand has designed a unique Mickey Mouse watch with minute repeater complication (estimate SFr350,000 to SFr500,000, or $400,000 to $570,000) for the Only Watch charity auction on November 5.
Other new releases marking Disney’s centenary include two limited editions by Grand Seiko for the Japanese market.
Through acquisitions, Disney’s stable of characters now extends beyond Mickey and friends to other brands attractive to watchmakers. Oris’s green ProPilot X Kermit edition, launched at the Watches and Wonders show in March as part of an ongoing partnership with Disney’s The Muppets, is the watchmaker’s most successful launch to date in terms of sales.
Isra Shah, UK director for sales and marketing at Oris, says UK press clippings about the brand, which released limited-edition Star Wars Stormtrooper and Darth Vader watches in Asia in 2019, increased 61 per cent between January and June compared with the same period last year. Increased awareness resulting from the Kermit release prompted an “uplift” in sales of other ProPilot X watches, she adds.
Audemars Piguet’s collaboration helps develop brand awareness too. “I see a lot of young people coming to me because . . . they’ve discovered the name of Audemars Piguet because of the Marvel relationship, so eventually down the road that’s going to help us positioning the brand, hence increasing sales, but it’s not a directly connected thing,” says François-Henry Bennahmias, outgoing Audemars Piguet chief executive.
Audemars Piguet launched a Royal Oak Concept “Black Panther” Flying Tourbillon in 2021 and a Royal Oak Concept Tourbillon “Spider-Man” in May, both limited to 250 pieces. A third character edition is planned for 2025. A unique “Black Suit Spider-Man” piece sold for $6.2mn for charity in May, the highest amount paid for an Audemars Piguet watch at auction.
The SFr150,000 Black Panther watch sold out, with one fetching an estimate-busting HK$3,024,000 at Phillips last November. Phillips’ Touchot says Audemars Piguet’s Marvel pieces are, like Genta’s Disney designs in the 1980s, “very controversial” but have a “cult following”.
The success of the often colourful Disney pieces taps into a wider trend of consumers wanting to have “a little bit more fun with their watches”, say Sotheby’s Brasesco. “People are viewing them as fashion accessories and an expression of identity, a way to communicate what you love, and for a lot of people those character watches are top of mind.”
Collector Masa Tamaoki, watch specialist for Christie’s in Japan, owns five Genta Disney pieces, including a rare Scrooge McDuck. “The best part is that the Disney characters tick by on the dial and I feel like I’m spending the same time with them,” he says.