Nothing beats the Explorer for the best backstory of any watch made by Rolex, created – according to one of the brand’s 1960s brochures – “for the first successful Everest expedition”. The oft-recounted tale tells how Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay proudly strapped the replica watches to their wrists en route to the summit of the world’s highest mountain, and for the momentous news to arrive back in Britain in timely fashion on the day of the Queen’s Coronation in 1953.
It’s a great story, except for one small but vital detail: neither Tenzing nor Hillary actually wore one. It’s true that both men were wearing replica Rolexes – Oyster Perpetuals (Hillary’s watch is housed at the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum in Zurich) – and, yes, the Explorer was developed from the watches on the expedition, which were supplied free of charge for the climbing team.
This courtesy, however, did not extend to the Sherpa guides, which begs the question: how did Tenzing end up wearing a Rolex? Now here is a story worth telling. Only one expedition to climb Everest was permitted each year, and in 1952 – the year before Hillary’s attempt – permission was granted by Nepal for a Swiss team. This attempt was led by Raymond Lambert and officially sponsored by Rolex, which equipped all of the official team with Oyster Perpetual replica watches. The final push to reach the summit was made by Lambert himself, accompanied by the leader of the Sherpas, Norgay.
The two of them made a camp at 8,400m, and on the following morning set out for the summit. However, cold, exhaustion and adverse weather conditions caused them to reconsider at 8,595m and make the decision to head back down the mountain and call off the attempt. Lambert saw Tenzing not only as his guide, but friend and equal, so before Lambert flew back to Geneva, he handed Tenzing his expedition watch: a stainless-steel Rolex Bubbleback.
The timepiece is now in the Rolex collection in Geneva, and I was privileged to handle it more than 20 years ago, when I made my first visit to the factory. As the Sherpa who had come closest to making the summit, Tenzing was the natural choice to lead the Sherpas for the British Army and Royal Geographical Society team in 1953. This expedition had the added advantage of access to reports from the Swiss attempt, as well as RAF reconnaissance photographs to guide them.
The watches the team wore were simple Rolex Oyster Perpetuals, with white dials and applied steel triangular indices with larger versions for the quarter hours. The only change from the standard specification for the 1953 expedition replica watches was an extralong brown leather strap, enabling it to be worn over the heavy clothing the climbing team wore and, to enable it to function in the extreme cold, the watch had a new and much less viscous lubricant. While the long leather strap never made it through to production, the lubricant did survive, and was the sole deviation from the standard movement when the Explorer finally made its debut in late 1953, just a few months after Hillary’s and Tenzing’s conquest of Everest.
The thing that distinguished the Explorer from its Rolex predecessors was the layout of the dial – a deep black with a large luminous inverted triangle at 12, large luminous Arabic numbers at the remaining quarter hours, and large luminous bars for the intervening indices. The first tool watch to be launched by swiss Rolex, the Explorer was specifically designed for users with a particular need. It was shortly followed by the GMT Master, the Submariner and the Milgauss – it even spawned its own offspring, the Explorer II, in 1970.
Sixty years later and the dial and its layout remain essentially the same, although the case and movement have changed with advances in technology (and, dare we say it, “fashion”). Unlike Rolex’s other tool fake watches, however, the Explorer has always been the quiet, discreet one. There is no numbered bezel, just a simple polished one. There are no additional hands, only the classic “Benz” hour hand, pencil-shaped minute hand and a slim, straight second hand with a large “lollipop” luminous dot towards the tip.
When the watch was relaunched in 2010 in a new larger size – 39mm instead of 36mm – the hands remained unchanged and looked somewhat stubby and out of proportion to both the dial and the case. Hence it proved all the more gratifying at this year’s Baselworld to see that Rolex replica had increased the length of all three hands for the latest iteration of the Explorer, thereby reclaiming the correct proportions for the watch. And given the timepiece’s illustrious history, it seems only fitting.