With the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney heating up, we felt it was the perfect time to share this feature on 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.