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Of all the elements that can make a watch special to its owner, few can compare to having it engraved — with a message, image, or other inscription that renders it uniquely personal to its owner. The art of engraving — i.e., carving characters or patterns into surfaces — goes all the way back to prehistoric cultures and watch engraving is a tradition that goes back all the way to the beginning of portable timepieces. The earliest examples can be found in pocket watches bearing royal crests and coats of arms for aristocrats and royalty, who were, of course among, the first wearers of timepieces. As watch ownership became more widespread and democratized, the variety of such customizations widened.
Some of the most significant watches throughout history have borne personalized engravings that speak to their famous provenance. As we explore further in this article, the most expensive Rolex watch ever sold at auction is a Daytona owned by actor/racing driver Paul Newman, inscribed not with his name but with a cautionary message from his wife, Joanne Woodward, “DRIVE CAREFULLY - ME.” Nowadays, just about any Daytona owner can choose to have it engraved, but the most prestigious models are the ones awarded to winning drivers at the 24 Hours of Daytona race, each of which is engraved — by Rolex — with the driver’s name.
One of the world’s most valuable Omega watches is a yellow-gold Slimline model owned by President John F. Kennedy, inscribed “PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES JOHN F. KENNEDY FROM HIS FRIEND GRANT.” The “Grant” in question is Grant Stockdale, whom JFK appointed as his Ambassador to Ireland and who was quite confident in his friend’s presidential prospects, as the watch was given to him before the election, in time for Kennedy to wear it to his 1961 inauguration.
Another famous Omega watch with presidential pedigree is the first Speedmaster in a gold case, which was presented to President Richard M. Nixon after the successful completion of the Apollo 11 moon landing in 1969 (the mission that gave the model its nickname, “Moonwatch”). Nixon never actually took possession of the watch (which bore the engraving “RICHARD M. NIXON - PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES” on the caseback, along with the motto, “To mark man’s conquest of space with time, through time, on time”) because of a law that prevents presidents from accepting gifts over a certain monetary value. The watch now resides at Omega’s Museum in Bienne, Switzerland.
Sometimes a watch engraving commemorates a personal or business milestone. The American silent film star Charlie Chaplin owned a Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox watch that was given to him in 1953 by the Swiss canton of Vaud after the actor had moved with his family to Switzerland. Its caseback inscription leaves no doubt as to the watch’s recipient and its intention: “Hommage du Gouvernement Vaudois à Charlie Chaplin - 6 Octobre 1953.” Yet another legendary Omega, the most expensive one ever sold at auction, is a round-cased, diamond-bezel model awarded to the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, Elvis Presley, in 1961 by RCA Records on the occasion of Presley reaching the milestone of 75 million records sold.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a president, a member of a royal family, or a famous entertainer to have his or her watch personalized, either for him or herself or for whomever is to receive the watch as a gift. Many watch brands even offer personalization as an added value. As we did with our survey on the best wedding watches, we reached out to our Instagram followers to solicit their suggestions for watch engraving ideas, aimed at watch enthusiasts who are open to personalizing a timepiece but unsure of which direction to go. As expected, the responses were varied and in many cases, quite personal, but we gleaned some recurring themes.
The most popular type of engraved message based on our responses was a recording of an important date; ten respondents mentioned a wedding date, while three others suggested a graduation date. It seems like we have a lot of hopeless romantics in our audience, though one respondent offered a somewhat contrarian viewpoint, going with a “List of Ex-Wives” for his idea for an engraving. Some birthday messages were also proposed, including “XL Since 1983” for one responder’s 40th birthday.
Several respondents went in a different direction, celebrating either financial success or work ethic or both. One reported that the caseback of his Cartier Santos was engraved with the date he was awarded his license as a CPA. Others went with more motivational messages, including “I don’t work for money, money works for me,” “God rewards purposeful hustle” (after hitting a sales goal) and “Work hard and be in love,” which is, we suppose, sort of a middle ground between success and romance.
We were a little surprised to find so many ideas that played on the concept of time, many of these also cautionary and/or motivational in spirit: “Lost time is never found again;” “Make Every Minute Count” and the even more intense “Make every second count;” “Time is precious, spend it wisely;” “Life is good but limited;” “We don’t have time, time has us;” and “This only tells you the time. It’s up to you to use it.” In a somewhat more cheeky vein, we had an apparently very overworked follower respond with “Time is an illusion, lunchtime doubly so,” and another with “We have all the time in the world” — a rather ominous proclamation for anyone who’s seen the ending of the James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
A handful of respondents sent us running for Google Translate with their very sophisticated suggestions in Latin or French. To wit: “Sic Parvis Magna” ( a phrase meaning “Greatness from small beginnings;” “Sine Macula” (essentially, “Without Blemish” or “Without Stain”), and — for a larger case diameter, presumably — “Felicior Augusto, melior Traiano” — a blessing bestowed upon Ancient Roman emperors that literally means, “Be more fortunate than Augustus and better than Trajan”). Francophiles might consider “Plus qu’hier moins que demain” — aka, “More than yesterday, less than tomorrow.”
Finally, several respondents of our social media poll opted to flex their comedic chops in their suggestions. One fan suggested Fred Flintstone’s joyous exclamation “Yabbadabbadoo,” while another quoted Winnie the Pooh: “People say nothing is impossible yet I do nothing all the time.” We’re not sure if any of these actually live on a caseback or are likely to, but here are some of the other highlights, at least the ones suitable for a general audience. “Epstein Didn’t Do It” (draw your own conclusions here); “If it’s Flipped I’m Really Bored” (apparently this one is Reverso-specific; the model, with its blank canvas of a caseback that can be swiveled from back to front, as above, is one ideally suited to customization); “Don’t Drop Me;” and the immortal and brutally honest admonishment from the watch’s original owner to its next one: “Find Out What I’m Worth Before You Sell Me - Dad”
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