The Omega Ultra-Thin wristwatch pictured below was worn by President John F. Kennedy at his inauguration ceremony in January 1961. A photo published in LIFE magazine, which prominently featured the watch on JFK’s wrist, helped make it legendary among watch historians. The story behind the timepiece, made of 18k yellow gold and powered by a movement measuring less than 2 mm thick, is that it was a gift to Kennedy from his friend Grant Stockdale in 1960. (Stockdale apparently had great faith in Kennedy’s presidential ambitions, as the watch’s caseback is engraved with “President of the United States” even though its owner at that point had yet to be elected.) In a letter that is also now in Omega’s archives, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy expressed sincere thanks to Stockdale for this “thinnest most elegant wristwatch” and even mentioned how her husband “promptly… took off the chunky little one” she had previously given him, a watch whose identity remains unclear. Still on its original black leather strap, and nicknamed “the Stockdale watch,” the historic timepiece was acquired at auction by the Omega Museum in 2005 from the Robert White Collection, the world’s largest private collection of JFK memorabilia.
Staying with the theme of American presidents, and memorable moments from the 1960s, we turn to the Omega Speedmaster below, one of just over 1,000 models produced in 18k gold cases and rare, burgundy-colored tachymeter bezels intended to commemorate the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing (which of course, is also the mission that forever cemented the Speedy in history as the first watch worn on the moon). The model numbered “1,” which is in the Omega Museum, was intended as a gift to the U.S. president at the time, Richard M. Nixon, and the caseback is in fact engraved to that effect (“Richard M. Nixon, President of the United States”). Nixon, however, never actually took possession of it, having to refuse it due to rules about U.S. presidents’ ability to accept gifts over a certain monetary value. Other examples of this rare timepiece found their way to NASA astronauts.
One of the most influential religious dignitaries of his time, Francis Joseph Spellman (1889-1967) became bishop of New York in 1939 and was elevated to Cardinal in 1946. In that position, Spellman became one of the most outspoken proponents of U.S. intervention in Vietnam. Spellman’s 14k gold Omega Seamaster Chronograph (co-branded with Cartier, which supplied the bracelet) was delivered in January 1963 to Omega’s agent in the U.S. and given to Spellman in 1964, according to the caseback engraving (“Francis Cardinal Spellman, 1964”). The watch has a silvered dial with a minute circle divided into 1/5-second strokes, a tachymeter scale around the edge, luminous gold Alpha hands, baguette hour markers with radium dots, and a case with water resistance ensured by an O-ring gasket.
The surface of the moon was not the only hostile environment conquered by men wearing Speedmasters. In April 1968, after 44 days and 1,320 kilometers trekked across the polar ice cap, an expedition led by Ralph Plaisted, an insurance salesman and svid snowmobile enthusiast from Minnesota, became the first trip to the Geographic North Pole, via an overland route, that could be independently confirmed (in contrast to Robert Peary’s now-disputed 1909 expedition). The Omega Speedmaster below, also on loan from the Omega Museum, was one of the timepieces worn on that historic polar adventure, with an engraved caseback commemorating the mission. According to Omega, the members of Plaisted’s expedition had their Speedmasters checked daily by a radio signal for accuracy and none varied by more than one second per day.