Menu

Watches - Feature Article

US Presidents and their Rolex Watches

I unravel the confusion around the “Rolex President” and check out the Rolexes on the wrists of US presidents past and present.

With only a few days to go until the election of the 45th president of the United States, and with both leading candidates being Rolex owners, I decided now would be an ideal moment to take a look back at the fascinating history of Rolex in the White House. It's a story that reveals golden evidence of a presidential affair and describes Rolex’s ingenious product placement and how they doubled-down on a strong hand. I'll look at the first presidents to own Rolexes and how that came about, and why the presidential Rolex fell out of favour. Finally, we'll turn to the current US political scene and how the Rolex looks set to return to the power seat.

Yellow Gold Rolex Day-Date

But before I get started, I want to clear up as best I can the answers to the most common myths and questions around the Rolex President:

Is it called the “Rolex President”, the “Rolex Presidential”, the “President’s watch” or even the “El Presidente”?

All these terms are used to refer to the same watch, but while Rolex say it’s the Day-Date, the Datejust was the original. To make it more complicated, there is also a “President Bracelet”, which appears in both the Day-Date, the Datejust lines.  

Which is the Rolex President watch, the Day-Date or the Datejust, or is it either so long as they have the President bracelet? 

At some point before WWII, Rolex came up with the idea of gifting their watches to important men, including the likes of Winston Churchill and President Eisenhower. Unsurprisingly, this worked out pretty well, so they continued, sending Rolexes to all US presidents that would accept them. Many twentieth century presidents, including those named, received Datejusts, but when Rolex introduced the all-gold, more expensive Day-Date it was soon marketed as the “Rolex President”, but only for a brief moment in time. The Day-Date first hit the shelves with the three-link bracelet also used on some previous Datejusts, this bracelet was referred to as the President bracelet long before the Day-Date took its nickname. 

And what is the Texas Timex? 

As for the “Texas Timex”, well, back in the days of rich Texan oil tycoons, the showy, all-gold Day-Date became the way to flash your cash. It was so popular that it was named after a watch that was renowned for its ubiquity and good value. At some point, the definition of the Texas Timex expanded to mean any gold Rolex. 

The First US President to Wear a Rolex Watch

In 1944, shortly before the end of WWII, after nearly 40 years in production, Rolex put the seal on their 50,000th watch. To mark the historic achievement they decided to send it to the head of the Swiss Army, General Henri Guisan, who had become something of a national hero after taking a courageous stance against the Nazi party.

The first ever Rolex Datejust, introduced in 1945, came on a Jubilee bracelet. This was the same model sent to Winston Churchill three years later.
The first ever Rolex Datejust, introduced in 1945, came on a Jubilee bracelet. This was the same model sent to Winston Churchill three years later.

Wristwatches came into their own during WWII, as their practical qualities finally started to shine through. Brands like Omega and Rolex started developing watches to stand up to tough conditions. Sales went through the roof, and just four years later, in 1948, Rolex hit the 100,000th watch mark. They decided to send a gift to another war hero—Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill was more than happy to receive a Rolex Datejust, which he wanted in rose gold and engraved with his family coat of arms on the case back.

With one of the heroes of modern times inadvertently advertising the Swiss brand at any wrist-revealing photo-opportunity, it didn’t take long for Rolex to fire out another 50K watches. By 1951, they were sending their 150,000th piece to a US President. General Eisenhower took the same watch as Churchill, the Datejust, but this time it was in yellow gold and with his own signature on the case back. Eisenhower was the first US President to own a Rolex.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the cover of Life magazine in his Rolex Datejust.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower on the cover of Life magazine in his Rolex Datejust.

With two of the most important figures of the twentieth century now strapping on Datejusts, the precedent was set and Rolex was officially in the big league. 

President Kennedy and the First Rolex Day-Date

Like any successful company today, Rolex recognised a chance to capitalise on their presidential connection. In 1956, they introduced a new piece that, for the first time, showed the day of the week written out in its entirety. The Day-Date, with its gold-coloured or “champagne” dial was only available in solid gold and was a fair chunk more expensive than its brother.

The first Rolex Day-Date released in 1956 came on a President bracelet.
The first Rolex Day-Date released in 1956 came on a President bracelet.

Following Eisenhower into the hot seat was President John F. Kennedy. The young, rich and stylish Kennedy was a prime candidate for Rolex, and he was already donning a selection of luxury watches, but he did not wear a Rolex. We can only presume Rolex did everything in their power to secure his wrist space, but that he turned it down. Whether another brand had played a hand or he just didn’t go for it we may never know.

From since before Kennedy was elected he wore a rectangular Omega that looked a lot like a Cartier Tank, which had been given to him by his friend Grant Stockdale. He also owned a Cartier, given to him by his wife, and a gold Bulova, amongst others.

But there was, however, a particularly important Rolex that allegedly belonged to President Kennedy. It surfaced at auction in 2005 and sold for $120,000. It was a gold Rolex Day-Date with the words, "JACK, With love as always, from MARILYN, May 29th 1962". The Marilyn referred to is Marilyn Monroe, JFK’s alleged mistress. The story goes that when she sent it to Kennedy’s assistant Kenneth O'Donnell, Kennedy turned around and told O'Donnell to "get rid of it!" You have to ask yourself if that might have played a role in Kennedy shunning Rolex.

The gold Rolex Day-Date given to President John F. Kennedy by his alleged mistress Marilyn Monroe.
The gold Rolex Day-Date given to President John F. Kennedy by his alleged mistress Marilyn Monroe.

The First Rolex President

By this point the Day-Date was still the Day-Date, and the “Rolex President” was not yet a thing. But with Kennedy’s successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, the name would finally set in. Johnson was the first US President to wear a Day-Date. It was a yellow gold model on the three-link bracelet that is now referred to as the “President bracelet”.

An exert from February’s edition of Texas Monthly magazine in 1984 describes the moment Johnson’s Day-Date was revealed to the public:

“In 1965 President Lyndon Johnson had a gall bladder operation and in the press conference afterwards he pointed to a scar on his belly and there on his wrist was an eighteen-karat gold Rolex. It cost $1,500 and it was called the Day-Date Oyster Perpetual Chronometer with an eighteen-karat-gold President bracelet. In the US it was known as the Rolex President, the Texas Timex.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King. Johnson is wearing a yellow gold Day-Date on a President bracelet. As it happens, King is wearing his yellow gold Datejust on a Jubilee bracelet.
President Lyndon B. Johnson meets with Martin Luther King. Johnson is wearing a yellow gold Day-Date on a President bracelet. As it happens, King is wearing his yellow gold Datejust on a Jubilee bracelet.

Although here the bracelet was referred to as the President, according to “Rolex Historian” Jake Ehrlich* the watch wasn’t yet known as the President, but presumably the nickname as the Texas Timex had already caught on. Instead, Ehrlich suggests it was in the same year as the Texas Monthly article, 1984, when the watch first picked up the nickname. On his account he shows a Rolex advert for the Day-Date, which refers to the watch as, "The Rolex President Day-Date Chronometer. Available in 18kt. gold, with matching bracelet." This advert ran for a couple of years but after that Rolex went back to calling the watch by its original name. It’s not clear whether Rolex came up with the President nickname or if it had been called this by the public for so long that Rolex assumed it, but the latter seems likely.

Incidentally, the Texas Monthly article goes on to give us a perfect idea of why the watch was so popular in the southern state: “Let California and New York pass the time with dainty, wafer-thin cocktail watches. Texas wants a ticker with guts—more Rolexes are sold here than in any other state and most European countries.”

Recent US Politicians and Rolex Watches

The next president to wear a Rolex in the White House was Ronald Reagan, who wore a toned down Rolex Datejust in stainless steel. After Reagan, the number of Rolexes in the White House took a nosedive. It seems the fashion reversed presumably as politicians were encouraged to steer away from even the smallest displays of ostentation. They opted instead for non-expensive watches, like President Obama's Jorg Gray 6500, which you can buy for about $300 US dollars. However, although presidents such as Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton turned down their free Rolexes while in office, they were often seen wearing them after retiring.

Nowadays, not only are political figures very severely scrutinised by the media but receiving gifts is not as easy as it once was. According to Robin Wright’s New Yorker article Presidential Swag and the Gift Horse, the Oval Office now has a Gift Office, which finds new homes for presents or stores them in the National Archives warehouse. The First Couple are invited to "view and admire" any gifts before they are sent on.

But now to 2016 and this year may finally see the Rolex President return to the Oval Office. Hiliary Clinton, a likely candidate to be the first female President, is often seen wearing a two-tone Rolex Lady Datejust, but she also owns an all-gold men's model with a President bracelet (title image). As for Donald Trump, who, admittedly, is often seen wearing surprisingly modest timepieces, he has also been snapped a few times with a Rolex Day-Date. Our guess is that Trump would probably not worry too much about Rolex damaging his image if he reaches the White House!

Political speculation aside, one thing is for sure, whether it be a Datejust or a Day-Date, especially in gold and with a three-link bracelet, Rolex has stood the test of time and is still a firm fixture amongst world leaders and successful men and women.

*Note: While Rolex reveals very little about its personal life, there are some decent biographers out there. One of the best is the self-professed “Rolex Historian” Jake Erlich, who writes an 11-part history on the Rolex President, which includes a wealth of pictures and information. With help from his blog and a handful of other sources, I tried to boil it down and stick to the most exciting parts of the story.

For more information, visit our dedicated pre-owned or vintage Rolex watches page.