As we celebrate President’s Day this weekend, we take a look back on a half-century of Presidents and their wrist watches
Here’s a question for your next zoom quiz night: Which make of watch has been most commonly owned by the last dozen U.S. Presidents? Answer: Vulcain.
Vulcain invented the alarm wrist watch (calling it the ‘Cricket’) in 1940 and, since Vulcain fan Dwight D. Eisenhower came to power in 1953, the firm has traditionally presented a Cricket to each President shortly after his election. It could, therefore, have been a premonition, wishful thinking, a love of the brand – or simply a need to be reminded of the time – that inspired Joe Biden to acquire his own Vulcain several years ago.
For his swearing in as the 46th President of the United States, Biden wore a Rolex Datejust, but he is also known to own a brace of Omegas (he’s been spotted with both a Speedmaster and Seamaster) as well as an inexpensive, steel and gold-plated Seiko alarm chronograph worn both during his campaign and on election night last November.
The Seiko might be more than 20 years old, yet it conclusively demonstrates that Joe (estimated net worth: $9m, 2018 earnings: $4.6m) is a true man of the people. But then, one of the first rules of being a good President is to never allow your wrist to hint at your true net worth.
‘No comment’, therefore, on the fact that Donald Trump wore a Vacheron Constantin Historiques 1968 in pink gold the night he came to power in 2016, and has otherwise been known to sport a gold Rolex Day-Date (with the so-called ‘President’ style bracelet introduced in 1956). He also has a more restrained Patek Philippe Ellipse dress watch and a Colibri once belonging to Ronald Reagan that he bought at a charity auction in 1999.
Turning back the clock, however, reveals that the choice of wristwear among past Presidents has often been as unlikely as the campaign promises that got them to the White House .
He was perfectly happy with his ten-year-old TAG Heuer Series 1500 until 1997, when three Secret Service agents clubbed together to buy him a $220 Jorg Gray chronograph for his 46th birthday – supplying the previously little-known, budget brand with marketing manna from heaven. It promptly made it known that you, too, could own a watch just like the President’s – albeit without the Secret Service insignia on the dial. Following the launch of the Detroit-based Shinola watch brand in 2012, however, Obama switched to wearing one of its Runwell Sport chronographs – and subsequently gifted one to British PM David Cameron.
George W Bush
George Dubble-yuh publicly wore a Timex Indiglo during his Presidency but, when away from the constraints of the White House, didn’t bother hiding his light under a bush-el when it came to his true watch preference – he bought his first Patek Philippe from the brand’s Geneva boutique in 1971, moving-up to a far more expensive perpetual calendar model in 1993, the year he left office. But he became disenchanted with the cost of ‘running’ the Pateks, as evinced when they fetched $143,750 at auction in December 2019. Included with the pair was a letter to a friend in which Bush enquires whether or not he would like to buy his ‘jillion-dollar Patek Philippe’ which he describes as ‘a little too dear for my blood.’ “I sent it off to have a new crystal put in,” he wrote. “Back comes word that it needed to be refurbished to the tune of $1,250…”
Prompting a classic case of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, Bill Clinton wore a plastic Timex Ironman during his election campaign and for much of his time in office, probably thinking it put him on the same level as his blue-collar countrymen. But a Washington Post columnist described it as ‘thick as a brick and as handsome as a hernia’, while Omega even ran adverts trying to get him to dump it in favour of a ‘real’ watch. In 1994, Clinton upgraded to a French ‘Lip’ after being presented with it during the 50th anniversary of the D-day landings in 1994 – but it was only after leaving the White House that he felt able to show his true, horological colours, subsequently appearing with wristwear from luxury brands as diverse as Panerai, Franck Muller, Roger Dubuis and Cartier.
George H. W. Bush
It’s said that the senior Bush may have stymied his re-election campaign by looking at his watch during a television debate alongside hopefuls Bill Clinton and Ross Perot in 1992 before struggling to explain how he, personally, was affected by the national debt. The make of the watch wasn’t confirmed, but it’s likely to have been a Clare, made in his beloved home state of Texas.
We know Reagan owned a Colibri, because Donald Trump subsequently bought it. But his favoured wristwear was a Rolex Datejust.
The Georgia peanut farmer turned President always wore his watch on the ‘inside’ of his wrist – making it doubly difficult for outsiders to identify….
Ford had the misfortune to be in power from 1974 – 1977 when ‘fine’ watch making was in the doldrums – but he did get to wear Hamilton’s ground-breaking digital Pulsar, thus demonstrating just how cutting-edge he really was.
Unlike most Presidents who were given a Vulcain cricket, naughty Nixon actually wore his – but, having taken the helm (metaphorically speaking) six months before the Apollo XI moon landing in 1969, Omega presented him with one of the first 28 engraved editions of its commemorative, solid gold Speedmaster ‘Moonwatch’. However, it exceeded the value of allowable gifts, and Nixon was required to turn it down. You can see it today in the Omega museum, alongside another that was originally destined for Vice President Spiro Agnew.
Lyndon B Johnson
Another President who dutifully went through the motions of wearing his complimentary Vulcain, Lyndon B was really a Rolex man whose favourite watch (also gifted) was the Day-Date and whose wearing of one led to it becoming known as the ‘President’s watch’.
John F. Kennedy
JFK’s best known watch is the Omega Ultra Thin that was given to him by Florida senator Grant Stockdale several months before Kennedy was elected. Optimist Stockdale had the back engraved with the words ‘President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant,’ and, in 2005, it was bought back by Omega for $420,000. When JFK was assassinated, he was wearing the Cartier Tank given to him by his wife Jackie in 1957 to mark their fourth wedding anniversary. And then there is the watch Kennedy never wore – the Rolex sent to him by Marilyn Monroe in 1962 as a 45th birthday gift. Engraved with a telling message that hinted at the closeness of their relationship (just as her breathy ‘Happy Birthday’ performed at Madison Square Garden had done), JFK thought it was too hot to handle and instructed an aide to ‘get rid of it’. It subsequently cropped-up at auction in 2005, selling for $120,000.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
As mentioned, Eisenhower was the first President to wear a Vulcain, but he also featured in a 1946 advertisement for a Heuer chronograph and was also first President known to have worn a Rolex wrist watch – a gold Datejust that was gifted by the firm in 1956 to mark his re-election. It was the same year in which the Day-Date was launched, along with the new, so-called ‘President’ bracelet that came with it, thus beginning the POTUS-derived nomenclature that survives to this day.
CREDIT: Simon de Burton is a journalist and author whose articles about high-end cars, motorcycles, boats, watches and luxury living appear in publications around the world. A contributing editor to the Financial Times ‘How To Spend It’ magazine, he also writes for the New York Times, GQ, Vanity Fair, Boat International, Motorsport and more. He lives on Dartmoor, south Devon.