A short essay on how popular culture influences watch design

Popular culture has a particular way of influencing how we live our lives.  Especially since it serves as a reflection of the prevailing tastes, trends, and values of a particular era.  Indeed, popular culture shapes and forms… well, almost everything that we see, hear, smell and wear.  And yes, that includes even the most ubiquitous elements of our lives… such as the wristwatch.

Watch designers have been known to draw inspiration from popular culture icons such as celebrities, musicians, athletes and even fictional characters with these influences seen in the colors, materials, and overall design of watches.  Watch brands have even been known to collaborate with this “influencers” to create limited-edition or signature watches that capitalize on the star power and appeal of these individuals thereby attracting fans and enthusiasts who want to own a piece of their favorite celebrity’s style.

Even nostalgia can have an influence on watch design.  Popular culture is cyclical, and what was once popular 20 year ago can suddenly make a comeback today.  This is why watch designers make it a practice to have one foot in the past while looking out into the future.  Watch designs my draw inspiration from vintage styles, paying homage to specific eras or iconic designs.  This has resulted in vintage-centric models constantly being a significant staple in watch brand’s broad series of collections.

Indeed, popular culture can be seen as a coin with two sides.  On one side there is social media, the rise of which has revolutionized popular culture.  For better or for worse, influencers and “trendsetters” on platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and the like hold an (again, for better or for worse) unprecedented amount of influence on an incredibly diverse number of topics including religion, fashion, and politics.

On the other side of that is technology, which objectively has a more positive and unbiased influence in popular culture.  As new technologies emerge, such as the advent of wearable devices, watch designers incorporate these features into their products to meet the demands of tech-savvy consumers.  One of the most positive types of influences, however, is the type that inspires the continuous development of the wristwatch, specifically, the performance and function of a watch, much how like the world of sports does. 

The different types of sports have influenced the way a watch is designed and how it functions.  Look no further than the different types of sport-oriented watches that emphasize durability, functionality, and precision such as chronographs and dive watches.  Sponsorship of athletes and sporting events have lead to, not only special editions with features relating specifically to that sport, but the technological innovations derived from those collaborations eventually trickle down to regularly produced watches that can be had by anyone.

Indeed, the world of sports is one of the best forms of inspiration in watchmaking.  But when it comes to influencing, no other medium has been as consistent, or has exerted as much impact in the popularity of the wristwatch than the movies, which it has been doing since the 1930s.

That’s right, one of the earliest appearances of a watch in the movies was in 1932, specifically the double billing of the Flintridge and the Piping Rock (now the Boulton), two Hamilton timepieces that shared the screen with Marlene Dietrich in the Shanghai Express.  Indeed, the Swatch owned Hamilton Watch Company is probably the most prolific prop-watch movie supplier of all time having had appeared in over a staggering 500 movies and films! 

It’s probably safe to say that anyone with even a passing interest in watching movies has seen a Hamilton watch worn by their favorite hero or villain in the past ninety or so years.  Some Hamilton watches even have become synonymous with a particular movie star or the movie itself such as the King of Rock, Elvis Presley who wore the Ventura Electric in Blue Hawaii, or Matthew McConaughey’s Khaki Pilot in Interstellar

The stylized Ventura popped up once again and was highly associated with the Men In Black series; the Khaki Field Mechanical was rightly featured in Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor; the current Hamilton Frogman was featured and named after the 1951 film The Frogmen; and the blacked-out Khaki Chrono was featured prominently in the Jack Ryan TV series.

Hamilton was even commissioned to create “bespoke” timepieces specifically for a particular movie, such as when Stanley Kubrick personally asked the watchmaker to create a one-off desk clock for 2001: A Space Odyssey.  The result was the cool and outrageous Hamilton X-01.  But the most notable “made-to-order” timepieces was probably for two Christopher Nolan movies, specifically Interstellar and Tenet.  The former saw The Murph, a gorgeous field watch-inspired watch that Hamilton created specifically for the film because it featured prominently in the plot, and the latter with the Khaki Navy BeLOWZERO, which once again featured heavily in the film’s dizzy time-twisting scenario.

What is most interesting is that Hamilton have never once paid for so-called “product placement” in any film the brand has been featured in, the watchmaker has simply cultivated the fact that they have become the go-to watch brand whenever a film or TV show is in need of a timepiece.  But even if Hamilton may have cornered the market when it comes to appearing in feature films and TV shows, other watch brands have made their own respective appearances in the medium.

These include some of the most popular brands and models on the planet including the Omega Speedmaster in Apollo 13 (naturally) and Ryan Reynolds’ The Adam Project; the Porsche Design Orfina Chronograph in the first Top Gun; Casio in Back to the Future and the first Mission Impossible; Seiko in a couple of Arnold Schwarzenegger movies, as well as in Ghostbusters and Aliens; a Panerai Luminor worn by Sylvester Stallone in Daylight; and the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore, again on Schwarzenegger’s wrist in Terminator 3 and more recently in NETFLIX’s FUBAR.

The iconic TAG Heuer Monaco was featured prominently in Steve McQueen’s iconic Le Mans, while the brand also appeared in the Bourne Trilogy, Inception, and more recently in Ryan Gosling’s Grey Man; a Jaeger-LeCoultre Reverso was seen on Christian Bale’s wrist in every movie of the Dark Knight Trilogy; while a Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Ultra Thin Perpetual appeared in Dr. Strange; there was the high-end Breguet Tradition Fusee Tourbillon worn by Ben Affleck in Batman VS Superman: Dawn of Justice; and even the “modest” Dora the Explorer watch was featured in Iron Man 3, just to name a “few.”

But the movie franchise that may have single handedly elevated the wristwatch to having a starring role has to be the James Bond series.  Indeed, 007’s watches-of-choice are part of the mythos of the franchise and have run the gamut of popular and not-so-popular watch brands.  These include Rolex (of course), which have appeared in a number of Bond films including a whole slew of Rolex Submariners in Dr. No, From Russia with Love, Goldfinger, Thunderball, Live and Let Die and The Man with the Gold Gun; a Rolex GMT Master in Casino Royale (1967) and again in Goldfinger; and a pre-Daytona Rolex Chronograph 6238 in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service;

But James Bond didn’t just rely on a single brand the most famous spy in the world has employed other watches to help him save the world from destruction.  These include a Breitling Top Time with a Geiger counter in Thunderball; a Gruen Precision 510 in You Only Live Twice and again in Diamonds Are Forever; and a Hamilton Pulsar LED digital watch also in Live and Let Die.

Then there is Seiko, which for a time became a co-star in the British spy’s action movies, specifically during the Roger Moore era.  This includes the Seiko O674 LC in The Spy Who Loved Me; a Seiko M354 Memory Bank Calendar in Moonraker; a Seiko 7549-7009 and a Seiko H357 Duo Display, both of which appeared in For Your Eyes Only; a Seiko G757 Sports 100 in Octopussy; and a Seiko 6923-8080 SPDO9 in A View To A Kill.

The Dalton era saw the lone entry of TAG Heuer into the franchise with the TAG Heuer Professional Night-Dive in The Living Daylights, as well as the return of the Rolex Submariner (Ref. 16610) for one last Bond adventure in License to Kill.  Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as the British super-secret agent, however, saw a particular watch brand become a near-permanent mainstay in the franchise.  Beginning with 1995’s Goldeneye, the Omega Seamaster Professional 300M became the eponymous spy’s timepiece-of-choice for 5 movies straight: Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day, and Daniel Craig’s first outing as Bond in 2006’s Casino Royale.

The franchise shifted gears and gave Craig’s second outing as the eponymous spy another Omega for Quantum of Solace, this time the Seamaster Planet Ocean, which became his co-star of choice in Skyfall, as well.  Craig’s penultimate starring role as James Bond however, saw him wearing an Omega Seamaster 300 Spectre for (you guessed it) Spectre, while the actor’s final outing as Bond, 2021’s No Time to Die, saw him don the Omega Seamaster Diver 007 Edition

Indeed, no other movie (franchise or otherwise) has given more prominence to the wristwatch than the James Bond series has.  In fact, no other industry has probably paid more attention to the wristwatch than the movie industry, period. 

Popular culture in the form of collaborations, movie tie-ins, sports endorsements, nostalgia, technological advancements, and social media has shaped watch design in one form or another over the years.  By understanding and by successfully tapping into this zeitgeist watch designers have created some of the most enduring timepieces ever seen, which they will surely be doing for many years to come.