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Feature: Rolex’s Weirdest Brand Ambassadors

When Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf enlisted Mercedes Gleitze to wear a Rolex after she became the first British woman to swim the English Channel in 1927, it was an industry game-changer. Gleitze’s photo was subsequently used in Rolex print adverts and the concept of the watch brand ambassador was born.

Wilsdorf understandably repeated the trick numerous times in the decades that followed. The roll-call of heroic record-breakers who featured in Rolex ads from the 1930s to the 1950s includes: Sir Malcolm Campbell, who set a world land-speed record in the Bluebird; Danish stunt-pilot and parachutist John Tranum; and, most famous of all, the climbers of the successful Everest Expedition of 1953 who wore prototype Explorer models.

The original Rolex ambassador, endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze

The original Rolex ambassador, endurance swimmer Mercedes Gleitze

By the late 1950s Rolex had proved beyond doubt that its watches were reliably robust timekeepers that would keep ticking, whatever the conditions.

With that ingrained in the watch-buying public’s mind, it was time for the brand to introduce a new kind of ambassador. One that would focus less on Rolex’s tool watch capabilities and more on its growing reputation as a sophisticated luxury timepiece for the refined of taste.

By the 1970s, intrepid action men were out and intellectuals were in.

Yes, Rolex went all highbrow on us, and the faces of its new campaigns were, as we shall find out, an eclectic bunch, to say the least…

The Crown Goes Classical

Nobody bats an eye-lid today when luxury watch brands collaborate with figures from the music world but Rolex has been doing it since the early 1980s. Of course, this being Rolex it was never going to recruit Madonna or the Sex Pistols.

No, the snooty—or, rather, discerning—Rolex teamed up with New Zealand opera singer, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, who later went on to sing the rugby union World Cup anthem, World in Union. In later years it also signed up the American cellist Yo Yo Ma, conductor Antal Dorati, and the Italian mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.

Cello player Yo-yo Ma is one of the less orthodox faces to front a Rolex campaign

Cello player Yo-yo Ma - one of the less orthodox faces to front a Rolex campaign

Cello player Yo-yo Ma - one of the less orthodox faces to front a Rolex campaign

Clearly mainstream pop-stars are the preserve of it sister brand Tudor which has previously had Lady Gaga on its books. That said, Rolex did run a campaign in the 1990s featuring legendary guitarist Eric Clapton, by then an elder statesman of rock and an obsessive vintage Rolex collector.

Men of Letters

It’s difficult to conceive of any leading watch brand today signing up a novelist as a brand ambassador. Even the biggest names on the best-seller list are nowhere near as recognisable as top athletes and film stars. But back in the 1970s Rolex had literary brand ambassadors on both sides of the Atlantic.

Best-selling author and inadvertent great white shark nemesis, Peter Benchley

Best-selling author and inadvertent great white shark nemesis, Peter Benchley

In the USA it ran a campaign featuring Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws (later adapted into the Steven Spielberg movie), who was also an ocean activist. Unsurprisingly Benchley promoted the Submariner model, which, quipped Rolex in one of its ads, was perfect for diving with great white sharks as it was “virtually unaffected by shock”.

Another campaign featured the British thriller writer, Frederick Forsyth, wearing his yellow-gold Day-Date. No doubt Rolex was impressed by the fact that the The Day of the Jackal author also served time as a pilot in the RAF and as a foreign correspondent in war zones.

Debonair thriller writer Frederick Forsyth was a Rolex Day-Date wearer

Debonair thriller writer Frederick Forsyth was a Rolex Day-Date wearer

Less famous, at least outside of the US, was bigshot lawyer and writer Mark McCormack, founder of IMG, a global sports events and talent management company. It’ll come as no surprise that the watch he advertised was also a yellow-gold Day-Date.

And… Birdwatchers?

Cultural bigshots aside, Rolex enjoyed throwing a few anomalies into its advertising campaigns—and we’re not talking about the hoax Che Guevara Rolex advert that occasionally pops up online (luxury watches and communism would be an incongruous pairing, even if Guevara did actually wear a GMT Master).

One peculiar 1970s sign-up was British ornithologist Peter Scott, who as well as being an expert on all things avian was a conservationist and former World War II naval officer. He was also the son of the Arctic explorer Captain Robert Scott, which must have earned him some Rolex brownie points.

Still, he was hardly a household name, and about as appealing to a young, hip demographic as corduroy elbow patches and pipe-smoking.

Proving that it still held in high esteem those fearless non-celebrity types who worked in extreme conditions, it also ran a campaign in the seventies featuring firefighter Red Adair. Adair was the man you called when you needed to extinguish a blazing gas field, offshore oil well or other raging inferno. Yes, despite embracing the cultured and the artistic, ultimately Rolex still loves a tough nut.

More recently, however, the brand has played it safe with the likes of tennis legend Roger Federer and veteran film directors James Cameron, Kathryn Bigelow and Martin Scorsese.

So who will Rolex choose to front its next ad campaign? Whether it’s a celebrity, explorer, Olympian or Pulitzer Prize winner, it will undoubtedly be someone at the pinnacle of their profession.

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