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The Mickey Mouse wristwatch: a pop-culture sensation that matured into an enduring style icon

Luxury watchmaker Gerald Genta produced this diamond-encrusted ladies’ quartz watch that achieved $12,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of Mynt Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The Mickey Mouse wristwatch is almost as iconic as the Disney character himself. The timepiece arrived on the scene in 1933 and had an instant and lasting impact, because – no pun intended – the timing was perfect. The rising popularity of the wristwatch, which first gained traction during World War I, combined with the advent of animated films with synchronized sound and the opening of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago united to fuel public demand for the product.

While it’s hard to imagine a world without the Mickey Mouse watch, its creation and its triumph were far from inevitable. The circumstances that yielded the watch were promising, but did not foretell a hit that would endure for almost a century and counting.

A Rolex Oyster Perpetual Mickey Mouse watch with a gold case and bracelet sold for $3,600 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2018. Image courtesy of Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers

During the early 1930s, Walt Disney was still smarting from having lost control of his first star character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, in 1927. He fought back by founding his namesake studio and launching a new cartoon character, Mortimer Mouse, who bore a suspiciously strong resemblance to Oswald. Disney’s wife suggested renaming him Mickey, and the mouse met the world with that name in his 1928 animated debut short, dubbed Steamboat Willie. 

Audiences were almost as captivated by Mickey’s whistling of the tune Steamboat Bill as they were with his animated adventures as a steamboat pilot. Synchronized sound was a fresh innovation in film, and Disney showed it off to great effect in the inaugural release from its studio. So integral was the combination of animation and sound to the success of the film studio that a clip of a black-and-white Mickey whistling cheerfully appears before every new Disney release, in recognition of the cultural juggernaut’s roots. 

A group consisting of a 1934 or 1935 Mickey Mouse wristwatch, a 1937 version with a rectangular bezel and a box for a 1933 Mickey Mouse pocket watch together earned $1,350 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2022. Image courtesy of Ira and Larry Goldberg Coins and Collectibles and LiveAuctioneers

The blockbuster cartoon did not completely relieve the newborn studio’s money woes, however. It was the early 1930s, after all, and the Great Depression was raging. To bring in additional revenue, Walt Disney sold the exclusive merchandising rights to the Mickey Mouse character in 1932 to Herman Kamen, an advertising and merchandising salesman. Kamen’s initial products were a Mickey Mouse pocket watch and wristwatch. Their reception would confirm the wisdom of his commercial instincts.

Wrist watches (the two-word description prevailed then) existed, but were far from dominating the marketplace. Most still appeared in the form of the wristlet, a thin, dainty timepiece regarded as best suited to women. Nonetheless, Kamen contracted with Ingersoll-Waterbury, a struggling watchmaker, to manufacture both a pocket watch that retailed for $1.50 (about $34 today) and a wristwatch priced at $3.75 (now equivalent to $85). The faces of both sported a full-body image of Mickey Mouse telling the time by pointing his yellow-gloved hands at the correct numbers on the dial. 

A Mickey Mouse pocket watch debuted in 1933 along with the wristwatch design. An example of the former in its original box realized $950 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2017. Image courtesy of Milestone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

The timepieces debuted at the 1933 World’s Fair and were immediate best sellers. The success of the wrist-worn version led to broader general acceptance of that style of timepiece. It served as unbeatable advertising for Disney’s Mickey Mouse cartoons as well – every time wearers looked at their wrists, they saw Mickey smiling back at them. The products also saved Ingersoll-Waterbury from bankruptcy; the company lived on to become Timex in the 1960s.

The Ingersoll-Waterbury company continued manufacturing the Mickey Mouse wristwatch until 1971, selling millions in many formats and characters. Throughout the watch’s roughly 40 years of production, there were specific eras that delivered a scarce Mickey Mouse design. For example, the early editions featured a spinning second sweep hand featuring a trio of Mickeys chasing each other at the six o’clock position on the dial. By the 1940s, the Mickeys had been replaced with a single Mickey in a rectangular bezel. The 1960s were the minimalist era of the watch’s design: it didn’t have an image of Mickey at all, just the mouse’s name on the dial. 

A circa-1980s Seiko Mickey Mouse men’s quartz wristwatch attained £750 (about $917) plus the buyer’s premium in February 2022. Image courtesy of Hannam’s Auctioneers Ltd and LiveAuctioneers

During the 1970s, the appearance of quartz movements and lower-cost electronic watches from Asia devastated the domestic watch market, and sales slowed considerably. Ingersoll-Waterbury stopped producing Mickey Mouse and the Disney character watches completely by 1971. Once the original manufacturer exited, other watch companies manufactured their own versions of the Mickey Mouse watches.

Seiko, a Japanese concern, produced Mickey Mouse watches during the 1980s and 1990s under license through its Lorus brand, with some subbing in musical notes and national flags for numerals. Rolex and Omega both made Mickey Mouse watches under license for special orders only. The private luxury watch label Gerald Genta also created Mickey Mouse and other Disney character wristwatches under license in limited quantities.

Omega accepted special orders for Mickey Mouse wristwatches, such as this 1958 timepiece with a Mickey Mouse character added to the face. It sold for €1,300 (roughly $1,360) plus the buyer’s premium in October 2019. Image courtesy of Subastas Segre and LiveAuctioneers

Several special anniversary editions of the Mickey Mouse wristwatch have been released as well, beginning with a 25th anniversary product in 1958 to a 60th anniversary edition marketed by Seiko in 1993. In addition, Swatch commissioned artist Damien Hirst to produce a set of two colorful limited edition wristwatches for the 90th anniversary of the Mickey Mouse character in 2017, known as the Spot Mickey and Mirror Spot Mickey. 

A Spot Mickey wristwatch, designed by artist Damien Hirst for Swatch, earned $325 plus the buyer’s premium in April 2022. Image courtesy of Collectible Auction LLC and LiveAuctioneers

Despite the dizzying array of iterations and choices available, collectors unquestionably favor the very earliest editions of the Mickey Mouse wristwatch. An original 1933 edition in good to near-mint condition, in working order and offered with its original cardboard box and instructions, is the Holy Grail.

When evaluating an original Mickey Mouse wristwatch, condition is the most important aspect. Its value depends on whether it has been serviced in the past and whether all its original parts are present and intact. Scratches, rust, visible water damage and missing or replaced parts on the bezel connecting the band all affect its performance at auction. 

A circa-1937 Mickey Mouse Ingersoll wristwatch with its original box achieved $2,300 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $300-$500 in December 2020. Image courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Certain characteristics of the original Mickey Mouse wristwatches help mark them as original. From 1933 until 1937, the watch had a round case and the dial was decorated with a black and white Mickey Mouse in red balloon pants and shoes with yellow gloves – not the white ones shown in the early cartoons. Mickey’s feet straddle a rotating wheel of three miniature Mickeys who chase each other around a smaller dial located between the numbers 5 and 7. These watches have a rounded clear bezel with the words ‘Made in U.S.A’ to the left of Mickey and ‘Mickey Mouse Ingersoll’ next to the number 3. Also, the metal strap has small Mickey Mouse charms attached near the bezel.

From 1938 to 1942, the Mickey Mouse wristwatches featured a long rectangular case with five decorative notches and the dial had a rotating seconds hand in place of the number 6. A serial number and a US Time stamp mark the reverse of the wristwatches beginning in the 1940s, although sometimes the serial number is missing. In 1948, the numbers were luminous, and by 1950, the numbers appeared in red. The round case returned in the 1960s, but without an image of Mickey and only the words ‘Mickey Mouse’ on its face. 

A 1934 Mickey Mouse wristwatch with a metal band, cutouts of Disney characters and its original box sold in August 2020 for $1,300 plus the buyer’s premium. Image courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

While the original 1933 wristwatch hasn’t been actively reproduced, experts have said other early versions, such as the 1934 edition, have been reissued. Check with the National Association of Watch and Clock Collectors (nawcc.org) for collectors and dealers specializing in the Mickey Mouse wristwatch for help with spotting possible reproductions.

A contemporary Chopard Happy Sport Diamond ladies’ Mickey Mouse watch with a mother-of-pearl dial realized $11,250 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2021. Image courtesy of 3 Kings Auction and LiveAuctioneers

The Mickey Mouse wristwatch is not as popular as it was when it debuted, but it has yet to disappear from the public consciousness. Even if you’ve never owned one, you can easily call an image of the dial to mind. If you own an Apple watch, you can download a digital version of the famous Mickey Mouse watch face, or a Minnie Mouse version if you prefer. 

If you tap the Apple Watch dial, the cartoon character will speak the time – a feature that underscores the power of uniting animation with sound, something Walt Disney grasped and ran with decades ago. The vintage watch market is large and healthy, and demand for analog Mickey Mouse watches remains strong. Generations past, present and future know their Mickey Mouse watches like the backs of their hands. 

Disney pins: trading up and beyond

NEW YORK – While people flock to Disney’s theme parks for the rides and photo ops with costumed characters, a popular attraction for about 30 years has been Disney pin trading. These colorful enamel or enamel cloisonné pins make for perfect souvenirs; they are cute, small and don’t take up much room in luggage or when displayed.

While new ones can be bought affordably at retail outlets, buying vintage pins to create – or fill out – a collection can provide hours of enjoyment. For collectors, it’s the thrill of the hunt that keeps them going. There are pins for all tastes and budgets with some rare pins going for hundreds, even thousands of dollars.

Walt Disney used to say it all started with a mouse and Mickey Mouse pins are a staple of most collections. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

While pins have been part of Disney experience for years, it was not until the Millennium celebrations in 1999 that Disney began marketing the concept of pin trading at its parks, which quickly took off. Pins were soon on sale at nearly every shop at Disney World in Florida and Disneyland in California as well as at Disney stores in malls across America. At parks, Disney cast members would gladly trade certain pins with park visitors that they wore, usually on their ties, sashes or cards.

Today, there are millions of Disney pins in existence and in every imaginable type, from characters to park attractions. Mickey Mouse pins are prolific and there are also pins for nearly every Disney character from classic movies to contemporary ones such as Chip and Dale, Goofy, Cinderella and all the Disney princesses, Maleficent, Jiminy Cricket and Buzz Lightyear and, of course, the Star Wars franchise. A “Memorable Scenes” series captures key moments from movies on pins. New pins are often launched to celebrate Disney anniversaries, the opening of park attractions, movies and other special events.

A set of five ‘Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride’ limited edition pins quadrupled its high estimate to bring $1,400 in May 2019. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

Some collectors seek out “First Release” pins, which was a new classification introduced in 2008 to mark a pin’s first year. “Our guests like adding new Disney pins to their collections, especially pins featuring brand new designs,” Steven Miller, project manager for Disney Pin Trading, said at the time. “The concept of ‘First Release’ gives our guests a way to prove they were one of the first to purchase a particular open edition pin.”

Proving indeed it all started with a mouse, Disney also awards its longtime cast members and employees with service pins, the rarest of these being the Steamboat Willie pin (the first cartoon short featuring Mickey Mouse), given to those Disney staffers celebrating 50 years of service. Reportedly, this pin has resold for around $5,000.

This Disneyland tour guide pin, circa 1970s, realized $1,600 in December 2019. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

“Generally speaking, the rarest are the pin releases with a smaller edition number. If Disney created only 500 of a certain pin, they are going to be harder to find than something they’ve made tens of thousands of,” said Toby Osbourn, co-creator of the Pin Trader Club, said. “That isn’t always reflected in the cost; there are some super low-edition-size pins that don’t go for that much because no one collects that character or series of pins.”

Rarity is definitely a factor in price, but the other main driver is collectibility, he added. “For example, Stitch pins seem to go for more than some other characters, because people know the resale opportunities are higher (he is a very popular character),” he said.

These pins of the Stitch, an extra-terrestrial fugitive marooned on Earth, were included in a bag of more than 100 Disney pins that sold for $300 at an auction in March 2020. Photo courtesy of Appraisal & Estate Sale Specialists Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Early pins from the 2000s tend to bring the most money, likely owing to scarcity (they were likely produced in smaller numbers than today) and collectors seek out older pins to fill out holes in their collections.

Ryan Mondics, owner/founder of Disney Pins Blog, said typically it’s the older 2000s pins from Disney Auctions and Disney Shopping that are the scarcest. “It all depends on the collector. Most people go after what their interest is, whether that is a favorite character or attraction at the parks. Disney makes open edition pins (large quantity) and limited edition pins. Of course, limited edition pins have a higher value,” he said.

A collection of eight boxed Disneyland pin sets for Disneyland’s 50th anniversary brought $1,600 in a May 2019 auction. Photo courtesy of Van Eaton Galleries and LiveAuctioneers

With so many pins available, both new and old, new collectors would be wise to start small and focus their collections on what they love. Instead of placing importance on pin value, collectors can start with pins that bring them joy (to borrow a phrase from Marie Kondo) such as their favorite park attraction or character.

In a Disney blog, four Disney store artists, who have designed pins, were interviewed on the design process and how they embraced whimsy to create a new take on favorite characters. Keith Fulmis, who has created pins based on Disney movies Lion King, Pocahontas, Hunchback of Notre Dame, said he was excited to see a resurgence in pin culture. “Pins have been part of our culture in America going all the way back to political pins that were used in Lincoln’s era and pins have been part of Disney culture from the beginning as well.”

Mickey Mouse cels animate collectors

NEW YORK – Animation art has long been a popular collectible and is a great way to physically preserve a piece of one’s childhood. Among the earliest examples are production celluloids (cels) for Walt Disney animation movies, especially prewar film shorts starring Mickey Mouse.

The 1928 cartoon short, Steamboat Willie, for example, is notable in animation history as being the first film to star Mickey as well as the first cartoon to have synchronized sound. The National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., has in its collection an original cel from Steamboat Willie, though it is not on public view. Cels were thin transparency plastic-like sheets that studio animation artists painted characters upon, which they then superimposed on a static background to cut down on how many reproductions were necessary to create a moving image.

An original production cel features Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer’s apprentice wearing the magic hat and with brooms in Disney’s 1940 feature film ‘Fantasia.’ The cel fetched $17,000 in December 2014 at Profiles in History. Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

Cels would be stacked and like a flipbook, the character would thus be animated to create movement. Many cels were required for even small movements so this was a tedious and time-consuming process.

Disney used this traditional style of animation in movie making for decades until digital animation became the standard in 1990 with the film, The Rescuers Down Under, the first Disney film to use a digital animation system.

This early production cel of Mickey and Minnie Mouse dancing comes from Mickey’s first official color film, ‘The Band Concert,’ circa 1936. It made $3,025 in August 2018 at RR Auction. Photo courtesy of RR Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Made of cellulose nitrate, cels are fragile and over time, they were subject to shrinking, discoloration and damage. Some have been lost to history but in the late 1930s and early ’40s, many were collected, preserved and exclusively licensed for sale by Courvoisier Galleries, which saw these works as valuable art. At the time, the gallery was selling cels for about $5 to $35, with prime examples priced at $50. “Guthrie Courvoisier, president of the highly esteemed Courvoisier Galleries in San Francisco, was aware of Disney’s escalating reputation, and saw vast opportunity in it,” according to the Walt Disney Family Museum website.

A rare 1934 ‘Two-gun Mickey’ original black-and-white nitrate production film cel earned $13,800 in November 2015 at Hake’s Auctions. Photo courtesy of Hake’s Auctions

What makes one cel more valuable than another is partly subjective, owing to a collector’s individual tastes, and partly determined by factors like rarity, condition, what the character  (Mickey, for this article) is doing, how he is posed (driving a steamboat, dancing or sitting, for example) and which film or cartoon short the cel was created for.

“Mickey Mouse has such a long and storied history when it comes to film that you can literally go in just about any direction when it comes to collecting original animation,” said Alex Winter, president of Hake’s Auctions in York, Pa. “Certainly the more expressive or unique the image, the more appeal it will have visually to collectors. When it comes to shorts, personal preference is key as to what your favorite Mickey images are to collect.”

Mickey Mouse is pictured on this production cel in one of his most famous roles as the sorcerer’s apprentice in ‘Fantasia.’ Photo courtesy of Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers

As a general rule, the earlier the short, the more desirable and rare, he said. “Much like collecting comic books or sports cards wherein the first issue or the first year tends to be the most sought after and valuable, Mickey cels from his first black-and-white shorts fall into these same parameters. Of course, there are other shorts from later years that are fan favorites and command serious collector interest as well. The other thing you have to consider is if you just want a cel or if you want one with a production background. A full cel setup is the ultimate, but it also comes with a much higher price.”

This original production cel from Disney’s 1935 ‘Mickey’s Service Station,’ depicting Mickey Mouse and Goofy, attained $98,587 at Heritage Auctions in July 2014. Photo courtesy of Heritage Auctions

Museum-quality early cels starring Walt Disney’s favorite rodent can bring big money. In July 2014, Heritage Auctions sold an original, unrestored production cel and master background from Walt Disney’s 1935 short, Mickey’s Service Station, which starred Mickey Mouse and Goofy, attained $98,587. The film is notable as it was Mickey’s last black-and-white cartoon. “It’s an extraordinary price for an extraordinary piece,” said Jim Lentz, director of Animation Art at Heritage in a press release written immediately after the auction. “This is really a Holy Grail piece of animation and one of the best I’ve ever seen, from one of the best early Mickey cartoons and one of the very last black and white Mickey cartoons before Disney changed everything by going to color.”

Disney’s south-of-the-border features came out of the 1940 Goodwill Tour of Latin America by Walt Disney. This publicity cel of Mickey as an Argentine gaucho was from that tour. It realized $5,500 in November 2019 at University Archives. Photo courtesy of University Archives and LiveAuctioneers

Whether one is looking for high-end investment pieces or is just a casual collector, there is plenty of room in the market for all budgets and tastes. “It is really about how serious you want to get and what you are willing to spend,” Winter said, adding that the good thing is much Mickey animation has survived over the years (as opposed to some other cartoons) so the options are endless. “You can jump right in and get some wonderful one-of-a-kind pieces for very reasonable prices or start at the top and go for high end animation. Are you happy with just a few very key cels or would you like to have a sample from throughout the timeline of Mickey on the silver screen?”