The truth behind the Rolex Explorer – First watch on the summit of Mount Everest?

On the morning of 28th May 1953, in the most punishing of environments where winds exceed 200 km/hour and temperatures plunge to minus 30 degrees Celsius, Edmund Hillary – a member of the 1953 British Everest Expedition team – became the first man to set foot on the highest point on earth. By his side, was Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, and there they stood, gazing down upon the world at 8,848 metres.

MOUNT EVEREST HEROES
Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mount Everest in 1953

Men have just conquered Mount Everest. Contrary to popular belief, Edmund Hillary was not wearing a Rolex (surprise?).

Instead, this was the watch on Edmund Hillary’s wrist.

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Image: Bridgeman

Smiths was an English company founded in 1851 by Samuel Smith, and started its business making clocks and measuring instruments. Due to economic pressures and the 2 world wars, Smiths diversified into a string of non-horology products but invested into them again post-WW2. 

The serendipitous nature of Smiths’ Everest ‘achievement’ is similar to that of the Omega Speedmaster; the Speedmaster was never designed specifically to go to the moon, much like how the Smiths De Luxe was not engineered with the goal of withstanding conditions necessary to summit the world’s highest peak.

In a similar fashion, Smiths saw the marketing potential of such an association, and they followed up the summit achievement with an advertisement, which was endorsed by Edmund Hillary himself.

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Now, I figured most of you have never heard of Smiths, much less their role in the expedition, and even lesser still that it was taken by Edmund Hillary to the peak of the world.

But why?

Surely, Smiths would’ve done everything in its capacity to ensure that this was never forgotten? I mean, look at Omega: half a century has gone by and they’ve never once let up on the ‘moon achievement’ of the Speedmaster by introducing a dizzying array of variants every year. I’m a huge Omega fan, but even so,  I’m a little put off by the endless milking – dark side of the moon, then grey side, then white side. What’s next? The other side of the moon?

Rolex’s ties with the Everest Expeditions

The revelation above deviates away from the popular notion that Edmund Hillary was wearing a Rolex when he reached the summit. The misconception boils down to 2 factors: powerful marketing and mixed up facts.

Since 1933, Rolex had been, selectively , sponsoring their Oyster Perpetual (the Explorer has not been created yet) watches to the intrepid men embarking on expeditions into the Himalayas. Beyond the obvious marketing value, it also served as the perfect testing ground to see what their watches could withstand.

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An example of an Oyster Perpetual (circa 1950s) supplied to expeditors

 

A year prior to Edmund Hillary’s monumental achievement, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay led the ‘1952 Swiss Everest Expedition team’, which failed to reach the summit but managed to set a new high of 8,595 metres. There is documentation showing that Rolex was an official sponsor for the 1952 event, and in appreciation of Tenzing’s assistance to the Swiss team, he was gifted a gold DateJust.

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Image: Rolexpassionreport

 

tenzing watch
Image: Rolexpassionreport

Due to its partnership with such iconic men of mountaineering, it is, then, rather easy for the masses to assume that every expeditor would be outfitted with a Rolex, which is, of course, untrue.

To make things even murkier, Edmund Hillary happens to be one of those sponsored by Rolex as well.

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Image: Hodinkee. The actual Rolex Oyster Perpetual worn by Edmund Hilary.

While Edmund Hillary did, in fact, take his Rolex Oyster Perpetual during the 1953 expedition, it has been verified with various sources, including an account from the man himself, that he left his Rolex back at the base camp before making his ascent up the final stretch. So, no, Rolex made it close to the summit, but not on it. And yes, to reiterate, that honour belongs to Smiths.

However, the Smiths watch was a personal possession of Hillary, and compared to the widely publicised relationship of Rolex – an official sponsor – and the Everest expeditions, Smiths was largely forgettable. Even with their advertisement bearing an endorsement from Hillary, it was quickly piled under a series of extremely clever campaigns by Rolex.

Rolex – probably the best marketer in the world

Fact: Rolex spends the most money on advertising out of all watch companies in the world.

Back in 1953, Smiths had the ultimate bragging rights; but Rolex had the money. While Rolex has never claimed that it was the Oyster Perpetual that got up the summit, neither did they explicitly claim that it didn’t.

Instead, they decided to create the Rolex Explorer to ‘commemorate’ the achievement made by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. The advertisements were real subliminal stuff, and this campaign carried on for years. With constant exposure, consumer thinking can be conditioned to accept marketing fluff (for the lack of a better word) as fact. Perhaps, and most impressive of all, was that Rolex has never once said that their watch was worn to the summit, people just assumed that it was.

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Note the clever use of wording; the copywriter deserves a medal.

 

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Again, outstanding copywriting. Keywords: they used Rolex Oysters on Everest.

 

With all that said, I’m not out to say that the Explorer is a watch lacking substance. In fact, the explorer, along with all other watches made by Rolex, exhibit a remarkable level of mechanical quality; Rolex is a great brand making great watches. What I’m saying, as far as the Explorer is concerned, is that their marketing prowess is the true star here.

Poor Smiths. But at least, now you know.

 

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2 comments

  1. “However, the Smiths watch was a personal possession of Hillary, and compared to the widely publicised relationship of Rolex – an official sponsor – and the Everest expeditions, Smiths was largely forgettable.”

    No, other way round: Smiths were an official sponsor of the 1953 Hunt expedition and any Rolexes uses were private purchase pieces.

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    • In Appendix IX of Brigadier John Hunt’s ‘The Ascent of Everest’, under the heading ‘Acknowledgments of Assistance in Launching the Expedition, both Rolex Watch Company Ltd (watches) and Smiths Clocks Ltd. (Alarm clocks, watches) are included.

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