It will forever remain a mystery as to what watch Sir Edmund Hillary wore on his wrist when he reached the top of Mount Everest on the 29th of May, 1953. Most people claim he wore a Rolex—the forerunner to what would eventually become the Rolex Explorer. But others, including a now-defunct English watchmaker called Smiths, have a different story.
What we do know, however, is that Sherpa Tenzing Norgay was wearing a Rolex at the summit. So what’s the story? How did two watch companies make their way into the climbing business?
The 1953 British Mount Everest expedition was the ninth of its kind, but it was the first to completely succeed. While others had tried and failed to reach the world’s highest summit, a small team of 15 people from the UK, New Zealand, and Nepal facilitated the first successful ascent.
At 11:30am on the 29th of May 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit of Mount Everest. News of the successful expedition quickly spread, and it was celebrated on the morning of the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II a few days later.
But behind the scenes, two watch manufacturers had worked for decades to put their watches on the wrists of the mountaineers. One is possibly the most well-known name in watches, while the other is a small, now largely unknown British watchmaker.
In today’s age of digital timekeeping and GPS, the significance of a watch to a mountaineering mission might seem trivial. But the timepieces worn by Hillary and Norgay played a vital role in the mission, helping the pair monitor their oxygen reserves during the ascent to the summit.
Rolex and Everest
In 1933, Rolex began sponsoring expedition parties to the Himalayas. The company provided its Oyster Perpetual wristwatch to mountaineers at no cost, viewing the expeditions as a chance to test its watches in extreme surroundings as much as a potential publicity opportunity.
Prior to the successful 1953 expedition, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had taken part in a 1952 Swiss expedition of Everest. While the team failed to conquer the mountain, it reached a world record high point, scaling 8,595 meters of Everest and coming within 300 meters of the summit.
Rolex, as one of the expedition’s sponsors, provided Norgay with a gold Rolex Datejust as a gift for his involvement.
Rolex equipped Sir Edmund Hillary with a Rolex watch prior to the 1953 mission, a Rolex Oyster Perpetual manufactured in 1950. Norgay, likewise, received a Rolex watch—an early prototype of what would eventually become the Rolex Explorer.
When Hillary and Norgay reached the summit, Norgay proudly wore his Rolex Oyster Perpetual on his wrist. But opinions differ on the watch on Hillary’s wrist, with many claiming he brought a British-made Smiths watch to the summit.
Hillary’s Smiths Watch
To all but the most dedicated watch enthusiasts, the name Smiths isn’t likely to be familiar. This now-defunct watch manufacturer began its life as S. Smith & Sons—an automotive and aviation instrument business that found success in Britain during the Second World War.
When Hillary reached the summit of Everest in 1953, he did so carrying Smiths instruments and, by his own admission, a Smiths De Luxe watch.
Realizing the marketing potential of Hillary’s achievement, Smiths launched a new advertising campaign to promote the expedition, complete with a quote from Hillary touting the durability and precision of Smiths’ product. The company even launched a new line of Everest watches.
Unfortunately for Smiths, the company’s success was short-lived. As quartz watches took off in the late 1970s, the company ended its involvement in watchmaking and consolidated its holdings in oil, gas, and medical equipment.
Mount Everest and Watchmaking Today
To commemorate the achievement of Hillary and Norgay, Rolex launched the iconic Explorer in 1953. Famous for its beautifully simple dial, the Explorer has become one of the brand’s longest running models, with only minor cosmetic updates since its launch more than 60 years ago.
Just as the conquering of the moon became a significant achievement for horology almost two decades later, the Mount Everest expedition proved that mechanical watches could adapt to the most extreme environments.
Today, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Sir Edmund Hillary wore to the summit of Mount Everest can be viewed on display in a Zürich museum. The Smiths De Luxe worn by Hillary is on display at the Clockmaker’s Company Museum in London, England.
Since 1953, over 4,000 people have summited the world’s tallest peak, and many other watchmakers have put their Everest watches to the test, including (relative) newcomers Bremont and Kobold. It seems the collective fascination with conquering Mount Everest’s extremes will continue for the foreseeable future.