Later, the Explorer II, introduced in 1971, carved out a place in the world of exploration thanks to its functions and ability to withstand the most extreme conditions. It became the watch of choice for polar explorers, speleologists and volcanologists. These two watches continue to accompany exceptional people on their expeditions to the far corners of the Earth, on quests to better understand the planet and find solutions for its protection.
In the past century, exploration has pursued three successive goals: to discover unknown parts of the world, to defy the limits of human endurance, and to observe the planet in order to better protect it. In these three challenges, Rolex has accompanied explorers on their intrepid journeys.
The successful ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 was hailed around the globe. Rolex played its part by equipping the expedition with Oyster Perpetual watches.
The same year, following the mountaineers’ achievement, the Explorer was released. Its creation had been years in the making. As early as the 1930s, Rolex had begun to equip expeditions to the Himalayas in a bid to observe how its watches would behave in the extreme conditions at high altitude. After every trip, the climbers gave feedback on how the watches had performed, which enabled the brand to make improvements for future models. Just as a watch’s movement is propelled by the motions of the wearer, so watchmaking techniques advanced thanks to the explorers’ experiences, and Rolex timepieces have gone on to accompany many more voyages of discovery to the remotest areas of our planet.
First to the Top of the World
Mount Everest is a climber's ultimate challenge. In May 1953, two members of a British expedition reached the summit of the legendary peak. Their achievement was hailed around the world, and Rolex played a part in it.
Every day spent on Everest is a question of survival. The body is tormented by the relentless cold, lack of oxygen, and pressures from the harsh environment. It was in these unforgiving conditions that, on 29 May 1953, two exceptionally courageous and determined men became the first to set foot at the top of the world’s highest mountain, at 8,848 metres (29,028 feet). For the members of their expedition, they represented the final hope of reaching the summit, as the monsoon snowstorms were expected in the coming days. Fuelled by an extraordinary resolve, New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper and experienced mountaineer, and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay entered history by managing to succeed where the numerous previous attempts had failed.
The expedition was led by Sir John Hunt and organized by the British Joint Himalayan Committee, a British entity set up to oversee attempts on Everest and which was co-founded by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club. The expedition team itself comprised 16 members, but the logistical constraints of such a venture meant that hundreds of porters would be needed to carry the tons of essential supplies required throughout the trip.
This material included dozens of packages containing sophisticated equipment scrupulously inventoried and ready for use. From specially designed climbing boots to tents tested in wind tunnels, nothing had been overlooked to give this new attempt every chance of success. Rolex, too, was part of the adventure, for the expedition material also included Oyster Perpetual watches.
“The Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches, with which members of the British team were equipped, again proved their dependability on Everest,” wrote Sir John on his return. “We were delighted that they kept such accurate time. This ensured that synchronization of the time between the members of the team was maintained throughout. [...] They performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high climbing equipment.”
The Himalayas: a living laboratory
High mountain ranges provide an excellent environment in which to measure a watch’s reliability and robustness. For Rolex, the Himalayas were the ideal living laboratory.
During the first half of the 20th century, the unconquered peaks of the Himalayas held fascination and appeal for climbers the world over. One in particular captivated the imagination and reigned supreme – Mount Everest. This international attraction for the highest summits, combined with the possibility of testing its watches in real-life conditions, prompted Rolex to join forces with teams of pioneering mountaineers. Between 1933 and 1955, no fewer than 17 expeditions to the world’s highest peaks were equipped with the brand’s watches.
These timepieces witnessed a number of first ascents, starting with that of Everest in 1953 – the world’s highest mountain at 8,848 metres above sea level. It was followed by K2 in 1954, the second highest at 8,611 metres; Kangchenjunga in 1955, the third highest at 8,586 metres; and Makalu the same year, the world’s fifth highest peak at 8,485 metres.
A Swiss trailblazer in the Himalayas
A young and talented climber from Grindelwald, a village at the foot of the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, Annelies Lohner showed remarkable strength of character when she proposed to set up the first Swiss expedition to the Himalayas after the Second World War. A pioneer of mountaineering with a passion for adventure, she managed to persuade the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research to let her lead a team into the Gangotri mountain range, in the Garhwal Himal region of northern India.
In the five months from May to September 1947, the expedition achieved the first ascents of Kedarnath, Satopanth, Kalindi Peak (via the north-east face), Balbala and Nanda Ghunti, and made an exploration of the Chaukhamba massif, a group of summits over 6,000 and 7,000 metres.
To support the project, Rolex gave each team member an Oyster Perpetual watch to wear throughout the climb. These timepieces were with them at every turn and withstood the extreme conditions without ever letting them down. On their return, the climbers reported on the watches’ water tightness, precision and convenience in terms of the movement’s self-winding system using the Perpetual rotor. “The Rolex watches that we are each wearing keep surprisingly accurate time. They are very useful and we are delighted with them. The fact that we do not have to wind them is especially appreciated,” wrote André Roch, the expedition guide, from the Gangotri base camp on 7 July 1947.
At the 1948 watch fair after the team’s return, Rolex presented a showcase featuring several watches worn on the adventure, set against a decor depicting the summits that had been climbed.
Waterproof in icy waters
A revolution in terms of its perfect waterproofness, the Rolex Oyster case was tested a few years after its launch by a well-known explorer during an expedition to Greenland.
Dust, and especially moisture, can cause lasting damage to the inside of a watch and undermine its main function as a timekeeper. To solve this problem Rolex developed the Oyster case, under the impetus of its founder Hans Wilsdorf, who was convinced of the need for such an invention. The perfectly sealed case was patented in 1926. To ensure its waterproofness in all circumstances, Rolex regularly asked explorers to carry watches fitted with an Oyster case for testing in real-life conditions. Polar explorer Henry Georges ‘Gino’ Watkins took several Oyster Perpetual watches with him on an expedition along the coast of Greenland between 1930 and 1931. After the trip, he told Rolex of his admiration for these watches, which had been submerged several times along the way and yet continued to work perfectly.