This is the Year of Cinema for Hamilton, a watch brand with more credits to its name than the hardest working actor in Hollywood.
By virtue of being featured in movies early (since 1932) and often (more than 500 times), Hamilton has become known as the movie brand. Hamilton is so connected to the movies that the brand has designated 2019 as the Year of Cinema.
Hamilton’s relationship with Hollywood and cinema started in 1932, when the brand was featured in the Marlene Dietrich film, Shanghai Express. Little is known about how and why this came about, but Hamilton was pleasantly surprised to discover its appearance.
“It was brought to our attention that the first movie was Shanghai Express in 1932, with Marlene Dietrich,” says Sylvain Dolla, president, Hamilton Watch. “The watch was a Flintridge. Dietrich offered it to someone with a picture of her inside. It was an obvious choice for the director because Hamilton was the reference brand in the 1930s. We have no records about how it came to be.”
Then Hamilton appeared in The Frogmen, starring Richard Widmark. This was an appearance where Hamilton was definitely involved, as the brand had been the official supplier of timepieces for the military during World War II, and had actually designed, made and provided submersible watches for the Navy. This film followed a Navy Underwater Demolition Team during the Second World War, and Hamilton watches were featured prominently. Authenticity would become a theme in the future, as when producers and directors wanted historical accuracy, Hamilton was the natural choice, like in the Ben Affleck/Josh Hartnett film Pearl Harbor.
“It was the 1950s when the film industry started to be a key part of the Hamilton marketing,” details Dolla. “Hollywood was developing and Hamilton was getting requests from producers and directors all the time. Most of the time, it’s really the movie makers contacting us, still today. Right now, we have 150 watches making their way around Hollywood. We often recommend to a production which watch would work best.
“We never had a placement strategy,” Dolla continues, referring to where companies pay the production to be featured. “We don’t do placement, the movie makers come to us.”
After The Frogmen, Hamilton appeared on Elvis Presley’s wrist in 1961 in the musical comedy Blue Hawaii. The watch? The iconic Ventura, a watch that Elvis himself loved, owned and wore.
Since these two appearances, Hamilton has been in more than 500 feature films and TV shows, with some of the most famous being 2001: A Space Odyssey, Men in Black (all three films, with a fourth on the way), Independence Day, Die Hard 2.0, A Beautiful Mind, Interstellar, The Martian, Mad Men, Jack Ryan and many more.
Some of the highlight reel moments for Hamilton over the years include:
• The Murph, designed and manufactured by Hamilton, the one-off timepiece that figured prominently in Interstellar.
• The Hamilton watches featured in the Men in Black movies. In the first film, a great scene featuring Hamilton is when K and J open up locker C-18 and K takes the Hamilton Pulsar watch hanging within (the “timekeeper,” the aliens living in the locker call it). J replaces it with a Hamilton Ventura.
• John Krasinski wearing a black PVD Hamilton Khaki Field Auto Chrono throughout the first season of Amazon’s Jack Ryan. He wears the watch in just about every scene he is in.
• The close up of the Hamilton military watch in Pearl Harbor.
• The King, Elvis Presley, wearing a Hamilton Ventura in Blue Hawaii. You can clearly see the watch on his wrist when he is in the convertible singing “Almost Always True” (this watch sold at auction in 2015 for $38,400).
Over the years, Hamilton has built up relationships all across the movie business, in Hollywood, Asia and in France. As a result, propmasters, costume designers, art directors, directors and producers contact Hamilton to source watches for their projects.
The biggest challenge for Hamilton? “We never really know how it will turn out,” Dolla admits. “The production companies usually show us the production stills, but until the movie comes out, we don’t really know how the watches will appear, or if they will appear at all.
“There are times when the watches don’t make it into the final cut of the movie,” he continues. “Sometimes they end up on the cutting room floor, and that’s the difference between placement and working in partnership. At the end of the day, we don’t want to influence the creative work of the director and all the crew.”
Hamilton wants the use of the watches to be genuine, so sometimes you see the watch, but you can’t see the logo. Given this, with so much uncertainly, what is the benefit of working with the movie industry?
“There are several benefits — first of all, working with an industry that is so creative and different from us is a great source of inspiration for all of our teams,” Dolla explains. “When we have discussions about how to market, it is very interesting, because they do things so differently from us.
“It’s also very exciting for the product team, when you meet propmasters and costume designers, they don’t have limits, they think about design and creativity,” Dolla continues. “That’s really important to me, because they help us see the world in a broader scope. Of course, Hamilton is a brand that still needs to work on worldwide brand awareness, and there is no better way to increase our brand image than through movies. Movies are so emotional, and watches are emotional.”
Exposure in the movies can lead to making the Hamilton brand better known and it can boost sales significantly.
The example Dolla offers is Jack Ryan, available on Amazon Prime. In the show, Ryan is wearing a Khaki Field Auto Chrono in black PVD. “This was a watch that was flat in terms of sales, and after the series promotion, we are now in back order on the model because it has been so popular,” he notes.
When the original Men in Black came out, retailers were astounded at the response. “When the first Men in Black movie was released, which showcased the modern Ventura, people just went crazy for it,” remembers René Rondeau, Hamilton expert and retired watchmaker and author. “Hamilton was not prepared for that response, sales outstripped supply very quickly, people were clamoring for it. It was a lot of fun to watch. People would go into retailers asking for the Men in Black watch, without even knowing what watch it was.”
Movies are part of culture around the world, and for a watch company to figure prominently in the movie industry is pretty darn cool. Hamilton is careful about the projects it agrees to, but there are no hard and fast rules.
“If the main character is great, but a bad person, we might still do it,” Dolla says. “If it was Hannibal Lecter, we would have done it. If the watch is not used to do something bad, we would be fine. We would prefer to be on the hero’s wrist, but it all depends on the project. I would look at the script, the scene, how it was going to be used, and who was going to be directing and starring in the movie.”
As we all know, watches are one of the ways we showcase our taste, personality, interests and more. The same is true for characters in movies and TV shows — a watch can tell a great deal about a character’s lifestyle and more.
Hamilton has been working with the movie and TV industry to help tell worthwhile stories for more than 85 years.
Happy Year of Cinema, Hamilton. You’ve earned it.
Behind the Scenes: Talking with Ellen Freund, propmaster
What does a propmaster do?
A propmaster deals with anything that any actor touches or holds or refers to. It’s a very broad definition. One director once told me that my job was everything that no one else wanted to do. My job also often has a hand in telling the story. Often the story is told through one piece of paper, one envelope, one watch — anything that might further a story visually. I see props as a very important part of the art department.
What do you love about what you do?
I have been a propmaster for about 40 years. What I love about it is the part I get to play in storytelling. When you have a good working relationship with the director and the designer, you become part of the storytelling process. On Mad Men, I would bring something in and say, “Look what I found,” and the writers would get excited and write something for it. There is sometimes a lot of creativity involved.
What is something that people don’t know about a propmaster?
I don’t think people actually know that there is a person that is filling the actor’s pockets with things you may or may not see. With Don Draper, there is always a money clip and money in his pocket, and there is always a comb in his pocket, because he always combs his hair. There is the seen and the unseen. I think people think that it all just exists.
How do you choose the watches for a movie?
When I break down a script, I list each character and I imagine what that character would have. Each character, even if they ultimately say, “I have a cell phone so I don’t need a watch,” which happens much more than to my taste, I will still imagine what watch each person has.
Watches, glasses and jewelry are the most up-front definition of what that character is. It’s way high on my list to decide what sort of watch that character wears. It has to do with what their job is, what their income level is, what they actually do in the script. If they are going into the jungle to fight the rebels, you aren’t going to put a leather-banded gold watch on his wrist. Watches are one of the first things I think about.
What does the right watch do for the character and for the movie?
To my mind, a watch should blend in. It shouldn’t stand out as something that is not a part of the character. The right watch tells the story of who this character is, what they do and where they are going.
Who else has input into the watch chosen for a character?
It totally depends on the actors. A lot of actors are watch freaks, which is good for me, while some couldn’t care less. I find more directors and showrunners have more watch knowledge, they often know an awful lot about watches.
It’s also not always a brand name or an expensive watch. If you’ve got a 20-year-old ingenue, she probably shops at Marks & Spencer, so she doesn’t even buy a Casio. Often the right watch can be a JCPenney piece.
Sourcing the watches depends on my budget for the film or TV show. My budget is never enough to support a $10,000 watch, it might support a $2,000 watch, but we always have to have two of everything, because actors will forget them at home. I lost three watches to skydivers jumping out of a plane — I’m not sure how they lost them.
I just finished Jack Ryan, and we needed one Hamilton for the lead, one for his stand-in, one for his double and one for his stuntman, a total of four identical watches. A good watch is unmistakable. If you put a cheap knock-off on, people will notice. I use fake watches for the background, but if we have a medium shot or closer of an important character, I need the right watch. It has weight and heft.
How important is historical accuracy when it comes to choosing a watch?
I am totally obsessive, to the month and day that a watch came out. You should never have a brand-new watch anyway, unless it’s a plot point in the story. It is very important to me to be accurate, much to the bane of some of the people I work for.