American history is full of famous figures donning legendary timepieces. With Independence Day just around the corner, we thought it was the perfect opportunity to look at some of the greatest American icons and their watches.
From Revolution to Civil War
We begin our journey on July 4, 1776, when the Second Continental Congress officially declared independence from Great Britain. Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned pocket watches imported from England, Switzerland, and France. George Washington himself is said to have used several pocket watches throughout his term as president from 1789 to 1797.
Unbeknownst to him, Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president, owned a particularly historically significant pocket watch whose caliber conserves a small piece of history. On April 12, 1861, the first shots of the American Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter. At the time, the president’s gold timepiece was in for repair at M.W. Galt and Co. jewelers in Washington, DC. After hearing the news that war had broken out, watchmaker Jonathan Dillon engraved a message on the watch’s movement. The inscription reads: “Jonathan Dillon April 13-1861 Fort Sumpter [sic] was attacked by the rebels on the above date J Dillon April 13-1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon.” Lincoln never knew about the message he was carrying in his pocket, and Dillon’s inscription remained a secret until 2009.
Post-War America: Rolex, the Space Race, and Civil Rights
Speaking of presidential watches, Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first president to wear a Rolex. The Genevan brand actually gifted him a solid gold Datejust while he was in office. However, this wasn’t just any timepiece: It was Rolex’s 150,000th certified chronometer. You can spot Ike wearing this watch on the cover of Life magazine from July 21, 1952.
Less than a decade later, John F. Kennedy proved himself a savvy watch enthusiast. His most well-known timepiece has to be the Omega he wore at his inauguration in 1961. JFK also famously received an engraved Rolex Day-Date from Marilyn Monroe. But, as the story goes, Kennedy never wore the watch and promptly had an aide get rid of it.
Most of us are familiar with Kennedy’s stirring speech about America’s ambitions to send astronauts to the Moon. The country would reach this goal on July 20, 1969. However, watch enthusiasts best remember this as the moment when Buzz Aldrin’s Omega Speedmaster ref. 105.012 became the first watch on the lunar surface, earning it the title “Moonwatch.” Although Aldrin’s crewmates, Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, also took Omegas on the mission, neither of their timepieces would see action on the Moon.
Back on Earth, the 1960s were also a crucial time for civil rights. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. owned a yellow gold Rolex Datejust ref. 1601. However, this wasn’t his only watch: The minister and activist was also a Timex owner, and many people agree that it was a better fit for his public persona. Visitors to Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport can view King’s Timex in person.
Music, Literature, and the Visual Arts
One thing you may not know about King is that he had a deep love of jazz and blues music. He even gave a rousing opening speech at the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival. Many of the era’s jazz virtuosos were also style icons. Miles Davis famously wore a Breitling Navitimer ref. 806, and was also a fan of the Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox GT. Another jazz great, Duke Ellington, also had impeccable taste. For example, he owned a Cartier Tank à Guichets, an iconic jump hour timepiece. Ellington also sported a spectacular Patek Philippe ref. 1563. Only three copies exist of this watch, and Ellington’s personal model is currently on display at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva, Switzerland.
Creative minds and impressive timepieces seem to go hand-in-hand, as several American authors have also proven themselves true watch enthusiasts. For example, Ernest Hemingway was a Rolex man through and through. The Nobel laureate owned several Rolex models, including a Bubbleback from the 1940s and an 18-karat gold Oyster Perpetual on a leather strap from the 1950s. Despite his loyalty to the Swiss brand, not even Hemingway could turn down the astonishing 1906 Hamilton pocket watch he received as a gift from actress Ava Gardner for his 55th birthday in 1954.
Another great American writer with a penchant for fine timepieces was Truman Capote, who readily admitted to owning at least seven different Cartier Tanks. The Cartier Tank was hugely popular in the world of visual arts, as well: While Andy Warhol collected all sorts of luxury watches, the Tank was his personal favorite. In fact, he once famously stated, “I don’t wear a Tank watch to tell the time. Actually, I never even wind it. I wear a Tank because it is the watch to wear!”
Warhol also dabbled in the film industry – a place brimming with fantastic timepieces. For example, Charlie Chaplin famously wore a left-handed stainless steel Rolex Oyster from 1945 and also owned a rose gold IWC dress watch. Speaking of Hollywood icons, James Dean’s collection included an 18-karat rose gold Jaeger-LeCoultre and an Elgin pocket watch. And since we’re on the topic of iconic film stars’ watches, do Paul Newman’s Rolex Daytona and Steve McQueen’s TAG Heuer Monaco need any introduction?
The Great Bambino and MJ: Icons of American Sports
The last stop on our tour of the watches worn by American icons takes us to the realm of sports. Baseball legend Babe Ruth received several watches throughout his lifetime. Rumor has it that the Sultan of Swat even wore an Elgin pocket watch while on the field for the New York Yankees. On top of that, in the early 1900s, players who won the World Series took home a watch instead of a commemorative ring. One such timepiece, Ruth’s Gruen Verithin 1923 pocket watch, was lost for decades. It later resurfaced and sold at auction for a whopping $717,000 in 2014.
We end with one of sports’ more recent legends: Michael Jordan. MJ wore all types of watches throughout his career, and since retiring, he has evolved into an avid collector. Jordan now owns multiple unconventional models from independent brands, including an Urwerk UR-202S and a Richard Mille RM 032 Diver Flyback Chronograph. The retired shooting guard also has an A. Lange & Söhne Datograph, a platinum Rolex Daytona, and a Rolex Sky-Dweller. Off the court, Jordan has earned many honors, and he famously sported an IWC Big Pilot Platinum ref. 5002-02 with a blue dial when receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in 2016.