Rolex Wants to Help Save the Planet

With Perpetual Planet.
Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing
Norgay climbing Mount Everest
in 1953. Photo - Rolex

Many great human endeavours that Rolex has been part of have a distinctly earthly ring to them. From Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summiting the world’s tallest mountain to Jacques Piccard reaching the deepest point in the oceans, or even Fidel Castro journeying through Cuba’s rainforests, a great deal of the planet has been covered with a Rolex keeping time.

While Geneva watchmaking giant has sponsored various explorers over the decades, its focus has now shifted subtly, but substantially. Rolex will support ecologically minded explorers of the natural world, specifically to help them learn how to preserve it.

Named Perpetual Planet, this doubtlessly well funded initiative consolidates three of the company’s key partnerships – the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, its longterm association with the National Geographic Society, and Mission Blue, led by American oceanographer Sylvia Earle.

The Wilsdorf legacy

While it is easy to be cynical about a maker of luxury watches claiming to do good, charity is not merely a box to be ticked at Rolex. The founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, had no children and upon his death in 1960, gifted his ownership of the watch brand to an eponymous foundation that’s one of the largest charitable foundations in Europe.

Though it operates discreetly, the foundation does so on an immense scale, especially in relation to its home country, which is wealthy but small. From saving the Geneva’s football club to bankrolling the home of the symphony orchestra to building a school for design, the foundation does so much in Geneva that local newspaper Tribune de Geneva wrote the organisation “substitutes for the state”.

Hans Wilsdorf Rolex 1950

Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf. Photo – Rolex

Rolex World Headquarters Geneva 3

Rolex headquarters in Geneva. Photo – Rolex

Rolex Awards for Enterprise

Launched in 1976 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the water-resistant Oyster watch case, the Rolex Awards for Enterprise provides grants to individuals and projects around the world who “advance human knowledge, protect cultural heritage or help preserve natural habitats and species”. Over 43 years, the programme received 34,000 applications, but only bestowed 150 prizes.

For the first time in its history, the awards allowed public voting for the winners, after the candidates had been whittled down to a shortlist of 10. The five winners were announced last month, with each receiving a grant of 200,000 Swiss francs and Rolex timepiece.

Laureates Rolex Awards for enterprise 2019. From left: Grégoire Courtine, Krithi Karanth, João Campos-Silva, Miranda Wang, Brian Gitta.

Laureates of the Rolex Awards for Enterprise 2019. From left: Grégoire Courtine, Krithi Karanth, João Campos-Silva, Miranda Wang, Brian Gitta. Photo – Rolex

The five finalists’ projects range across industries and causes.

  • Grégoire Courtine, a French scientist, is developing a fully implantable, brain-spine interface that will help spinal injury victims walk again.
  • Indian conservationist Krithi Karanth is field-testing measures to reduce human-wildlife conflict for villages in India situated near national parks.
  • João Campos-Silva, a Brazilian ecologist, who is hoping to save the world’s largest freshwater fish, the giant arapaima, from extinction.
  • Miranda Wang, a Canadian inventor who at 25 is the youngest of this year’s laureates, is developing a unique technology to recycle plastic waste into industrial chemicals.
  • And Ugandan engineer Brian Gitta, who invented an innovative portable device that detects the malaria parasite without the need for drawing blood.
Rolex Award for Enterprise laureate João Campos-Silva holding an arapaima of about 60kg. Photo - Rolex

João Campos-Silva with a 60kg arapaima. Photo – Rolex

National Geographic Society

The five winners of the 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise were announced at the National Geographic Explorers Festival, a convention for scientists, explorers and researchers that took place in Washington, D.C. just last month. Rolex and the National Geographic Society, however, go back decades, all the way back to the first successful Everest expedition.

Established a year after Hillary and Norgay reached the peak of Mount Everest in 1953 – while wearing Rolex watches naturally – the relationship with National Geographic has survived print, television, and now digital media, and is one of key pillars of Perpetual Planet.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbing Mount Everest in 1953. Photo - Rolex

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay climbing Mount Everest in 1953. Photo – Rolex

This year, Rolex is backing a five-year exploration programme, led by National Geographic, that will cover the Earth’s most extreme environments, starting with a return to Everest that took place from April to June 2019. Done in the name of promoting awareness of the planet’s fragility, the programme also aims to develop solutions to environmental challenges.

One area the programme aims to study is the impact of climate change on glaciers, rainforests and the seas. The programme will study the relationships between water supply and melting glaciers, diminishing rainforests and pollution, and the global cooling mechanism provided by the oceans.

The recent Everest expedition, for instance, was led by National Geographic and Nepal’s Tribhuvan University and looked into the effect of global warming on the glaciers of the Hindu Kush-Himalaya that supply water to over a billion people.

The Perpetual Planet expedition at Khumbu Icefall, Mount Everest. Photo - Rolex

The Perpetual Planet expedition at Khumbu Icefall, Mount Everest. Photo – Rolex

Sylvia Earle and Mission Blue

The final pillar of Perpetual Planet is the partnership with Sylvia Earle, whose career in marine biology has spanned some 50 years. Not only was Dr Earle the first female to become chief scientist of the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, she has been a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence for over 20 years. And she is a Rolex testimonee – in essence, a brand ambassador – since 1982.

The National Geographic explorer-in-residence since 1998, Sylvia Earle. Photo - Rolex

Dr Earle in her natural habitat. Photo – Rolex

In 2010, Dr Earle launched Misson Blue, a charity that wants to established “marine protected areas” where marine life is protected by law. These “Hope Spots”,  as Dr Earle refers to them, are safe havens for endangered or diverse species of marine life, or areas that indigenous fishermen rely on for survival.

With the help of Rolex, Mission Blue has upped the number of Hope Spots from 50 to 112 just in past five years. Mission Blue ambitiously aims to have a third of the oceans protected by 2030, up from the current 8%.

Earle’s Mission Blue created its first “Hope Spot” to protect marine biodiversity in the Balearic Islands, Spain. Photo - Rolex

Mission Blue’s  first “Hope Spot” in the Balearic Islands, Spain. Photo – Rolex

A Perpetual Legacy

Perpetual Planet has become part of Rolex.org, a site unveiled last year that starts out by detailing the history of the company and its founder. The site now explains the Perpetual Planet partnerships, all illustrated by typically amazing, National Geographic-quality photography. See more on Rolex.org.


Correction, July 30 2019: The number of Hope Spots have grown to 112, and not 122, as previously stated. 

Back to top.

You may also enjoy these.