We are ebbing our way through a tumultuous era of politics where even the very simplest negotiations appear to become wrapped in an inescapable web of red tape, conjecture and pontification… and that’s before we’ve got anywhere near Brexit!
Similarly, in the celebrity world, the recent #metoo furore, equality arguments and general sense of apathy towards vacuous, image-led, middle-of-the-road influencers, has led us to distance ourselves from a lot of the noise that perhaps we would entertain previously.
In short, we appear to be taking our lives a lot more seriously; and probably, at a time of genuine social indecision, that is no bad thing.
With all that in mind, it might appear somewhat churlish to pore and fascinate over something as incidental as a wristwatch. Naturally, in today’s tech-driven world we are never more than a flash of our phones away from knowing the time; but the decommissioning of the simple wristwatch as a tool and its elevation as a class, taste and image-defining status symbol leads it to become as warranted and interesting as a social barometer, as Donald Tusk’s perception of the British.
Put another way, as Rudyard Kipling said, “if you can keep your head [timepiece] when all about you are losing theirs… you’ll be a man, my son”… or in Anne Hathaway’s case, a woman, clearly.
While celebrities now largely bestow the modern showmanship of wristwatch wearing, the art of horology has long attracted the politically inclined. Since the early 15th century those who could have been carrying timepieces upon their person, while the 16th century introduced society to the mechanical watch. From our reliance on quartz watches to the sway toward digital at the turn of the Millennium, wristwatch trends have changed, brands have adapted, but our attachment to the ultimate power accessory has prevailed.
Politicians, as a peer group, have enjoyed a long, if at times capricious, relationship with their timepieces. A watch’s significance can vary according to country borders, societal unrest and economical prowess; it can assume a ‘political personality’. The question then, is should you judge a politician by their wrist?
“It used to be the case that dressing well showed respect for the electorate,” says style expert Nick Foulkes. “Now, politicians dress neatly to show respect, but also unostentatiously to show that they’re profound enough not to care about clothes or accessories too deeply. That’s why so many political leaders across Europe do not wear a watch – they know the voting public will judge him on it.”
Laura Dunn, the founder of fashion and politics blog Political Style, concurs with Foulkes on the motivation behind a politician’s choice of timepiece. “Many politicians are mindful of what watches and even accessories that they choose to wear,” she agrees. “Their image is carefully constructed as part of their political identity.”
In today’s age of 24-hour social media surveillance, fast track news cycles and citizen journalism, political figures wanting to curry favour are perhaps more astute than ever. “You rarely see female politicians carrying a designer handbag or a male MP with an expensive designer watch when they’re in the public eye,” says Dunn.
This may explain the enduring popularity of the Rolex. A traditional power watch but not ostentatious enough to attract negative press, it straddled the divide between ‘look-at-me’ glamour and subtlety). Rolexes also dominated the American market up until the Reagan period.
Back in the 60s, JF Kennedy sported a collection of Swiss watches, including an Omega Ultra-Thin and the now-iconic Yellow Gold Cartier Tank he was wearing on the day of his assassination. When Bill Clinton took office in 1993, he followed the minimalist, lo-fi trend of the era with a dressed down wrist; either wearing a digital Casio or his $50 Timex Ironman-Triathlon digital quartz watch, which most recently was matched by Barack Obama’s trademark, relatively inexpensive Stainless Steel 41mm Jorg Gray 6500 Chronograph, gifted to him by his Secret Service agents (this model also makes up part of their uniform). In later days in office, he replaced that with a smartwatch – rumoured to be a Fitbit Surge – and if ever the trend of down-dressing needed a point at which to bottom out, this was surely it.
Sure enough, President Donald Trump’s insistence on wearing his own Signature Collection wristwatch has been shown to be a marker not just for the promotion of his own brand, but the preservation and survival of it too in the face of almost constant criticism.
Dunn’s argument that politicians often opt for low-key accessories during their time in office in order to look humble, is reinforced by Clinton’s post-presidency watch wardrobe, which is both expansive and expensive. His collection now includes at least four Kobolds, a White Gold 29mmx35mm Cartier Santos-Dumont, a Stainless Steel 44mm Jaeger-LeCoultre Master Compressor Diving Alarm Navy SEALs, and a Titanium 44mm Panerai PAM089 GMT, among others.
Then again, not all politicians buy into the electoral-modesty trend. Nicolas Sarkozy, President of France until 2012, matched his timepieces to his public image. Widely known for his controversial divorce and subsequent marriage to a supermodel, Carla Bruni, while in office, his White Gold 37mm Patek Philippe Perpetual Calendar 3940G was allegedly a gift from his supermodel wife. Sarkozy also rotates his Stainless Steel 40mm Rolex Daytona, a White Gold 39mm Breguet Reveil du Tsar, and a $32,000 White Gold 40mm Girard-Perregaux 1966 Annual Calendar and Equation of Time.
Meanwhile, former Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi’s watch collection is just as rambunctious as his political personality. His Platinum 37mm Vacheron Constantin Patrimony Minute Repeater Perpetual Calendar is a show stopper.
More and more though, politicians are now practising moderation. Fashionista Dunn has her own theory about politicians and the influence of austerity measures on their watch choices. “Personally, I’ve seen powerful politicians and other individuals in positions of influence wear inexpensive wristwatches – in fact, it’s almost always the richest individuals who wear the cheapest watches!” she says. In order to appear ‘ordinary’, Dunn would advise a politician to wear a watch that isn’t overly flashy but still of a respected brand: “Swatch has some great models, as do Timex, Nixon and Casio.”
Dunn sees the issue from a more practical perspective. “The choice to not wear a watch is a sign of the times. As someone who loves watches it does make me sad that individuals are moving away from wearing a timepiece and instead relying on phones and tablets to check the time. Maybe the iWatch will change this!” Commentator Foulkes agrees: “I am always disappointed that the golden age of political dressing is behind us.”
These social commentators may at least be reassured by those prevailing in the celebrity world. It seems while politicians are keen to hide away from material connections to the wealth, the film, music, entertainment and sports stars of the modern era are only too happy to tell a story as well as telling the time.
Whether it is for technological, sartorial, or philanthropic reasons, a host of world-renowned celebrities have become brand ambassadors to sport their favourite timepieces. Being a ‘friend of the brand’ can instantly elevate a star into a fashion icon and the red carpet spotlight exposes luxury new to the world, in turn massively heightening exposure and publicity.
What’s clear is that while, In the last 100 years of politics and entertainment, policymakers, stars and influencers have come and gone, we’ve seen master watch design prevail. As the clock ticks on, some well-known faces remain keen to hide away; and yet, bearing in mind we live in a world of 24-hour news and entertainment, this is surely an era, and a fashion statement, that is set to continue.