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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
[…] that didn’t happen. Sir Edmund left his Oyster Perpetual at base camp and ascended Everest wearing a Smith’s. Rolex created the Explorer name to commemorate the event. Does that matter? It does if […]
All this talk about Hillary. There were two men on top of that Mountain that day. You forget Tenzing Norgay, dutifully wearing his sponsors watch. Yes Rolex was a sponsor. This is a well known fact. The Rolex watches worn by others on the team have been accounted for, most returned to Rolex for post expedition analysis. The only question is whom actually stepped foot on the summit first? Both men have claimed they were the first but since there wasn’t anyone else there to verify the countering claims the only thing we can ascertain for sure is both watches were on the summit that day. I myself like to think it was Tenzing since I’ve worn an Explorer of one type or another since the early 80’s. And yes Rolex’s marketing is pure genius and magical in nature
Actually Tenzing said it was Hillary who was first on the summit.
In his 1955 autobiography, Tenzing wrote the following:
‘A little below the summit Hillary and I stopped. We looked up. Then we went on. The rope that joined us was thirty feet long, but I held most of it in loops in my hand, there was only six feet between us. I was not thinking of “first” and “second”. I did not say to myself, “There is a golden apple up there. I will push Hillary aside and run for it.” We went on slowly, steadily. And then we were there. Hillary stepped on top first. And I stepped up after him.”
But in interviews, both men refused to discuss the matter. In Hillary’s words: ‘We shared the work, the risks and the success – it was a team effort and nothing else is important.’ Alexa Johnston, Sir Edmund Hillary: An Extraordinary Life, (Auckland: Penguin, 2006), 122
“In an interview with Scotland on Sunday for the 50th anniversary in 2003, Hillary explained what had happened: “We set off at 6.30am, first light, me in the lead, Tenzing behind on a tight rope. We never discussed who would be first up. It really did not matter to me, as the entire expedition was very much a team affair, but I suspect Tenzing was quite deferential to what he saw as the Sahib. So I got to the top first, with him just 10ft or so behind.”
[…] Anecdotally, Hillary and Norgay wore watches made by both Smiths and Rolex during the 1953 Everest expedition, and members of the climbing team relied on both brands of chronometer for critical timing issues on the mountain. But Norgay had a previous relationship with Smiths and had a signature timepiece created by them that had been awarded to him for a previous Himalayan climb. (hodinkee.com) […]
The watch worn by Tenzing was not a Smiths, as alluded to here. Following the unsuccessful Swiss summit attempt on Everest the year before in 1952, Rolex presented him with a gold Rolex Datejust . It bears an inscription to that effect on the case back…….’ Presented to ( Norgay ) by the Rolex Watch Company as a momento of the Swiss expedition to Mount Everest. Some articles say that the Smiths de luxe carried by Hillary was a personal item, if so, casting doubts that Tenzing would have had one too.
[…] Anecdotally, Hillary and Norgay wore watches made by both Smiths and Rolex during the 1953 Everest expedition, and members of the climbing team relied on both brands of chronometers for critical timing issues on the mountain. But Norgay had a previous relationship with Smiths and had a signature timepiece created by them that had been awarded to him for a previous Himalayan climb. (hodinkee.com) […]
[…] at horalus.com has the inside dope on Rolex’s rope-a-dope marketing of Eddie’s Big Adventure. How […]
Its possible Norgay wore his Rolex to the summit but highly unlikely. LIFE magazine did several stories in 1953 about Hillary and Tenzing featuring photos from before at base camp, and just after the ascent. In all the photos, Tenzing is wearing a silver watch on a silver bonklip bracelet. Not definitive proof it was a Smiths, but definitely not a gold rolex.