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.
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 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.”
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 divers’ watches were developed in the same timeframe 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.
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.
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-metre 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-metre 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 of the longest ski journey without resupply and the longest ski journey in general.
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.