The watches of the most powerful men in the world, the Commander in Chief
You can tell a lot about a person by their wristwatch. This is especially true of politicians, who meticulously curate their appearance, and analyzing their timepiece can provide insight into how they view themselves and want to be perceived by their constituents. We have written about CIA Analysis of Foreign Leaders’ Timepieces as well as watches worn by foreign leaders in the Ukraine conflict, North Korea and on the battlefield.
Today, we take a look at watches worn by U.S. Presidents over the past 40 years. Regardless of price, brand or reference, these are living pieces of history. Rolex has long crowned itself as the watch worn by men (now people) “who guide the destinies of the world,” and the Vulcain Cricket is referred to as “the watch of the Presidents.” In reality, no one brand can claim this title. You will see presidents wearing Patek Philippe to Timex and everything in between.
“Plain Folk” Propaganda Technique:
While luxury brands have long adorned the wrists of the Commander in Chief, the 1990s ushered in an era of more modest and “common” timepieces on the wrists of POTUS. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both wore cheap Timex and Barack Obama wore a sub-$300 watch gifted from his Secret Service detail. This was no accident and is indicative of a propaganda technique, a form of subtle messaging.
The goal of the “plain folk” technique is presenting the President as someone relatable, someone you would want to have a beer with, someone like you. Interestingly, both Clinton and Obama would go on to wear more expensive timepieces including Rolex, almost immediately after leaving office.
In more recent years, President Donald Trump and Joe Biden have bucked this trend and reverted to more luxury watches. Trump wore a plethora of luxury timepieces expected of a real estate magnate including Patek Philippe, Vacheron Constantin and Rolex. Biden has a fairly extensive collection of Rolex, Omega and a more modest Seiko.
Smart Watches: We have previously discussed the counterintelligence risks surrounding smart watches, a topic the US Secret Service is keenly aware of. President Obama was the first to wear a (not-so) smart watch, the fitbit. Current President Joe Biden was the first U.S. President to wear an Apple Watch in the Oval Office. While it is possible they chose these timepieces for practicality, it’s more likely to be a subtle message from the White House. The Apple Watch could be a signal from Biden that he is “hip” and focused on modernity. For a President criticized for his age, it would be a logical message to send.
Important Note: This platform is apolitical, so we will stay focused on the timepieces themselves, and avoid domestic politics. If you are triggered by seeing a picture or watch of a President you disagree with, take off your shoes and go outside. Feel the grass between your toes. The hippies call this “earthing” and it is supposed to help you calm down.
U.S. Presidents and Their Timepieces
Joseph R. Biden Jr. (46)
For 75 years, our nation’s intelligence professionals have worked unceasingly and sacrificed willingly to make our country safer. And that’s not hyperbole. That’s a simple, straightforward fact. -President Biden, July 2022
The 46th President is a certified watch nerd, with a collection including Omega Seamaster Professional 300m, Speedmaster Professional Moonwatch and a more modest Seiko 7T32-6M90 Chronograph. When Biden was inaugurated in January 2021, he skipped Omega and opted for a new steel and blue dial Rolex Datejust on a jubilee bracelet, potentially a gift to commemorate the accomplishment? (Update: Per Esquire, the Datejust was a Christmas gift from the first lady.)
Rolex has a long history with the White House. President Dwight D. Eisenhower wore a yellow gold Rolex Datejust Ref. 6305 which was reportedly a gift from the Swiss brand, the 150,000th Rolex produced. Lyndon Johnson also wore a yellow gold Day Date and “Presidential Bracelet.” Intriguingly, John F. Kennedy passed on the offer from Rolex but was reportedly given a Rolex Day Date from his mistress, Marilyn Monroe, although he allegedly never wore it. (The watch was auctioned in 2005 for $120,000 although there is some debate about the narrative.)
Donald J. Trump (45)
But I want to say that there is nobody that feels stronger about the intelligence community and the CIA than Donald Trump. There’s nobody.- President Trump, January 2017
President Donald Trump wore several luxury timepieces throughout his presidency, including a Patek Philippe Ellipse, Vacheron Constantin Historiques 1968, Rolex Day-Date Ref 18038 and a Universal Geneve “Senna” Chronograph.
President Trump’s watch can often be seen poking out of his embroidered “45” cufflink as well as on the golf course. Like Biden, Trump routinely changed his watch to match the activity.
Barack Obama (44)
The CIA is unique in the capabilities of collection, analysis and operation that you bring to bear. So you are an indispensable tool, the tip of the spear, in America’s intelligence mission and our national security . . . You prove that the key to good intelligence is not simply technology -- it's the quality of the men and women who have signed up to serve. - President Obama, April 2009
During his presidency, President Obama wore a Jorg Gray “Secret Service” JG6500 Chronograph, which was reportedly a birthday gift from his protective detail prior to inauguration. The black dial has a US Secret Service insignia at the 12 o’clock position. We have previously detailed watch culture in the Secret Service, and this watch is available in the White House gift shop for $425.
As a Senator, Obama was seen wearing a Tag Heuer 1500 as well as a Casio F91W earlier in life. In post-presidential life, Obama famously wears the now discontinued white gold Rolex Cellini Ref. 50509, referred to in some watch circles as “the Obama.” Watch enthusiasts first took note of the Cellini when seen with (former?) Prince Harry during an Invictus Games event. Interestingly, despite Harry’s extensive military watch collection, a watch was noticeably absent from his wrist during this event.
George W. Bush (43)
The CIA and all the members of our intelligence community make a vital contribution to our nation's security. I know this firsthand -- I'm your customer. I see your product every morning at 8:00 a.m. sharp, and it's always first-rate. -President Bush, March 2001
President Bush (43) wore a modest white dial Timex Indiglo with an American flag at 12 o'clock on the dial while President. As a president known for his punctuality, it was a utilitarian timepiece that looked the part without the price tag.
A gold version of the “President George W. Bush Timex Watch” is available for purchase at his Presidential Library for $59.98 and would pair well with a W.O.E. Jedburgh Strap.
William J. Clinton (42)
By necessity, the American people will never know the full story of your courage. You labor in obscurity by choice and design, serving with quiet patriotism that seeks neither spotlight nor praise -President Clinton to CIA workforce, 50th anniversary, September 1997
Today, former President Clinton is known for his extensive watch collection including Panerai, Zenith, Jaeger-LeCoultre, and even A. Lange & Söhne. But during his presidency, Clinton deferred to the more modest (and digital) timepiece, the Timex Ironman Triathlon. In stark contrast to the formal blue and black suits, the plastic timepiece became a trend in Washington with many politicians on both sides of the aisle well into the 2000s.
In post government life, Clinton has been photographed wearing everything from Audemars Piguet to a limited edition Jaeger LeCoultre Master Compressor Alarm “Navy SEALS.”
George H. W. Bush (41)
I think we should think of the CIA as a national asset that must be preserved as a vital part of our defense system. . . It is important that the American people understand the intricate job the CIA is doing in an increasingly complex world. It is essential we have the support of the American People. -President George H.W. Bush, speech in San Antonio, Texas, 1978
President Bush (41) has a long history with the CIA, including as Director of Central Intelligence in 1976. He was also a President with an extensive watch collection, owning a pair of Patek Philippes that included a Pink Gold Automatic Perpetual Calendar (Ref. 3940) as well as a 1968 Calatrava (Ref 3445) that he likely wore as Director of CIA. Both were later sold at auction by Christie’s for $81,250 and $62,500 respectively.
Ronald Reagan (40)
Let’s stop the sniping and the propaganda and the historical revisionism, and let the CIA and other intelligence agencies do their job. - President Reagan, 1977
President Reagan wore a Rolex Datejust and was a quintessential Rolex man. Even more interestingly, he appeared to wear the watch with some frequency on the inside of his wrist. While traditionally on the Jubilee bracelet, Reagan appears to have replaced it with an aftermarket bracelet later in life.
Reagan also reportedly received a Vulcain Cricket gifted by Finnish jeweler Keijo Paajanen in the late 1980s; however, there are no pictures of him ever wearing it.
This article has been reviewed by the CIA's Prepublication Classification Review Board to prevent the disclosure of classified information.