The Forgotten Rolex Testimonees: Six Rolex Spokespeople You Need To Know About
Forget about Rolex Testimonees like Tiger Woods and Roger Federer for a moment and let us remember and honor these ground-breaking men and women.
It’s hard to imagine a world without watch ambassadors – those famous faces and adventurous athletes extolling the glamour and precision of timepieces.
A brand ambassador is someone who promotes a product to build awareness and sales. Brands put a lot of time and energy into building associations with cultural and sporting events and celebrities. It’s a delicate operation. Fame is fleeting, and for such a partnership to work, the customer must have a positive reaction to said celebrity. A bit of gossip or a stalled career could undo years of goodwill.
Rolex has never done business like other watchmakers, so its relationship with its ambassadors (called “Rolex Testimonees” by the brand) is unique. Meaning Rolex has had a long and varied list of fascinating spokespeople.
Not all of them are household names. Some even have a soupçon of scandal attached. And for many, their association with the brand is so far in the past that they have been forgotten.
But their stories are fascinating and deserve to be remembered.
Rolex was not the first watchmaker to employ celebrity spokespeople. For example, the Cartier Santos was born in 1904 when Louis Cartier created a watch for the Brazilian aviator Alberto Santos-Dumont (read HERE). And Bulova presented Charles Lindbergh with $1,000 and a “Conqueror” watch for his non-stop flight across the Atlantic in 1927.
Case in point, the first Rolex Testimonee, British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze, was the first English woman to swim across the English Channel. A pretender claimed that she, not Gleitze, had completed the marathon swim first, and Gleitze was forced to attempt a second crossing to clear her name.
Upon hearing the news, Wilsdorf offered Gleitze a Rolex Oyster prototype with its waterproof case on the condition she would wear it during this attempt. Although Mercedes Gleitze was pulled from the freezing water after 10 hours, a reporter noticed that the watch was not only still ticking but also keeping good time.
One month later, on November 24, 1927, Wilsdorf used Gleitze’s story to launch the Rolex Oyster watch in the UK with a front-page ad in the Daily Mail.
We may have forgotten her, but Rolex will always remember Mercedes Gleitze.
Mount Everest is the world’s highest mountain above sea level. The challenge of reaching its peak has drawn mountaineers from all over the world. And in the 20th century, if you were one of the adventurers hoping to conquer Everest, Sherpa guide Tenzing Norgay was your best bet at making it to the top.
Guiding mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay became the first to reach the peak in 1953. But it wasn’t Norgay’s first trip to the rodeo. He was a full member of the Swiss expedition in 1952, and Rolex presented him with a gold bubbleback – a precursor to the Rolex Explorer – for this accomplishment. He wore this watch when he joined the British team for the 1953 trek.
The Explorer was developed specifically for navigating rough terrain. After they came down from the mountain, Rolex used the event to market this new watch. And though Hillary got most of the credit for reaching the peak, Rolex made sure Norgay got his due in advertisements – especially after the brand launched the Explorer II in 1971.
What little most watch enthusiasts know about Jean-Claude Killy comes from his association with Rolex, but back in the 1960s, it was the other way around. The French downhill racer was considered the most handsome man on two skis.
But for those who don’t know Killy, the man won the World Cup twice in the 1960s, and at the age of 25, he brought home Olympic gold in the slalom, giant slalom, and downhill events – the elusive Triple Crown of Alpine Skiing. Although he went on to compete in auto racing and even starred in a movie called Snow Job, his fame went downhill in the 1970s.
In the 1960s, however, Killy embodied all that was dashing about the decade. He alone, among all other Rolex Testimonees, has had a watch nicknamed after him: the Dato-Complex “Triple Crown” Chronograph, a triple-date calendar with three subsidiary dials that sit at 3, 6, and 9 o’clock on the dial.
Technically, the Dato-Complex was manufactured before Killy became a Rolex Testimonee, but the following five references are called Killy Rolexes: the 4768, 4767, 5036, 6036, and 6236.
Fun fact: While Killy appeared in numerous advertisements and promotions, there’s no photographic evidence of him ever wearing Dato-Complex. He still sits on the Board of Directors for Rolex.
Sir Jackie Stewart
If you were sentient in the 1970s, you knew Jackie Stewart. The Formula 1 legend known as the Flying Scot became a color commentator for ABC’s Wide World of Sports, where he was known for his thick Scottish brogue, colorful outfits, and his work advocating for safety in motor racing.
Another note, many Rolex Testimonees were customers before they became spokespeople. Stewart bought his first Rolex (a yellow-gold President) in 1966 with money from his first Monaco Grand Prix win. Rolex didn’t sponsor him until 1968.
Although Stewart has slipped out of the spotlight, he is still beloved by Rolex today. Stewart embodies the investment Rolex puts in with its Testimonees – they become part of the family, and Stewart still serves as a consultant. The savvy Scot was also instrumental in bringing other kinds of sponsorship to Formula 1, including helping to broker deals with Unilever and UBS.
Over the decades, Stewart has also amassed an enviable collection of Rolexes, including a King Midas presented to him by former Rolex CEO Patrick Heiniger, the man who made Rolex what it is today. The King Midas is maybe the most unusual watch in the company’s catalog, designed by Gérald Genta and carved out of solid gold.
Elvis Presley also owned a model, which is on display at Graceland. The King’s King Midas has a water damaged dial. According to anecdote, Elvis wore it into a pool or hot tub because of the Rolex Oyster’s reputation for water resistance. Unfortunately for Mr. Presley, the King Midas is not an Oyster.
Who is Frederick Forsyth? The English novelist, journalist, former spy, and occasional political commentator has worn many hats. Forsyth is one of those people who is the most interesting person in any room he walks into, and Rolex took note of this in the 1980s when the suave British writer appeared in a series of Rolex ads that touted Forsyth’s 18K Day-Date as “Tough, accurate and very stylish.”
Best known for such novels as The Day of the Jackal, The Odessa File, and The Dogs of War, Forsyth is celebrated for the level of detail he brought to his books (which he later revealed to be informed by his secret work for the British spy agency MI6).
Forsyth was also a bit of a dandy. In his Rolex ads, he is photographed traipsing around his country estate in Ireland, wearing tweeds, and looking very much like a real-life James Bond. But Forsyth’s association with accuracy and adventure is probably why Rolex made him one of their first cultural Testimonees.
Another flyboy, American William Seawell, represented another side of international style. A former Brigadier General in the United States Air Force, Seawell went on to head Pan American Airways during the golden age of air travel in the 1970s (read HERE).
The partnership between Pan Am and Rolex predated Seawell’s arrival. In fact, in the 1950s, the airline hired Rolex to develop a watch for its pilots to track time zones during transcontinental flights. This timepiece evolved into the 1065 and 1066 calibers. The Oyster Perpetual GMT-Master later became the official watch of the intercontinental airline.
In one of his many Rolex ads, Seawell is presented as a take-charge leader standing in front of a globe wearing a conservative suit and an 18K gold GMT-Master Chronograph – the opposite of Forsyth’s English rake. Dashing but dependable, Seawell projected not just adventure but the prestige of travel and Rolex.
And while Seawell retired in the 1980s, his legacy with Rolex lives on because his presence helped the brand become not just a tool watch but the most recognized name in luxury watches.
Another name you need to know is Chuck Yeager, the world’s first supersonic pilot. Not only could the aviation legend fly over 200 different types of military aircraft, but he also trained Gemini, Mercury, and Apollo astronauts at the Air Force Aerospace Research Pilots School.
When Yeager broke the sound barrier, he did it wearing a Rolex on his wrist. On October 14th, 1947, Yeager broke the sound barrier while test piloting the Bell X-1. And judging by photos from this historic flight, it was an Oyster Perpetual, probably a reference 6422, 1002, or 6480.
Yeager was so fond of the watch that a few years after the record-breaking event, Yeager sent an autographed image of the Bell X-1 and himself to Hans Wilsdorf. But it wasn’t until 60 years later that Yeager became a Rolex Testimonee when the brand featured Yeager in an advertisement for the Rolex Watch GMT Master Oyster Thunderbird that commemorated his exceptional career.