As the U.S. enters a new year with a new divided government, 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.”