The attention towards VIPs as role-models is not something new, being them fictitious or real.
So, we have found that some screen characters have made the fortune of many watch models — one of them is the most famous watch of the world, that is, the Rolex Submariner, which has graced the wrist of the most famous spy of the Western world, Mr. 007 himself, in the memorable playing of the super-spy by the quintessential James Bond actor, Sean Connery.
But apart from the virtual nature of Mr. Bond and the huge panoply of his watches, which have included many brands and models, we can also get back to some of the most interesting ones belonging to living persons, and we will focus on the wrist (and before that, the pocket) of possibly the most powerful world leader alive: the President of the United States of America.
We will discover some interesting — and quite peculiar — facts and anecdotes regarding the relationship of a few of them with watches, since timepieces have always been a sign of distinction as well as the vector of a hidden, or sometimes very clear, political message to their electors.
George Washington and the hunt for a good watch
The first President of the United States lived a turbulent life, and this fact also showed in his relationship with watches.
Or better, in the difficulty of finding a good one.
As every notable man of his time, Washington needed to own a good-looking watch, and as you might be aware, watches were imported from Europe only back then.
This is why in 1788, as he needed to buy a new watch, Washington wrote to Gouverneur Morris, who would become the US Minister to Finance, a letter to ask him to buy a timepiece for him in Paris, as Morris was about to depart for a business trip to Europe.
Dear Sir, I had the pleasure to receive by the last mail your letter dated the 12th of this month. I am much obliged by your offer of executing commissions for me in Europe, and shall take the liberty of charging you with one only. I wish to have a good gold watch procured for my own use; not a small, trifling, nor finically ornamented one, but a watch well executed in point of workmanship, and of about the size and kind of that which was procured by Mr. (Thomas) Jefferson for Mr. (James) Madison, which was large and flat. I imagine Mr. Jefferson can give you the best advice on the subject, as I am told this species of watches, which I have described, can be found cheaper and better fabricated in Paris than in London. (…)”
Washington thus described the watch he wanted as a simple, gold watch of good quality, similar to the big, slender one that James Madison bought through the help of Thomas Jefferson — demonstrating that “peer pressure” is indeed a driver for buying, even between men of great stature.
He also sent Morris 25 guineas, adding that he would pay more if needed. And Morris’ problems to fulfill the request started there.
Three months later, Washington received a letter from Paris.
Morris wrote Washington that he had contacted Jefferson, and he basically warned him to avoid the watchmaker of Madison’s watch, suggesting instead to reach for another, a certain Romilly, who turned out to be another dupe, as well.
In his endless quest for Washington’s watch, he contacted another watchmaker, Gregson, which wasn’t better than the first two. Eventually, he aimed higher and reached for the famous Jean-Antoine Lépine, the watchmaker to King Louis XVI and one of the greatest watchmakers of all time.
Lépine — whose personal motto, reprised today in modern times by F.P. Journe, was “Invenit et Fecit” — was the inventor of the modern watch, built with interchangeable parts.
In short, the “Lépine calibre” or “calibre à pont” that he invented was conceived to reduce the watch’s thickness, introducing the concept of a single main plate where all the other elements of a watch are affixed with independent bridges. Lépine was among the first to use extensively the cylinder escapement, powering the watch with the floating mainspring going barrel he also invented. Here is the movement of a Lepine-made pocket watch.
Morris bought from Lépine two identical timepieces, one for Washington and one for himself. They were large, simple, elegant key-wound watches. Washington’s one, which serial number was 5,378, remained in Washington’s family until 1935. The watch’s inner movement cover is engraved with the inscription “Remontez à droite/Tournez les Equilles/Lepine Hger du Roy/A Paris.”
He wrote back to Washington:
Mr. Lépine (who) is at the Head of his Profession here, and in Consequence asks more for his Work than any Body else. I therefore waited on Mr. L’Epine and agreed with him for two Watches exactly alike, one of which be for you and the other for me”
Here is the movement: clean and simple, as in every Lepine’s work.
Sort of amazing, for a watch of the 1700s.
Oh by the way. Morris had to wait to get the two watches for him and the President. This is an historical proof that Rolex did not invent the “waiting list”.
Abraham Lincoln and the watch with the secret message
Many photos of the era depict Lincoln wearing a three-piece suit, and a chain going into the pocket. Well, this is what was attached to that chain.
Lincoln’s original watch is a beautiful gold timepiece that he purchased in the 1850s from a Springfield, Illinois jeweler. The watch is on show at the Smithsonian Institution since 1958 — being a gift from Lincoln’s great-grandson Lincoln Isham.
Harry Rubenstein, chief curator of the museum’s bicentennial exhibition “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life”, described it as the equivalent of a “high-end Bulova or Tag Heuer”.
Anyways, there is something peculiar about this watch: a secret inscription. This secret message, etched on the base plate under the dial, comes from the watchmaker who was servicing it.
On April 13, 1861, the day when the Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War, the Irish immigrant and watchmaker Jonathan Dillon, who was working for the M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, D.C., had the President’s watch in his hands when he heard of the attack. And some forty-five years later, Dillon told the New York Times what he did that day.
“I was in the act of screwing on the dial when Mr. Galt announced the news. I unscrewed the dial, and with a sharp instrument wrote on the metal beneath: ‘The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try.”
Even if the inscription does not fully match the description of Mr. Galt, it was there — as some 40 reporters and Smithsonian staff witnessed when master craftsman and jeweler George Thomas of the Towson Watch Company opened Abraham Lincoln’s watch to search for Dillon’s secret message.
Mr. Galt did not ever meet Abraham Lincoln, nor the President was aware of the secret message he carried in his pocket, hidden inside his watch. But it was there, for good.
Another very famous watch that Lincoln wore came from an American company: Waltham.
After giving the famous Gettysburg Address in 1863, Lincoln was presented with a William Ellery, key-wound watch Waltham Model 1857, serial number 67,613. This watch is now in the collection of the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
It was a plain-looking, but very elegant and precise timepiece, the first pocket watch produced in America featuring interchangeable standard parts — a concept derived from the modern weaponsmithing techniques used in the Springfield arsenal.
Warren Harding and the Masonic legacy
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,” decorated with Masonic symbols.
Symbology in Freemasonry was and is very important, and a Masonic watch is ripe of references to the Craft, as Masons call it.
First of all, the pocket watch has a triangular shape, which is one of the main Masonic symbols. The three vertices are adorned with the sybolds of the three highest offices of a Lodge — Worshipful Master, Senior and Junior Warden.
On the Harding watch, the All-Seeing Eye — another important Masonic symbol — is on the watch’s caseback, along with a depiction of King Solomon’s Temple. The case is marked “Hiram Watch Inc., 14K, №145.” The movement is signed by Waltham.
Hiram Watch Inc. was named after the figure of Hiram Abiff, the central figure in Masonic legend. He was the Master Mason who directed the building of Solomon’s Temple and who refused to reveal the secrets of advanced masonry to the three undeserving, novice masons who demanded them from him, and was killed by them.
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.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the jeweler’s watch
Roosevelt chose to wear publicly a piece of American history: a calendar wristwatch with the name “Tiffany & Co.” on the dial and a Movado movement inside. During these years, it was very common — and fashionable — to have watches branded by famous jewelers like Tiffany or Wempe.
Roosevelt also owned a minute-repeaterpocket 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.”
Harry Truman and the alarm watch
Harry Truman owned several fine watches, including a Universal Genève Tri-Compax and a Gallet Flight Officer. He also owned a Vacheron Constantin watch, according to that company’s records.
However, his favorite watch was a Vulcain Cricket, that he wore quite often. The Cricket — which became a sort of a tradition in President’s watches, since a few other US Presidents chose to wear it after him — is a very interesting alarm watch, one of the first that solved the inherent problem of wristwatch alarms, which seem to be always too feeble to be heard distinctly.
The Cricket debuted in 1947, after five years of research, when the company introduced its mechanical hand-wound caliber, equipped with two barrels. One would power the watch, and the other the alarm. An imaginative design with the “magic pusher” did the rest, so to be able to set the alarm, the time, and charge up the watch.
When fully wound, the alarm of the Cricket lasts for around 25 seconds — and is very loud, thanks to an additional back case that sticks out a bit, creating enough room for the sound to resonate more inside the case. An amazing result for a smallish 34 mm watch.
Dwight Eisenhower and the golden Datejust
Eisenhower was a Rolex fan, and he was associated with his gold Rolex Datejust on a Jubilee bracelet.
When he was “just” a General, Rolex — always attentive to the military — gifted him one, the 150,000th chronometer-certified Rolex watch, with its case back featuring a special engraving: 5 stars (for his position) and the words “DDE — 12–19–1950.”
When Eisenhower appeared on the cover of LIFE wearing this watch, the company gained a lot of notoriety.
Between his watches, Ike owned also a Vulcain Cricket, a Vacheron Constantin, and a steel Heuer (as the company was not TAG back then) chronograph with 30-minute and 12-hour counters, which he bought right after World War II when he was stationed in Germany.
John Kennedy and the Rolex he did not wear
Kennedy displayed a rather large collection of fine watches, and as his passion was well-known, he received many as a gift from his admirers.
The first notable watch of JFK was a Bulova, which he was presented at a dinner in Washington, DC in 1941. It was a gold watch with a rectangular case and a stretch bracelet. The future President, to mark the occasion, had his initials and the year inscribed on it.
He had a passion for rectangular watches. His favorite, possibly, was a Cartier Tank gifted by wife Jacqueline Kennedy for their fourth anniversary, which was the watch he wore when he was assassinated in 1963.
Kennedy also was quite fond of another watch, a square Omega Ultrathin Ref. OT3980 that he received from the Florida senator Grant Stockdale during his Presidential campaign.
The watch was engraved with an inscription: “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant.”
It brought good luck to Kennedy, as it was given to him some months before Kennedy’s win in November.
It was so nice, and valued by the President, that Jacqueline Kennedy wrote a letter to Stockdale to thank him for the gift, saying that it was “nicer than the watch I gave him.”
This watch is on display on the Omega Museum, in Bienne, Switzerland, since 2005, when the company bought back the watch at auction for $420,000.
JFK was known to have used another watch regularly: a waterproof Nastrix that he wore to swim almost every day.
This watch was a thank you by the socialite couple of David and Evangeline Bruce for appointing him as the United States ambassador to Great Britain. The inscription on the back of the watch reads: “To President John F. Kennedy from the Evangelines 1963.”
The now disappeared Nastrix was a New York company that imported Swiss watches and movements. This peculiar self-winding, water-resistant watch was made in 1962 with a 14-karat yellow gold case and featuring a 57-jewel movement.
Jaqueline Kennedy later gifted this watch to his new Husband, Aristotle Onassis — and she put a new inscription between the lugs: “FALJ” (For Ari, Love, Jackie).
The Nastrix watch was sold in an auction, at Antiquorum Geneva, in 2009, to an anonymous buyer for $120,000.
But JFK was also famous for a watch he never wore: the gold Rolex DayDate he received from Marilyn Monroe.
In 1962, just a year into his presidency, stories about the sentimental liaison between the President and the bombshell blonde began to thicken in Washington, and this beautiful watch, inscribed with a very revealing note which said “Jack / With love as always / from / Marilyn / May 29th, 1962.”, was like spraying petrol on a fire.
To avoid any further public embarrassment, JFK asked his assistant to make it disappear — and so the Rolex went away quietly, only to resurface in 2005 at an auction, where it fetched a respectable $120,000.
Lyndon Johnson and the Rolex President
Lyndon Johnson was a Rolex Day-Date wearer — and his use gave his watch its peculiar name: the Rolex President. The name was reserved for the combination of DayDate plus the signature three-link bracelet with a rounded surface.
Johnson seemed to love good watches, and he had a weakness for modernity: between the others, he wore the customary Vulcain Cricket (he loved the watch, and he wrote in a letter to the company’s President “I value it highly and feel somewhat less than dressed without it.” ), and another novelty, a distinctive Hamilton Pacer which he received as a gift. Another notable watch Johnson wore was the Jaeger LeCoultre Worldtimer.
Between all the US Presidents, Johnson was the first to own a Patek Philippe, a Ref. 2526 watch in 18k yellow gold, which was ordered through Tiffany and Company with a special yellow gold Tiffany bracelet. Around the center of the watch’s enamel dial, it states “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You,” Johnson’s motto, known also as the Golden Rule.
During his life, he also liked to gift watches, between which we can number the Hamilton Electric, engraved with the “Golden Rule” on their dials.
Gerald Ford and the bid to modernity
During Ford’s time, the quartz revolution was there to shake the watch world — and it hit also the Presidential’s habits. Digital watches were the new cool thing, and Gerald Ford was not immune to their charm.
The Apple Watch, back then, had another name: Hamilton Pulsar.
It was the kind of fashion statement everyone wanted, the President of the United States included, and it became so famous it ended up at James Bond’s wrist as well, worn by Roger Moore in Live and Let Die.
So, Gerald Ford was portrayed in photos while wearing one during the 1974 Congressional hearings on his pardon of Richard Nixon.
He became so fond of this watch that when an updated version, incorporating a calculator, came out, he asked his wife Geraldine one as a gift for Christmas — and she refused, citing the price (around $4,000) as too high.
Bill Clinton and the political Timex
One of the most notable examples of watch-wearing with a political purpose was by Bill Clinton. He took a very different route from his predecessors, wearing publicly a $50 Timex Ironman digital watch.
How different the message was from the golden Rolexes of the former Presidents! It was actually a deliberate attempt by Bill Clinton to portray himself as a man of the masses, not just the typical politician.
And the message struck gold: the proof was that he was attacked for doing it.
Gene Weingarten, a columnist for the Washington Post, called his watch “a plastic digital watch, thick as a brick and handsome as a hernia.”, and even Omega, after his election, ran a series of ads to suggest the President to wear something better.
This assumption is reinforced by the fact that he has proved himself much of a watch lover after his sojourn at the White House: since his leaving, he has shown some impressive timepieces in his public appearances, like a Panerai PAM89 GMT, a Franck Muller, a Roger Dubuis MuchMore, a Kobold Seal, and a gold Cartier Ballon Bleu.
For example, this is a Lange & Sohne Grosse Langematik Gangreserve — a bit different from the Timex, let’s say. It is a limited edition model made for Wempe to celebrate 100 years of the founding of Chronometerwerke Hamburg, which became Wempe Chronometerwerke in 1938.
Mr. Clinton’s watch is one of 100 made in platinum. This watch certainly looks good with a suit. Much better than the Timex, that is.
Barack Obama and the quartz dominance
During his years as a politician, Barack Obama chose an understated path regarding watches, as his Democrat fellow Bill Clinton did.
During his Presidential campaign, he chose to wear a TAG Heuer white-dial, quartz model from the Series 1500.
When elected, he switched to something even more understated: from 2007 he began to wear a large Jorg Gray JD6500 chronograph with a black dial, bearing the Secret Service seal, that was presented to him as a gift on his birthday (Aug. 4) by members of his Secret Service protection team.
In 2015 and to the end of his presidency, Obama started to wear digital devices, between which a Highgear Enduro, a New Balance sports watch, and a Fitbit Surge.
After his service at the White House, he has returned to more upscale timepieces, one of the most notable being a Rolex Cellini.
The return of the Rolex President: Donald Trump
The former President of the USA, Donald Trump, has shown a few timepieces publicly, all of them quite attuned to the kind of the persona he proudly displays publicly.
The most famous of them, which he wore even before his election, is the gold Rolex Day-Date. Trump’s one is in yellow gold, and features the bracelet that is known as the President: so, essentially Trump wears the same kind of watch Lyndon Johnson did in his time.
During the election time, he was often seen with a stylish Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra-Fine 1968 in pink gold, featuring a very thin case, just 5.4mm thick, and the Caliber 1120 automatic movement. Trump wore this Vacheron Constantin watch on election night in 2016.
Another watch he has displayed publicly is the Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse in yellow gold with a blue dial and integrated bracelet, a model designed in 1968 by the great watch designer Gerald Genta himself.
A young Donald Trump, in 1999, in the Famous Faces, Watch Auction for Charity donated his Senna by Universal Geneve chronograph.
The Senna line was launched in 1998 by Universal Geneve in collaboration with the Formula 1 driver’s family to celebrate his legacy with the Ayrton Senna Foundation for Underprivileged children. Mr. Trump’s piece, Ref. 198.310, was an 18kt yellow chronograph with a day-date complication and a COSC rated movement.
From every perspective you see it, any watch lover would look at this timepiece and express his doubts, especially when you compare it with the others you can see above. Remember that in 1998, Universal Geneve, once a proud and famous Maison, was sadly on the decline.
And now, the watch of Joe Biden
We close citing the newly elected President, Joe Biden.
For his election, he chose a somewhat understated timepiece: a Rolex Datejust with a blue dial, worn on a Jubilee bracelet. Nothing too flashy, nothing too excessive: a direct stab, it seems, to the golden President that Trump used to wear.
And Biden has shown some love for watches in general, and from all accounts, he’s more an Omega man than a Rolex. On his wrist, we have seen a Speedmaster Moonwatch and a Seamaster 300, but he was not shy of wearing the simple Seiko Chronographer that has accompanied him through the campaign, a Vulcain Cricket, and finally, an Apple watch.