For the past four weeks, I have been researching the earliest Rolex Oyster chronographs for my upcoming visual timeline “Road To Daytona”. In the process, I came to realize that in order to fully comprehend early Rolex chronos, there was no way around documenting every single Rolex watch made between 1926 and 1960 that is out there.
As I climbed up the case numbers and reached the 726,000 range, I came across the celebrated “Mount Everest” Rolex Perpetual watches from 1952/53 and a new, beautiful enigma unfold before my eyes. Did a Rolex watch reach the highest point on Earth in 1953? Or was the whole thing once again a marketing exaggeration of the likes of Mercedes Gleitze’s vindication swim? Perhaps even a poorly implemented plan? Almost there, but not quite? As a result, I devoured all film documentaries on the topic and examined several highres pictures I was able to find. Of course, I also read some of the funny watch-related articles but that is stuff for a discourse of its own.
I was staring at the following picture of Mr. Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary drinking tea after their safe return from the summit to Camp 4 – in which the wrists of both men were exposed – when suddenly a most interesting object next to Norgay drew my attention. A cylindric container, but more importantly – the intricate logo on it. A cross surrounded by a long rope…
I had seen this graphic before! It is the famous “Mystery Cross”, found on the back of three or four vintage Rolex Daytonas Ref. 6265 and considered to be “one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in world of vintage watches” – hiding in plain sight!
With a cross with equilateral arms in it, that logo does not look very British, does it? The next picture of Mr. Norgay gives us a hint as to what that cylindrical container is all about.
See the “Knäcke Brot” carton box next to Norgay’s left foot? Knäcke Brot is German for crispbread. What we see here is a product from “Roland”, a traditional Swiss bakery. That and the cylindrical containers were part of the equipment and provisions left behind at Camp 4 by the two Swiss expeditions that were on the mountain in spring 1952 and autumn 1952 respectively. The Swiss had narrowly failed to reach the summit.
Swiss Everest Expeditions 1952
When news broke the Swiss had booked the mountain for the whole of 1952, it shocked the British to the core, so much so, they tried to persuade the Swiss to undertake a joint expedition. Due to narrow-mindedness on both sides the idea came never to fruition but Eric Shipton, leader of all British Everest expeditions since 1935, travelled nevertheless to Zurich to share his knowledge with the Swiss. A true sport! In late 1952, Shipton would be replaced by John Hunt.
Sherpa Tenzing Norgay had been a full-fledged member of both Swiss expeditions. It was Eric Shipton who had discovered 19-year-old Tenzing in 1935 and it can be assumed it was Shipton who recommended the skilled Sherpa with the attractive grin to the Swiss Everest party. Initially, the Swiss had not dreamed of even remotely reaching the summit. The first expedition had merely reconnaissance character. After all, it was the Swiss’ first encounter with Mount Everest. The Brits, on the other hand, had been trying to conquer the mountain since the early 1920s.
During the spring expedition, Tenzing Norgay along with Raymond Lambert came – to everybody’s surprise – within reach of the summit. Just shy of the South Summit (28,704 ft/8,749 m), they were forced to abort their assault on the summit due to a Monsoon storm, and inadequate oxygen equipment. It was either summit and die, or return to safety and live. The two men had spent the night before in a tiny tent at 27,560 ft (8,400 m) – without mattress or sleeping bags nor camping stove. They rubbed and massaged each other the whole night to avoid freezing to death. This important chapter surrounding the conquest of Everest disappeared into obscurity. There was no victory for these pioneers. Almost there, but not quite.
Pictures of the British expedition from 1953 leave no doubt, the victorious Brits followed in the Swiss’ footsteps and camped where the Swiss had camped. The southern route to the summit was pioneered by the Swiss. It was them who paved the way for a successful ascent. The next picture from 1953 shows another of those cylindrical containers brought up by the Swiss expedition in 1952.
Pictures of the Swiss 1952 expedition are extremely rare, despite the crucial importance of the pioneering effort. All expeditions prior to 1951 attempted to summit from the north but after Mao Zedong marched into Tibet, the northern route became inaccessible to foreigners.
During their 1951 expedition, the British tried to ascend Mount Everest for the first time from the south through Nepal, which had just opened their borders to the world. At a height of around 19,685 ft (6,000 m), however, the climbing party was defeated by an insuperable obstacle in form of a large crevasse (deep open crack) at the head of the Khumbu Glacier. The so-called Icefall is one of the most dangerous stages of the southern route. The Swiss – thanks to their excellent ice climbing skills and incredible bravery – quickly established precarious rope-bridges across the huge crevasses so that men and equipment could pass.
The “Mystery Cross”, the logo seen on the cylindrical containers belongs to the Zurich-based “Schweizer Stiftung für Alpine Forschung”, the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research. Since 1939, they organised expeditions to the Himalaya. They were in charge of the pioneering 1952 expeditions and the ones that followed.
The iconic logo was replaced around 1980 and disappeared from the public eye.
“Mystery Cross” Rolex daytonas
Now that the “Mystery Cross” is no longer a mystery, let us take a closer look at the three known vintage Rolex Daytona Ref. 6265 examples featuring the logo on the back to try and understand what they are all about. All known pieces belong to the first series of Ref. 6265 which were still equipped with Ref. 6262 stamped casebacks. A crucial detail of these watches is that the last three digits of the case numbers are repeated on the inside of the casebacks.
This is a feature only known from special production Rolex watches made for Comex, British Ministry of Defense (MOD), Fuerza Aerea del Perú (FAP), etc. In addition, all known pieces are in close case number proximity which is common for special production series. The 2.8 million case number range suggest a production date in late 1971.
Rolex Daytona Ref. 6265 Examples Featuring “Mystery Cross” Casebacks
|Case number||reference number||Dial type||Provenance|
|2849199||6265||ROC Silver||Sotheby’s Nov. 2011|
|2849240||6265||ROC Silver Sigma||Market in La Chaux-de-Fonds|
|2849276||6265||ROC Paul Newman Panda||Christie’s Nov. 2015|
It is interesting to note that the three watches feature completely different dials, something that from a logical point of view appears a bit odd.
Eversince these watches surfaced in collector circles, the riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma became a fertile ground for all sorts of claims. The Sotheby’s watch from 2011, for instance, came with the following fantastic story:
“While working on a documentary in the Amazon rainforest an Italian photographer encountered a group of Guerrilla soldiers near the Venezuela border.
The photographer and his team terrified for their lives tried desperately to explain their presence and convince them they were not there for any military purpose. While this was taking place one of the Guerrillas took an interest in the quartz watch which the cameraman was wearing, but he was unwilling to give it up as it was a gift from his wife. The photographer quickly took out his own watch and offered it to the Guerrilla leader. The leader then presented his watch in exchange and exclaimed ‘we are Guerrillos not thieves’.”
Amazonas, Italians, guerilleros… you get the idea. Unfortunately, Sotheby’s did something with their database recently and most of the great information which was once available is gone. What is left is very limited, almost useless content.
Auction link: Lot 121 – Rolex Daytona Ref. 6265/6262 (Sotheby’s)
Somewhere along the way, someone came up with the narrative these watches were made for the world famous Pontifical Swiss Guard, the armed forces of the Pope. When in 2015 Christie’s got their hands on one of these rare pieces, they reached out to the Swiss Guard but the story turned out to be without merit. The logo remained a mystery. Christie’s stated at the time:
“…but it also features on its case back one of the greatest unsolved mysteries in the world of vintage watches.”
Auction link: Lot 363 – Rolex with so-called Paul Newman dial, engraved case back (Christie’s)
I reached out to the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research and inquired on the nature of these watches but the current secretary has no knowledge of events that took place almost 50 years ago. Most of the men involved died long time ago. However, given the special features of the pieces, the secretary said it could very well be the watches were ordered to commemorate the 20th anniversary (1952 – 1972) of the pioneering 1952 expedition which not only paved the way for the British victory in 1953 but also laid the groundwork for a great success the Swiss achieved in 1956. In addition to make the first ascent of Mt. Lhotse – the forth highest peak in the world right next to Everest – the 1956 expedition managed also to put four Swiss on the Everest summit itself. An amazing achievement!
The 1952 expedition did perhaps not succeed in conquering the Everest summit but the Swiss were nevertheless very proud of their achievements. Had it not been for bad weather, the Swiss had probably easily won the race. Brigadier John Hunt, leader of the victorious British expedition, telegraphed the Swiss after their successful ascent in 1953. He wrote:
“To you – a good half of the glory.”
In light of this, just putting the foundation logo on the back of the watches was probably a way of celebrating quietly. Typically Swiss, I would say.
To conclude, here is a beautiful anectode. On their flight back to England, the British expedition had to stop briefly at Zurich Airport to refuel. To their surprise, the entire Swiss Everest team was waiting for them in the transit lounge – with Champagne.
The only thing left to do now is to find an appropriate name for these watches. My suggestion? Rolex Daytona Ref. 6265 “Swiss Everest Pioneers”.
Thank you for your interest.
Special thanks to: John Goldberger, Pucci Papaleo and Jake Ehrlich
Great research, let me share a book tip on the subject, the well-illustrated “The Conquest of Everest” by George Lowe and Huw Lewis-Jones (2013 hardcover 240 pages with 163 photographs of which 62 in color). ISBN 978-0-500-54423-5
Wonderful and congratulations, but just a small consideration: Isn’t “British a cross ????? 🏴🏴🏴🏴
You mean an English cross, the cross of St George. And no, it isn’t. Great detective work from the author.
A cross is a Christian emblem that is also used in England in a concrete form but it is a cross.
Hi, nice post!
I have a question: has the caseback the “tiny-hole” outside for such models?
I suppose yes, but not visible on the main picture of that
Thank you very much
“Did a Rolex watch reach the highest point on Earth in 1953?”
Rolex admitted in October 1953 that while they supplied the Hunt Expedition with Oyster Perpetuals, Hillary did not wear one to the summit. The watch that made it to the top was a Smiths “De Luxe”, currently on display at the Clockmakers’ Museum within the Science Museum, London. Both Rolex and Smiths initially claimed to be the first to the summit (Rolex even put out an advert saying as much). While feasible (eg if Hillary and/or Tenzing had carried both or if one had a Smiths and the other a Rolex) it was later admitted by Mr. R. A. Winter, Director of the Rolex Watch Co., Ltd that Hillary was only wearing one watch at the summit, “and that a Smiths watch.” He goes on to congratulate Smiths “on the fact that their Smiths de Luxe ordinary wind wrist watch reached the summit with Sir Edmund Hillary.” (BHI’s Horological Journal, Letters, October 1953, 651)
That’s why their advertising is so coy and cleverly suggests that Rolex made it to the top without ever actually saying so explicitly.