Rolex, a multinational turning over more than CHF 5 billion a year, takes its role as a corporate citizen as seriously as it does its watchmaking. In its own words, “behind the Rolex crown is a way of thinking about our place in the world and an aspiration to contribute. We call this Perpetual Spirit. It is based on a fundamental belief in unlimited human potential, in continuous improvement, in always pushing the boundaries and taking the long-term view. Our watches are built to last. So is our contribution to future generations.” The more cynical observer might dismiss this as yet another well-honed marketing message. Not so. For more than half a century, Rolex has led initiatives in support of the arts (in particular through a mentorship programme), science and the environment.
A living laboratory
In fact the brand was one of the first to take action to promote a greater understanding of Planet Earth, and this from its earliest days when Rolex watches joined the expeditions that set out into uncharted territory to widen our knowledge of the world: “For Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, the world was also a living laboratory. In the 1930s, Rolex tested its watches in real-life conditions. Explorers subjected them to some of the most extreme conditions in the least hospitable corners of the globe.”
Before then, in 1926, Hans Wilsdorf came up with what was already a groundbreaking concept for the world’s first waterproof wristwatch. Dubbed the Oyster, five years later it was equipped with an avant-garde automatic winding system, the Perpetual rotor, and became the Oyster Perpetual. This would be the basis for watches whose functions and technologies served the needs of divers, racing drivers, mountaineers, pilots, navigators and explorers. The brand has registered more than 500 patents, demonstrating the innovation behind watches whose quality and reliability earned them a place in the twentieth century’s great human adventures, providing real-life advertising for the brand.
In 1926 Mercedes Gleitze became the first British woman to swim the English Channel, a Rolex on a cord around her neck. Sir Malcolm Campbell wore a Rolex on his wrist when setting multiple land speed records in the 1930s. In 1947 Chuck Yeager also wore a Rolex when he became the first pilot to break the sound barrier. Adding to this list of exploits are the first successful ascent of Mt. Everest in 1953 by a British team led by Sir Edmund Hillary, wearing his Oyster Perpetual, and in 1960 the Trieste bathyscaphe’s descent to the deepest point of the Mariana Trench; strapped to its hull was a prototype Rolex watch designed to sustain the 11 tonnes of pressure at this depth of 10,916 metres. In a repeat performance, the brand accompanied James Cameron in 2012 for his record-breaking solo dive in the Deepsea Challenger to a depth of 10,908 metres, again with an experimental Rolex attached to the submersible’s exterior. Cameron was the first person since 1960 to have returned to the world’s deepest frontier, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This exploration opened up a new era in scientific exploration of the ocean floor, the least known area of the planet.
Cameron’s expedition is telling: as the twenty-first century unfolds, Rolex has given a new direction to its action in favour of the environment. As the brand puts its, “the world has changed. Exploration for pure discovery has given way to exploration as a means to preserve the natural world. Rolex continues the legacy of its founder, supporting the explorers of today on their new mission: to make the planet perpetual.” In fact Perpetual Planet is the name of a campaign launched in 2019 that encompasses all Rolex’s action to protect the natural world. The longest-running initiative is the partnership with National Geographic, cemented in 1954 in the wake of the first conquest of Everest. A shared sense of discovery and exploration has brought the two partners ever closer over the years. Scientists from National Geographic Society have served as members of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise jury, while winners of the Awards have also been National Geographic Explorers.
This isn’t all the two partners have in common. Through the Perpetual Planet Extreme Expeditions, they continue to share their experiences and resources in what is already being seen as their most ambitious project yet: three expeditions, spread over five years, to document the changes taking place in Earth’s most extreme, remote and vital environments: mountains, rainforests and the oceans. The goal, Rolex explains, is to install cutting-edge technology in some of the most inaccessible and least-observed regions to monitor changes brought about by human activity and how this might affect us all. The first expedition set out last year for Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan). The mountain is part of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya whose glaciers provide water for more than a billion people. Climate change is causing the glaciers to retreat. Data gathered by the expedition will form the basis of a new index to track the health of the Himalayan water system and inform decisions that will help protect it.
The second part and a central pillar of Perpetual Planet is the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which recognise and encourage individuals working in the fields of science, health, exploration, the environment, cultural heritage and applied technology. Since the first awards in 1976, some 34,000 people from 191 countries have applied. Of these, 150 have been chosen through a meticulous selection process. Five new laureates are chosen every two years. The purpose of the awards is not to acknowledge achievements a posteriori. As part of its promise to future generations, Rolex supports individuals whose projects are still in their formative stages with the aim “to enable the birth of great discoveries, ideas and deliver practical benefit to humanity and the planet.” The study of unexplored caverns in the Amazonian rainforest, a vaccine delivered through a skin patch, analysis of polar micro-organisms, conservation of Rwanda’s grey crowned crane, observation of marine biodiversity in the Patagonian fjords, planting trees in the Sahara to slow desertification… these are projects supported by the Rolex Awards that bring hope for a better future, for us and for the planet. (to be continued)