The early 20th century was an era of exploration and sporting challenges. In the world of watchmaking, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf, driven to push back the limits of what is possible, sought to replace traditional pocket watches with one of the supreme innovations of his time – a watch worn on the wrist, resistant to dust and water.
His vision became reality in 1926 with the launch of the Rolex Oyster, the first waterproof wristwatch. To promote it, he invited Mercedes Gleitze – a young typist from Brighton and the first British woman to swim the English Channel – to wear a Rolex Oyster during her crossing, which took place the following year. At the end of the swim, after more than 10 hours in the chilly waters, the watch was in perfect working order. With this historic achievement, Gleitze became the first Rolex Testimonee.
At this time, explorers were asking Wilsdorf to equip their expeditions with Rolex watches and he realized the world could be a “living laboratory” for his timepieces. Explorers and sporting champions could provide feedback on Rolex watches, enabling him to improve their reliability.
Wilsdorf did not want to bask in the reflected glory of heroes, rather he wanted to create meaningful partnerships and give long-term support. The resulting relationships were built on strong principles, a shared vision and mutual respect – this is sponsorship, the Rolex way.
In 1930, the brand’s links to motor sport began with Sir Malcolm Campbell. Between 1924 and 1935, the “King of Speed” set the World Land Speed Record nine times, including breaking the 300 mph (483 km/h) barrier.
From the 1930s, mountaineers relied on Rolex wristwatches during their expeditions to Mount Everest, where extreme temperatures and altitude provided a perfect testing environment for the Swiss watchmaker. The 1953 expedition led by Sir John Hunt was equipped with Rolex Oyster watches and on 29 May, two of the team – Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay – made the first successful ascent of Everest. The Rolex Oyster Perpetual Explorer was launched that year to celebrate the historic achievement.
When forging partnerships with Testimonees and institutions – and in determining the events the brand lends its support to – Rolex has always made it a point of pride to associate with individuals and entities who share the same values.
Rolex is, and always has been, a symbol of excellence. The brand is known for its perpetual commitment to going beyond what is deemed possible, ensuring continuity of expertise and knowledge, and investing in the development of future generations.
These guiding principles were paramount in 1957, when Rolex inaugurated its association with equestrianism. British show jumper Pat Smythe became a Testimonee and a household name, proving more than a match for male riders. Ever since, the brand has sought to extend its pursuit of excellence and high achievement by cultivating partnerships with the finest riders and competitions in show jumping, dressage and eventing. This commitment to excellence led the brand to become founding sponsor of the Rolex Grand Slam of Show Jumping, which comprises four Majors.
In 1958, Rolex forged links with yachting, beginning with the New York Yacht Club. Since then, the brand has strengthened these ties, supporting the most influential clubs and 15 major races worldwide.
Building on its partnership with Sir Malcolm Campbell, in 1959 Rolex renewed one of its earliest sporting associations by partnering the Daytona International Speedway®, home to the iconic contest now known as the Rolex 24 At DAYTONA. In 1963, Rolex gave its latest model the name Cosmograph Daytona to symbolize its connection with the renowned racetrack in the United States. Known simply as the “Daytona”, the watch embodies a history marked by a passion for speed and motor sport, and has risen to the rank of an icon as one of the best-known chronographs in the world.
Far from land, man and machine pushed themselves to new heights – or, in this case, depths – on 23 January 1960, when Lieutenant Don Walsh of the US Navy and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard navigated the Trieste bathyscaphe into the Mariana Trench, the oceans’ deepest point, reaching the sea floor at 10,916 metres (35,800 feet). At this depth, the water exerted tremendous pressure on the vessel and on an experimental Rolex watch, the Deep Sea Special, strapped to the hull. The Trieste surfaced nearly nine hours later with the watch intact.
The brand’s pursuit of excellence is manifest in its strong bonds with golf, sealed by a handshake between Rolex and Arnold Palmer in 1967. Palmer and two of his greatest rivals and friends, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player – The Big Three – popularized golf worldwide. Since this landmark partnership with three of golf’s greats, the relationship between Rolex and golf has flourished, attaining global reach.
The brand supports the men’s and women’s game at all levels; from legendary players such as Tiger Woods and Annika Sörenstam, to junior and amateur golfers. Today, Rolex sponsors many of the most prestigious tournaments and is part of the very fabric of the ancient game. The association between the brand and the sport stands for quality, elegance, reliability and a pioneering spirit.
In 1968, another sporting champion became a Testimonee – racing driver Sir Jackie Stewart, who won three FIA Formula One World Championships™. Rolex remains a champion of Formula One as Global Partner and Official Timepiece, while also serving as Title Sponsor of select Grand Prix races. These contests of endurance and skill are a perfect marriage with iconic watches.
In the late 1970s, Rolex expanded its support to the finest tennis players and events, marking the start of a perfect match for the Swiss brand’s principles. The Rolex clock has kept official time at The Championships, Wimbledon, since 1978, the year in which Chris Evert became the first female tennis Testimonee. The brand now sponsors all four Grand Slam® events as well as pre-eminent team competitions, the Davis Cup and the Laver Cup, and other elite tournaments. The names of many Rolex tennis Testimonees are engraved on these coveted trophies, including five-time Wimbledon champion Björn Borg and one of the game’s all-time greats, Rod Laver. Inspired by the Australian, Swiss champion Roger Federer has won a record-setting 20 Grand Slam® men’s singles titles.
After a half-century of support for explorers and athletes, Rolex extended its commitment to excellence in another domain of outstanding performance. In 1976, famed soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa became the first Rolex Testimonee in the arts, joined a few years later by Spanish tenor Plácido Domingo.
Other opera names followed, including mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli, bass-baritone Sir Bryn Terfel and soprano Sonya Yoncheva. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor and musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, and pianist Yuja Wang are Testimonees from the world of classical music, while partnerships have been formed with popular music artists such as Michael Bublé.
The alliance between Rolex and the arts is now an essential feature of the global cultural landscape. The brand partners prestigious institutions, including leading opera houses such as Teatro alla Scala, the Royal Opera House and the Met. Its sponsorship of the arts now extends to architecture, music festivals and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
In 2017, in a partnership with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Rolex became Proud Sponsor of the Oscars®, as well as Founding Supporter of the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Rolex also has partnerships with leading directors James Cameron, Martin Scorsese, Kathryn Bigelow and Alejandro G. Iñárritu.
In all its sponsorship activities, Rolex supports the transfer of knowledge and expertise from one era to the next. The Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative gives emerging artists the time to learn, create and grow. Established in 2002, it is based on the belief that art is a continuum, an accumulation of past experiences over generations, and that all artists are inspired by those who went before them.
Through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, the nurturing of future generations is also made possible for explorers and environmental scientists. Set up in 1976 by then Chairman of Rolex, André J. Heiniger, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster – the world’s first waterproof wristwatch – the Rolex Awards were intended to be a once-only celebration. However, they drew so much international interest that Heiniger and Rolex transformed them into an ongoing programme. Over the years, it has supported 150 Laureates whose endeavours have made a significant contribution worldwide to improving life and protecting our planet. They embody the company’s determination to contribute to the wider world.
While the earliest Testimonees were men and women who defied the elements for pure exploration, in recent decades Rolex has turned to explorers who actively set out to preserve our natural world.
Rolex supports scientific activities that safeguard the vast stretches of the planet hidden beneath the waves. Legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle, a long-time Testimonee, has first-hand knowledge of the threats facing the oceans. With an underwater career spanning more than 50 years, she has worked tirelessly to educate the world and conserve these environments. In 2014, Rolex announced its support for her Mission Blue initiative that seeks to protect marine areas.
Rolex’s unwavering commitment to the future of our planet goes beyond traditional sponsorship. These endeavours are a declaration of hope that our common heritage will be preserved for generations. For more than 90 years, Rolex sponsorship has grown to include an extraordinary array of talent from myriad disciplines, as well as the events and organizations they are associated with.
They all seek to push back the boundaries of their chosen field, fulfilling the principles of Rolex founding father Hans Wilsdorf, who declared: “Our task is not yet finished, we intend to intensify our efforts. But what has been achieved in the past serves to strengthen my faith in the future.”