Presidents, world leaders, dictators and their watches

From Che to Churchill, Biden to Obama, the watch choices of world leaders offer a unique insight into the personalities behind the politics

17 March 2020

Joe Biden

After two failed attempts at running for president in 1988 and 2008, an eight-year term as vice-president under Obama, Joe Biden will have turned 78 by the time he walks into the White House. The 2020 election was as much a battle of taste as it was about policy. Trump – perhaps to complement his perma-tan and straw locks – favours gold wrist wear. His three favourite watches include a Rolex ‘President’, a Patek Philippe Golden Ellipse (which he often wears while playing golf, and a Vacheron Constantin Historiques Ultra-Fine 1968 – his most commonly-worn piece.

Biden eschews gold for silver. In keeping with his modest demeanour, he favours models on the affordable end of luxury. One model in particular he’s been seen to sport often is an Omega Seamaster Diver 300m – a no-frills workhorse that also happens to be Prince William’s timepiece of choice. A die-hard fan of the model, Biden has been spotted wearing three different colourways – black, gold and blue. Aside from Omega, like many White House occupants before him, Biden is also known to wear a Vulcain Cricket.

Winston Churchill 

Winston Churchill was a fan of the finer things: Paxton & Whitfield cheese, Henry Poole suits, Pol Roger and Breguet. Accompanying him throughout his life was a Breguet No.765, commissioned in 1890 by his grandfather John Spencer-Churchill, the 7th Duke of Marlborough. Despite the gradual shift in popularity from pocket watches to wristwatches, Churchill was decidedly old-fashioned. He supposedly kept the pocket watch on him at all times - ironic, really, given that he was always late. At his private home in Kent, staff would set all the clocks 15 minutes forward to ensure he would make meetings on time. Unbeknownst to them, he always knew what the actual time was thanks to his beloved 'turnip.' 

Fidel Castro and Che Guevara 

The Cuban revolutionaries clearly did not take to heart the Communist 'less is more' credo when it came to their personal accessories. Although a Rolex in the 1950s was more affordable than models are now (a Submariner cost more or less a month's salary for someone in the military back then), both men clearly had a good eye for watches – a Rolex GMT and Sub from that era would now set you back at least £20,000. Castro was so fond of Rolex that he would wear two on the same wrist, with a Cohiba cigar between his fingers, naturally.

When asked why he wore two watches, he responded, "We were wearing two watches all the time because we have experienced that one watch may let you down. Punctuality is so important in military operations. So, we always wore two. Then, it turned into a habit." A habit not many can pull off. During the first part of his revolutionary career, Che was often seen wearing an early reference Submariner. However, the watch that most frequently makes an appearance in pictures with him is his GMT-Master, reference 1675 – a gift from Castro. That watch now belongs in the hands of CIA operative Félix Rodríguez, who took it from the corpse of Guevara. It seems people would do anything for a Rolex. 

Dwight Eisenhower 

Photo courtesy of Amazon
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia

The first US president to be associated with a Rolex, the five-star general was graciously gifted the watch by the manufacturer when it had produced its 150,000th certified chronometer (Churchill was gifted the 100,000th). The watch was cemented into horological history when Eisenhower was photographed on the cover of LIFE magazine. Upon receiving the watch, Eisenhower had to send the watch back to Rolex because of a problem with the date function; Eisenhower was a keen golfer, and one of the springs needed to be modified to cater for this.

John F. Kennedy

Along with his wife Jackie, John F. Kennedy reshaped the way in which presidents interacted with the media, using the power of PR to create a truly American mystique. His personal sense of style remains to this day untouchable. Of the several watches owned by America's golden boy, one that features in numerous pictures is an Omega Ultra Thin (Reference OT3980) with an engraving on the back, gifted to him by friend Grant Stockdale prior to his election win – Stockdale was clearly an optimist. Often mistaken for a Cartier Tank, the watch was worn at his inauguration in 1961.

Photo courtesy of Omega
President Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe on the occasion of his 45th birthday celebrations at Madison Square Garden in New York City

Perhaps the most notorious of all of JFK's watches is the one he never wore: a solid gold Rolex Day-Date given to him by Marilyn Monroe in 1962 for his birthday. The actress is believed to have given the watch to aide Kenneth O’Donnell, who passed it on to the president. On the back were the words: "JACK With love as always from MARILYN May 29th 1962." Upon being presented with the watch, he is rumoured to have told O'Donnell to immediately "get rid of it." We can only assume the horror of Mrs Kennedy were she to have seen the gift and the blushing love poem that accompanied the watch. Happy Birthday Mr President. 

Richard Nixon 

Though Richard Nixon's most worn watch was a Vulcain Cricket, the Omega Speedmaster created for the Apollo 11 moon landing deserves a special mention. Unveiled in 1969 after the July mission, Omega created a gold version of its original moonwatch. Produced in small numbers (1,014 in total) and powered by the calibre 861, the first 28 watches were given to President Nixon, the vice president and NASA astronauts. White House protocol meant that Nixon and the vice president had to turn down their watches, as their value far exceeded the allowable gift amount. The Nixon watch is now on display in the Omega museum. 

Lyndon B Johnson

Famous for 'The Treatment' he gave to those he encountered and attempted to influence, Lyndon B Johnson was also known for his varied watch collection - too many to mention here. The first US President to wear a Day-Date (Eisenhower's was a Datejust) it was the watch he came to be most associated with and has spurred many imitators since - Jay Z, Warren Buffet and Tony Soprano, to name just a few. The watch became known as the 'Rolex Presidential' not only because of the link with Johnson but also because the solid gold watch was accompanied with a 'President' bracelet, only available on Rolex's Day-Date model. So fond was he of the marque, he would often gift them to friends. LBJ was also known to sport a Patek Philippe ref. 2526 and a Vulcain Cricket Calendar - something of a favourite amongst US presidents during that era. 

Johnson with his Rolex Day-Date
Patek Philippe Ref 2526, Photo courtesy of NAWCC

Emmanuel Macron

The French aren’t keen on presidents who flaunt their wealth. When Nicolas Sarkozy came to power, he was dubbed ‘Le Président Bling-Bling’ by Libération magazine. It wasn’t made any better when one of his closest friends, Jacques Séguéla, was asked on national television what he thought of Sarkozy’s lavish lifestyle. “Everyone has a Rolex,” he said. “If you don’t have a Rolex by the time you reach 50, then you have clearly failed in your life.” Two Rolex Daytonas, a Patek Philippe Ref. 3940G (gifted by his wife, Carla Bruni), a Girard Perregeaux and several others add up to a pretty valuable collection.

Emmanuel Macron, despite his previous career as an investment banker, wears a modest Merci LMM-01, which can be yours for 399 euros. He’s also been spotted wearing a rectangular silver watch – easily mistaken for a Cartier Tank. Upon closer inspection, it’s a Longines Dolce Vita. Though we’re pretty sure there’s a secret watch collection locked away in the Élysée palace that we don’t know about.

Honourable mentions 

Jeremy Corbyn

You might expect a battered revolutionary to wear a Rolex GMT (à la Fidel Castro) but alas, their stratospheric prices are at odds with any self-respecting Marxist. Jeremy Corbyn, man of the people, sticks to his guns when it comes to timepieces – though that might be because he's never paid much attention to the watchmaking industry and would rather liquidate Patek Philippes for a mass handout of Casios. Ensuring he arrives at demonstrations on time, he opts for a glorious Timex Expedition Trail Series Resin Combo. It comes with a two-year warranty and guerilla-like construction, but no guarantee of leadership. 

Benjamin Netanyahu 

In keeping with his hard-man image and military past, the leader of Israel favours Panerai, a brand known for its chunky 47mm dive watches. The model often spotted on his wrist is a Luminor Marina PAM48, housed in the distinctive Luminor case with protective crown guard. Bill Clinton also possesses multiple Panerais, after developing a taste for fine watches after leaving office (whilst serving, he started the trend of presidents wearing humble watches; his was a Timex IronMan) 

Photo courtesy of flickr

Barack Obama

Leave your watch choice to the Secret Service and you're left with a timepiece of such bland mediocrity, we're amazed Obama didn't send it off to Guantanamo. Of all the tough but affordable watches the Secret Service could have chosen to gift Obama on his 46th birthday (Luminox, Hamilton, Timex etc.) they decided on the Jorg Gray 6500 Chronograph – the kind of watch you're given when you've just hit puberty. With its generic dial, garish logo and insignificant (but reliable, to be fair) Japanese movement, it's a good thing he doesn't have sons who will inherit it. We'll take Obama's previous no-frills TAG Heuer thanks. 

Donald Trump 

It seems Donald Trump was not blessed with the Midas touch when it came to his foray into watchmaking. Produced for a limited time only, the Donald J. Trump Signature Collection had a limited run in 2005/6. The pamphlet that accompanies his watches says: "Time is money, so the watch you wear matters." It continues, "Using only the highest quality materials, these watches are solid, great looking and above all... accurate. My signature collection of fine timepieces are designed to be on the money, every time." Signed by Donald J. Trump. So on the money, in fact, that he's only ever been seen wearing watches from Patek Philippe and Rolex. 

Vladimir Putin 

Russia is not a country known for its Haute Horlogerie, attested by watches like the Poljot President. Despite his steely gaze, Putin prefers watches that aren't made of steel; most notably his platinum A. Lange & Söhne Tourbograph Perpetual 'Pour Le Mérite,' which is worth half a million euros and limited to 50 pieces. Another platinum beauty he's enjoyed is a Patek Philippe Grand Complication Ref. 5208P-001, which cost a million Swiss francs new and was sold at auction in July 2017. And who can forget a bare-chested Putin on horseback in Siberia, when he sensibly opted not to wear his Patek. On this occasion, we assume he was wearing one of his favourites: an IWC Mark XVII. 

Kim Jong-un 

Like his outfits, Kim Jong Un likes to keep his accessories simple. Switzerland banned exports of its watches to the secretive state back in 2016, so we can only assume that the Omega DeVille was a previous purchase. An interesting choice for any world leader, the Movado Museum timepiece is something of an icon in the design world and is displayed in New York's MOMA. With a chic black dial, gold case and single gold dot at twelve o’clock, the Museum was designed in 1947 by Bauhaus-influenced artist Nathan George Horwitt.