Today, Worn & Wound is launching a new Editorial series. “Your Opinion, Please” will be an occasional column in which Worn & Wound editors and staff share their thoughts on the most hotly discussed trends and happenings in the watch world. It’s meant to be a dialogue, and the start of a discussion, so we welcome your thoughts in the comments and suggestions for future topics. Today, inspired by recent releases that generated a lot of discussion in our company Slack channel, we’re talking about character watches.
Harmless fun, or a sign of regression? Character watches have been a staple in watchmaking for decades, and they’ve recently made something of a comeback as a younger generation of enthusiasts and collectors begins to mature (i.e., has some disposable income to burn). Here’s what the Worn & Wound team thinks about this recent influx in fictional characters making guest appearances on watch dials.
It’s easy to look at cartoon characters on watches and say it’s silly or childish. Especially when they’re on watches that are in the thousands of dollars. It’s a niche market for sure but I think these pieces hold a special place in our horological world. I love the idea that the person going in to buy this type of watch could very well not be a watch collector. Just your average Joe who really really likes a certain fictional character. It brings a whole new type of person into this hobby of ours. There is someone out there wearing the TAG Heuer Formula 1 x Mario Kart Tourbillon that doesn’t know or care what a tourbillon is, but rather owns the watch just because they are a huge Mario Kart fan. Someone that owns the Snoopy Speedmaster and doesn’t care about its space history, rather they’re just a hard-core Snoopy fan. While some could argue that putting cartoon characters on luxury watches is in bad taste, I feel the opposite. These are folks who know exactly what they want and aren’t afraid to show it. I admire that they love these characters so much they want to memorialize them on a nice watch.
When I was a little kid, I had a Mickey Mouse alarm clock in my childhood bedroom. It was pretty cool – it featured Mickey in his Sorcerer guise, as seen in Fantasia, which is quite simply one of the greatest films ever made. I actually can’t recall if Mickey’s hands moved to tell the time, or if the image I remember was just a static background, but I loved that clock, and it remains the closest thing I’ve ever had to a character watch. Unfortunately, like so many childhood toys, it’s gone forever. I’m pretty sure a battery leak killed this clock for good long after I graduated to something digital, with a radio, and a snooze bar. (A quick aside: remember digital alarm clock radios? I’m pretty sure I used the same one for over 20 years until my phone and its voice activated alarms permanently replaced it.)
While I can certainly appreciate the nostalgia tied to character watches, they don’t hold too much appeal for me personally. And yet, I’m fascinated by the reactions to them when they happen to have the backing of a big brand. The recent release of a pair of Mario Kart themed watches, and the almost immediate vitriol unleashed on them in certain corners of the internet, made me wonder why certain chronographs with cartoon beagles on the dial don’t get the same treatment. In fact, not only are those objectively weird watches not the subject of scorn, they are fan favorites, impossible to source, and trade for many times their suggested retail price.
Of course, it’s not a requirement that any of this makes any logical sense. Why a grown man who lusts after a watch with Snoopy on the dial but takes the time to write an angry Instagram comment about the mere existence of a watch depicting Mario being pursued by Bullet Bill in a tourbillon cage is a question for a psychiatrist, not a watch writer. It’s more than a little ironic, though, that watches depicting characters from our childhood frequently reduce the discourse in our community to something that, to be kind, feels childlike.
I have a pretty broad appetite for watches that take a left turn in some form or another, and the use of cartoon characters is, I suppose, no exception. While I don’t find their use particularly offensive or off-putting, I rarely find myself thinking “yep, that works.” Similarly, I don’t recall ever looking at a watch and having a thought along the lines of “you know what this could use? A cartoon character.”
On that note, I’m certainly not above enjoying a good example when they come along. The obvious example is the relationship between NASA, Omega, and the Silver Snoopy Award. I’ve always seen this as a rather organic and appropriate use of such a character within the design itself of a watch, and Omega has made some good ones over the years. They find a strange balance between the playfulness of Snoopy, the seriousness of its issuance to the watch itself, and, you know, the watch being a luxury item. They work way better than they have any business working, and a favorite of mine is the 45th Anniversary Speedmaster with a face down Snoopy within the running seconds sub dial.
The Speedmaster has a legitimate claim to use the character, having earned the right to do so, or so the lore goes. It’s the only use of Snoopy within the confines of a watch I’ve found myself particularly drawn to, but I certainly recognize and appreciate its use in the many watches we see today (even if they aren’t for me personally).
When I look at a watch like the recent Mario X TAG Heuer I see an amusing mix of themes and enjoy the implementation of the characters and personality, but there’s no desire to own and wear the watch.
As long as there are folks out there willing to make that jump and enjoy the watches in their collection, I’ll be happy to continue enjoying them from the sidelines.
I have, sitting in front of me, a watch that has great personal significance as both a memento of my childhood and where I’ve ended up in life. It’s an ana-digi watch with black plating that has tastefully worn off along the protruding edges of the cast bezel and lugs. The dial is surprisingly complicated, with a small digital screen set below an off-center analog dial in white. Various numerals and marks give it a technical quality, and an hour index in a typeface that is suspiciously similar to what you’d find on a Max Bill adds a restrained, and unexpected elegance. The only indicator that this isn’t some off-brand German digital from the ‘90s is the welcoming visage of Goofy dead center, with what appears to be a whistle around his neck, and a baseball cap on his head, clearly indicating that this is indeed a sports watch.
To my recollection, this was the first watch I ever asked for (not the first I wore, however). I got it at Disney World in the early ‘90s when my parents took my sister and I on the classic American vacation. I wore the hell out of it for the coming years, likely retiring it at some point when the battery died and something new and shiny took its place (probably a Swatch). Looking at this watch now, I understand why I liked it then. It makes total sense that a kid in elementary school, who watches cartoons on Saturday mornings and had an affinity for watches, would be drawn to it.
That said, as an adult (or older human), I would not buy a watch, particularly one with a price tag over a couple hundred dollars, with a cartoon character on it. My itch for nostalgia is fulfilled by design choices without the need for something literal, and commercial. Perhaps my involvement in the design and watch industries has given me a jaded view of projects, but I too often see them as callous attempts to create something special where real creativity is lacking. A way to create connection where ideas have run dry.
Now, I know that’s harsh and there are exceptions, such as Snoopy Speedmasters, where there is a story that is part of the history of the product. More importantly, it doesn’t matter and I don’t hold it against anyone for buying, say, a Genta retrograde with Mickey on the dial. Buy what you like, end of story. For me, I’m not likely to pick up a new character watch any day soon… But, I might get a new battery for old Goofy here.
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