People are self-serving and mean; social interactions are torture; life is full of unrequited yearning; despair is everywhere and solitude is our only respite. It doesn’t sound like a winning pitch for anything, let alone a comic strip. But that’s Peanuts, Charles M Schulz’s deathless creation. By the end of its 50-year run (1950-2000) it had appeared in 2,600 newspapers with a readership of 335 million, across 75 countries and translated into 21 languages.
Schulz hated the name Peanuts, forced upon him by the newspaper syndication service United Feature Syndicate. “If someone asks me what I do, I always say ‘I draw that comic strip with Snoopy in it, Charlie Brown and his dog’,” he said. Perhaps he took consolation from the fact that “Snoopy” became shorthand for the whole enterprise – the breakout star being the anthropomorphic beagle and sometime British World War flying ace, Joe Cool himself.
Snoopy merchandise has always been a big deal. By the end of Schulz’s life (he died in 2000) he was earning $30m-$40m every year from it. You could (and can) buy Snoopy anything and everything – including watches.
The first Snoopy watches were produced by Armitron, a New York-based brand founded in 1956, around the same time Peanuts first appeared. Invicta, another US brand, licences Peanuts alongside Marvel and DC properties in its “character watches” collection. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong-based company Undone has collaborated with the Schulz estate for a line of poppy “urban” chronographs. None of these are exactly haute horlogerie – but Snoopy has higher-end watchmaking covered too.
This year Omega released its “Silver Snoopy Award” 50th anniversary Speedmaster, the third in a run of Snoopy watches that began in 2003. Bamford Watch Department launched two new Snoopy models based on its GMT watch. And Timex continued an ongoing collaboration with three new Snoopy watches across its Marlin, Q Timex and Timex Standard lines – this year’s Timex x Peanuts Anniversary Collection.
By and large grown men don’t tend to wear cartoon watches. Though there are exceptions – the hipster company Unimatic recently produced a glow-in-the-dark SpongeBob SquarePants watch; this year Gucci added Mickey Mouse to its line of fashion-forward “Grip” timepieces –Snoopy distinguishes himself by being one character it’s okay for children and adults to be down with. But then, as discussed, Peanuts looked like kids’ stuff, but wasn’t.
“As soon as you say ‘Snoopy’ people smile,” says George Bamford, founder of Bamford Watch Department, whose fondness for the character started when a Snoopy toy was put in his cot and continues today with the outsize sculpture on display in his house. “It brings you back to happiness.”
And in 2020 anything that could do that had to be a good thing.
The first of this year’s Bamford x Snoopy watches was released in October. A handsome black and yellow design featuring a mask and cape-wearing dog – superhero Snoopy. (The second, in November, was produced in collaboration with Colette, the now-defunct French fashion boutique and came housed in a recreation of Snoopy’s doghouse. It sold out in an hour.)
“I loved the idea of a superhero this year because we need heroes, right?” says Bamford. “We haven’t been able to have any action hero [films] this year. And I think we need some things that make us all smile. We need some rays of sunshine.”
Bamford’s watches commemorate Snoopy’s 70th anniversary – Peanuts began publication on October 2, 1950. There was another anniversary this year, too: the 50th anniversary of the Silver Snoopy Award, a special honour awarded to Nasa employees. That accolade is connected to one of the most fabled stories in the world of watches and it explains how Snoopy ended up on the dial of some especially sought-after Omega Speedmasters.
Omega’s connection with Nasa began in 1965 when it was “flight qualified for all manned space missions” by the space agency, beating out Rolex, Longines and others in host of tests. The Apollo 11 astronauts took it to the moon in 1969 and the Speedmaster became known – and forever marketed as – the “first watch on the moon”, or Moonwatch. It was back in orbit the following year for the fateful Apollo 13 mission, when the crew used a Speedmaster to time the ignition of their rockets for a precise 14 seconds, in order to raise the flight path angle for re-entry to Earth after an explosion caused an oxygen tank to fail and aborted the mission. (This is where the oft-misquoted “Okay Houston… We’ve had a problem here” comes from. Tom Hanks told the tale to Oscar-baiting success in 1995’s Apollo 13 movie.)
The Apollo 10 Command Module was given the call sign “Charlie Brown” while the Lunar Excursion Module was known as “Snoopy” – its job was to snoop around for decent landing sites for Apollo 11. Snoopy became a semi-official Nasa mascot for the missions, a “watchdog” – there’s an excellent photo of the Apollo 10 crew walking down a corridor on their way to launch, mission commander Thomas Stafford touching the nose of a Snoopy toy, held aloft by astronaut Gordon Cooper’s secretary.
Nasa, looking for a way to acknowledge the technicians and the support staff who showed exceptional “professionalism, dedication and outstanding support that greatly enhanced space flight safety and mission success”, came up with the Silver Snoopy Award. It consisted of a sterling silver Snoopy pin with an engraving of Snoopy in an astronaut helmet, a commendation letter and a framed Silver Snoopy certificate. Each pin badge had been flown in space.
“Snoopy was real a cartoon favourite who kept showing up in the comic strips wearing a spacesuit. I think the astronauts adopted him because he just did everything right,” recalled astronaut James Lovell.
Charles Schulz – a keen supporter of the US space programme – provided the space Snoopy artwork for free. (As well as the special mission-related artwork for Nasa, Schulz drew several regular strips related to the mission, one showing Snoopy en route to the Moon atop his doghouse with a fishbowl instead of a helmt his head. The New York Times ominously reported ‘Creator of Peanuts Tempts Fate on Apollo Mission’, although of course all went to plan. In the strip that ran on July 21, 1969 – one day after Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed the Apollo Lunar Module Eagle on the moon – a full moon appeared in the background, with a black mark representing the module.)
In 1970, the Silver Snoopy Award was given to Omega, in recognition for the Speedmaster’s crucial role in bringing Apollo 13 home safely.
In 2003 that circle was completed when Omega released Omega Speedmaster Professional “Snoopy Award” Speedmaster featuring a representation of Nasa’s “Eyes on the Stars” patch showing Snoopy on the small seconds dial at 9 o’clock and reverse printed on the caseback. It was limited to 5,441 watches, a reference to the length of the mission – 142 hours, 54 minutes and 41 seconds. In 2015, Omega launched a second watch inspired by Apollo 13 and the Silver Snoopy Award, to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the mission. That model was limited to 1,970 pieces, a reference to the year Omega was presented with its award by the crew members, and featured Snoopy in a prone position, a thought bubble with the words spoken by Ed Harris as Nasa flight director Gene Kranz in Apollo 13 movie “Failure is not an option”, as well as a luminous 14-second track on the dial with the philosophical question “What could you do in 14 seconds?”
Last year Sotheby’s sold one of these for $23,750 (£17,8000). Not a bad return on a watch that cost £4,500 four years ago.
This month a third “Silver Snoopy Award” Speedmaster hits the shops, this time honouring the 50th anniversary of the mission. It again features space-suited Snoopy at 9 o’clock, skipping through the stars. But the real magic is reserved for the caseback, which showcases three cosmic elements: a texturised moon, a small Earth disk that spins in sync with the small seconds hand, and Snoopy sitting inside a tiny command module ready for take-off. Fourteen seconds after the chronograph function is actuated, Snoopy flies to the far side of the moon in a smooth arch thanks to what Omega calls a “magic hand”. It's a beautiful thing.
Speedmasters already have quite a cult around them. Add an extra layer of cool space exclusivity – Nasa limits Silver Snoopy pins to one per cent of applicants – and it’s hardly surprising that Omega’s President & CEO Raynald Aeschlimann says extra care is taken over each Snoopy Speedy.
“I said to the [team] ‘I don’t want another [version of the same watch with a different] colour dial. I want the spirit of uniqueness, of legacy and of history,” he says, down the line from Switzerland. “Compared with the [previous] ones we need to go deep, to think about how to make it a magical watch. That’s why we really took our time. And why we really thought we could make something on the case back that is really interesting.”
The watch world isn’t necessarily known for its playful side, preferring earnest conversations over case sizes and guilloché techniques over, say, what cool stuff could be done with a cartoon dog. The 50th anniversary of the Silver Snoopy Award was always going to fall in 2020, just as Bamford’s watches have come out now to correspond with the 70th anniversary of Snoopy. But the fact these watches arrived at the end of a torrid year and seem predisposed to put a smile on your face isn’t lost on Aeschlimann.
“It’s the perfect year to talk about this,” he says. “This year, something that brings our emotions into a smile is great.”
This time Omega chose not to make its “Silver Snoopy Award” watch a limited edition. Theoretically if you had £8,400 to spend you could walk into an Omega boutique today and buy one. Except the waiting list is already “four or five years” says Aeschlimann.
“It is one of the watches people have been most excited about,” he says. “In all my time at Omega.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Petros Protopapas, Omega’s head of brand heritage. “You can compare it like this: say we received one email for a normal watch, in comparison this one is literally hundreds. People have flooded our cell phones on this. The amount of emails that have been coming in – honestly, it’s a flood.”
Anything that amps up the space credentials of the Speedmaster is going to be winner, he points out.
“That watch is an object of daily life that was once on the moon,” he says. “So Speedmaster is already quite emotional. Of course, watches have featured in a lot of expeditions, a lot of human achievements. But the instances where a watch has actually saved lives – you can count them on one hand, if at all, right? But here the actual watch, that was meant to be a back-up instrument, that really lives up to this. And Snoopy brings it to a whole different level. The true history behind it, the whole thing with a qualification and why it's there, and why Nasa chose it. It’s an emotional value times a thousand.”
Or, as astronaut Thomas Stafford said: “Charles Schulz had a great understanding of human nature, and so everybody just loved Snoopy. He was always doing something. And Charlie Brown was always doing something. Snoopy just looked so loveable.”
George Bamford has already placed his order.
“I’ve loved all three of the Omega Snoopy watches,” he says. “But the new one is super, super, super cool. What Raynald and Omega have done, to find new ways of presenting that stuff, is so cool. I’m dreaming about that watch.”
There may be more dreams to come. Nasa has announced that Snoopy will accompany his human astronauts when they return to the moon on board the Orion spacecraft, in 2024. Watch companies have doubtless made a note.
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