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The First Watches in Space

A man and his watch: a love story

Seriously, the relationship many of us have with our beloved timepieces could be considered quasi-transcendental, such is the love we have for them. That remains true for some men even when they become world-famous and leaders in their fields.

Much has been made about famous actors and sportsmen who wore certain watches, even beyond the usual commercial endorsements that some of them enjoy with their celebrity status. But they are not the only men who have loved the prized possessions on their wrists (or in their pockets, as you will soon read). There have also been presidents and prime ministers who have enjoyed owning and admiring watches, not to mention trend-setters and creatively daring men who changed the way we view arts and culture.

In this article, we will seek some understanding of the unique relationship and affinity that certain famous men had for their watches. It’s a relationship that’s telling about the man, his outlook on life, and even the times in which he lived.

The Politicians

John F. Kennedy

JFK’s obsession with watches is well-known. Kennedy was one of those lucky men who had literally every watch he ever owned given to him by someone else. That didn’t diminish his love for watches, though. For example, athis inauguration on January 20th, 1961, Kennedy was wearing an Omega Ultra Thin (Reference OT3980), which had been given to him by Grant Stockdale, a senator from Florida. Inscribed on the watch’s caseback was the inscription “President of the United States John F. Kennedy from his friend Grant.” It’s said that JFK wore the watch for good luck on that day, given that Grant gave it to him months earlier, well before Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the general election by a mere few thousand votes.  

Image credit: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs, Omega Museum.

A favored watch was a water-resistant, 14­karat yellow gold cased Nastrix automatic watch that had been given to JFK by the Washington socialite couple and major Kennedy donors, David and Evangeline Bruce. According to the President’s secretary, Evelyn Lincoln, JFK would often wear the watch during his morning swims in the White House pool. Another favored watch was a Hamilton offered to him by then Governor David Lawrence of Pennsylvania in 1962, which had photo-engraved pictures of Kennedy’s two children, Caroline and John, engraved on the dial.

JFK's watch from Marilyn Monroe, which sold for $120,000 at auction in 2005.

Perhaps his most infamous watch was that given to him by Hollywood legend,Marilyn Monroe. It’s reported that the president was shocked with the gold Rolex (accompanied by a love poem from Monroe) on which was inscribed, “JACK - With love as always from MARILYN - MAY 29th 1962,” because he didn’t want his wife, Jackie, to find out about his torrid affair with the movie star. He never wore the watch, instructing an aide to get rid of it. And then there was the most tragic of JFK’s many watches: the 18-carat gold Cartier given to him by Jackie on their wedding anniversary in 1957 that was on his wrist when he wasbrutally assassinated in broad daylight in Dallas on November 22nd, 1963.

Winston Churchill

Anyone who knew the famous British wartime Prime Minister knew about one of his most prized possessions - the one he dubbed ‘the Turnip.’ The ‘vegetable’ in question was in fact a quite beautifulBreguet pocket watch, which was attached to a heavy gold waistcoat chain. Churchill was given the watch by his father sometime in the 1890s when Winston was still a young man. He always wore it around his waist and many recount how he almost never went without it.

The pocket watch remains in perfect working order and is today owned by Churchill’s great-grandson, Randolph. The famous watch has beendescribed in great detail, some of which is worth noting here: at the end of its chain is a small round gold case which contained some of the following: a V for Victory emblem; a silver head of Napoleon Bonaparte, who Winston admired greatly; a garnet stone set in a gold heart, which was a gift from his wife Clementine on their wedding day in September 1908; and another gift from Clementine, a golden heart given to him on his 90th birthday, less than eight weeks before his death.

Image credit: BiblioArchives/LibraryArchives via Wikimedia Commons

There are manydelightful stories about Churchill and his treasured ‘Turnip.’ One story was how he ‘tested’ his scientific advisor, Professor Lindemann, one day after lunch. It’s said that Winston placed his pocket watch on the table and stated in his incomparable, booming voice, “Prof, tell us in words of one syllable and in no longer than five minutes what is quantum theory.” Lindemann rose to the challenge and did so without hesitation, resulting in rapturous applause and mirth from Churchill and those gathered! Another story is told by Edmund Murray, who was Churchill’s bodyguard, about the time he told Winston that it was one o’clock and thus time for lunch. Churchill whipped out his Breguet pocket watch and consulted it, and then declared, “No, it’s only five to one. Why do you wish to rob me of five minutes of my life?”

Churchill's 'Turnip'

Churchill was not the only man who loved his pocket watch long after they had gone out of fashion. Another famous man who was said to have loved pocket watches was 1950s Hollywood legend, James Dean. We will look at two other Hollywood actors and their love affair with their watches.

The actors

Paul Newman

Few actors were more famous for as long as Paul Newman was. And it was Newman that single-handedly turned a respected but not that popular watch model into one of the most famous watches ever. In fact, it was that iconic watch that set a then record for the most expensive watch ever sold. The watch was Newman’s own 1968 Rolex 6239 Cosmograph Daytona with white panda dial, which soldat auction at Phillips' New York for a final price of $17,752,500 in October 2017. For many, Newman’s Rolex was considered the ‘Holy Grail’ of famous vintage watches. The watch seemed to somehow transcend ‘mere’ watch collecting, such was its pull on those with real bucks to spend on super-expensive watches.

Image credit: Everett Collection

But for Newman it was never ‘just’ a watch or something that he wore a few times for publicity sake or the like. No, it was a watch that he wore almost continuously from the day his wife, the actressJoanne Woodward, gave it to him as a gift until the day he gifted it to his daughter’s boyfriend, James Cox. Paul Newman was photographed many times wearing his Rolex, including at the 1973 Cannes Film Festival alongside his wife and in numerous photo ops the actor did. The sporty watch with its Art Deco-inspired dial had been inscribed on its caseback with his wife’s words: “Drive Slowly Me." Woodward’s words to her husband were poignant in that Newman had become a huge motorsport enthusiast by the time she gave the watch to him in 1972. His love of fast cars and motor racing was equal to that of another Hollywood legend who also loved watches,Steve McQueen.

Robert Downey, Jr.

Yes, Iron Man has a real thing for watches. The critically acclaimed actor, Robert Downey Jr, became Hollywood’s highest-paid actor at the time thanks to his role in blockbuster action hero movies. We certainly learned about his love for watches during his interview withGQ Style for their debut issue in May 2016. GQ even filmed a Youtube video in which the actor prattles on about his watch collection, which can be seenhere and which had over 10.5-million views on Youtube as of June 2020.

You can learn a lot about a man if you open up his jewelry box.

Robert Downey, Jr.

The GQ video highlights nine of the watches in his collection, and which includes a magnificent Jaeger-LeCoultre AMVOX3 Tourbillon GMT that’s worth a cool $125,000. According toDowney, “I wore it in Iron Man 2, it’s probably my best watch.” No kidding . He probably has others stashed away. Onewatch reviewer wrote a rather freaked-out entire article about when Robert Downey Jr. left his prints in cement at one of those famous imprint ceremonies that stars do at the TCL Chinese (formerly Grauman’s Chinese) Theater in Hollywood. The reason for the freak out? Turns out that Iron Man was wearing a Greubel Forsey Double Tourbillon 30° Technique watch, valued at no less than $560,000. How close he came to accidentally letting that watch fall into wet concrete as he leaned over to leave his handprints! We think that writer had a good point.

The trend-setters & iconoclasts

Gianni Agnelli, the fomer Chairman and at one time principal shareholder of Italian car company FIAT, was a billionaire industrialist. Agnelli was Italy’s richest man for many years, at one time overseeing what amounted to 4.4% of the country’s entire GDP. He was the owner of legendary Italian soccer club, the Torino-based Juventus, and a member of the Italian Senate for life. He also had numerous affairs with women, which is why he was known as the ‘Rake of the Riviera,’ and was a consummate bon vivant who knew how to live the high life. He wasthe iconicEuropean playboy and jetsetter of the 1960s and 70s.

“[The Speedmaster] was optional to wear while we were walking on the surface of the Moon ... few things are less necessary when walking around on the Moon than knowing what time it is in Houston, Texas. Nonetheless, being a watch guy, I decided to strap the Speedmaster onto my right wrist around the outside of my bulky spacesuit.”

--Buzz Aldrin, inReturn to Earth

Now that’s a watch guy!

You might think that a watch isn’t that important in a space mission. After all, don’t spacecraft have lots of computers and controls? The value of the Speedmaster was proven in the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. A fire destroyed many of the instruments and controls. Jack Swigert used his Speedmaster to time the 14-second burn of the lunar lander’s descent engines. This precise timing allowed the crew to return to Earth Safely.

How does a timepiece become a space watch?

The Speedmaster was the official timepiece of the US space program at the time. It remained in regular use for many years. The lore surrounding the use of watches indicates that astronauts took their personal watch on their missions, and early on, this was true.

The Speedmaster watches worn by astronauts Walter Schirra (Mercury Sigma 7 mission, 1962), Richard F. Gordon, Jr. (Apollo 12, 1969) and Thomas P. Stafford (Gemini 6, 1965).

Soon, however, NASA decided to run a legitimate selection and procurement process. To become a NASA “space watch,” the timepiece had to pass the following tests:

  • High temperature: 48 hours at 160 °F (71 °C) followed by 30 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C)
  • Low temperature: Four hours at 0 °F (−18 °C)
  • Temperature cycling in near-vacuum: Fifteen cycles of heating to 160 °F (71 °C) for 45 minutes, followed by cooling to 0 °F (−18 °C) for 45 minutes at 10−6 atm
  • Humidity: 250 hours at temperatures between 68 °F (20 °C) and 160 °F (71 °C) at relative humidity of 95%
  • Oxygen environment: 100% oxygen at 0.35 atm and 71 °C for 48 hours
  • Shock: Six 11-Ms 40-g shocks from different directions
  • Linear acceleration: from 1 to 7.25 g within 333 seconds
  • Low pressure: 90 minutes at 10−6 atm at 160 °F (71 °C), followed by 30 minutes at 200 °F (93 °C)
  • High pressure: 1.6 atm for one hour
  • Vibration: three cycles of 30 minutes vibration varying from 5 to 2000 Hz with a minimum 8.8 g impulse
  • Acoustic noise: 30 minutes at 130 dB from 40 to 10,000 Hz

There were four contenders, Breitling, Omega, Rolex, and Longines-Wittnauer. The Omega Speedmaster won, passing all the tests while staying within about 5 seconds per day. Eventually, NASA approved the Timex Ironman and Casio G-Shock for spaceflight; however, only the Omega is approved for use during an extravehicular activity (EVA).

What's next for space watches?

Certainly, electronics will play a big part in space watches. The Bulova Accutron was the first electronic timepiece to be used by NASA. However, it was panel-mounted rather than worn. My money is on mechanical watches holding a significant portion of the space watch segment for a simple reason, reliability. Quartz and smartwatches rely on batteries, and if they cannot be charged, they become worthless. A mechanical watch, either wound or automatic, will work just fine in zero-g. For spacefarers facing an Apollo 13 situation, a working mechanical watch may be a lifesaver.

The LIV 300m Ceramic Diver in Harvest Moon

Can you take your LIV watch to space?

While getting an official NASA-approved tag for a watch is difficult, any of the LIV models can undoubtedly survive that journey. LIV Watches are built to the same, and often better, standards as the high-end brands that have flown in space. No matter where your adventures take you, a LIV watch can go with you to time the adventure. And do it with a unique flair.