Rolex, Mount Everest and the rise of GADA watches
It all started with Mount Everest. On May 29, 1953, Tenzing Norgay and Edmund Hillary successfully scaled the top of Earth’s tallest mountain. The fact that many expeditions, mainly British, had attempted since 1921 to conquer the “third pole”, meant that this was a big deal. When the English establishment linked him to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth on June 2, 1953, just four days later, it made it an even bigger deal. For any company associated with the Everest expedition in 1953, it was a publicity gold mine. It was certainly for Rolex.
The astute founder of Rolex, Hans Wildorf, had been supplying wristwatches to Everest expeditions since 1933. Part of this was to test the performance of the company’s highly designed and water-resistant watches under extreme conditions. . If someone wore a Rolex, well that would be even better! Legendary Himalayan mountaineer Eric Shipton, who has long been considered the person most likely to climb Everest, wore Rolex Oyster watches in “bubble” cases on many Himalayan expeditions. During the Swiss attempt to climb Everest in 1952, Tenzing Norgay was given a Rolex to wear, but he and his climbing partner Raymond Lambert had to turn around 250m from the summit. Still, Norgay received a gold Datejust from Rolex to commemorate the ascension.
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The following year, Norgay, Hillary and several other members of the expedition received Rolex watches, a Rolex 6098 with a white dial. Some of them, including Hillary, also wore another watch, the Smiths De Luxe. When Hillary and Norgay reached the top, Smiths (a well-known English watchmaker at the time) and Rolex took to town with advertisements touting the ruggedness and reliability of their watches. As has been conclusively proven in a brilliant article by The outdoor journal in June of this year, Rolex did not make it to the top, as Hillary was wearing her Smiths. He had admitted it. Norgay was probably not wearing a watch that day. If he was, he too wore a Smiths. After all, the 1953 Ascension was a British national undertaking, and Smiths, along with other British companies, provided all the equipment for the expedition: even the oxygen gauges used by the expedition were made by Smiths.
A Smiths De Luxe ad from the 1950s.
Either way, Rolex was present at the expedition and that was enough. In 1953 he launched the iconic Explorer, a steel sports watch with a black dial, 36 mm in diameter, with a water resistance of 100 m, and the 3, 6 and 9 o’clock indexes printed in Arabic numerals on the dial. Positioning itself as a rugged outdoor watch by a company that had reached the summit of Everest, the Explorer popularized a new concept of “sports watch”.
Of course, it can be said that a sports watch is nothing new. After all, Cartier had designed its first wristwatch for aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont in 1904. But for a younger population in the 1950s and 1960s, wearing a Rolex Explorer or Omega Seamaster was more desirable than the overly formal dress watches of previous generations. The Smiths Everest, a watch also released in the 1950s to enjoy the ascent of Everest, was also very popular. Today, no one remembers Smiths, as the company shut down its watch division in the 1970s when the “quartz crisis” bankrupted hundreds of mechanical watchmakers. Rolex, meanwhile, has made a successful transition to a luxury watch brand, and nowadays it’s fair to say that people who can afford to buy Rolexes aren’t trying to climb the heights of the world. ‘Himalayas. Those who probably wear G-Shocks.
A famous Rolex Explorer advertisement from 1966.
But the sports watch as a concept endures. In these days of Instagram-powered watch fandom, they are called GADA (“go anywhere – do anything”) watches. Take the Seiko Alpinist, for example. The Japanese watch giant created its first sports watch in 1959, the Laurel Alpinist. It was a sturdy, no-frills watch, much like the Explorer, intended for use by Japanese mountaineers. Through the 1960s, Seiko released successive lines of Mountaineers, but from the end of that decade, the brand mainly focused on its iconic dive watches and a whole slew of sports watches on its Seiko 5 line. In the 1990s, the Alpinist was reinvented , this time with the addition of an interior rotating compass bezel and iconic cathedral hands. Since then, the line has remained a cult favorite among watch enthusiasts while being regularly refreshed by Seiko. In late 2020, a slimmer version of the Alpinist was launched without the compass bezel and textured dials, and next month will see a new line of Alpinists inspired by the 1959 Laurel Alpinist.
The original Seiko Laurel Alpinist from 1961, on a belt strap.
(Courtesy: Seiko Watches)
Almost all prestigious watchmakers have their own steel sports watch. Omega’s Railmaster and Seamaster Aqua Terra are wonderfully rugged yet elegant watches that often go unnoticed. Indeed, Omega has just released the Aqua Terra in two sizes in time for the Olympic Games, both in 18K yellow gold. When Audemars Piguet launched the Royal Oak in 1972 and Patek Philippe the Nautilus in 1976, a new niche has been created: that of luxury steel sports watches. It says a lot about the appeal of sports watches that for these two deans of fine watchmaking with dozens of complicated references iconic to their names, it is the Royal Oak and the Nautilus that are the most popular.
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So, to sum up, what should you be looking for in your GADA watch? Now, a sports watch is synonymous with robustness, durability and also versatility. It should therefore be constructed of good quality stainless steel, should preferably have a water resistance rating of 100m or more (larger accessories for a screw down crown), with a good automatic or quartz movement. Automatics should have a power reserve of 40 hours or more. Now your GADA watch no longer needs to break the bank. Both Seiko 5 Sports and the Tissot PRX series offer excellent entry-level options. The Alpinist and Oris Big Crown Pointer Date are a great mid-range option. If your budget is higher, check out the Aqua Terra and the Explorer, as well as IWC’s aviator watches. And if you’ve got millions to burn, get on the waiting list for a Royal Oak or a Nautilus! But whatever watch you buy, wear them, don’t baby them, and don’t be afraid to give them a few scratches. This is what they are intended for.
Manual winding is a bimonthly chronicle on watches and watchmaking.