Four famous watches that are part of history, and have their own story

The stories behind these famous watches are almost as interesting as the people who wore them.

By Felix Scholz , August 19 2020
Four famous watches that are part of history, and have their own story

The setup of this article sounds like a bad joke. What do an Astronaut, a queen, a Beatle and an actor have in common? The punchline is watches, but before we get there, let's take a quick detour into what these watches mean.

There's a reason that watches are often passed down from fathers to sons. It's because watches are important far beyond the mere telling of time.

Watches have an almost unique capacity to serve as repositories of culture and memory. It sounds like a bit of a reach for an object that is basically a bit of jewellery with a purpose. But stick with me for a second.

What other possessions do you own that have the potential to stick with you for the rest of your life? Not many. Only the sentimental and the precious.

Watches, like wedding rings, are even more emotionally loaded, because they are worn, on our bodies, day in and day out, witnessing our achievements firsthand.

Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, wearing perhaps the most important watch of all time – the first watch worn on the Moon.
Buzz Aldrin on Apollo 11, wearing perhaps the most important watch of all time – the first watch worn on the Moon.

That's why people care about them, gift them and leave them to others. Add to this mix famous wearers or events, and the humble watch becomes something much more. Today we've put together a list of four watches that transcend their original purpose.

The only problem is keeping track of them. Some of these watches are missing, possibly forever, while others have been found, sometimes in remarkable circumstances.

Buzz Aldrin's Omega Speedmaster

If you've ever looked at the back of an Omega Speedmaster, you might have read the helpful engraving proclaiming it to be the first watch worn on the Moon.

Now, that's undoubtedly true, and it's a giant feather in Omega's cap, and something to be justifiably proud of. The only issue is that the actual first watch on the moon is nowhere to be found.

And no, we're not talking about Neil Armstrong's watch, which remains safely ensconced in the Smithsonian – because while Armstrong was the first man on the moon, he left his Speedmaster back in the Lunar Module.

This is actually not Buzz Aldrin's Speedmaster: it's Neil Armstrong's, and it is safe in the Smithsonian.
This is actually not Buzz Aldrin's Speedmaster: it's Neil Armstrong's, and it is safe in the Smithsonian.

The first watch worn on the moon was Buzz Aldrin's NASA-issued watch. But unlike Armstrong's Speedmaster, Aldrin's isn't in the Smithsonian.

Aldrin sent it there, but it never made it. Perhaps it was stolen or simply lost in transit. To think that this genuinely important historical object that encapsulates one of humanities great achievements is out there, sitting in a drawer or on an unsuspecting wrist is wild.

Marie Antoinette's Breguet pocket watch

The Story of Breguet's Pocket Watch No. 160 is even longer, and more mystery-packed than Buzz's Speedy. It starts with Marie Antoinette, the eighteenth-century French queen whose reign was cut short by the French Revolution, and her neck by the guillotine.

At that time, the leading French watchmaker was Abraham-Louis Breguet, who was commissioned in 1783 to make a watch for the young queen.

The brief was to 'create a watch that was as spectacular as possible' – a brief which Breguet nailed. The mammoth watch was packed with over 23 functions and 823 parts.

Breguet's recent re-creation of the 'Marie Antoinette', an astonishing watch completed in 1827.
Breguet's recent re-creation of the 'Marie Antoinette', an astonishing watch completed in 1827.

But neither the queen or the man who designed the watch would see it completed. It was finished in 1827, 34 years after the death of Marie Antoinette, and four after that of Abraham-Louis Breguet.

And while this is a dramatic start to the watches long life. It's not where the story ends. In 1974 the watch found its way to the collection of a museum in Jerusalem.

It stayed there for nine years until it was stolen in an art heist, along with hundreds of other objects. It was assumed that this piece of history was lost forever, so in 2004 Breguet took steps to recreate the watch painstakingly.

This watch, No. 1160, took four years to complete. In an odd twist of fate, months before the No. 1160 was to be publicly presented in 2008, the daughter of the (now deceased) art thief directed police to an attic in Tel Aviv, stuffed with stolen art, including the Breguet No. 160.

Today the original pocket watch is back in the Israeli museum, and the recreation calls the Breguet manufacture in Switzerland home.

John Lennon's Patek Philippe

It's far from unheard of for successful musicians to wear a fancy watch, but rarely are the wearer and the watch of the calibre of the John Lennon and his Patek Philippe perpetual calendar chronograph ref. 2499.

A Patek Phillippe ref. 2499, similar to that worn by Lennon, sold by Phillips in 2016 for around US$2.5 million.
A Patek Phillippe ref. 2499, similar to that worn by Lennon, sold by Phillips in 2016 for around US$2.5 million.

Little is known of this particular watch, which is one of the brand's most coveted – it was made from 1950 until 1988, and it is believed that under 350 examples were made, they sell for millions when they come up at auction.

John Lennon, on his 40th birthday, with a tie, pin and Patek Philippe, presents from Yoko Ono.
John Lennon, on his 40th birthday, with a tie, pin and Patek Philippe, presents from Yoko Ono.

John Lennon was gifted his example on his 40th birthday in 1980 by his wife, Yoko Ono. She knitted the tie he's wearing in this image, and also gifted him the diamond-and-ruby-studded American flag pin.

Aside from these photos, there is no record of the watch, and a few short months after his birthday, Lennon was shot and killed outside his apartment.

Marlon Brando's Rolex GMT-Master

Marlon Brando is a powerhouse of an actor, and his eerie role as Colonel Walter Kurtz in 1979's Apocalypse Now is amongst his most iconic.

This Rolex is Brando's personal watch, that he purchased in the early 70s, and wore on screen.

Marlon Brando in Apocolypse Now, wearing a very un-Rolex looking Rolex.
Marlon Brando in Apocolypse Now, wearing a very un-Rolex looking Rolex.

And while the GMT-Master is a very recognisable timepiece, the fact that Brando wore it on a simple rubber strap and removed the rotating GMT-bezel gives the watch a worn and rugged appearance entirely in keeping with the character of Kurtz.

After its silver screen debut, the watch disappeared from sight, staying in the Brando family until it was auctioned in late 2019. This piece of Hollywood history sold after 20 minutes of bidding for US$1,952,000.

Marlon Brando's Rolex GMT-Master, as sold by Phillips in 2019.
Marlon Brando's Rolex GMT-Master, as sold by Phillips in 2019.

And that joke we set up with the Astronaut, the queen, the Beatle and the actor? It was watches that united them, but what's really striking is just how different those watches are. A tool, a mechanical marvel, a milestone birthday gift and a prop. But all objects of real historic and emotional significance.

Felix Scholz

Felix Scholz is Executive Traveller’s watch editor, and one of Australia’s most respected authorities on the subject. As you might expect, he travels to Switzerland quite a lot.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 Mar 2013

Total posts 169

Thanks, Felix. I enjoyed that little bit of history.

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

19 Jan 2018

Total posts 18

Great article Felix. Enjoyed it immensely. Still can't believe Buzz Aldrin's Omega hasn't turned up somewhere! My guess is whomever has it now is unaware of its significance - or even more sadly, maybe it ended up as landfill somewhere?

12 Dec 2018

Total posts 20

Another great watch article.  I hate the premise though that the missing Patek & Omega, as well as others that have similar stories, are sitting unappreciated somewhere.  It all adds to the mystery and aura of fine watches though I guess.

Emirates Airlines - Skywards

23 Mar 2018

Total posts 2

I still wind my 50 year old Omega Speedmaster 30 times every morning. It has been serviced once in all these years and is worn every day and has been through thick and thin. And it tells the time.  


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