The Truth About the Rolex Explorer

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Rolex Explorer 1

Over at Gear Patrol, Allen Farmelo takes to the slopes to discover the truth about the Rolex Explorer II. This he does to tackle the question What Do Watches Represent in 2021, and Why Should We Care? Buried in Mr. Farmelo’s 2,417-word literary avalanche: a common myth about the now-iconic model . . .

Sir Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide

Rolex’s founder, Hans Wilsdorf, was a brilliant marketeer who invented the adventure watch category at the end of World War II by re-branding his waterproof Oyster models as the Air-King (1949), in honor of World War II aviators, and the Explorer (1954), aimed at folks who wanted a watch like the one that accompanied Sir Edmund Hillary to the top of Mt. Everest . . .

Hillary’s Oyster is a coveted museum piece that now lives in the highly guarded Rolex archives, but its legacy lives on in today’s modern Explorer model. 

Smith's watch

The truth about the Rolex Explorer: Sir Edmund Hillary did not wear a Rolex when he conquered Mount Everest.

Some say the Kiwi mountaineer left his Oyster Perpetual at base camp before ascending Everest. Some say he had a prototype Rolex in his pocket at the summit. But there’s no doubt he reached the top of the world’s tallest mountain wearing a Smith’s, like the watch above. No really.

Smith's watch on everest

There’s also “debate” about whether or not Rolex sponsored Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 expedition – a claim the watchmaker has never made. (They did for sure sponsor the failed 1952 attempt). Smith’s did make that claim in their advertising and was never challenged.

“Smith had a range of watches called ‘Everest’, and Rolex, having already – and precipitously – had an ‘Everest’ model, named the watch style worn by [Hillary’s chief sherpa] Tenzing the ‘Explorer’ instead,” veteran commentator drdas007 reports on watchuseek.com.

We know that Rolex gave Norgay a watch after the ’52 expedition. That’s the timepiece on display in the Rolex museum. Did Norgay‘s Rolex “accompany” Hillary to the summit? That’s been asserted but never established.

Kevin at horalus.com has the inside dope on Rolex’s rope-a-dope marketing of Eddie’s Big Adventure. How Rolex spent decades implying that their watch summited Everest, somehow failing to correct journalists connecting the intentionally misplaced dots.

Rolex value: Explorer ad

Separate from that non-event, the Rolex Explorer doesn’t deserve the credit it regularly receives as an “adventure” watch. It’s a Rolex, sure. But it’s hardly their hardiest model. Nor is the Explorer as tough as watches costing a tenth of the price (e.g., any G-SHOCK).

Which brings us back to Mr. Famelo’s question: what does the Rolex Explorer represent? For Mr. Farmelo, it’s lost youth. Here’s his penultimate paragraph:

Rolex Explorer ad

Rolex knows, and has always known, that its customers aren’t going up there. They know we don’t need a badass tool watch, or any watch really. And Rolex knows that we seek out their most rugged tool watches because they bring us back to our own sense of adventure. When we unpack what that means, we realize that it’s really about an inner dialogue we’re constantly having with ourselves about who we really are, who we aspire to be, and how we want to feel.

No question: buying a Rolex is about “who we aspire to be” and “how we want to feel.” A Rolex is nothing if not aspirational. And the feelz Rolex buyers get is certainly an intoxicating combination of self-congratulation and social recognition. But a Rolex Explorer has sweet FA to do with “who we really are.”

The Truth About the Rolex Explorer - 1967 ad

First, who the hell knows who they “really” are? What does that even mean? Second, to suggest that “we are the watch we wear” perpetuates the central myth of our consumer culture: things define us. A myth that fits perfectly with the myth that the Rolex Explorer conquered Everest. Which is, I’m afraid, why the lie is repeated by journalists without question, ad nauseam.

As I write this I’m strapped to a computer, sipping coffee, and puffing on a cigar in my cozy writing shed. And I’m surrounded by adventure watches — dive watches, pilots watches, field watches — largely because they suggest that my life can be more than this desk job, that I can connect to the same fearless spirit that fuels my nephews’ enviable career choices [as a ski bum], and that, no matter how much I gasp for oxygen while trying, I can partially revive that young punk in dreadlocks blowing huge airs in the bumps. Bum knee and all.

Vintage ad The Truth About the Rolex Explorer

I’m not buying that buying an Explorer is about recapturing lost youth. The Rolex Explorer is – by its very name – horological catnip to people who dream of dangerous adventure, who’ve never actually, actively pursued it. (Hence the “If” in their famous ad campaign.) Certainly not at the level of Sir Edmund Hillary or Explorer pimping explorers.

Mr. Farmelo goes to considerable length to distance himself from fantasists/wannabe’s, casting himself as a mogul bashing, Ducati-driving “when-we.” I believe him! But there’s one adventure Mr. Farmelo seems to have missed: the search for the truth about the Rolex Explorer.

13 COMMENTS

  1. The full truth is that Rolex is tied for the first watch to top Everest, but it was Super Sherpa Norgay wearing an MF-ing Datejust. Who knew that along with his incredible mountain climbing skills he was also one of Nepal’s most successful used car salesmen.

  2. IF I’m honest, and IF I was going on any of the adventures detailed in the various Rolex ads…. I’d be wearing one of my G-Shocks rather than my comparatively delicate Rolex. To wit… my Rolex did not survive the fall from my kitchen counter to the tile floor a few years ago…. all of 43 inches (I measured it!). But, yeah… I’d wear that while scaling Mt. Everest? Nnnnnope.

    As an all-around knock-around brute of a watch, likely to survive any adventure that I may not survive… the G-Shock Rangeman 9400 gets the nod. They may find me dead, but the Rangeman will still be going.

    • I don’t go on adventures, but I am a parent, and while I’ll wear my Amphibia with the kids at the beach or pool, a Garmin, G-Shock, or pretty much any cheap quartz watch beats an automatic when spending time outdoors with small kids.

  3. Warning, Mr. Farmelo admits to reading the insufferable “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” more than once, so the navel-gazing and self-justifying is to be expected. He then goes on to spell the author’s name, Pirsig, as Prisug twice as often as the correct spelling.

    The whole notion of possessions defining you, which basically means they own you, is a fun, troublesome subject. Obviously a site named Gear Patrol is explicitly for bugmen that define themselves by their purchases. The truth is more that what people select tells you how they want to be perceived. Yeah, we may desire things for their intrinsic usable qualities, but few decisions are made in a vacuum absent of image considerations, no matter how unconscious.

    Per “Fight Club”, you are not your khakis. It’s before my time, but I never really understood the Explorer name. It made more sense on the Ford than on the Rolex, and even that was a stretch. If anyone is more up on the Bernays marketing stuff, please write an article or two or three.

    • I look at the Rolex Explorer and it looks like something that would be worn in a boardroom, not mountain climbing. When the rotating bezel is explained to me in the context of a dive watch, it makes sense. The Rolex Explorer is like a button down collar on a shirt: sporty, but without historical context it reads as formal.

  4. I wear a white gold Rolex sub to kite surf. Or used to rather till it was discontinued and now goes for approaching 50k. Now it’s just a Rolex Deepsea instead. So whatever bla bla bla generalizations about the type of old f*cks on Rolex forums who’ve never been outside with their watch on. Just cause some of you blog monkeys don’t have adventures, doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t either.

  5. The issue is that the Submariner and the Explorer were the original G-Shock of the time. And remember that before them, the JLC Reverso was considered a sports watch.
    Back then there was a huge fad for “adventure” watches, with models made to be tough, issued by companies like West End. The fact that they have “evolved” to become something else entirely does not mean that they were any different than that: robust timepieces made to last, and that was it.

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