The Everyday Value of Timex

Close-up of Timex watch
Image credit: Sam Khan on Unsplash

Some brands start out selling an affordable product and then put their prices up as they gain name recognition over time. It happens in fashion as elsewhere in retail, whether it’s a sports label in a world of athleisure, a staple that becomes trendy, or even the occasional luxury goods manufacturer with humble origins. Think of it as the brand equivalent of climbing the corporate ladder.

Some brands, however, stick to the strategy that made them. They build their reputation for selling the same product for the same low price they always have. Think of Coke, which miraculously sold for a nickel (5 cents) for seven decades. Or think of Timex.

They have been selling affordable watches from day one — before they were even called Timex. 

The company can trace its origins to the Waterbury Clock Company, which was founded in 1854 in the Connecticut town of the same name. The plan was to take on high-end European clockmakers by mass-producing equivalent designs stateside — and it worked. They produced a Model T of timekeeping in the form of a $6 clock that was affordable to just about anyone.

Next, they did the same with a pocket watch. Waterbury Clock Co. partnered with the watchmaker Ingersoll (which is still a going concern) to create what was dubbed ‘the watch that made the dollar famous.’ In 1896 the Yankee was launched, a pocket watch that sold for just $1, roughly $30 today. By the turn of the century, over six million Yankees had been sold.

Within a decade or so the outbreak of the First World War upped the demand for a recently minted novelty: a watch that could be worn on the wrist. Relocating a soldier’s watch from his pocket to his wrist meant he always had use of both of his hands — a small but invaluable adjustment in the context of battle. So Waterbury and Ingersol responded by adapting their pocket watch design, shifting the stem 90 degrees from 12 to 3 and adding loops at either end to accommodate a strap. The result made for another roaring success, with the outbreak of WW1 spelling the end of the pocket watch and the rapid wholesale adoption of its wrist-based cousin.

Despite these successes, however, the early twentieth century was a time of financial trouble for the company (at this point it becomes hard to tell exactly where Waterbury ends and Ingersol begins). But during the Great Depression — in another instance of global disaster coinciding with unexpected business success — a felicitous collaboration with a little company called Disney led to the creation of the iconic and much-imitated Mickey Mouse watch. It was released at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and would go on to sell millions of units (though sadly not to this writer, despite many attempts to sway his parents to the contrary).

Vintage Mickey Mouse watch
Image credit: Omar Al-Ghosson on Unsplash

Soon after the polyonymous brand become known as The United States Time Co., but by 1950 the first real Timex was born. True to form, Timex watches were sold so cheaply — and their famous ‘watch that takes a licking and keeps on ticking’ media campaign proved so effective — that by the start of the 1960s one in three watches sold in America was a Timex. 

They’re still at it today, though not without further challenges and detours. They were hit hard by the ‘quartz crisis’ of the ‘70s and ‘80s, which saw the development of even cheaper watches by Japanese companies. There was also a brief tech foray in the ‘90s via a Microsoft collaboration which resulted in an early smartwatch called the Datalink

Vintage Timex electric watch ad
Image credit: Don O’Brien / CC BY 2.0

Ultimately Timex stayed the course in making affordable and reliable watches, having produced many enduring designs in the intervening decades: the MK1 field watch, the similarly styled but even cheaper Weekender, the dressier Marlin, the Q Timex diving-inspired watch, and the smash hit Ironman digital sports watch. The latter was famously worn by Bill Clinton during his presidency. Timex watches have also appeared on the wrists of George W. Bush, Mark Whalberg, Dunder Mifflin’s own Michael Scott, and even Mark Twain (though in his case, strictly speaking, it would have been in his pocket since he was a fan of the Yankee).

Though to cite Timex in the rarified context of celebrity might be missing the point. They make watches for everyone. Their relatively low prices and the range of their catalogue means they cater to about the broadest market possible in the watch world. Timex continues to be the choice of countless budding horology fans and many a seasoned collector.

I wanted one as a child before I had even registered what the brand was. I finally bought one as a grownup with my first steady paycheck (though sadly by that point Mickey was no longer my first choice dial-wise). My favourite bartender at a pub near my house wears one, and we got to talking about his watch when he pulled the first pint I drank there. 

Thinking about her father, Patti Smith writes in M Train:

‘When he died I inherited his desk. Inside the desk was a cigar box containing cancelled checks, nail clippers, a broken Timex watch, and a yellowed newspaper cutting of my beaming self in 1959, being awarded third prize in a national safety-poster context. I still keep the box in the top right-hand drawer.’

Patti Smith

It’s a helpful reminder that something doesn’t have to be expensive in order to have great value.

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