Since its founding in 1905, Rolex has become synonymous with watchmaking excellence. It is perhaps most famous for its 1926 invention of the Oyster, the world’s first ever water-resistant wristwatch. To prove just how robust the watch was, Rolex partnered with a young British swimmer named Mercedes Gleitze, who swam across the English Channel with the Oyster strapped to her wrist. After over ten hours in the freezing cold waters, both Gleitze and her watch emerged unscathed.
The event was a landmark for Rolex, not just because the Oyster had kept perfect time throughout its journey and had thus cemented Rolex’s reputation as a quality watchmaker, but also because Gleitze had de facto become the brand’s first “testimonee”, endorsing the watch publicly. It was the first of Rolex’s numerous partnerships with inspiring women—partnerships that continue to this day. Only now, instead of supporting the explorers who go to the extreme ends of the Earth for the pure sake of discovering the unknown, Rolex is focusing their efforts on the people who explore ways to preserve the natural world.
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Take Sylvia Earle, for instance. An oceanographer, marine biologist, author and a National Geographic explorer-in-residence—among many other things—Earle has sought to further both humanity’s understanding and our protection of the world’s oceans throughout her life.
Earle’s impact on our knowledge of the oceans cannot be overstated. She has led over 100 marine expeditions, including the Tektite II in 1970, during which she led the first all-female crew of aquanauts to live and work underwater. Her unquenchable scientific curiosity meant that she was one of the first few to use scuba equipment when it was first invented in the ’50s, donning the then-new technology to explore the oceans more deeply. Later in 1979, she walked on the ocean floor 1,250ft below sea level dressed in a Jim suit—a type of pressurised oceanic armour—completely untethered to anything on the surface. It was—and still is—the deepest such dive ever made and earned her the moniker “Her Deepness.” Today, at 84 years of age, Her Deepness still dives frequently.
Unfortunately, Earle’s decades of diving have also given her an upfront view of the degradation of the world’s oceans. To combat that deterioration and protect vital marine ecosystems, Earle founded Mission Blue, an initiative intended to galvanise support for marine protected areas around the world. Each of these protected areas is called a “Hope Spot” and is critical to the preservation of marine wildlife, whether because it is a home to endangered species, or because local communities rely on its healthy marine environment for their own survival. Rolex has supported Earle’s work with Mission Blue since 2014 and has helped to increase the number of Hope Spots around the world from 50 to 112. While impressive, this number only represents about eight percent of the world’s oceans; Earle aims to expand that to 30 percent by 2030.
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Rolex’s support of Mission Blue is one aspect of its three-pronged Perpetual Planet programme, a campaign launched this year that cements the brand’s existing commitment to protecting the natural world. The other two prongs comprise an enhanced partnership with National Geographic, in which it supports expeditions to study the impact of climate change, and the biennial Rolex Awards for Enterprise (RAE), which recognizes and funds individuals who have created projects that aim to better the wellbeing of humanity and the environment.
The RAE was first set up in 1976 by André J. Heiniger, then chairman of Rolex, to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, but it received so much international interest that Heiniger and Rolex transformed it into an ongoing programme. “We initiated the Rolex Awards for Enterprise out of a conviction that we had a responsibility as a company to take an active interest in improving life on our planet,” said Heiniger, “and in the desire to foster values we cherish: Quality, ingenuity, determination and, above all, a spirit of enterprise.”
In the years since, the RAE has supported some 140 laureates, many of whom were the kind of visionary women that we all aspire to be. 2010 awardee Reese Fernandez-Ruiz, for instance, founded a social enterprise called Rags2Riches to empower impoverished women in the Philippines, where they turn scrap material into high-fashion accessories, granting them a livelihood and dignity. Neeti Kailas, a 2014 RAE laureate, helped to develop a system to carry out mass screenings of newborns in resource poor settings to check for hearing loss—particularly important since hearing before six months of age is considered crucial for the normal acquisition of language. Without intervention during this period, most infants with hearing loss will never develop speech. 2016 laureate Christine Keung’s project aimed to find a long-term solution to the agricultural and hazardous waste pollution plaguing the rural areas of northwestern China.
Rolex’s 2019’s laureate list includes two women: 40-year-old scientist and conservationist Krithi Karanth, and 25-year-old entrepreneur and molecular biologist Miranda Wang.
Karanth’s project involves the creation of a helpline to mitigate the tensions between wildlife and humans in rural parts of India. The Indian government actually hands out compensation to farmers and villagers for damage done by wild animals, but Karanth estimates that the 80,000 cases reported each year are just the tip of the iceberg. The Indian government unfortunately lacks the resources to process claims quickly enough to save the wild animals. To help, Karanth established Wild Seve, a toll-free number for villagers to call for help in filing for compensation. It currently serves half a million people living around two national parks and has filed some 14,000 claims, successfully reducing hostilities towards wildlife in served communities. With Rolex’s help, Karanth plans to expand the project to three more parks and 1,000 more villages, use mobile technology to identify particular hot spots, and implement test measures to safely prevent the ingress of wildlife onto human properties.
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Wang’s project, on the other hand, was very different. She had previously founded a unique chemical recycling company called BioCellection that takes unrecyclable polyethelene plastics—think dirty plastic bags and single-use packaging materials like potato chip bags and milk tea cups—and breaks them down into valuable chemicals that can then be used to make new products. “Currently there are almost no technologies that work on the really dirty plastics,” Wang explains. “These plastics are so low grade that it doesn’t make sense for people to clean them and make a new product out of them. We specifically focus on these problem plastics that nobody else wants to touch.”
Wang’s process is much cheaper than extracting these same raw chemicals from petroleum, thereby providing a real incentive to save plastics instead of incinerating them or dumping them, measures which would contribute to greater carbon emissions. Rolex’s contributions through the RAE will help Wang take the next step, which is to develop a fully commercial processing plant. By 2023, the BioCellection team expect to recycle 45,500 tonnes of plastic, thereby eliminating 320,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions. Wang’s contribution is another step towards building a truly “circular economy,” where nothing is wasted or causes pollution.
The work of these truly laudable women help make the world a better place. The fact that Rolex is choosing to support their missions through their Perpetual Planet campaign is also an indication of the brand’s commitment to give back to society and preserve the environment. But according to Rolex, “this is just the beginning.” We can’t wait to see what’s next.