According to the conventional wisdom, the President of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. He's also the busiest, essentially on call for an entire four-year term, every last moment of his existence blocked out in a leather-bound appointment book. So what is the watch of choice for the man for whom every minute matters?
As befits an office now run by image handlers and national polls, American presidents (and presidential hopefuls) for the last two decades have been very democratic when it comes to choosing a watch. Our leaders need to appear folksy and common, and this implies the wearing of affordable watches.
This trend began with Bill Clinton, who wore a Timex Ironman while in office (despite being an enthusiastic collector of high-end timepieces, including a Cartier Santos Dumont and a Panerai Luminor). George W. Bush preferred a simple black Timex. And President Obama wears a plain Jorg Gray quartz chronograph given to him by his Secret Service detail. Even Mitt Romney has gotten the memo: The watches he's worn on the campaign trail have been decidedly understated, including what appears to be an appropriately named Nixon Private (see photo above), which carries a manufacturer's suggested retail price of $125.
But since 1953, every man who has held the highest office in the land has been given another watch, one with such a long relationship with the White House that it's come to be known as "the President's Watch." That timepiece is the Vulcain Cricket, the world's first fully functional alarm wristwatch, which debuted in 1947.
Named for the disproportionately loud sound created by the stridulations of a cricket, the watch is now a part of presidential history. Indeed, the analog sound is very reminiscent of the loud chirping familiar to anybody who has been outdoors during the summer.
The original Cricket was manually wound with an elegant round face. It looked very much like a classic dress watch, except for the telltale extra hand and additional crown, both used for setting the alarm. Today, the company offers a range of models and styles based on the signature Cricket, including the 50s Presidents' Watch, which has the look and functionality of the original but with an updated automatic movement. All of them are, of course, as loud as ever.
The latest president to receive a Cricket was President Obama, who was given his in August 2009. His version is a limited-edition update to the original, known as the Cricket Anniversary Heart model.
The $9,975 watch features a 42-millimeter case with an open dial that fully reveals the V-18 movement inside. The president's name is engraved on both the movement and the case.
But he's far from the first POTUS to own one. In fact, the tradition started with President Harry Truman, who was given a Vulcain Cricket in 1953 by the president of the White House News Photographers Association. Truman enjoyed wearing several different watches but he wore his Cricket with some regularity, using it for its intended purpose of reminding him of important appointments often enough that it occasionally startled his Secret Service detail, an indication of just how remarkably loud the Cricket alarm actually is.
The key to the Cricket's success is, of course, sound, but this is more complex than it might seem. Although small alarm clocks had been made before, and attempts to reduce alarm mechanisms to wristwatch size had been made, they all faced the problem of low volume. Wristwatch alarms were not loud enough to awaken the owner, the standard by which any effective alarm timepiece is judged.
To meet this goal, Vulcain created a new alarm watch complication. In the Cricket watch, when the alarm goes off, a hammer strikes a pin attached to a thin metal membrane inside the outer watch case. This thin membrane has a low mass that allows the energy from the hammer to be converted into sound very efficiently. To keep the resulting buzz from being muffled, the Cricket features small holes in the case-back, so the sound can travel out of the case unobstructed. It's more than loud enough to wake a sleeper--in fact the Cricket alarm can easily be heard across a large room, and over loud conversation.
While Truman was the first president to wear one, he was far from the last. Dwight Eisenhower was such a fan that he wore a Cricket alarm watch before becoming president, continuing that tradition during his tenure.
The watch even caused embarrassment for the usually unflappable Ike. During a press conference where he was arguing that the tariffs on Swiss imports should be raised, his Cricket went off, loudly alerting reporters that he was a fan of at least one high-precision product of Switzerland.
Though John F. Kennedy isn't known to have worn one (preferring, among others, a gold Omega dress watch), his successor, Lyndon Johnson, often wore a Cricket (though he is also known for his habit of wearing a Rolex Day-Datethe only other watch to be called "President" by watch historians). Richard M. Nixon and Ronald Reagan both had Cricket watches and wore them frequently, and Presidents Ford, Carter and George H.W. Bush were all proud Cricket owners, as is current Vice President Joe Biden.
Whomever America chooses as the next president will likely wear a low-key watch chosen by his handlers as he goes about running the affairs of the nation. But if Mitt Romney is elected, he'll be given a Vulcain Cricket, in keeping with tradition. Obama, should he win, will likely not be given a second Cricket, as the company seems to follow a one-per-president rule. Fortunately, the rest of us are free to choose a watch without worrying about the message it sends to the voting public. And whatever side of the aisle you're on, casting a vote for the Vulcain Cricket makes sense if you're a fan of unwavering design and a deep sense of history.