Jun 02, 2020
Rolex vs. Smiths: Which Watch Summited Everest in 1953? Putting a Controversy to Rest
It is commonly-accepted knowledge that there was a Rolex on the summit of Everest in 1953. In reality, it was the swansong of a now-defunct English brand called Smiths.
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Back when the edges of the world were still not quite mapped and tamed, mechanical wristwatches used to be an essential professional tool. The memory of these glory days is still invoked to sell what even the most passionate watch lover has to concede is now gloriously redundant jewelry. Wearing a watch with a storied history is popular. Look at Omega’s Speedmaster, continuously available, and largely unchanged, since it was one small step on the journey to the Moon. Look at Rolex’s Explorer…
I’ve loved watches since childhood, there is so much more to them than a case and a pretty face. Bling doesn’t touch me, but ‘mind bling’ does. I find it deeply satisfying that behind the dial, polished and poised, there is a haiku of mechanism that can keep its own, independent, time. However, knowing that this precise model of a watch on my wrist timed a significant moment in history, or even literature, can literally make me shiver. Working out who was wearing what and when is a complex and rewarding pleasure.
Which brings me to Rolex and Smiths on Everest.
An introduction to Rolex seems almost redundant. Rolex’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, a German emigré to London before relocating to Geneva, was a man with an unerring sense of the future. His Oyster case was far from the world’s first waterproof case, but under Wilsdorf, it rapidly evolved into arguably the finest. Rolex’s advertising, then as now, leaned heavily on getting a Rolex Oyster on the wrist of people who might just hit the headlines and then telling their story in triumphant adverts. Summiting Everest was a very Rolex sort of endeavor, and they provided watches, but little else, to several expeditions.
Then there’s Smiths of England. Today Smiths Group is an engineering giant, but their watch division, the last English watchmakers, closed with a whimper in the late seventies. It wasn’t always that way. In the fifties, Smiths’ watches, clocks and instruments were ubiquitous and it is no surprise that Smiths were quick to support a patriotic enterprise like the ascent of Everest. Smiths’ support included a wide range of essential instrumentation including altimeters and oxygen gauges and really were central to the success of the endeavor. The watches were only part of the package.
Both companies wanted to see their watches on the summit and it is undeniable that the 1953 Everest expedition was equipped with around two dozen watches from Rolex and Smiths. These were distributed unevenly across the team, with some members ending up with multiple watches and others ending up with a single watch. In addition, Griffith Pugh, the scientist behind their success, wore his own Omega CK2287 chronometer.
Rolex gave watches to several members of the expedition after the successful ascent. They advertised heavily, and often in an equivocal manner, from the moment the news broke to the present day. This has caused confusion for over seventy years and has allowed a lot of misleading, and downright false, stories to circulate, percolate and become close to received wisdom.
Rolex are, undoubtedly and deservedly, the most well known watch brand in the world, and if there’s one thing most people know about Rolex, it’s that they were worn by the climbers who summited on Everest in 1953. For years, I accepted this, but the harder I looked at the story, the less sense it made. Until one day, it made no sense at all, and I started to try to work out what really happened. As a result, I intend to demonstrate that there were only two watches worn on the summit and that both of those watches were custom made Smiths. As the story unfolds, it becomes hard not to conclude that Rolex are fully aware of this, despite – or perhaps because of – their exquisitely worded advertising.
The precise watches supplied by Smiths were an amalgam of the Smiths A404 ‘Tropical’ case from Dennison, the Smiths Cal.400 ‘1215’ movement and a custom made dial with shaded numerals that shared elements of the Benson Tropical and the Smiths A404. To put it another way, the watches were standard Smiths A404 but with a custom dial and special preparation. Smiths called this model the A409. One of these watches, Hillary’s, hangs in The Science Museum in London.
“Snow conditions bad, hence expedition abandoned advanced base on 29th and awaiting improvements being all well.”
The 1953 expedition made two attempts to reach the summit. The first, by Charles Evans and Tom Bourdillon, failed; the sufficient cause of their failure was the failure, due to ice, of their oxygen systems. These were an experimental setup of Bourdillon’s own design. The system was known to be troublesome but was infinitely more efficient and economical when working. Hillary and Norgay used an open breather system that was functionally unchanged from the system used successfully by Mallory in 1924.
Both Evans and Bourdillon wore Rolex 6098 watches and Bourdillon also wore a Smiths A409. The Rolex were a specially prepared, but standard, Rolex model available commercially at the time. This combined an A296 winding module with a Cal.765 movement in a 35.5mm ‘Big Bubbleback’ case.
Bourdillon and Evans’ watches can be clearly identified in photographs taken during the expedition and on their return to camp IV after their failed attempt. Evans’ has resurfaced in the public domain and pictures of it are common. Had they succeeded, it is clear that the watch on the summit would have been a standard Rolex 6098 with a white radium dial. Rolex’s advertising department would have had a field day.
They didn’t. The rest is history.
Everest’s summit was finally reached, by Hillary and Norgay, on the 29th of May at 11:30 am local (7 am in London). The expedition was equipped with heavy, low-powered radios. The summit party was not carrying them and did not contact anyone until they met Lowe near Camp IV some five hours later.
At this point, base camp was contacted and James (now Jan) Morris, the correspondent for the Times (who had a binding copyright deal with the Royal Geographical Society) made his way down the mountain and back across the treacherous Khumbu glacier with Mike Westmacott. They then contracted a local runner to carry the message to an Indian Army outpost at Namche Bazaar some twenty miles away, from where the message was dispatched to the British Embassy and thus to London.
To protect his scoop, Morris had arranged a series of elaborate codes to identify the climbers who had reached the summit. Morris’ messages arrived in London late on the first and allowed Rolex to run a substantial advert on page three – the first page of the Times that carried adverts that day – on the morning of the second of June:
The ‘7 times on Everest’ headline does not refer to the climbers, but to the number of expeditions on which at least one Rolex had been carried, which is an impressive level of vaunt. However, as I demonstrated elsewhere, until the fifties, as far as I can ascertain, this was usually just the 1920s cushion cased Oyster owned by Eric Shipton. It’s possible and certainly in line with Wilsdorf’s product placing philosophy that this was a gift, but it could just as well be coincidence and opportunism from Rolex. These articles and advertisements were originally published in The Times.
This is one of the very few adverts that ever explicitly claims that Rolex was worn on the summit. However, it claims it repeatedly, exultantly, and clearly in full expectation that the claim would be proven to be correct. The advert is utterly unambiguous; there’s no doubt at any point: Rolex had a long and central role in the exploration and summiting of Everest and was on the summit with Tenzing and Hillary.
This is important, as it shows us what advertising would look like if Rolex believed their product had made it to the summit of Everest. At this point, all they had to go on was the content of Morris’ code:
“Snow conditions bad, hence expedition abandoned advanced base on 29th and awaiting improvements being all well.”
Unsurprisingly, there was no code for the watches used, merely an expectation.
Unfortunately, Rolex was not the only watch company to have that expectation. On the Third, Smiths ran an equally triumphant advert in The Times that also claimed that their watches had made it to the summit.
And with that, one of amateur horology’s favourite debates was born.
One of the things that always troubled me was the ambiguity of Rolex’s advertising. The adverts often implied they’d been on the summit, but never stated it. Why not? Both Rolex and Smiths produced an ‘Everest’ model. Rolex, before ‘53 and Smiths afterward. Why wasn’t the Explorer called the Everest? More than anything else, where were the watches from the summit? Why were they not the cult icon you would expect? There’s one obvious answer, but intuition is a long way from proof.
Rolex certainly initially behaved like their watches had been worn on the summit. Ayaz Peerbhoy of J. Walter Thompson, Rolex’s advertising agency, accompanied the victorious mountaineers to Calcutta where Bosecks Jewellers were remarkably generous to them. Peerbhoy was given a solid gold Rolex for his role in what looked at the time like an unambiguous advertising coup for Rolex. However, after a few months and some equally golden advertising, this rosy picture began to lose its glow.
We know that getting a Rolex to the top of Everest first was quite important to Rolex. They had their response in place and, through their ad agency, went to some length to have an advert that really was almost as much of a scoop as the Times’ story it accompanied. In fact, in the Times, the advert came before the main story, which was actually on page six. It left no reader in any doubt that a Rolex had made it to the summit. Rolex had worked for this success and were justifiably proud that they had finally got it.
It’s a matter of historical record that Rolex retained Hillary as a brand ambassador for many years and widely believed that both Hunt and Norgay were also retained. They were certainly all given Rolex watches by Bosecks of Calcutta and apparently wrote extremely detailed praise of Rolex. However, one of their most famous testimonials is somewhat problematic…
Hillary’s testimonial doesn’t refer to the Everest expedition, but to the Cho Oyu Expedition the previous year. The watch that had “become a treasured possession” has never been seen anywhere and was not in his personal collection when his family attempted to auction it. The Royal Geographical Society archives contain no mention of watches being given by Rolex that year, there are no photographs that I have seen that feature Hillary wearing a Rolex between arriving in the Himalayas for the first time in 1951 and receiving Rolex from Bosecks in 1953, but there are photographs of him wearing what looks like a small Taubert cased watch, quite possibly a ubiquitous in India West End Watch Co Sowar.
As I worked through The Times of London’s database, I discovered a glaring issue with Hunt’s testimony: most of the content that was claimed to be written by Hunt actually turns up in earlier adverts, including the Times advert pictured above. Compare paragraphs two and three of the Hunt testimonial (ostensibly written by a grateful Hunt in Kathmandu on the fifteenth of June) with paragraphs four and five of the advert from the Times almost two weeks earlier:
The Times June 2nd ’53
“Another curious but inevitable result of climbing above 25,000 feet is that the mind tends to become numb and dazed. A climber tends to forget details such as winding his watch; he doesn’t want to be bothered with this when all his energy is concentrated on the climb. But there was no need for the Everest climbers to remember since another Rolex invention, the perpetual self winding ‘rotor,’ kept their watches fully wound all the time. No need, either, for them to slip off their warm gloves to attend to this irritating detail.”
Col. Hunt Kathmandu June 15th ’53
“Last but not least, the Perpetual selfwinding mechanism relieved the team from the trouble of winding their watches. At heights of over twenty-five thousand feet, this is really necessary, because the mind slows up and such details as winding watches can be forgotten. There was no need either to slip off warm gloves to attend to this detail.”
Hunt had never been on an Everest expedition before. He had applied for one before the war but been turned down. As such, his talk of previous experiences on Everest seems slightly inauthentic to say the least. The most likely explanation was that the copy was written for him and he merely signed off on it. The other possibility was that Hunt simply copied earlier Rolex adverts. The degree of similarity between Hunt’s words and earlier adverts really is far too great for any possible coincidence.
Norgay doesn’t even claim to have worn a Rolex on Everest, he merely comments on them in general terms. This might seem surprising given that it is close to common knowledge on the internet that he wore the gold Rolex Datejust given to him after the failed Swiss expeditions the year before.
There’s one glaring problem with this assumption: there are literally dozens of colour photographs in the RGS collection that show Norgay wearing an unambiguously steel watch on an equally steel bonklip style bracelet. There are also a few black and white ones of the same watch on the same strap; it doesn’t look remotely like a Rolex, but it does look just like a Smiths.
So there’s a solid circumstantial case. By then, with the aid of watchmaker’s loupe, I had squinted my way through most of the thousands of original photographs held at the Royal Geographical Society in London, I had watched the official film of the expedition literally frame by frame. At no point did either Hillary or Tenzing wear two watches on Everest and every watch I saw them wearing looked like a Smiths to me.
The problem is that in all those images, there was never one that was quite clear enough, suggestive certainly, but not the smoking gun I was looking for. Taken as a whole, they made quite a strong case, but not an overwhelming one. I was convinced but not convincing. Then everything changed.
It is at this point that things really start to go downhill rapidly for Rolex. Unsurprisingly, there had been a great deal of interest in the expedition and the horological community had, quite naturally and properly, taken an interest. This was expressed in the nearest thing that watch folk had to a watch forum at the time: the letters page of the British Horological Institute journal. Every good whodunnit needs a denouement with an unrepentant confession and this one does not disappoint.
In what follows, I am indebted to Broussard of the TZ-UK forum for his stellar research and indeed the BHI and AHS for preserving such revealing documents (which can be reviewed further down this article).
We join the ‘thread’ with a comment by a Mr C.E. Faller, in the August edition of the BHI Horological Journal who observed that:
“Smiths claim that every member of the British Mount Everest Expedition was equipped with one of their watches. We also are aware that the Rolex Watch Co. claim that Colonel Hunt, Mr. Hillary, and Sherpa Tensing wore Rolex Perpetual Oysters. Are we to presume that at least three members of the expedition wore one watch on each wrist?”
As it happens, at least three did: Hunt, Wylie and Bourdillon are all pictured in film and pictures from the expedition wearing both a Smiths and a Rolex. Hillary and Tenzing both wear the same single watch consistently throughout the expedition.
However, this barbed comment drew an unexpected response, from D.W. Barrett, the then managing director of Smiths Clocks and Watches, as recorded in the September letters page:
“With reference to Mr. C.E. Faller’s letter which appeared in the August issue of the Horological Journal, in which our name was mentioned, I would say that advertising is one thing and fact another. The facts as we know them are that the committee of the British Mount Everest Expedition indicated that in many ways the expedition was to be a national enterprise and the aim would be to equip it entirely with British goods.
Our watches, and certain other Smiths equipment including oxygen gauges, were supplied and we received a written assurance that the watches would be worn to the ultimate point reached on the mountain. 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.
Based upon the evidence, which we are prepared to put before the editor and/or any authority, we claim that a Smiths watch was the first to reach the summit of Everest.
It was not an automatic type and was wound by Sir Edmund at the time when he, with Tensing, on May 29 went over his equipment at Camp No. IX (27,900 ft) prior to setting off at 6.30am on the final assault on the summit. It was, of course, at his Smiths Watch that he looked at the dramatic moment that he reached the top, and noted it was exactly 11.30am.
All the thirteen Smiths watches used by the British Mount Everest Expedition had a grueling time, which will be appreciated when one considers the vast number of steps that had to be hacked out with ice axes. We are proud to be able to relate that we have it in writing from the Royal Geographical Society that the expedition was more than pleased with the performance of their Smiths watches and they had no stoppages or complaints. It is indeed extremely gratifying that this great British achievement should have been supported by British products.”
Now, this is wonderfully unambiguous and leaves very little wriggle room. However, it also very much leaves the ball in Rolex’s court. At this point, Rolex hold all the aces. The three men who are most in a position to counter this unambiguous claim by Smiths are working with, or for, Rolex.
Getting a Rolex to the top of Everest has been a decades-long project for Rolex and it’s simply beyond credibility that they hadn’t debriefed Hillary and Tenzing thoroughly. This would presumably have included extended testimonials, pictures of watches, watches as potential museum exhibits and so on. At the very least, it means that Rolex, as an organisation, would be utterly, unambiguously clear about precisely who wore what on the top of Everest. They had access to the principle players. They cared intensely about what happened and there was a great deal of pride and advertising capital at stake.
As a result, the letter that follows, from the managing director of Rolex (on page 651 of the October ’53 edition of The British Horological Institute Journal) is as unexpected a confession as it is unambiguous:
“There have been a few comments in the recent issue of The Journal concerning the question of supply of the wristwatches to the successful 1953 British Mount Everest Exhibition. It is a fact that Smiths watches formed a part of the equipment of the expedition. As has been officially recognised by The Royal Geographical Society, but is also a fact recognised by The Royal Geographical Society that the team was equipped with Rolex watches, in fact Rolex Oyster perpetual. It is also a good thing that the British watches have been associated in such a fine way with a British – and successful – ascent of Mount Everest, but we are also very proud to have been officially associated with that expedition and of course with many other expeditions to Everest and The Himalayas in the past.
In our view, it is quite unimportant as to which person was wearing which watch at the top because, as has been said by Colonel Sir John Hunt, the whole job was a team effort. In such a hazardous task it was surely not extraordinary that a climber would wish to wear two watches. One on each wrist, so that if one happened to go wrong he could rely on the other. This is a fact that can be seen from an actual picture of Colonel Sir John Hunt shown in The Times Everest coloured supplement recently issued. We supplied Rolex Oyster perpetuals for all members of the British Mount Everest 1953 Expedition but if by a fortuitous chance Sir Edmund Hillary’s watch did not reach him or if he was not wearing it in his ascent of the last few hundred feet, then we regret that our first advertisements in connection with Everest suggested the contrary, although we had every reason to suppose that he received his watch.
It would appear from Mr. Barrett’s letter that Sir Edmund Hillary was, in fact, only wearing one watch at the summit and that a Smiths watch. We congratulate Smiths on the fact that their Smiths Delux ordinary wind wristwatch reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary.
We too, received a communication from The Royal Geographical Society which reported (dated May 9) that our watches were “Doing well”. No stoppages, no complaints,” but we are particularly proud of the testimonial signed by Colonel Sir John Hunt concerning Oyster Perpetuals and dated June 15th 1953 in Khatmandu, and also of many other testimonials from Everest and Himalayan climbers we have received in the past, which are filed in our archive and are available in their original form for inspection by whoever may desire to see them. “
It is unthinkable that Rolex didn’t check carefully and thoroughly before conceding the summit to Smiths. This was one of Hans Wilsdorf’s favoured forms of advertising. Rolex had been waiting decades, had assumed success and then that success was whipped from under them by a few slivers of ice. That, for me, is the key evidence: The director of Rolex G.B. didn’t believe that there was a Rolex on top of Everest in 1953. He even expresses regret that such a claim had been made in earlier advertising.
In every advert that comes after that admission, Rolex is scrupulous to never again claim explicitly that there was a Rolex on the summit in 1953. They certainly imply it incredibly strongly, but it is only in those few early adverts that the explicit claim of reaching the summit is made. This gives us a perfect example if one was needed, of precisely how Rolex would behave if they thought that there was even the whisker of a chance that a Rolex had been on the Summit with Tenzing and Hillary.
This is bad enough, but the testimonial from Colonel Sir John Hunt is not something that Rolex should be proud of at all. His testimonial directly copies elements and themes from earlier adverts. Hunt’s testimonial is dated June the fifteenth and reproduced in the advert above, but he really couldn’t have written it. Mind you, Mr Winter doesn’t claim that he did, he merely claimed that Hunt signed it.
Returning to the main point, for there to have been a Rolex on the summit of Everest, either it was there without anyone realising, or Hillary, Tenzing or Rolex must have decided to conceal that fact. Both Hillary and Tenzing became enthusiastic promoters of Rolex after the expedition. They’d have every motive to say there was, and no reason to conceal, a Rolex on the summit if one had been there.
Likewise, the idea that Rolex wouldn’t advertise the presence of a Rolex on the summit of Everest in 1953 if there had been one there is literally unthinkable. They did it when they thought there was and they did it later when other expeditions reached the summit. Therefore, it is clear that neither Tenzing, nor Hillary nor Rolex believed there ever was a Rolex on the summit of Everest in 1953. No one is better placed to be sure about that.
That’s got to put the matter well beyond all reasonable doubt.
There’s one final question: For sixty-seven years, Rolex has known full well that they did not summit and while they have been careful to never explicitly claim they did, the myth endures. Rolex has never, in the modern era, put the record straight. Wouldn’t it be in the ‘perpetual spirit’ to do so now?