Elvis Is In The Building: In Honor Of The King And His Watches
Elvis Presley died on August 16, 1977. This was a day of soulful heartbreak as I knew I would sorely miss his voice.
What the eleven-year-old me did not know at the time of his shocking death was that Elvis Presley owned a number of wristwatches. Good ones.
He liked watches, which anyone can still guess because in almost any photo of The King it is not hard to spy an interesting timepiece on his wrist.
So in honor of the day of Elvis’ passing in the year he would have turned 80 were he still alive, I’d like to take a peek at some of the watches he’s owned, as well as one watch he not only owned but helped make famous: the Hamilton Ventura.
During Elvis’ heyday, Omega was all the rage. Much of Omega’s success during this time could be chalked up to the forward-thinking Omega management team of René Bannwart and Adolphe Vallat, who collaborated to create the Constellation and Seamaster models (see Element Of Surprise: Omega’s Constellation And Seamaster Were Designed By René Bannwart, Founder Of Corum).
Presley was apparently taken by the attractive Constellation in its elegant case. The example above was a daily wearer, which he later gifted to his close friend Charlie Hodge. The two first met as members of the Foggy Bottom Boys gospel group, but it was when both were drafted into the army that they became close friends, traveling together to Europe as bunkmates.
Later, in the 1970s, Hodge became part of Presley’s “Memphis Mafia” (what Elvis fans call his entourage) and worked as a roadie of sorts, producer for his television shows, all around gopher (like all of the Memphis Mafia), and provided backup vocals and guitar work on records and at performances.
This Omega Constellation has appeared at auction at Antiquorum twice with an accompanying letter from Hodge proving its authenticity. The letter states that Presley gifted the Omega to Hodge after he repeatedly told the king of rock and roll that he admired the piece. “ . . . Several times I told Elvis how beautiful his watch was . . . and he took it off his wrist and gave it to me.”
Hodge additionally wrote that he “lived in Graceland for 16 years until Elvis’ passing,” and described his close relationship and his work with the famous singer through the years.
This Constellation Calendar with sweep seconds and date is housed in a pink gold-plated stainless steel case; it is certified as a chronometer. Antiquorum sold it twice: once in June 2012, where it hammered for $52,500, and once in December 2014 for the considerably lower price of $37,500.
Elvis’ Rolex King Midas
Various sources indicate that Presley also owned a sizable number of Rolex watches, but it is hard to pinpoint which ones. Jake from Jake’s Rolex Watch Blog tells a very interesting story of the Rolex King Midas model that must have taken quite a bit of time and string-pulling to research and photograph.
In 1970, the Rolex King Midas (Reference 9630) was the most expensive Rolex on the market, retailing for $2,500 in 18-karat gold. Its name, “Midas,” refers to the king of the same name from Greek mythology who turned everything that he touched into gold. The reference was justified: this was a heavy, solid gold wristwatch.
The unusual timepiece – when we think of Rolex, we invariably think round case; this was square and on an unusual integrated bracelet – was gifted to The King after he sold out six consecutive shows at the Houston Astrodome in 1970. It was limited to 1,000 pieces only, and Presley owned number 343.
It was not water-resistant (only the Oysters were water-resistant back then), and Presley seems to have worn it swimming as the damaged dial shows.
The King’s Rolex King Midas boasts a special engraving on the case back to Elvis from the Houston Livestock Show Officers, who ran the Astrodome at the time.
The Hamilton Ventura
Presley’s estate endorses the Hamilton Ventura. The reason is likely because this particular watch became a favorite from the time Elvis was given one to wear in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii as product placement.
The Hamilton Ventura was in 1957 the first electric watch – it could well be termed the grandfather of quartz watches thanks to its battery-powered energy source – and its futuristic shape made it cool to look at. Perhaps this is why Presley was so enchanted with it.
The triangular shape was created by industrial designer Richard Arbib, a man who had designed products for the likes of General Motors, Century boats, and Eureka vacuum cleaners among others.
As we also know from Element Of Surprise: Omega’s Constellation And Seamaster Were Designed By René Bannwart, Founder Of Corum, almost every watch case at that moment in time was not necessarily a brand’s own design. Thus, the highly original Hamilton Ventura stood out from the rest.
Hamilton – at that point in time still an American company located in Pennsylvania – gave Arbib carte blanche without regard for the practicality of using a “standard” watch case. In 1957, this model retailed for $200 (which would be more than $2,000 today).
Presley took to wearing it off the set and even had the strap replaced with a bracelet. It has since become known as “the Elvis watch,” and indeed, several photos exist of The King wearing it, even during the time he served in the army in Germany.
According to Hamilton, Presley was so taken with it that in the early 1960s it was one of the products he often gave as gifts to other people, even to members of the “Memphis Mafia.”
Presley actually bought a second Ventura in another color combination for himself on Christmas Eve 1965: in white gold with a black dial, it was a watch he kept until the very end of his life.
When Elvis Presley Enterprises, which manages Graceland and other Presley-related properties, commissioned Guernsey’s auction house to sell some of the items off in October 1999 to raise funds for Presley Village, a low-income housing complex in Memphis – a sale of memorabilia that generated in excess of $5 million – the second Ventura was among the items.
Hamilton – which became part of what would later become the Swatch Group in 1971 – was able to purchase it along with the original jeweler’s receipt at this time, placing it in its own museum collection.
The Hamilton Ventura remained in serial production for seven years before being retired. It was resuscitated in 1988. Hamilton continues to issue new Ventura iterations, the latest in line being the Ventura80, a timepiece celebrating what would have been Elvis’ 80th birthday on January 8, 2015.
The Hamilton Ventura Elvis80 is powered by Hamilton Caliber H-10, an automatic movement with an incredible power reserve of 80 hours. This movement is also used by other Swatch Group brands and is known under several names (depending on the brand using it). It is also available in more pedestrian quartz – though interesting because the quartz movement itself reflects this interesting watch’s interesting roots.
A watch-sponsored 1960 TV appearance
If you’re around my age and you grew up in the United States, you probably remember watch companies sponsoring various television and radio thises and thats. Bulova with its top-of-the-hour “Bulova time” radio message, for example.
Timex – one of the most popular watch brands ever seen in the U.S. – sponsored Frank Sinatra’s four-episode variety show entitled “The Frank Sinatra Timex Show.” Talk about a classic name!
And the most popular of these Sinatra broadcasts was entitled “The Frank Sinatra Timex Show: Welcome Home Elvis Presley.” It constituted Presley’s first television appearance following his much-publicized stint in the army. While it is possible to see Presley is wearing a watch during the show, it is impossible to see which one it might be.
Would Presley have been a #watchnerd, collector, or connoisseur had he lived until the present day? That I am sure of. His taste was apparently eclectic and not concentrated on one specific trait or design.
He just bought and wore what he liked.
For more information on the King Midas Rolex please see The King’s King Elvis Presley’s Rolex King Midas on Jake’s Rolex World and for the origin of the Omega Constellation, Element Of Surprise: Omega’s Constellation And Seamaster Were Designed By René Bannwart, Founder Of Corum.