As Americans head to the polls to choose their next commander-in-chief, we felt it was the perfect time to re-present this feature on U.S. presidents and their watches from the WatchTime archives (December 2008). Click here to find out what brands graced the wrists and waistcoasts of our chief executives.
In 1962, the story goes, Marilyn Monroe gave John F. Kennedy a birthday gift: a gold Rolex with the inscription “Jack, With love as always, from Marilyn, May 29th 1962.” The president was anything but grateful. Knowing that the watch would be seen as evidence of an intimate relationship with the actress, he gave it to an aide, Kenneth O’Donnell, along with a note instructing him to “get rid of” it. In 2005, the watch, the antique box containing it and a love poem Monroe had placed in the box sold at auction for $120,000. As many watch fans know, presidential history is loaded with horological tidbits like this. Now, as a new president takes the stage, bringing the possibility of even more such tidbits, WatchTime reviews some of the more interesting lore about past presidents and their timepieces.
When George Washington wanted a new watch in 1788, he wrote his fellow Founding Father Gouverneur Morris, asking him to buy one for him in Paris. Morris, who would become U.S. minister to France three years later, was making a business trip there. Washington asked for a simple, gold watch of good quality, similar to the big, slender one that Thomas Jefferson had gotten for James Madison. He sent Morris 25 guineas, saying he would pay more if necessary. (This is according to the book Jean-Antoine Lépine, Horloger by Adolphe Chapiro.) Three months later, Morris wrote Washington from Paris that Jefferson had warned him against the maker of Madison’s watch, claiming he was a crook. Jefferson instead recommended that Morris go to another watchmaker, named Romilly. Sadly, Romilly turned out to be a bad apple, too, Morris explained to Washington. Morris then asked a merchant for yet another recommendation, and was given the name of a watchmaker named Gregson. He was no better than the first two. Finally, Morris hit paydirt. He went to Jean-Antoine Lépine, watchmaker to King Louis XVI and one of the greatest watchmakers who ever lived. He bought from him two identical watches, one for Washington and one for himself. They were large, simple, keywound watches with virgule escapements. Washington’s was numbered 5,378. It remained in Washington’s family until 1935. The watch’s cuvette is engraved with the inscription “Remontez à droite/Tournez les Equilles/Lepine Hger du Roy/A Paris.”
George Washington owned another watch, one he gave to Colonel Thomas Johnson, the first governor of Maryland, elected in February 1777. The watch does not have any visible marks identifying its maker, but it does have the symbol of the canton of Neuchâtel, Switzerland. The watch bears the inscription, “Trenton N.J./Dec. 10th 1777/Presented to my Friend/Col. Thos. Johnson of Md./as a Memento/of my great Esteem/Geo. Washington.”
Abraham Lincoln wore a Waltham watch, the same model worn by many Civil War soldiers. It was called the “Wm. Ellery,” named for a member of the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence. The watch bears the serial number 67613 and was made in 1863. The Ellery, which was inexpensive and sturdy, was extremely popular during the war. In 1865, the year the war ended, nearly half the watches Waltham sold were Ellery models. It’s interesting to note that Lincoln’s choice of an American-made watch (from a Union state, of course: Waltham was based in Waltham, Massachusetts) was not merely a matter of patriotism. The Civil War marked the beginning of an era in which American watch companies were the envy of the Swiss. Because American manufacturers had so effectively mastered mass-production techniques, the watches they made were not only less expensive than those of the vaunted Swiss companies, they were more precise.
We don’t know which watch Ulysses S. Grant wore, but we know he didn’t wear it long. In 1857, at age 35, when he was trying with limited success to earn a living as a farmer near St. Louis, he pawned the watch for $22. One of his biographers thinks he might have done so to buy Christmas presents for his wife and three children.
Fourteen U.S. presidents have been Freemasons and at least one of them, Warren G. Harding, had a watch to prove it. He carried a so-called “Masonic watch,” a particular type of watch in which Masonic symbols, such as an hourglass, a compass, and a masons’ square, were used as hour markers. Masonic watches — there were both Masonic pocket watches and wristwatches — had cases in the shape of another Masonic symbol, the equilateral triangle. These watches always incorporated a picture of the Masonic All-Seeing Eye, or Eye of Providence. On the Harding watch, this eye is on the watch’s caseback, along with a picture of King Solomon’s Temple. The watchcase is marked “Hiram Watch Inc., 14K, No. 145.” The movement is signed by Waltham. Hiram Watch Inc. was named for Hiram Abiff, the central figure in Masonic legend. He was the master mason who directed the building of Solomon’s Temple and who valiantly refused to reveal the secrets of advanced masonry to the three undeserving, novice masons who demanded them from him. The watch also bears the words “Swiss HALLMARK/15 jewel movement/Ser. #3364074.” Harding became a Mason in 1920, the same year he was elected to the presidency in a landslide.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt wore a calendar wristwatch with the name “Tiffany & Co.” on the dial and a Movado movement inside. He also owned a minute-repeater pocket watch from the Geneva-based A. Frankfeld company. The watch is elaborately engraved with FDR’s initials. The lid bears the inscription “Presented to/President Roosevelt/by/Dr. Boldan/Former Minister of Education/at Dinner of/Lions Club of Havana on/January 30,1942.”
Right after World War II, when he was stationed in Germany, Dwight D. Eisenhower bought a steel Heuer chronograph wristwatch with 30-minute and 12-hour counters. (Heuer, a specialist in chronographs, was the precursor of today’s TAG Heuer.) Eisenhower also wore a Rolex Datejust. Some Rolex fans say the Rolex company in Geneva gave Eisenhower a second watch, a Day-Date model, in honor of his re-election in 1956 (Rolex launched the Day-Date that year). According to them, the Day-Date became known as the “President” because of the Eisenhower connection. (Update: this watch inspired the creation of a modern-day men’s collection from Tiffany, the Tiffany CT60; you can read about it here.)
Down-to-earth Harry S. Truman wasn’t into fashion trends, except, apparently, when it came to watches. During the 23-day Potsdam Conference convened in the summer of 1945 to determine the future of Germany, Truman wore the most popular chronograph of the time, a Universal Genève Tri-Compax. Universal Genève had introduced the watch the year before. The watch had so many admirers thanks in part to its very complicated, but elegant, styling. There were three chronograph subdials (the source of the watch’s name) and a moonphase-with-calendar display at 12 o’clock. Truman had a gold version of the watch. Truman also owned a Flying Officer’s Chronograph made by the Swiss firm Gallet. The watch, which had a rotating bezel enabling the wearer to read the time in time zones around the world, was given to him in 1939 by two members of his senatorial staff.
Being vice president does have its rewards. When Richard Nixon held that job, he gave a speech to the National Association of Watch and Clock Makers and received as a thank-you gift a Vulcain Cricket, widely acknowledged to be the first wristwatch with an alarm loud enough to wake someone up. In 1960, the year he first ran for president, Nixon wrote a note to Vulcain, saying of the watch, “It has given excellent service over the past five years and has served as my alarm clock around the world.”
When he took the oath of office on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy wore an Omega Ultra Thin (Reference OT3980) given to him by the Florida senator Grant Stockdale. The caseback bore the inscription “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant.” Stockdale was clearly an optimist: he had given Kennedy the watch the prior summer, months before Kennedy’s hair’s-breadth win in November. (In December 2005, the Omega Museum, in Bienne, Switzerland, bought the watch at auction for $420,000.) Jacqueline Kennedy wrote a letter to Stockdale thanking him for the gift and graciously describing it as “nicer than the watch I gave him.” We don’t know what watch she was referring to, but Jacqueline Kennedy did give her husband a Louis Cartier Tank watch on their fourth wedding anniversary in 1957. The President was wearing this watch when he was assassinated in 1963. Kennedy received at least one other notable gift watch: a Hamilton given him in 1962 by then governor of Pennsylvania David Lawrence. The watch’s dial bore photo-engraved pictures of Kennedy’s children, Caroline and John.
Lyndon Baines Johnson also owned a Vulcain Cricket, as did both Truman and Eisenhower; Vulcain presented a Cricket to each of them. Johnson wore his in a 1964 photo on the cover of Newsweek. He wrote a note to Vulcain’s president thanking him for the watch. “I value it highly and feel somewhat less than dressed without it,” he said. Johnson also liked Rolex watches, specifically the Day-Date model nicknamed the “President” supposedly because of Johnson’s affection for it (although some experts say the watch was so named because Rolex gave a Day-Date to Eisenhower when he was in office; see above). LBJ sometimes gave Rolex watches to his friends. In 1973 he gave a gold Rolex to his cardiologist J. Willis Hurst, who had cared for him ever since his 1955 heart attack. Perhaps knowing that he would soon die, and therefore in a hurry to give Hurst the gift, Johnson instructed Hurst to take the watch to a jeweler himself and have the engraving done. The inscription was to read “To JWH/Love LBJ,” Johnson told Hurst. Embarrassed to make such a request, Hurst demurred, and Johnson wrote a letter to the store asking for the inscription. He died soon afterward.
Gerald Ford was in office during the digital-watch craze, which reached its full frenzy in the mid-1970s. Fittingly, he wore a digital: a Hamilton Pulsar (the Pulsar brand is now owned by Seiko). In a photo in the Washington Post, he is shown wearing the watch during the 1974 Congressional hearings on his pardon of Richard Nixon. Hamilton had introduced the Pulsar, the world’s first digital watch, in 1972, and an army of celebrities and politicians, Ford included, had found the high-tech gadget irresistible. Ford was so fond of his Pulsar that, when the brand came out with a souped-up, calculator version of the watch, he asked his wife Betty to get him one for Christmas of 1974. She declined, saying its price, $4,000, was too high.
George Herbert Walker Bush may very well have been done in by his watch. In one of the most famous incidents in watch history, Bush dealt his re-election bid a blow when, during a televised debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot on Oct. 15, 1992, he twice glanced at his watch as if he were bored with the proceedings and had somewhere more important to go. Asked about it years later during an interview on TV, Bush confirmed that he was, if not bored, at least impatient for the debate to end. “Was I glad the damn thing was over?” he asked, rhetorically, in self-defense. As the debate was ending, he was thinking to himself, “Only 10 more minutes and I’ll be done with this crap,” he told his interviewer.
Since Bill Clinton left the White House he’s become an absolute watch hound. He’s been known to wear a Panerai PAM89 GMT, a Franck Muller, a Roger Dubuis MuchMore, a Kobold Seal and a gold Cartier Ballon Bleu. The Swiss watch company Quinting has a photo of Clinton on its website wearing the brand’s Dove of Geneva watch. Quinting apparently gave a Dove of Geneva not just to Clinton, but also to four former presidents of Switzerland and a president of Algeria. Photos of all are on the website. Clinton wasn’t always a watch man. During his presidential campaign and the early years of his presidency, Clinton wore but one watch: a humble Timex Ironman Triathlon. He drew criticism for his loyalty: Gene Weingarten, a columnist for the Washington Post, described the Timex derisively as “a plastic digital watch, thick as a brick and handsome as a hernia.” Before and after the 1992 election, Omega ran advertisements suggesting Clinton should give up the Timex in favor of something more expensive. Finally, Clinton did. In 1994, the 50th anniversary of D-Day, Clinton attended the commemoration in France and was given an analog watch with leather strap from the French watch company Lip.
George W. Bush’s taste for the straightforward and intellectually accessible extended to watches as well. During his campaign, and perhaps afterward, he wore a Timex i-Control alarm watch, which Timex billed as “the world’s easiest to use alarm watch.” (He no doubt liked it also because of his famous concern with promptness.) To set the alarm, the wearer need only turn the bezel to the desired time and pull out a crown at 4 o’clock. We don’t know what watch it was that mysteriously disappeared from Bush’s wrist when he was shaking hands with admirers in Albania in June 2007. At the time, some suggested the watch had been stolen, but the White House said Bush had merely put the watch in his pocket so it would not fall off amid the crush of people.
During his campaign, Barack Obama often wore a TAG Heuer white-dial, quartz model from the Series 1500. (This is according to TAG Heuer aficionado Jeff Stein, who has examined many photos of Obama wearing the watch. In the summer of 2007, Obama started wearing a large Jorg Gray chronograph with a black dial given to him on his birthday (Aug. 4) by three members of his Secret Service detail. The watch bears the Secret Service seal. It was most likely this watch that fell off of Obama’s wrist during his Oct. 29, 2007 appearance on the “Ellen” show starring Ellen DeGeneres, an appearance in which he also demonstrated his dancing skills. The accident occurred when Obama punched a pink punching bag that was meant to symbolize breast cancer. Obama quickly picked the watch up and put it in his pocket.