The President's Choice

A Brief History Of Powerful People Wearing Swiss Watches

Today the name Rolex is synonymous with success. It is one of the most recognisable luxury brands on the planet, favoured by presidents, CEOs, military leaders, intrepid adventurers and, of course, movie stars. This is not a modern phenomenon, however, far from it. In fact, many of the most notable players of the past century had a Rolex on their wrist when they left their indelible marks on history.  

This was not by chance, of course, nor was it merely the result of a well-executed marketing strategy (although that certainly played, and continues to play, a role). Rather, it is due to the incredible vision of one Hans Wilsdorf, who recognised the potential of the wristwatch very early on. He dedicated his company to improving the technology of watches in terms of accuracy, water resistance and self-winding. Inventions, such as the Oyster case and Perpetual movement forged a positive reputation, with Rolex continuing to produce innovative, top-class watches for a diverse range of professional fields. 

From the end of World War II, several milestone pieces were gifted to generals and statesmen, starting with the Swiss Army General Henri Guisan, who received the 50,000th officially certified chronometer in 1944. This strategy soon proved highly effective. Rolex wristwatches came to be expected on the wrists of prominent (powerful) figures. As a result, a number of high-profile people chose to wear a Rolex in the public eye. 

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The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust

In 1945, the now iconic Datejust was released to commemorate Rolex’s 40th anniversary. This model revolutionised the watch industry with the integration of a simple but practical date function into the dial. An automatic calendar (that changed at the stroke of midnight) viewed through an aperture at 3 o’clock. Numbers alternated between red and black to distinguish even and odd days. The Datejust was unique at the time with regards to function, styling and performance. The occasion was also marked by the debut of the Jubilee bracelet.

Rolex’s pace increased dramatically following the war. It had taken close to four decades to reach the 50,000th certified chronometer. In three short years, Rolex repeated the feat – reaching the 100,000th in 1947. This represented more than 80 percent of the certified chronometers produced by the entire Swiss watchmaking industry at the time. Wilsdorf decided to offer the piece, a Datejust, to Sir Winston Churchill – one of the 20th century’s most significant figures.

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Churchill’s personal Datejust came in 18k rose gold with his coat of arms engraved on the back (as requested). He was particularly impressed that the wristwatch was waterproof and self-winding. He owned several notable timepieces, including a Breguet gold pocket watch and an all-gold Lemania. Churchill was a ‘forerunner’ among heads of state to be seen wearing a Rolex, though Churchill famously cared little for punctualness.

The next significant Datejust – the 150,000th officially certified chronometer – went to General Dwight D. Eisenhower. At the time, ‘Ike’ was serving as the Supreme Allied Commander of NATO (overseeing the rebuilding of Europe). He had played a decisive role in leading the Allied Forces to victory and ending World War II. 

In 1952, Eisenhower ran for president. Considered a hero, his popularity was higher than ever. He had a successful campaign and was re-elected for a second term. Eisenhower made greater use of press conferences than any previous president and always had his trusty Rolex on his wrist. 

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The Kennedy Collection 

Eisenhower was succeeded as US President by the stylish and suave John F. Kennedy. Over the years, Jack and Jackie amassed a respectable collection of wristwatches and clocks. An early piece was an art deco-style gold Bulova. Gifted to Kennedy the year he joined the US Navy Reserve (and the staff of the Office of Naval Intelligence). He had the bracelet plate engraved “JFK 1941”.

In 1957, he received an 18k gold Cartier (with a round face). A gift from his wife, to commemorate their fourth wedding anniversary. It had his initials engraved on the case back. This was the wristwatch he was wearing the day of his assassination. It was later returned to Jackie Kennedy at the hospital. In 1963 (a year after Kennedy became president), the First Lady received her own Cartier. An 18k gold Tank Ordinaire. It was a present from her brother-in-law, Prince Stanislaw Radziwill. It bore an inscription in reference to the Palm Beach 50-Mile Hike she had challenged him to complete – which he did in under 20 hours. 

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Jackie wore the Cartier Tank for decades, and it can be seen in countless photos. That Tank has since become the most expensive of its kind ever sold – bought by Kim Kardashian for $379,500 at an auction last year, in New York. As for JFK, he was known to regularly wear a gold Omega “Ultra Thin”. Another present, this one from friend and Florida senator, Grant Stockdale in 1960, when Kennedy was running for president. Stockdale was so confident, he had the case back engraved to reflect Kennedy’s future success. Kennedy wore the Omega at his 1961 Inauguration Ceremony.

One of the last wristwatches JFK acquired was a 14k gold Nastrix from his friend and former ambassador to Great Britain, David Bruce. Kennedy was reported to wear the wristwatch during his morning swims. It sold for $120,000, at an auction in 2009. Kennedy also owned a rare Patek Philippe desk clock – recently displayed at The New York Art of Watches Grand Exhibition.

The watch JFK has become most notoriously associated with however, was an 18k gold Rolex Day-Date. It was allegedly a birthday present from Marilyn Monroe, and was given in 1962, when she famously sang “Happy Birthday Mr. President”, (the two were rumoured to be having an affair). The wristwatch surfaced at an auction in 2005, also selling for $120,000. The case back reads “JACK, With love as always, from MARILYN, May 29th 1962”. The Day-Date was ‘couriered’ to the president by his assistant, Kenneth O’Donnell. Upon seeing it, Kennedy is said to have remarked “Get rid of it!”. There’s no record of Kennedy ever wearing (or even owning) the Rolex, but the story has become legend all the same.

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The President’s Watch

Although the Day-Date made its first appearance in 1956, during the Eisenhower administration, it was another U.S. President, Lyndon B. Johnson, who became well known for wearing one. The Day-Date featured a second disc displaying the days of the week. Spelled out in full – the day appeared through an arc-shaped aperture at the top of the dial. The Day-Date came in gold or platinum and was waterproof to 165ft (50m/ 5 bar). Rolex also introduced a new three-piece links bracelet, which came to be known as the “President”. To this day, it remains associated with the Day-Date.

Rolex was popular among Texans and LBJ was no exception. In 1965, while serving as President, Johnson had a gall bladder operation. A press conference was held afterwards (to quell rumours of it being cancer). Johnson pointed to a scar on his stomach while wearing the 18k gold Day-Date, inadvertently introducing his solid gold Rolex to the general public.

Initially it was referred to as the “Texas Timex”. Soon, however, Americans began referring to the Day-Date as the “Rolex President”. In later decades Rolex even ran an advert referring to the wristwatch as the “Rolex President Day-Date Chronometer”. LBJ’s prominent wearing of the Day-Date was captured in many photos – particularly in the Oval Office and nickname has stuck ever since. 

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Beyond Politics

The extent of public interest in the US presidency from Eisenhower through to Johnson gave Rolex a lot of exposure. But it was not the only stage for the brand by any measure. There were a number of other Rolex watches on famous wrists through the 20th century.

In 1953, to celebrate Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reaching the summit of Everest, Rolex launched the Explorer. Rolex had been prototyping the wristwatch with climbers since the previous year. Hillary had worn a Rolex in 1952 for the Cho Oyu (Himalayan) Expedition. For much of the Everest climb he did the same. News of the achievement was globally-celebrated, as was the Rolex Explorer, official watch of the expedition.

The Explorer was defined by a highly legible dial. It featured a strengthened case and used special lubricants functional between -20 and 40 degrees Celsius. It came on an all-steel bracelet and had a new Twinlock winding crown with a double waterproofness system. It was joined by the Explorer II in 1971 – a larger format with a 24-hour bezel and second time zone hand. Both wristwatches are associated with those brave enough to push themselves beyond their comfort zone. Prince Harry, for example, has been photographed wearing his Explorer II while serving on his two tours in Afghanistan. 

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In the same year Hillary and Norgay reached the highest point on earth, Jacques-Yves Cousteau was uncovering the mysteries of the deep. His first book “The Silent World” captured the world’s imagination. In 1954, he made a film version called “Le Monde Du Silence” and became something of a superstar. In the film he can be seen wearing a Rolex Submariner, which he was helping to develop with the brand. The Submariner went on to become Rolex’s most iconic wristwatch (helped by Sean Connery wearing one as 007). It built on the technology developed for the Explorer, adding bezel functionality.

In 1957, the Lady-Datejust was unveiled. It shared the same signature features as the Datejust but its smaller dimensions were more suited to slender wrists, such as those of Grace Kelly, who the previous year had retired from a successful acting career to become the Princess of Monaco. News of the engagement was a sensation. It’s estimated over 30 million viewers watched the wedding on live television. She was an amazing style icon (as well as an active philanthropist). Her timeless fashion was admired around the world. 

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Lastly, we cannot end this exposé without mentioning the famous wrist of Paul Newman. His Rolex Cosmograph Daytona has become unquestionably the most famous Rolex of all time. Originally, the Cosmograph Daytona chronograph, which debuted in 1963, was not a strong seller. But Newman was a big fan. He owned several models. It’s his reference 6239 – with exotic white dial and red accents – that’s most highly prized. It was a gift from his wife Joanne Woodward. The case back reads “DRIVE CAREFULLY ME”. A reminder after Newman discovered his aptness and passion for motor racing, while shooting the 1969 film “Winning”.

Newman wore the exotic white dial Daytona for approximately 15 years – hence the numerous iconic photographs. He was famously captured as a race car driver wearing the wristwatch in an Italian magazine cover-shoot. The exotic dial would later become known amongst collectors as a “Paul Newman”. His personal Rolex Daytona was believed lost for some 30 years. But in 2017, Paul Newman’s Paul Newman Daytona resurfaced to be auctioned. Fetching $17,752,500, it is the world’s most expensive wristwatch ever sold. 

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WATCHES OF SWITZERLAND AUSTRALIA is proud to be a member of the worldwide network of Official Rolex Retailers, authorised to retail and service Rolex timepieces. We invite you to visit our Official Rolex Retailer showrooms in Melbourne City, Melbourne International Airport and Perth City and join the world’s elite in choosing a Rolex watch for your wrist.