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A long-standing commitment

Rolex and exploration

The history of Rolex and exploration is one linked to some of the greatest adventures of the past century.
Oyster watches have been to the top of the world and the deepest part of the ocean. For generations, pioneering explorers have attested to their reliability in the toughest of conditions.

When Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summitted Everest in 1953, their successful ascent was hailed around the globe. They did not just climb the world’s highest mountain, they broke what was almost considered a law of nature; that at 8,848 metres (29,028 feet) the mountain was too high to climb, that it was beyond mankind’s reach. But as Sir Edmund said later: “With practice and focus, you can extend yourself far more than you ever believed possible.”

By its very nature, exploration often requires taking great risks that test endurance and will. To reach further, higher, deeper – to venture into the most hostile parts of the planet to learn more about them – goes to the heart of what it means to be human. Rolex watches have taken part in many of these great adventures into the unknown. The successful expedition to Everest, led by Sir John Hunt, was just one such occasion.

Over the course of the past century, Rolex has been heavily involved in exploration, witnessing expeditions of pure discovery evolve into those drawing attention to the urgent need to protect the planet. The brand has embraced this new direction by expanding the number of partnerships it has with individuals, institutions and organizations who work to promote exploration, the protection of our environment, and encourage the next generation of explorers.


The story of Rolex’s involvement with exploration begins with the momentous development of the world’s first waterproof wristwatch by the company’s founder Hans Wilsdorf. In 1926, the launch of the Oyster fundamentally changed the notion of a watch. Rather than being a fragile item of apparel, the Oyster was a veritable tool, one that was sufficiently robust to venture into tough, wet conditions and remain accurate.

To prove the waterproofness of the Oyster, in 1927 Hans Wilsdorf equipped Mercedes Gleitze, a young Englishwoman, with a Rolex Oyster, for a historic swim across the English Channel. After more than 10 hours in the water, the watch emerged in perfect working order, setting the Oyster on its journey to becoming an essential watch for explorers.

Committed to innovation and wanting to develop watches catering to specific needs, Rolex began to equip mountaineering and diving expeditions with Oyster watches. The feedback it received from this real-life laboratory was used to develop what eventually became known as the Professional range: Oyster Perpetual models such as the Explorer and Explorer II, the Cosmograph Daytona, the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller.


In the 1930s the perils of climbing in the Himalayas were not mitigated by satellite messengers, or lightweight tents engineered to withstand the cold and high winds as they are in the modern era. In those years, the pioneers of climbing were taking on unprecedented altitudes in temperatures as low as -50°C (-58°F), their lives endangered by the thinness of the air. Above 6,000 metres, climbers enter a zone where the body starts to shut down from lack of oxygen. In these extremes, exact timing is vital: a reliable watch is essential.

In 1933, the Houston-Everest Expedition wore Rolex Oyster watches for the first flight over Everest at an altitude exceeding 10,000 metres (33,000 feet). One of the expedition’s organizers, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart Blacker, later recounted his satisfaction to Rolex: “I can hardly imagine that any watches have ever been subjected before to such extremes under practical conditions. In spite of all this, the watches continued to work with the utmost accuracy… Not the slightest fault could be found with them.”

1953 - Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

That same year Rolex equipped a British Everest expedition, a team of 16 people led by Hugh Ruttledge. They reached about 8,580 metres (28,150 feet) but were forced to turn back when conditions deteriorated. Everest was to remain the holy grail of mountaineering for the next 20 years until Hillary and Norgay achieved the ultimate goal. Hillary used his ice axe to cut the final steps and they stood triumphant on Everest’s summit at 11.30 a.m. on 29 May for an unforgettable 15 minutes – long enough for Hillary to reflect on the future. “While on top of Everest, I looked across the valley towards the great peak Makalu and mentally worked out a route about how it could be climbed. It showed me that even though I was standing on top of the world, it wasn’t the end of everything. I was still looking beyond to other interesting challenges.”

The team was not all that was being tested during the expedition. Sir John Hunt later reported on the performance of the Oyster Perpetual watches that had accompanied them on this historic expedition. His enthusiasm was pronounced: “Rolex Oyster watches,” he wrote “performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high-climbing equipment.”

Rolex Oyster watches, performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high-climbing equipment.

Sir John Hunt, Everest expedition leader


For Rolex, the challenge had been to develop watches for high-altitude mountaineering that could resist extreme temperatures. In 1953, with the experience gained from the ascent of Everest, as well as other testimony provided by climbers, the brand launched the Explorer watch in honour of the first-ever successful ascent of Everest. Later, the performance of the Explorer model was improved with a reinforced case and a more legible dial, catering for extreme conditions. Since that time, the Rolex Explorer has benefited from every technical advance to Rolex watches, while its appearance essentially remains the same.


Rolex divers’ watches were developed in the same time frame as the Explorer, with the first Submariner also launched in 1953. By 1960, Rolex’s involvement with exploration took a new turn, going down instead of up – to the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the oceans, the equivalent of the height of Everest plus some 2,000 metres.

The bathyscaphe Trieste, piloted by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh, carried an experimental Oyster watch, the Deep Sea Special, fixed to its exterior as it descended to a record depth of 10,916 metres (35,800 feet) in the Mariana Trench in the western Pacific Ocean. The watch withstood colossal pressure that no human could survive. Piccard and Walsh were the only ones to reach the bottom of the ocean for the next 52 years, when their achievement was matched by explorer and film-maker James Cameron in 2012. He was accompanied by the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, an experimental watch custom-made by Rolex to face the crushing pressure at this spectacular depth. Also on board, in homage to the previous expedition, was the Deep Sea Special.

Essential for exploration

In 1971, Rolex launched the Explorer II, heir to the Explorer, featuring a date display, an additional 24-hour hand and a fixed bezel with 24 hour graduations, enabling the wearer to distinguish the hours of the day from those of the night.

This was essential for exploration in dark environments – the depths of caves, for example – or polar regions, which experience six months of daylight and six months of darkness a year. The Explorer II became the watch of choice for speleologists, volcanologists and polar explorers.


Many explorers, mountaineers and scientists became Rolex Testimonees and were breaking records and testing their endurance and courage in creative ways, often equipped with Rolex Explorer and Explorer II watches.
Ed Viesturs climbed Lhotse in 1994. Having summited Everest seven days earlier, he was acclimatized to make a fast ascent in three days.

These explorers were increasingly concerned about the impact of humanity on the delicate balance of the Earth’s ecosytems. The purpose of their expeditions started to change from pure adventure to those designed to draw attention to the planet’s fragility. Individuals pursued extreme goals, making their mark on the record books.

Swiss-Canadian mountaineer Jean Troillet climbed Everest in 1986 and in 1997 became the first man to descend the North Face from near the summit on a snowboard. Troillet holds the speed record for the ascent of Everest on the North Face and has climbed 10 of the 8,000 metres peaks, all in alpine style, without supplemental oxygen. American mountaineer Ed Viesturs, considered by many as the greatest climber of his generation, scaled all 14 of the world’s 8,000 metres peaks also without added oxygen during his Endeavour 8000 project, completed in 2005. In 2006, Norwegian adventurer Rune Gjeldnes became the first and only person to cross the three big ice sheets – Greenland, the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica – on skies, unaided. He holds the records for the longest ski journey without resupply and the longest ski journey in general.

14 x 8,000 - Ed Viesturs has climbed all of the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metres (26,000 feet) without supplemental oxygen.

[My watch] has just passed, with flying colours, its first – and extremely demanding – volcanic test, in very aggressive gases on Mount Etna. It worked perfectly, which was not the case for the watches of my teammates.

Haroun Tazieff


French caver and volcanologist Haroun Tazieff adopted the Explorer for his fieldwork as a reliable watch is essential to record the changing temperature of gases and the magna produced in eruptions.

Tazieff, who had to get very close to erupting volcanoes to do his research, would wear his watch on top of the sleeve of his thermal suit. In a letter addressed to Rolex in 1972, he wrote: “[My watch] has just passed, with flying colours, its first – and extremely demanding – volcanic test, in very aggressive gases on Mount Etna. It worked perfectly, which was not the case for the watches of my teammates.”


British balloonist Sir Julian Nott has broken 79 world ballooning records and 96 British records, including reaching 16,804 metres (55,134 feet) in a hot air balloon when he set a new world record in 1980.

At this height, Sir Julian had to contend with freezing temperatures, lack of oxygen and virtually non-existent air pressure; the most advanced technology and newest materials were essential. Nott’s equipment included a Rolex Oyster, which he describes: “It came under close scrutiny as everything else, but personal preferences aside, its inclusion was never really in doubt.” Nott also pioneered the use of hybrid energy for lift, where solar power is a significant heat source. In 1981, he flew a solar-powered hybrid balloon across the English Channel.


German-born American conservationist George Schaller has helped to establish more than 20 wildlife reserves around the world in his determination to prevent the destruction of environments.

From 1952 he spent decades studying the natural history of rare animals and fighting for their survival. Schaller led seminal studies on some of the planet’s most endangered animals, ranging from the mountain gorilla in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, snow leopards in Mongolia, giant pandas in China, and wild sheep and goats in the Himalayas. His work has taken him to some of the most forbidding places on Earth, and he has worn a Rolex watch on his crucial missions: “My watch must be absolutely reliable, as animal observations are recorded under the most demanding conditions. My Rolex has never let me down.”


Kenyan paleoanthropologist and conservationist Richard Leakey is world-renowned for extensive fossil finds that have revealed much about human evolution, and for campaigning for responsible management of the environment in East Africa.

Leakey and his team uncovered about 400 hominin fossils, making Koobi Fora (in northern Kenya) the site of the richest and most varied assemblage of early human remains found anywhere in the world. Of particular importance is his discovery, in 1984, of Turkana Boy, one of the most complete skeletons of an early human. In 1989, Leakey was appointed head of the Kenyan Wildlife Conservation and Management Department in response to elephant poaching and its impact on the country’s wildlife. “Saving our wildlife is not only an environmental necessity, it’s a cultural one as well,” he said in a Rolex advertisement in 1991.


Polar explorer
Before the age of 32, Norwegian adventurer Erling Kagge had sailed across the Atlantic alone twice; sailed to Antarctica and back; become one of the first two men to travel to the North Pole (with Børge Ousland) without outside assistance; reached the South Pole alone and unsupported (also a first); and climbed Mount Everest.

He became the first person in history to reach the so-called “Three Extremes”: the two poles and the highest mountaintop. The back of Kagge’s Rolex Explorer is engraved with the words: “North Pole, 1990, South Pole 1992-1993, Mt Everest 1994”.


Since 1983, Belgian polar explorer and Rolex Testimonee Alain Hubert has taken part in several mountaineering and polar expeditions to the South and North Poles, including many as a guide.

In 2002, Hubert created the International Polar Foundation, to support polar science as a key to understanding climate change. During the International Polar Year 2007–2008, the foundation raised funds to build a new international research station in Antarctica, designed to operate entirely on renewable energies. His 2007 Arctic Arc expedition would be the challenge of a lifetime: a gruelling trek from Siberia to Greenland via the North Pole to study the effects of climate change. Hubert never leaves for an expedition without a satellite phone, a map and his Rolex Explorer II.

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