Did This English Watch Beat Rolex To Everest?
Rolex has always had to cast an envious eye on Omega as the brand that was the first to put a watch on the moon. No doubt it would swap most—if not all—of its golden milestones to have that particular string to its bow.
Still, at least it can boast of claiming the second loftiest prize in the realm of extreme watch feats—that of being the first to put a watch at the top of the world: the summit of Mount Everest.
Or can it?
Since that remarkable moment on May 29th, 1953 when Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary completed their gruelling ascent, Rolex’s claim, much like the main route to Everest itself, seems to have been eroded by countless people trampling all over the commonly accepted narrative and digging up a trove of new information that suggests Rolex might not have been the first, after all. And if they were, they appear to have shared the triumph with a far less prestigious watch brand.
British Pride On The Line
The Everest Expedition happened at an uncertain time for Great Britain. Still in recovery, economically and psychologically from World War II, its empire was crumbling and its depleted military was still being drawn into smaller conflicts in Malaya and Korea.
The expedition, led by Brigadier John Hunt of the Joint Himalayan Committee—an amalgamation of the Alpine Club and Royal Geographical Society, both based in the UK—was a chance to show the world that British pluck and determination, if nothing else, was still intact.
The majestic Mount Everest, but which watch brand got to its summit first?
Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation was around the corner, the start of a new era, perhaps. A moral-booster such as a successful world-first expedition, would have been most timely.
Aside from personnel—comprising mainly British mountaineers and Nepalese Sherpas—the expedition was expected to use British equipment and instruments as far as it possibly could.
There was, frankly, a streak of the PR exercise about it.
At the time, one of the biggest British watchmakers was Smith’s, a company that had been handed Ministry of Defence contracts during World War Two to aid the nation’s self-sufficiency. It switched during the war from manufacturing clocks to aviation and marine instruments, then diversified into watches after the war had ended.
A Smith's A404 Deluxe model similar to the watch worn by Edmund Hillary. Image courtesy of smithswatches.com
Seeing an opportunity for self-promotion, Smith’s put their watches and other instruments—including altimeters and oxygen gauges—forward for inclusion in the Everest Expedition and we can assume they were used in the many training exercises by the team that were conducted on the slopes of Snowdon, in Wales.
But there’s a difference between Mount Everest’s minus-30 conditions at almost 9,000 metres and a Welsh mountain one ninth its height where the temperature barely reaches zero. Plus, Rolex had a head start.
Rolex Flexes Its Muscles
Such a world record-breaking expedition was always going to pique the interest of Rolex, whose founder Hans Wilsdorf—then still alive and involved in the running of the company in the 1950s—never missed an opportunity to show the precision and dependability of his watches.
26 years earlier he had come up with the genius idea of having Mercedes Gleitz wear a Rolex when swimming the English Channel, the first British woman to do so, then promoting the feat in newspaper adverts.
Sending Rolex watches to Everest was an opportunity too good to miss and the company designed a watch specifically for the expedition, having been supplying similar expeditions to the Himalayas for the previous two decades. The watch they supplied for this one was a steel-cased Oyster Perpetual with luminous indexes and hands that came in two versions: one with a white dial and one with a black.
A Rolex Explorer Reference 6098 from 1953. Image courtesy of Bonhams
Unnamed at the time, it went on to be called the Explorer, now a firm favourite in the Rolex range. These watches had a major advantage over the Smiths in that they were self-winding. No need for the climbers to remove their gloves to wind them, risking the debilitating frostbite that would probably have forced them to abandon the attempt.
Who Came Out On Top?
There is a high probability that both watches were present when Hillary and Norgay summitted. But accounts of who was wearing what, or whether they had the watches in their pockets rather than on their wrists, have differed over time, with some writers going into forensic detail and studying endless grainy pictures of the climbers’ wrists.
In any big-screen movie of the ascent, the battle of the watches could be a subplot in itself!
According to James Dowling and Jeffrey Hess, the authors of Rolex Wristwatches: An Unauthorized History, Tenzing wore a Rolex to the summit and Hillary wore a Smith’s.
A Smith’s advert published after the event quotes the by now 'Sir' Edmund Hillary saying “I carried your watch to the summit. It worked perfectly.”
Note, however, that it says ‘carried’ rather than ‘wore’. It's quite possible that he had the Smith's in his pocket and a Rolex on his wrist.
DW Barret, Smith’s Managing Director at the time, wrote in a respected journal: 'Sir Edmund Hillary has stated in writing that he took a Smiths watch to the summit and no other, and he has offered the actual watch which he wore to the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers for permanent exhibition in their museum at the Guildhall.' The watch in question is now displayed in the Science Museum in London.
“History belongs to the victors,” as they say, and as the only survivor of the two brands, Rolex has the distinct advantage of being able to tell its story in perpetuity. The Everest conquest is now firmly entwined in the history of the Explorer and Rolex is naturally reluctant to detract from it.
As for Smith’s, they quit the watch industry in the 1970s and focused on their other interests, including oil and gas. Today, however, a few passionate collectors and vintage watch enthusiasts keep the name, and its monumental achievement, alive.
But the fact that many of its watches from that era are still being worn today at all is testament itself to their quality. And sharing a piece of heritage such as the Everest Conquest with an illustrious brand like Rolex is surely something most watch brands would trade their deepest technological secrets for.
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