In the summer of 1960, John F. Kennedy received a gift from his friend Grant Stockdale, at the time the senator of Florida. The watch was a Tank-style ultra-thin square watch from Omega, with an engraving on the back that read, “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant.” Kennedy was immediately smitten, according to letters his wife Jacqueline wrote to Stockdale. She described it as the “thinnest most elegant wristwatch,” and said JFK immediately traded out the “chunky little one” she’d given him for the new Omega. But anyone who paid attention in history class would be right to point out that during the summer of 1960 Kennedy was still a presidential hopeful in one of the closest races in American history against Richard Nixon. That’s not a typo: Grant just had faith when he ordered the engraving, and the watch turned out to be prophetic. Kennedy would wear the watch to his inauguration—and this particular Omega became known as “the Stockdale watch.” While there are multiple timepieces that claim the title of “the President watch”—the Rolex Day Date and Vulcain Cricket among them—looking back on the history of watches worn in the Oval Office brings to light a diverse collection and much more iconic wristwear. Below, a roundup of a few favorites.
John F. Kennedy’s Omega Ultra Thin
Today’s JFK’s Omega Ultra Thin sits in Omega’s museum in Bienne, Switzerland—the brand purchased the watch at auction for $350,000 in 2005. And as far as presidential watches go, it remains an artifact of a different time. With the exception of Donald Trump, who wears a Rolex, almost every president over the past two decades has made a point of wearing affordable everyman watches that don’t make a show of the wearer’s wealth and stature.
The Omega, as Jackie pointed out, was an incredibly elegant wristwatch made in 18-carat gold—and, on top of that, was a gift from a friend who later became the United States Ambassador to Ireland. Imagine how that would have raised eyebrows today! Like any good cultural artifact, Omega found a way to use it to drum up business, the same way they’ve made hay out of their association with NASA. In 2009, the brand ran ads featuring Kennedy, leading John Stewart on The Daily Show to jokingly describe Kennedy as “that guy from the Omega watch ad.”
Bill Clinton’s Timex Ironman Triathlon
Clinton’s bulky Timex is one of those now-classic examples of what used to pass for a presidential controversy. In 1993, back when Clinton was routinely wearing his $39 Timex, Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten wrote a story with the all-capped vitriolic headline, “NOTED WITH DISDAIN.” What follows is 1,000-word tirade against…Clinton’s Timex. It’s really fun to read in retrospect: “It,” Weingarten starts, refusing to even use its name, “began showing up in photographs early in the presidential campaign, an unsightly blemish that just wouldn’t heal…It is a plastic digital watch, thick as a brick and handsome as a hernia.” He continues: “If Bill Clinton began arriving at state dinners in bare feet and bib overalls, stock prices would edge uneasily down. The president need not be impeccably tailored, but a certain dignity is expected. So what’s with that, that… toaster on his wrist?” Incredible! I can only wonder how Weingarten would feel about Trump’s sack-looking suits. But the truth is voters liked Clinton’s Timex. One readers responding to Weingarten’s story wrote in, “Nothing makes me more confident than seeing our nerdy president sporting a Timex Ironman Triathlon.”
Barack Obama’s Rolex Cellini Time
While post-Clinton presidents have mostly stuck to affordable timepieces (Obama wore a Jorg-Gray watch while in office), they’ve upgraded when released from the constraints of the job. Clinton, who was flogged for wearing his clunky Timex, is now a veritable watch hound who owns Panerais, Jaeger LeCoultres, and Audemars Piguets. Obama hasn’t gotten that deep into watchdom yet, but after leaving office in 2016 he started wearing something befitting his post-presidency glow-up: a Rolex Cellini Time. While Rolex is known for its “professional” models—the iconic Submariner, Cosmograph Daytona, and GMT-Master—the Cellini represents the brand’s more elegant side. Obama’s is a very simple time-only watch perfect for speaking engagements, black-tie affairs, and sitting for official presidential portraits: it’s the one forever painted into Kehinde Wiley’s painting of Obama.
Lyndon B. Johnson’s Rolex Day Date
On his way to the Oscars this year, Timothée Chalamet shared a tweet that read as an all-caps warning (to the haters): “ROSE GOLD PRESIDENTIAL ON MY BONEY WRIST.” The same way PBS is made possible by viewers like you, that tweet was made possible only by one Lyndon B. Johnson. When Rolex first introduced the watch in 1956, with a new bracelet it prophetically called “the president,” it had yet to be worn by a president, although Dwight Eisenhower did wear a similar-looking Datejust model. But it wasn’t until Johnson wore the Rolex Day Date that history was made and the watch’s nickname was solidified. Johnson was such a fan of the watch that he was known to give them as gifts to friends. Most famously he gave one to his longtime cardiologist, who in a different era might also have boasted on social media about having a presidential on his boney wrist.
Dwight Eisenhower’s Vulcain Cricket
The Rolex Day Date wasn’t the only watch vying for the moniker of “President.” Years before Johnson took office, Dwight Eisenhower wore the Vulcain Cricket—and at the time, Vulcain even put out an ad with an image of Eisenhower wearing the timepiece alongside the slogan, “The watch of Presidents.” The Cricket was a favorite among presidents because it was one of the first watches to come with an alarm function, which was useful for stirring owners for early morning meetings. Before Eisenhower, Harry Truman was given the watch as a gift from the White House Press Photographer’s Association when he left office. Johnson wore the Cricket, too, despite his ties to Rolex. Ever since, Vulcain has gifted most U.S. presidents the Vulcain Cricket. In fact, the tradition is so entrenched that Joe Biden made a small stir when he disclosed he’d accepted the $800 Vulcain Cricket in 2012. Government officials aren’t allowed to accept gifts that exceed $390, but Biden made an exception “in keeping with a tradition established by the proprietor’s family of presenting this watch to U.S. Presidents visiting Finland,” an aide said at the time.