In the watch community, we often measure a man by what he wears on his wrist.
A wristwatch is often a symbol of status and power. It’s also often a reminder of significant life events or memories. Sometimes, it can be both—a collection of unassuming timepieces can have great historical significance, all because of the person who wore them. That’s the case of the watches owned by the 35th President of the United States, John F. Kennedy.
JFK always had a watch on his wrist and at his side. He was never committed to one particular watch or brand or style – his watches tended to be gifts marking significant moments in his life, either from close friends or female admirers.
His first notable watch was a Bulova gifted to him by a special woman at a dinner in Washington, DC in 1941. It was a gold watch with a rectangular case and a stretch bracelet with a curved plate at the bottom of the buckle. JFK had his initials and the year inscribed on the plate to mark the occasion.
In 1953, JFK married Jacqueline Bouvier, and four years later, she gifted him a Cartier wristwatch as an anniversary gift. It was an 18-karat gold Louis Cartier Tank inscribed with his initials and family arms as well as the couple’s wedding date. This is the same watch on his wrist the day he was assassinated in 1963. After his death, the timepiece was returned to Jackie, who later gave it to JFK’s former secretary.
To commemorate his election to the office of President, JFK received an 18-karat gold Omega Ultra Thin reference OT3980 from his close friend, former Florida State Senator Grant Stockdale. The watch featured a black leather strap and sleek square case with the inscription “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant” on the caseback. JFK wore the watch on his wrist when he took the Oath of Office in 1961, and over the course of his short time in office, that Omega became known as his signature watch.
Later, it came out that Grant had such confidence in JFK’s chances at the presidency that he purchased, personalized, and gifted the watch to him the summer before the November election. In December of 2005, Omega purchased the watch at auction for $350,000, and the watch is now on display at the Omega Museum in Bienne, Switzerland.
In 1962, just a year into his presidency, stories began to surface about the President’s rumored affair with the beautiful and talented actress Marilyn Monroe. That year, she gifted him an 18kt yellow gold Rolex Day-Date for his 45th birthday. The caseback was inscribed with the note, “Jack / With love as always / from / Marilyn / May 29th 1962.” In order to prevent further gossip, JFK had his assistant do away with the watch. In 2005, that watch was sold at auction for $120,000.
Later in 1962, JFK received another watch as a gift from the former governor of Pennsylvania, David Lawrence. The Hamilton 505 timepiece was custom-made for JFK, featuring photo-engraved pictures of his children on the watch face.
JFK’s last wristwatch came to him before his death in early 1963. The 14-karat gold Nastrix timepiece was a gift from his friend and former ambassador to Great Britain David Bruce as a thank you for appointing him to the position. According to JFK’s secretary Evelyn Lincoln, he wore the watch frequently during his morning swims. In 2009, the watch, along with a signed letter of authenticity from Lincoln herself, was sold at auction for $120,000 to an anonymous buyer.
JFK’s ties to the watch world go beyond the watches he wore. In 2009, Omega created a marketing campaign for the Speedmaster commemorating the 40th anniversary of the American moon landing. The magazine ad featured an image of JFK along with a quote from the President’s speech at Rice University in 1962, in which he said, “We choose to go to the moon.” Historical film footage of JFK and the now-famous speech were also featured in the television variation of the ad. It’s only fitting that a man who wore so many watches during his lifetime would continue to inspire the watch industry long after his death.
It’s easy to measure a man by the watch he wears on his wrist. But JFK’s collection serves as a prime example of why we shouldn’t be so quick to judge. JFK was anything but meek or shy, yet he gravitated toward simple watches—he shows us it’s possible to choose a watch not for its status or for appearances, but for its sentimentality.