Inside the Hunt for Neil Armstrong’s Watch in ‘First Man’

The first man to set foot on the moon, Neil Armstrong was both highly intelligent and extremely private: a Rocket Man with the demeanor of a college science professor (which he also was). Figuring out how to realistically portray this onscreen in the acclaimed biopic First Man was the job of Ryan Gosling and director Damien Chazelle. Figuring out what Neil wore on his wrist fell to costume designer Mary Zophres.

“We were very specific about the watch that he wore,” says Zophres, pausing on the red carpet outside the 10th Hamilton Behind the Camera Awards in L.A. The biannual event takes place on the cusp of awards season and honours the teams behind the scenes of the year’s best films.

As a watchmaker, Hamilton is uniquely suited to host an event like the Behind the Camera Awards. Their watches have appeared in more than 500 productions since 1930, ranging from the prototype worn in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the Khaki Field Auto Chrono John Krasinski wears in Jack Ryan. None of the films honoured at the most recent ceremony prominently feature a Hamilton, but the brand did take the opportunity to reveal their latest creation, the Jazzmaster Regulator Cinema. With a face dominated by film reels displaying hours and minutes, the piece is as classic Hollywood as Humphrey Bogart in a trench coat.

Some watches — Bruce Willis’s heirloom in Pulp Fiction, say, or Alec Baldwin’s gold Rolex in Glengarry Glen Ross — play an important role in a movie’s plot. Others become one of the thousands of tiny details that contribute to character, setting, and mood. In collaboration with a prop master, costumers like Zophres are responsible for making sure that the watches that do appear onscreen are worthy of their place in that film’s universe.

“I’m less interested in brand than in the look of the watch and how it feels for the character,” says Zophres, whose lengthy resume includes La La Land, No Country for Old Men, and The Big Lebowski. “It needs to make sense for who they are. If it’s somebody who would have a worn-in leather strap, or a metal band, nuances like that make a big difference to me. A metal band has an armour to it, whereas leather feels inviting and more humble.”

Figuring out what kind of watches would have been available to Neil Armstrong proved a challenge. Zophres pored over photographs of the Armstrongs and old department store catalogues to hone in on a correct-looking piece from her collection of period watches. She settled on a simple steel timepiece on a soft leather strap. “Gold feels flashier than Neil Armstrong,” she says. “It was more for someone like Buzz Aldrin.”

The irony, of course, is that given the kind of man Neil Armstrong was — serious, conservative, and consumed by his work — Zophres likely spent more time thinking about his watch than the astronaut did himself. Ultimately, that’s the kind of dedication that can make all the difference. Armstrong would have no doubt been impressed.

Screen Time

A brief history of watches in film


Blue Hawaii – Hamilton Ventura


Dr. No – Rolex Submariner


Aliens – Seiko Giugiaro 7A28-7000


Glengarry Glen Ross – Gold Rolex Day-Date


Pulp Fiction – Lancet, unknown model


Drive – Patek Philippe Calatrava