Zach Goes to the Movies: Beanie Baby Mania, and a Warning to Watch Collectors

Whenever I hear someone talk about watches as an investment, I think of…plush stuffed animals. Is that weird? Not if you came of age in the 90s, and can remember a time when otherwise rational adults thought that sinking untold sums of money into Beanie Babies was their ticket to a mansion on the hill. What’s now commonly referred to as the Beanie Baby Craze (because, words are important) is the subject of Beanie Mania, a new documentary on HBO Max. When I landed on it recently during a lazy weekend of streaming, it was impossible not to think about the obvious parallels between what ultimately became an irreparably popped bubble and the current state of the watch market. At times, Beanie Mania may as well have been about watches. It feels like a warning. 

“The collector’s mentality is that you can never have enough, and that’s very dangerous.” These are the opening words of Beanie Mania, spoken by Mary Beth Sobolewski, who would become one of the chief Beanie gurus during the height of the craze, appearing on talk shows to discuss collecting, authoring price guides, and sitting very much at the center of Beanie culture. The fact that this was a collecting pursuit that created figures prepared to discuss and imbue a unique brand of wisdom to the public is only one of the startling connections between Beanie collecting and watches. 


The Beanie Baby fad of the 90s started off innocently enough. When the Ty Inc. company launched the stuffed toys it wasn’t with the intent of creating a bubble market or the mass hysteria that would eventually overcome so many. It was a seemingly well intentioned entrepreneurial endeavor by company founder Ty Warner to create a product he could sell to local, independently owned toy stores. The whimsical designs and retro charm of the toys caught on. It didn’t hurt that each Beanie Baby was given a funny name and an accompanying original poem – little touches that appeal to collectors, not unlike the fancy presentation box your watch came in. When you insist on buying a used or vintage watch with a full set, including hang-tags, manuals, and even protective plastics, it’s the equivalent of demanding a Beanie Baby includes that iconic red heart tag, containing all of the relevant information about the toy on the inside. In fact, these tags were so important that a mini-industry was created around specially sized “tag protectors,” to keep them in pristine condition.

In time, Beanie Babies caught on, first in the metro Chicago area, and then nationally. A fledgling auction website called eBay poured gasoline on what was a controlled burn, taking a market for which business was done through local newspaper ads at a small scale to the brave new world of the internet. The result was that Beanie Babies became a full fledged (dial-up) internet phenomenon, with a growing trove of information on the toys available to anyone curious enough to find it on the world wide web, and commerce being conducted at a dizzying pace at whatever speed your modem could handle. Toy stores were sold out, but a lively secondary market was seeing regular action. 

Before the fall. Image credit: Chris Hondros – Getty

For me, it’s this idea that the secondary market is actually the primary market that really connects the Beanie Baby craze to the watch market of today. Consider that virtually every Rolex that is shipped from Switzerland to authorized dealers all over the world is sold to someone, but the real money is made when these watches change hands at auction, or in private sales. This feeds the myth (well, it’s a myth for most) that acquiring a tough to get watch, or the Princess Di Beanie Baby, or whatever, is a ticket to wealth. Everyone’s waiting for that call from the AD, because on the other end of the line there’s more than just a watch, but a potentially lucrative financial opportunity. 

You’ll forgive me if this sounds like a cynical point of view. Of course there were Beanie Baby collectors who were in it for the thrill of the hunt, or a genuine enthusiasm for the product, just as there are many, many watch collectors who sneer at the insane profiteering that is ever present in our community. But in both collecting pursuits, the dominant storyline was (and is) the value of the collectibles themselves, and not their more tangible qualities as tools or beautiful objects of design. We can, and should, speak to things we love about watches that go well beyond any particular valuation, but it’s just a fact that in a frothy market the general public (not enthusiasts) is more interested in what they’re worth now, and what they might be worth in the future. 

Beanie Mania is full of old footage from local and national news programs covering the stratospheric rise in the popularity of these little toys. One clip shows a satisfied kid who had just made what I’m sure was an impressive Beanie Baby score: “I’m happy – I’m going to get a lot of money now.” Tell me this isn’t the reaction of many unscrupulous collectors who luck out and score the new Ming, or Kurono, and know that in a post-drop panic among those who missed out, can easily flip their new acquisition for double or triple its value (or even more). 

Ty also did something with Beanie Babies that was novel for a toy at the time, but is so ingrained in the watch world by now we just accept it as part of the fabric that props all of this up. Periodically, Beanie Babies would be “retired,” never to be produced again. Once word got out that a Beanie would no longer be made (Ty would always announce in advance when a toy was being retired), the frenzy really began. As one veteran of the Beanie Baby wars puts it in the documentary, nothing sparks a collector’s interest in an item more than the idea that they can’t have it any more. Long lines and frequent physical altercations at toy stores in the 90s is a prior generation’s version of a website crashing under the crush of an international group of collectors trying desperately to score. Desirability + scarcity inevitably equals hype, and that’s a reward that pays dividends for a watch brand long after an LE sells out, if they’re smart about it. 

The launch of a new LE can crash servers, which is just a digital version of the chaos involved in acquiring new Beanie Babies.

It’s striking how a market built on speculation, like Beanie Babies, creates a series of events that are completely predictable, many of which we’re now seeing take shape at the upper end of the watch market. The big picture is easy to see: when collectible items see exponential increases in value, people from outside that collector world inevitably step in, and begin to treat the collectibles like investments. A new asset class begins to take shape as fresh money pours into the hobby, and in Beanie Baby land, this is the beginning of the end. Prices eventually reach a peak, regular people of modest means are left holding the bag when they can’t sell their Beanies for what they paid for them, and the market begins to tank. 

Future watch collector? Image credit: Bill Greenblatt – Getty

But there are so many smaller, little things I noticed in Beanie Mania happening around the margins while the toys were on the rise that I’m seeing in watch culture now. For example, at one point fakes begin to enter the Beanie market. Fake watches have been with us since at least the days of Breguet, so that’s nothing new, necessarily. But seeing stashes of fake, seized Beanies emptied from crates in front of curious members of the press is a reminder that people will always try to take advantage of hot markets, and collectors of all stripes need to have their guard up. This also creates an opportunity for trusted Beanie Baby resources to take center stage and act as authenticators. Beanie Mania reveals that there is absolutely huge money in simply being a respected authority on the items themselves, and this feels very similar to the “buy the dealer” mentality that is so crucial to (hopefully) not being completely fleeced when purchasing a valuable watch on the secondhand market. 

There’s also an extended interview in Beanie Mania with a collector who financed much of her collection with credit cards. Bad personal financial decisions obviously happen irrespective of a market’s strength or weakness (some people are just bad with money), but it’s noted in the documentary that a credit crunch in an economic downturn can implode a collector’s market, particularly if it’s the dealers themselves who are over leveraged. What happens in the watch market if the economy sours in 2022 is anyone’s guess, but if you’re a dealer stocking merchandise paid for with a loan, there’s always a certain amount of risk. 


Mostly, it’s the little cultural similarities between Beanie collectors and watch collectors that fascinate me. It’s not that watch collectors necessarily have anything in common with Beanie Baby enthusiasts, but there’s something similar in how we all go terrifyingly deep into a category, getting to a point where we live it and breathe it. There’s a moment in Beanie Mania where a collector recites a “Beanie Rap” that she wrote. It’s as cringe inducing as it sounds, at least the first time I saw it. The second time, I had to ask myself how different this really is from today’s many watch meme accounts, which appropriate all manner of pop culture into extremely niche humor. The answer, I think, is not that different at all. 

Sometimes it’s worthwhile to step outside of the little box you live in and see the larger picture of the communities in which you take part. That’s ultimately what Beanie Mania helped me to do – it’s a reminder that the crazy highs in the watch market that we’re currently experiencing, while unprecedented in our world, are actually nothing new. I also found it refreshing to bear witness to a collecting culture that I think is remarkably similar to watches, even if those similarities are sometimes uncomfortable. I think what separates Beanie Babies from watches is ultimately utility. It’s been pointed out by other collectors, but the inherent functionality of a watch, even in the age of cell phones, makes it somewhat immune to fads and trends. There will always be people who appreciate them for exactly what they are. The same can’t necessarily be said of a stuffed animal. 

As tough to get as certain Beanie Babies, back in the day. Image credit: Monochrome

I noted up top that Beanie Mania feels like a warning, and while I can envision scenarios in which the watch market continues to explode as well as those where it crumbles, I think the big takeaway from the documentary is that there were observers warning of a crash even at the time prices were climbing. If you were on the inside of that market, those calls would have been easy to ignore as the value of your collection went up, and up, and up. Those on the inside of the watch market (in other words, all of us) would do well to acknowledge some of those skeptics currently warning that slowdown is possible, and realize that a Beanie Baby-like implosion is, at the very least, a possibility, even if it’s slim. Best to plan accordingly.  

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Zach is a native of New Hampshire, and he has been interested in watches since the age of 13, when he walked into Macy’s and bought a gaudy, quartz, two-tone Citizen chronograph with his hard earned Bar Mitzvah money. It was lost in a move years ago, but he continues to hunt for a similar piece on eBay. Zach loves a wide variety of watches, but leans toward classic designs and proportions that have stood the test of time. He is currently obsessed with Grand Seiko.