HomeOmegaThe Omega JFK Wore on His First Day As President Is Also, It Seems, The One He Wore on His Last

When I wrote about John Kennedy’s Omega last year, I wasn’t expecting to revisit the topic just eighteen months later. The elegant yellow gold rectangular timepiece, gifted by his friend Grant Stockdale, is famous for its presence on the newly elected President’s wrist on the day of his Inauguration, January 21, 1961. A piece not just of watchmaking history but simply of history. L’Histoire avec un grand H, as we say in French. The watch is proudly displayed at the Omega Museum in Bienne.  

JFK Omega watch
Header photo and photo above courtesy of Omega

An email from Denmark

Five months ago, I received an email from a reader, via the contact form. “Hi Alex – As you wrote in your article, JFK wore the Stockdale watch at the Ball on the evening of his inauguration. But the question is what did he wear the day he was assassinated? Many claim that he wore a Cartier Tank, but to my knowledge he didn’t own a Cartier Tank but a round Cartier. And the Stockdale watch is usually mistaken for a Cartier Tank. A few years back I did some investigation and came up with the result that JFK actually wore the Stockdale watch on the day of his assassination.” That is how I met Kenneth Hansen. After my initial scepticism, Kenneth convinced me to embark on a journey with him, revisiting the history of JFK’s Omega.

Kenneth lives in Denmark. He’s a construction architect, with a passion for both watches and classic cars. A James Bond aficionado, he developed an interest in Omega. When he discovered, tucked in the back of a boutique in San Diego, the Kennedy watch re-edition Omega released in 2008, he was under the charm. A few months later, on November 22, 2013, the 50th anniversary of JFK’s death, he acquired the watch. 

Kennedy Inauguration
JFK’s remarks during the Inauguration Ball, January 21, 1961

Challenging Kenneth

Through numerous conversations, I kept trying to poke holes in the theory Kenneth laid out. Not only did I suspect some owner’s bias but more importantly, with so many eyes and brains on the topic over the decades, how could we all have got it wrong? How could someone, with no official credentials in history, watchmaking or journalism come out of the blue and shift the paradigm? Sure, we’re not talking here about revealing the details of how exactly the 35th President was assassinated. But from a watch nerd perspective, this is a pretty big deal.

Our email correspondence shows a total of 112 messages, and counting. After the first dozen or so, I contacted the Omega Heritage department, and would like to thank them for their support throughout this research and the images provided. I went twice to the Omega Museum to look at the watch on display under different angles, including once with a photographer, to try and demonstrate that Kenneth could not be right. While 100% certainty is probably impossible to achieve, I am now confident that the Hansen theory is correct. The watch JFK wore on his first day as President of the United States is also the one he wore on his last.

Photo by Jeanne Grouet for Time Files

The Imaginary Tank

The original confusion, as Kenneth mentioned in his email, is because it has often been written that JFK owned a Cartier Tank. But his ownership of such a watch was never actually documented. The cause of confusion, though, is easily explained. His wife, Jackie Kennedy, had gifted him a Cartier watch for their fourth anniversary, in 1957. A round Cartier watch, as shown below. She also herself owned, and was famously associated with, a (small) Cartier Tank. Because JFK’s Omega Ultra Thin ref. OT3980 has a shape, from a distance, very similar to the much more famous Tank, the mistake is not surprising. People who look at watches from a distance, both literally and figuratively, will have easily, even if mistakenly, concluded the President owned a Cartier Tank. 

JFK Cartier
The Cartier gifted by Jackie Kennedy on their 4th wedding anniversary, in 1957

Now, the real revelation, the one that made me concur with Kenneth that the Stockdale watch is indeed the one JFK was wearing in Texas on November 22, 1963, is to be found in photos taken earlier that day. Prior to the fatal car ride, the President’s last public event was a breakfast at the Chamber of Commerce in Fort Worth. Among the photos of the event, the one below shows a watch on Kennedy’s wrist. 

JFK during his Breakfast Speech at Fort Worth – November 22, 1963. Photo from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram Collection, The University of Texas at Arlington Library, Arlington, Texas

The lugs on a Tank are perfectly flat, whereas the ones here are slightly curved. Also, there is no sign of a cabochon on the crown. Overall, the angles and shadows make it difficult to see much more and be entirely certain the watch is indeed the Omega. However, after having spent a significant amount of time on site, comparing the photo and the actual watch in the museum across multiple torticollis-inducing angles, I can state the following: I am certain the watch in the Fort Worth photo is not a Cartier Tank. And I am confident that it is the one displayed in the Omega Museum.

Autopsy report, Exhibit no. 392

Autopsy Mysteries

By that point, I was ready to fully concede to Kenneth. But one element remained. As Kenneth had noted, the Autopsy Report stated that  “all of the President’s belongings except his watch were given to the Secret Service.” The document (above) further states that “his watch was given to Mr. O.P. Wright”, a senior employee of Parkland Memorial Hospital. According to the explanation received by the representative of the National Archives Kenneth had contacted, that is because “the clothing was considered as evidence, so there was more care taken in its handling.”  The watch was eventually received 10 days later. The inventory report states: “Received, this date, Dec. 2, 1963, from Robert I. Bouck, SAIC, PRS, gold wrist watch (Cartier), with black leather watch-band, property of the late President John F. Kennedy.” The author of the statement’s signature is ineligible, according to the archives representative; as such, we don’t know if the description of the watch was provided by Secret Service agent Bouck, or the unknown signatory. Regardless, it is explicitly described as a “Cartier”.

Is that enough to question Kenneth’s theory? Well, not quite. First, many things could have happened to the watch over the 10 days between the tragic event and the day the watch was handed in. It could have been swapped for JFK’s other Cartier watch, the round one. Or, more likely, unless Robert Bouck or the inventory signatory were watch aficionados, the gold square Omega was mistaken for a Tank, the reference back then (and still today), for rectangular dress watches. Maybe even that “Cartier“ was used in a generic tone, as a reference to the style of the watch. I might add, as we watch geeks know, that back in the days, watches signed on the dial by a jeweller or retailer were still common; the agent may have assumed it was a Cartier even if it didn’t say so on the dial. Ultimately, in the absence of any Cartier Tank documented as belonging to or worn by JFK, any of those hypotheses are more likely than a Tank appearing out of the blue, just a few hours after the Fort Worth breakfast, on the President’s wrist.  

JFK watch
Photo courtesy of Omega

After 1963

Looking at photos or videos later in the day, just before or after the assassination, no watch can be seen (to my knowledge) on Kennedy’s wrist. Perhaps he had removed his Omega, or simply it does not show under the cuff in the pictures. What I still don’t know is where the watch ended up after the autopsy was finished. While it eventually landed in the private collection of Robert White, I assume it was first handed over to Jackie Kennedy. 

Speaking of Robert White, here is a case in point of the confusion that has taken place over the years: even the reputable LA Times refers in 2003 to the JFK watch in his collection as a “Cartier”… And yet, two years later, when his collection was sold and Omega acquired the watch, it was, correctly this time, widely reported that the watch was an Omega. 

JFK watch

Concluding thoughts

While Kennedy’s legacy as President is considerable, especially relative to his short term in office, his assassination is one of the most memorable events of the twentieth century. A nation and much of the world were stunned, with ripples that can still be felt to this date. Knowing what watch he was wearing that day will not add any evidence to the many questions still surrounding JFK’s death. But being able to almost touch the timepiece at the Omega Museum in Bienne is a fascinating privilege accessible for free, six days a week, to anyone who loves watches, history, or both. One I will personally appreciate even more now than ever before. Thanks to Kenneth. 

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Alex

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Emma
Emma
25 days ago

Good job Kenneth! 🕵🏼‍♂️

Lamine
Lamine
24 days ago

Thank you both for gathering all those facts, it’s a fascinating story!

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