The Unlikely Watch Collector: U.S. Presidents Edition
This edition of The Unlikely Watch Collector highlights some of our favorite presidential watches, particularly the ones with fascinating backstories and serious historical (or horological) importance.
From George Washington’s Jean-Antoine Lépine pocket watch to FDR’s Tiffany-signed Movado triple calendar to Donald Trump’s Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra-fine 1968, the combined watch collections of 45 different United States presidents is quite large. Too large, in fact, for one article to cover adequately.
With that in mind, this installment of The Unlikely Watch Collector will tell the fascinating stories of six presidential watches with historical or horological importance. Let’s get to it!
Abraham Lincoln: Honest Abe’s Pocket Watch of Mysteries
President Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States who served from 1861 to 1865, owned two pocket watches that are of particular interest. One of historical significance, the other of horological importance.
After representing Illinois’s 7th district in the House of Representatives but before seeking the presidency, Abraham Lincoln was a “prairie lawyer” in the state capital of Springfield. It was during this time, in the early 1850s, that Lincoln was looking for a new watch, and jeweler George Chatterton presented him with an 18-carat gold pocket watch.
Then, in November 1860 as President-Elect, when Lincoln was preparing to relocate to Washington D.C., his gold pocket watch was in need of service. So, it was sent ahead to M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in the nation’s capital. And while watchmaker Jonathan Dillon was repairing President Lincoln’s watch, Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter, starting the American Civil War on April 13, 1861.
Upon hearing about the event and immediately recognizing its monumental significance, Dillon removed the dial he was in the process of screwing back on and inscribed a message. Forty-five years would pass before anyone learned of the secret message, when, in 1906, the 84-year-old Dillon told the New York Times what he had done. Another 103 years would pass until the National Museum of American History, which is part of the Smithsonian Institution, opened the watch in 2009 and found the following inscription:
Fort Sumptor was attacked by the rebels on the above date
thank God we have a government
Amazingly, all that is known about the origin of the watch is that its movement was manufactured in Liverpool, England, and the case was of extremely high-quality. However, despite its opaque horological pedigree, this timepiece is a national treasure.
The second Lincoln pocket watch of horological importance is a Waltham model 1857 with William Ellery movement. First released in 1857, and manufactured throughout the Civil War, the Waltham model 1857 was the first industrialized pocket watch. By mass producing these watches with standardized parts, Waltham’s model were significantly less expensive than pocket watches imported from England or France and soon became the favored timepieces of Union soldiers.
President Lincoln’s Waltham model, serial number 67613, was presented to him on November 19th, 1863, after the Gettysburg Address. And although this Waltham is not the pocket watch that carries Jonathan Dillon’s secret inscription as many mistakenly believe it is, it still represents an important horological milestone.
Harry S. Truman: A Flying Officer and a Tri-Compax
In researching this edition of The Unlikely Watch Collector, I was surprised to find a modest Midwestern man like Missouri native President Harry S. Truman owned a lot of wrist and pocket watches. Here are two historically significant watches owned by the 33rd president of the United States.
First up is the first time-zone wristwatch, the Flying Officer. Designed and manufactured by the La Chaux-de-Fonds-based Gallet, the Flying Officer was commissioned by Truman in 1939, when he was still “the Senator from Pendergast,” for pilots and navigators in the United States Army Air Forces.
Part of the Gallet Clamshell line, the Flying Officer had a 34mm stainless steel case. The black dial featured centered tachymeter rings for calculating different speeds and a white outer edge with 23 city names printed in black and red. Most importantly, it had a rotating 12-hour bezel that enabled the wearer to adjust time-zones. It was also only the second wrist-worn chronograph to have a water-resistant case. Once the United States entered World War II, the Gallet Flying Officer became the watch of choice for flight officers and pilots.
Most likely gifted to him by members of his senatorial staff, Truman’s Flying Officer, serial number 64112, has an engraved caseback that reads, “Col. Truman From Vic, Paul.”
Now for the second of his watches. During Truman’s time in the Oval Office (1945-1953), “Give ‘Em Hell Harry” favored the Universal Genève Tri-Compax Ref. 12551.
Launched at the 1944 Basel Watch Fair, the Tri-Compax was a groundbreaking chronograph and became the most popular chrono of the 1940s and 1950s. Interestingly, the “Tri” in Tri-Compax does not refer to sub-dials but to its three complications – moonphase, calendar, and chronograph.
While it is not known whether Truman was wearing his Tri-Compax when the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, President Truman did have it on his wrist in Potsdam when he met with UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin to decide the fate of post-war Germany.
Put up for auction by Antiquorum in 1994, Truman’s Tri-Compax had a 36mm case made of 18-karat yellow gold with rectangular pushers. Its dial featured gold leaf hands, counters for hours and minutes, sub-dial for seconds, day and date indicators, moonphase, tachymeter indication, and chronograph-seconds scale graduated to 1/5 of a second. On the caseback was the inscription: “WORN AT POTSDAM July 1945 BY Harry Truman.”
Sold in 1994 for 23,000 CHF, the current whereabouts of President Truman’s Universal Genève Tri-Compax is a mystery.
Dwight D. Eisenhower: Ike Likes Rolex & Vulcain
In 1944, Rolex gave its 50,000th officially certified chronometer to the General of the Swiss Armed Forces during World War II. A few years later, in 1948, Winston Churchill was the recipient of the 100,000th. But then, in 1951, Rolex had another big decision to make: Who would be the honored recipient of the brand’s 150,000th officially certified chronometer?
Following the thematic trend of World War II leaders, the brand chose the Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Force during World War II and the newly appointed Supreme Commander of NATO – General Dwight D. Eisenhower.
As the first president known to own a Rolex, many mistakenly believe the 34th president owned a Rolex President Day-Date. However, the Day-Date wasn’t released until 1956, five years after then-General Eisenhower was gifted his Rolex by the brand. In truth, after some correspondence with Rolex’s Director René Jeanneret, the forever soldier-at-heart Eisenhower opted for the “just the facts” Rolex Datejust.
Eisenhower’s personalized Datejust ref. 6305 features a 36mm yellow gold Oyster case, yellow gold five-link Jubilee bracelet, silver dial, and a magnified date aperture with red numeral. Interestingly, its current silver sunburst dial with tritium luminescence is not the original but a service replacement, as Rolex didn’t start using the radioactive tritium on dials until the mid-1960s.
Finally, the caseback of Eisenhower’s Rolex was engraved with five stars, representing his general’s rank, the initials “D.D.E.,” and the date he was appointed to be the Supreme Commander of NATO, “12-19-1950.”
President Eisenhower also owned a Vulcain Cricket. Launched in 1947 and known for its incredibly loud built-in alarm, the Vulcain Cricket was extremely popular with both watch enthusiasts and executives. In fact, in addition to Eisenhower, Presidents Truman, Nixon, Johnson, Reagan, H. W. Bush, and Clinton all owned the notoriously noisy Cricket while in office.
However, Eisenhower’s Cricket is of particular interest because it might be the only watch in presidential history responsible for an embarrassing gaff. According to multiple sources I encountered while researching this article, President Eisenhower was holding a press conference meant to encourage higher tariffs on imported Swiss watches, when he was interrupted by the unmissable chirping of his Swiss-made Vulcain Cricket.
Is this story apocryphal? Perhaps. But after President Eisenhower was photographed wearing his Cricket in 1957, Vulcain seized the moment and advertised the watch as “The Watch for Presidents” and ran ads featuring the tagline, “Do as Ike does.”
While this Unlikely Watch Collector article barely scratches the surface of presidential watches, it gives a glimpse at some of the more unique timepieces in presidential history. Stay tuned to future Watchonista articles as we plan to highlight the watches of Presidents Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, and more!