Cartoon Network: A Brief Guide To Comic-Book Character Watches
If you’ve seen our guides to 2023’s defining trends in watches, you’ll know that convention is out, and differentiation and fun are in. A feel-good aesthetic has emerged as the key decorative craft of the year. And, riffing off watchmakers’ current penchant for colour and texture, some of the industry’s biggest players are paying homage to their favourite cartoon and comic-book characters on the dials of their timepieces, tapping into the tremendous appeal of nostalgia with modern technical savoir-faire.
The concept of the character watch is hardly new. In fact, the first character watch dates as far back as the early 1900s, when the US watch brand Ingersoll featured Buster Brown – a popular comic strip character from the New York Herald – on the back plate of a pocket watch. Manufactured exclusively for the Brown Shoe Company, of which Buster was adopted as the mascot in 1904, the rare piece featured the young city-dweller and his canine sidekick Tige as a static browntone image, while the hands and other traditional elements of the watch were left untouched.
“Character watches, at their heart, are about merging the nostalgia of childhood with the sophistication of adulthood”
That all changed in 1933, however, when Ingersoll introduced its first Mickey Mouse pocket watch. This particular example, unlike the Buster Brown watch, used Mickey’s signature gloves to indicate the current hour and minute in animated motion. “At a time when the Great Depression loomed large, this affordable timepiece made luxury accessible, and Mickey Mouse, synonymous with hope and optimism, adorned the wrists of many,” says Mr Daniel Yi, chief marketing officer at vintage retailer Bob’s Watches in Newport Beach, California. Indeed, fans of the cartoon critter, who, at the time, was just five years old, were so entranced by Ingersoll’s animated movement that the watch became an instant sensation.
Following this, a number of other brands hopped on the trend, including the New Haven Watch Company, which featured Little Orphan Annie, a comic strip heroine and, later, radio star, on a tonneau-shaped timepiece pointing to the 11 and three o’clock positions. The now-defunct manufacturer also created Dick Tracy and Smitty character watches, and other watches highlighting popular golden age comic-strip and comic-book characters such as Flash Gordon, Superman and Buck Rogers.
“Character watches, at their heart, are about merging the nostalgia of childhood with the sophistication of adulthood,” Yi says. “When these characters find their place on a watch, they lend it an emotional depth.”
“The impact of these watches on horology is profound. They demystified the concept of luxury, making it more approachable”
Other sought-after examples come via Mr Gérald Genta, the man behind the Patek Philippe Nautilus and Audemars Piguet Royal Oak. His first foray into the market caused quite the stir at the 1984 Montes et Bijoux, where he debuted his original Mickey Mouse character watch, much to the displeasure of the fair’s organisers, who considered the timepiece unfit for display at the luxury event.
“The watch was initially met with surprise,” Yi says. “The horological world wasn’t quite ready for such a playful intersection of pop culture and haute horlogerie. Over time, however, it became a revered collector’s item and paved the way for other luxury watchmakers to experiment with popular culture motifs.”
The most famous pieces, though, are Genta’s Fantasy line of Disney-licensed watches, which feature famous members of the Disney-verse splashed across dials with retrograde displays. “The impact of these watches on horology is profound,” Yi says of the Fantasy collection. “They demystified the concept of luxury, making it more approachable, and highlighted the potential of storytelling in the world of watchmaking.”
Today, brands continue to rework the character watch in compelling ways, with co-branded drops and stylish, punchy aesthetics. Nowhere is that clearer than at Audemars Piguet, which surprised fans earlier this year with its newest Marvel Comics collaboration, adding a sculpted Spider-Man to its Royal Oak in a limited edition. Another standout, which dominated the horological conversation in 2023, is Oris’ collaboration with Disney’s The Muppets. Unveiled at Watches and Wonders in March, the ProPilot X Calibre 400 Kermit Edition flaunts a signature turbine bezel and matte-finished titanium construction, but its headline element is its verdant dial in honour of the famous amphibian.
“I’ve always loved character watches and I think they have been a niche part of this world that just makes people smile”
“The great thing about Kermit is that he is so relatable to an international audience, everyone knows and loves him,” says Ms Isra Shah, director of Oris’ UK sales and marketing. “This can also be said for the age demographic, no matter your age you have seen Kermit on your screen at some point.”
Shah highlights another of the watch’s standout features: a Kermit emoji that pops up at the date window on the first of every month. “While we are serious about watchmaking, we are not necessarily serious about ourselves which can be seen in this watch,” she says. “Kermit has helped us get that message out there. At Oris, our philosophy is to make people smile. Either through our communication or in this case throughout our watches and The Muppets do the same.”
It’s an approach shared by Mr George Bamford, who has created fresh, bold timepieces with everyone from Popeye to Big Bird under his eponymous watch brand. “I’ve always loved character watches and I think they have been a niche part of this world that just makes people smile,” Bamford says. His latest release, a limited-edition Snoopy timepiece, features a sporty persona of the beloved Peanuts canine, known as Tennis Snoopy, that has been cleverly incorporated onto the dial to indicate the current hour, while Snoopy’s partner-in-crime, Woodstock, serves as the watch’s seconds hand.
“I always loved Snoopy because of how the character’s hands move on the dial,” Bamford says. “I think in our world, people love the limited-edition nature of these Snoopy watches. The sensory experience of opening them up, the Snoopy box. The person who buys these is someone who doesn’t conform. They want to really enjoy the watch on their wrist.”
And therein lies the appeal of the character watch: unique designs that not only offer an immaculate wrist presence but joy and nostalgia, too.
“These watches are designed to appeal to a small number of people who are looking for something different,” Bamford says. “The craftsmanship and the experience of opening the box, and the actual wearing of the watch means that you have one foot in maturity and the other in childhood.”