It has long been custom for the president of the United States to carry or wear a timepiece. In fact, every leader of this country since 1789 has owned a watch of some sort. Some presidents were horology gurus, while others simply wore a watch out of necessity. No matter, watchmakers from around the world have looked to the leaders of the United States to wear their pieces. With presidents constantly being covered by the media, there is no better way for a watch brand to gain exposure. Not to mention, luxury watch brands want their products to be associated with power and nobility. From George Washington to Donald Trump, pocket watch to wrist watch, and Timex to Rolex—presidential watch favorites vary by individual. Some of these choices may indeed surprise you!
The first president of the United States owned a few different pocket watches. One, a Swiss made piece from an unknown watchmaker, was engraved with “1775/G. Washington” on the inside movement cover. He was said to have later gifted the watch to friend Colonel Thomas Johnson, the first governor of Maryland.
Another of his pocket watches, designed by Jean-Antoine Lépine, was obtained in Paris by fellow statesman and founding father, Gouverneur Morris. Morris asked Washington if there was anything he may retrieve for the president while away in Europe, and this was the one item he requested. Lépine was a famous watchmaker who worked for the likes of Louis XVI, Louis XV, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
At the time of his presidency, our nation’s capital was in Philadelphia. This is where Washington bought one of his pocket watches from watchmaker Ephraim Clark. It is known as the McCabe watch, named after its maker James McCabe. It is said that Washington regularly visited Ephraim Clark to compare his piece with their regulator.
Abraham Lincoln is said to have owned several pocket watches. One of these pocket watches has a unique story, and was recently deconstructed to reveal a secret message left there for the president at the start of the Civil War. This particular gold pocket watch was purchased by Lincoln from Springfield jeweler George Chatterton. As the story goes, watchmaker Jonathan Dillon was repairing Lincoln’s watch in Washington D.C. when word spread that battle had broken out at Fort Sumter. Dillon claimed to have inscribed a message on the inside of the watch, later writing to the New York Times to confess his story. In 2009, the Smithsonian was contacted by a relative of Dillon’s who had uncovered the New York Times article while researching his genealogy. He simply asked the Smithsonian whether the inscription existed, a question to which they did not have an answer. This prompted the museum to do something unprecedented and allow the piece to be taken apart. Upon disassembly, Dillon’s secret message was in fact revealed, though the message inscribed was slightly different than what he originally reported to the newspaper. So, Lincoln wore this watch, all the while unknowingly carrying Dillon’s message with him. Imagine having that story to tell your family!
Warren G. Harding
The 29th President of the United States was a Freemason, and carried a Masonic watch. The device featured hour markers represented by Masonic symbols, such as an hourglass and compass. The case was triangular shaped, and always included the famous all-seeing eye, again reflecting Masonic symbolism. These watches were produced exclusively by Hiram Watch Inc., a company named for one of the key figures in Masonic lore, Hiram Abiff.
Harry S. Truman
Harry Truman owned a number of presidential watches, including a Gallet Flight Officer and a Vulcain Cricket. The Gallet Flying Officer, referred to as the Flight Officer, was one of the first waterproof chronographs. This was also the first watch to tell world time. The serial number found on Truman’s model indicates that his may have been an original model, if not the original model.
Upon completing his tenure, the White House News Photographers gifted President Truman with a Vulcain Cricket with the words “One More Please” engraved on the back. Of course, this was a request the photographers were used to making of the president and a phrase they likely barked at him on more than one occasion.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
Like Truman, Eisenhower also had a Vulcain Cricket. It was the watch he primarily wore while in office, though he had others. He owned watches from brands like Rolex and Hamilton, and was even featured in a 1946 advertisement for Heuer. Eisenhower was also the first president to have a Rolex, having been gifted a personalized Rolex Datejust by the company itself.
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy was known to have owned several watches including models from Omega, Cartier, and Bulova. Perhaps the most famous JFK watch is the Rolex Day-Date that was gifted to the president by Marilyn Monroe in 1962. Kennedy is said to have immediately rejected the gift, advising one of his staff to “get rid of it.” Of course, the leader of the free world wouldn’t want there to be any evidence of his extramarital affair. The watch was sold at auction in 2005, engraved with the message, “Jack/With love as always/from/Marilyn/May 29th, 1962,” along with the original box and a poem that Monroe had penned to her lover.
Kennedy’s wife Jacqueline gifted him with a Cartier watch for their fourth wedding anniversary, prior to him becoming president. This is the watch that Kennedy was wearing at the time he was assassinated and it is reported to have been handed back to Jackie at the hospital, following the tragedy.
Lyndon B. Johnson
Like his predecessor before him, LBJ had quite the collection of watches. He owned a Patek Philippe with the proverb “Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You” on the dial, a declaration he commonly spoke. Johnson also had a Vulcain Cricket, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox, a Hamilton Pacer, and a Rolex Day-Date. President Johnson is the commander-in-chief most associated with the Rolex brand, as he was the first to wear his Day-Date on what is now called the “President” bracelet. The Day-Date model has actually been given the nickname “Rolex President” and it is often referred to this way in the watch world.
President Bill Clinton is the greatest watch enthusiast of all the United States presidents, especially since leaving office. However, while campaigning and serving his term as president, Clinton famously wore a $50 Timex Ironman. Clinton was the first president to steer away from wearing expensive, luxury watch brands while in office. His unsightly Timex was a far cry from the Swiss-made designer brands that his predecessors before him were so fond of, and it even earned attention and criticism from the Washington Post’s style section following the inaugural ball.
Despite being poked fun at for his choice in fashion, former president Clinton now boasts an exceptional collection of timepieces from brands like Franck Muller, Cartier, Quinting, Panerai, Shinola, and more. He has been photographed wearing so many different watches since leaving office, that it has been challenging for experts to piece together exactly what he’s collected.
George W. Bush
Similar to Clinton, George W. Bush wanted his choice of watch to reflect that he was a man of the people. Rather than opting for a luxury timepiece, Bush regularly wore a Timex i-Control and a Timex Indiglo while campaigning and in office. In 2007, it was reported that Bush’s watch had been stolen from his wrist while he was greeting a crowd and shaking hands in Albania. The White House later corrected these reports, stating that the president had simply removed the watch and placed it into his pocket for safe keeping during the encounter.
During his time as a senator, Barack Obama was frequently seen wearing a TAG Heuer 1500 Two-Tone Diver. After being elected to the presidency, he was gifted a Jorg Gray Chronograph with the Secret Service seal on the dial. It was a birthday gift given to the president by his security detail and ended up being the watch he wore most often. Prior to Obama wearing the brand, Jorg Gray was a relatively unknown watch company. However, demand skyrocketed after an aficionado uncovered the brand and model that Obama had been photographed wearing. Today, the former president is often seen sporting a simple New Balance watch.
Our current president had his own line of quartz watches in 2005, the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection. He hasn’t been pictured wearing any pieces from his collection; however, he is known to have a few luxury watches that he wears. He is regularly photographed interchangeably wearing a yellow gold Rolex Day-Date, a Patek Philippe Ellipse, and a Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra-Fine 1968.
Presidential Watches in San Diego
Many of these watches were gifted, and almost all of them included personalized details specific to each president. However, replicas are still in circulation today and are available right here in San Diego! At Leo Hamel Fine Jewelers, we have one of the largest selection of luxury watches, both new and pre-owned. We carry an array of fine, Swiss-made brands including Rolex, Omega, TAG Heuer, Patek Philippe, Tissot, and more. Visit our showroom today and let us help you find your next beloved timepiece.
* All images courtesy of Hodinkee