Mythbusting four Rolex myths, from The Great Escape, to the English Channel to British ColumbiaLuke Benedictus
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” That line — from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the classic western starring John Wayne and James Stewart — nails the way in which some tales become impossible to resist. Certain details might prove apocryphal. Slabs of the narrative turn out to be completely made up. But we choose to avert our eyes from these exaggerations because, well, they get in the way of a cracking yarn.
What’s all this got to do with Rolex? The brand’s position as the most powerful watchmaker in the world is founded both on horological innovation and a reputation for extreme dependability. Such attributes are certainly not in doubt. Yet, over the years, Rolex has reached such storied heights that it’s developed its own folklore, to the point that I’ve even been asked the question: “What’s your favourite Rolex myth?”
I don’t want to imply that the following tales are fabrications. Some indeed, like Everest, are 100 per cent fact. But all of them cast Rolex’s watches in such a heroic light that they’re the stuff of legend in the most literal sense.
Myth 1: Rolex inspired The Great Escape
During WWII, British army Corporal Clive “Nobby” Nutting is locked up in Stalag Luft III, a Luftwaffe-run prisoner-of-war camp. On March 10, 1943, he orders a stainless steel Rolex Oyster 3525 Chronograph, sending his request directly to Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf in Geneva. In the letter, Nutting promises that he’ll pay for the watch down the track with money that he’s earned working as a shoemaker at the camp.
Miraculous as it may seem, Rolex regularly dispatched watches to POWs in this way. Wilsdorf, a committed supporter of the British cause, had become aware that the Germans were confiscating the watches of captured men and had started a campaign of sending them replacements, taking advantage of the fact that the Geneva Convention ensured POWs could receive mail via the Red Cross.
Nutting’s Rolex arrived on July 10, accompanied by a letter from Wilsdorf apologising for the late delivery and insisting that he shouldn’t dream about paying for the watch before the end of the war.
But Nutting had an ulterior motive for his order. He’d specifically chosen his Rolex for its chronograph function, which he would subsequently use to time the patrols of the German guards. The reason: Nutting was hatching a plan to escape.
The Corporal would eventually play a role in the escape attempt of 76 men who attempted to break out through a tunnel on March 24, 1944. Three of the men did indeed manage to escape to neutral Sweden and Spain. Unfortunately, the rest fared less well, with most captured and dumped back in their cells and some even being executed by the Gestapo. Nutting himself never made it down the tunnel. Yet by helping with the preparations and timing the eventual attempt, the Corporal came to be viewed as one of the architects of the adventure that would later inspire The Great Escape.
The wartime epic – which incidentally has the best theme tune for whistling in cinema history – is set in Stalag Luft III. But Nutting may also have inadvertently inspired the film’s most iconic moment with a sketch from his POW diary (above) found to include a prominent motorcycle. At any rate, the Corporal became a consultant on the 1963 movie in which Steve McQueen channels Evel Knievel to evade the Germans with a daredevil stunt..
Myth 2: The barnacle encrusted lost and then found Rolex of British Columbia
A story from the Rolex Forums tells of a man happily fishing off the west coast of British Columbia. Suddenly his rod snares the clasp of his Rolex Submariner, breaking a pin on the bi-metal bracelet and propelling the watch overboard. As it disappears beneath the waves, the man stares into the water in horrified disbelief. Snapping back into action, he then records his boat’s coordinates on his GPS in order to preserve some inkling of the watch’s position deep on the Canadian seabed.
Presently, the unnamed fisherman discovers a dredging barge that operates nearby moving sediment from the ocean floor. The man asks the barge owner if he’s willing to intermittently search for the watch and a deal is struck. At a cost of $85 an hour, the barge will hunt for the lost Rolex, motivated by the additional sweetener of a $1000 reward if the watch is ever recovered.
A year goes by and the fisherman begins to abandon all hope. But then, some 14 months after that fateful day, the Rolex is found embedded on the ocean floor with a barnacle growing on the bezel no less. Despite this waterlogged sojourn, when the man winds his watch, he’s staggered to find the Submariner is still in perfect working order.
Myth 3: Rolex conquers Everest
On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to conquer Mount Everest. The pair summited the highest mountain on earth without GPS or satellite technology. But frankly who needs all that when you’ve got a Rolex purpose-built for the mission?
In fact, Rolex were a sponsor of the expedition with each member of the group loaned one of a batch of prototype watches to wear. These Rolex Oyster Perpetuals were offered with the expectation of their return upon completion of the attempt. These loans would enable Rolex to monitor how the watches performed at extreme altitude and that hands-on testing process would result in the development of a new model, the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer.
Today, Hillary’s watch that first made it up the 8848-metre summit, now resides in the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum in Zürich, a Rolex that has literally reached the top of the world.
Myth 4: Rolex swims the English Channel (with some fact-checking)
On October 21, 1927, a 26-year-old English typist named Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel wearing a Rolex Oyster. The next day she made the front pages of newspapers across the world.
To celebrate the achievement of the first English woman to manage the feat, Rolex published a full-page ad on the front page of the Daily Mail proclaiming the success of their waterproof watch. Gleitze’s achievement catapulted Rolex into the public eye as the brand was able to trumpet what was still the world’s first waterproof watch.
What actually happened was a bit more complicated and less easily condensed into snappy ad copy. Gleitze had, in fact, swum the Channel two weeks earlier, on October 7, completing the epic swim in 15 hours before collapsing from sheer exhaustion.
Sadly, she didn’t get to bask in the glory for long. Another woman, Mona McLennan, fraudulently claimed to have also completed the swim four days later. This hoax subsequently put the the legitimacy of Gleitze’s own swim into question. Mortified by accusations of cheating, she vowed to swim the Channel again, on October 21, in what became known as the “Vindication Swim”.
When Hans Wilsdorf heard this news he jumped to get involved. He’d only patented the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch, the previous year and spotted the chance for a great publicity stunt. He duly approached Gleitze and offered her a Rolex to wear during her attempt, in exchange for a written testimonial.
Unfortunately, this second attempt was less successful. Conditions were terrible, with water temperatures falling to a chilly 14 degrees celsius. After braving the cold for some 10 hours, Gleitze began to lose consciousness and was forced to abandon her attempt. But this did nothing to diminish the story for Rolex. As The Times reported, “Hanging round her neck by a riband on this swim, Miss Gleitze carried a small gold watch, which was found this evening to have kept good time throughout.”
These are but four of a no doubt countless list of circulating Rolex myths and legends. If you have any you’d like to share for the next instalment, please contact [email protected]