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Pugh X Rolex - A Scientific Collaboration

It is fair to say that collaborations in the watch industry are, at present, less a novel strategy and more a mature tactic that a brand can use to generate excitement and interest in their products. The success of collaborations is driven by diversity. A brand has its unique heritage, design motifs, and comparative advantages. An outsider has their own philosophy of design, track record, and areas of strength. The two come together and the whole is, hopefully, greater than the sum of the parts.

This post is about a very early collaboration in the watch industry. The brand in question is Rolex, a manufacturer that does not have a reputation for collaboration in product development (beyond the "collaborations" which were necessary in order to source parts in Rolex's earlier years). The outsider is Lewis Griffith Cresswell Evans Pugh, who went by Griffith Pugh. Their collaboration was unique in that Rolex did not explicitly market the lash up with Pugh. In fact, his role in the history of Rolex has remained unsung to this day. The collaboration between Pugh and Rolex was also unique in that Pugh was involved in the inner workings of Rolex watches. Science was the basis of the colloboration and design played a negligible role. Pugh helped Rolex gather data and understand how to implement timekeeping in the most extreme environments.

In this post, I will also offer a new, intriguing possibility: an Omega watch almost certainly played an important role in the first summit of Everest. Before getting into those details, let's start by exploring how I came to understand the relationship between Pugh and Rolex.

A Precipitating DM

A few months ago, legendary watchspotter Nick Gould, aka @niccoloy on Instagram, sent me a DM regarding some archival records he'd found. When he contacted me, I'd been publicly sharing hints about my book on Rolex in a variety of ways. I'd made it somewhat clear in this messaging that the book was based upon archival records regarding Rolex, so I think this may have been related to his outreach.

Nick mentioned that he hadn't been able to access the archival records he'd found and he was wondering if I could help. I was willing to do so, but at that moment I did not want to open up another "vein" in the mine of research, as it were. Doing so often means you don't finish the project you've already started and I really wanted to get my book on Rolex out the door. So, I tabled the issue.

Now that my book is out, I've circled back and obtained a copy of the archival records. They are truly fascinating and they shed light on cold climate extreme adventuring in the 1950s. While reviewing the materials, I learned of a particular Rolex watch of great historical significance. I have been able to identify the current owner of the watch.

Summit Through Science

Very few adventuresome feats are the product of a solo effort. Take, for example, the US Navy Blue Angels demonstration squadron. At an airshow, you look up and usually see six planes flying around. None of those pilots are flying their jet due to their own efforts alone. If Wikipedia is to be believed, they count as colleagues more than 100 other individuals who make any given flight demonstration possible. These include maintenance technicians, logisticians and the like.

Adventure in extreme climates is usually the same although the "teamwork" dimension, in this case, is often more apparent. For example, Sherpa guides were and are a vital part of any expedition to Everest. Their elite mountaineering skills were particularly indespensible for the earliest missions to Everest. Sherpa Tenzing Norgay summitted Everest alongside New Zealand's Edmund Hillary.

The archival records I described earlier come from the papers of Griffith Pugh, a man who was arguably the most important member of the team that first summitted Everest in May, 1953. Without Pugh's scientific work on the physiological effects of cold and high altitude, it would be reasonable to doubt whether the 1953 British Mount Everest expedition would have succeeded. Elite Swiss mountaineers failed to summit Everest just before the British succeeded, an outcome that could be explained by the fact that the Brits had Pugh and the Swiss did not. Yet, Pugh's contributions were largely unacknowledged until his own daughter published a book on his achievements in 2013.

A bit of background on Pugh: he served as a medical officer in the British army during World War II. His military service brought him to Britain, Greece, Crete, Egypt, Ceylon, Iraq, and Jerusalem. His future was heavily shaped, though, by the time he spent at the School of Mountain Warfare (Cedars School) in Lebanon. After the war ended, mountaineer Eric Shipton, CBE, approached Pugh and asked if he would participate in an early Everest expedition. Pugh agreed and he used the venture to study the physiological impact of high altitude. Based upon his research, Pugh made a variety of recommendations for mountaineers, including overnight use of oxygen and diets high in sugar. In a conversation with one of Pugh's family members, I learned that he also recommended important alterations to a wide range of equipment used in Everest expeditions. There is a fascinating collection of YouTube videos describing Pugh's work.

Pugh's insights regarding physiology and equipment were so valuable that they were his ticket to membership in the 1953 British Mount Everest Expedition. This is the famed climb culminating in Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norghay atop the Everest summit. They were the first to ever reach the highest point on Earth. Pugh accompanied the team on the attempt.

The Rolex Collaboration

Archival records make it clear that Pugh contributed to horology through communication with Rolex's London outpost, both before and after Everest. Much of the archival communication involved the 1953 Everest expedition. As I detail in my book, and as is detailed elsewhere, Rolex endeavored to get watches in the hands of the 1953 Everest mountaineers. It is hard to determine if the watches actually made it to the summit. Indeed, a letter to Pugh from Rolex's director in London, R. A. Winter, suggests even the manufacturer was unsure if the watches were worn by expedition members.

Roughly six months after Hillary and Norghay summitted Everest, Winter asked Pugh, in writing, "I would like to know most definitely if you wore your Oyster Perpetual all the time you were on the mountain." Pugh replied, "I did not wear it all the time on Everest, as I had to use a stop watch for my experiments, and another watch I own had a 12-hour stop watch incorporated." We will return to that "stop watch," aka chronograph, later. This exchange between Winter and Pugh leaves us with lingering ambiguity over whether expedition members did bring the Rolexes to Everest in 1953. If Pugh's statement was equivalent to "all the time on Everest, I did not wear it," that would imply Rolex was not worn by Pugh on Everest. If his statement was equivalent to "some of the time on Everest I wore it but not all of the time" that would mean that Rolex shared wrist time with at least one other watch.

In 1953, the majority of Winter's dispatches were dedicated to pleaing for the return of Pugh's Rolex watch. In late 1953, after the summit, the company's London office collected all of the Rolexes that it had provided for expedition members. The London office then shipped the timepieces to Geneva for an "overhaul," which included re-polishing of the case and replacement of the crystal, among other things. Pugh was the last of the expedition members to ship his watch to London and he needed multiple reminders to do so. This was in keeping with Pugh's reputation as a bit of an absent-minded scientist. Reportedly, on at least one occaison in England, Pugh completely forgot where he parked his car. He told the police it had been stolen and they located it for him.

To be fair, Pugh may have also tired of returning his Rolex for service (a sentiment many present day owners would probably share given service delays). After he returned from Shipton's 1952 British Expedition to Everest, he was asked to send the watch to Rolex in London so that they could, in turn, ship it to Geneva. Within a twelve month period, Pugh had been asked to return his watch to Geneva twice. At least in 1952, his watch was given some priority in servicing. The turnaround was estimated at 2-3 weeks. Interestingly, Winter mentions that Rolex planned to take and keep photographs of the timepiece. There was, however, an additional benefit to the 1953 service. Rolex offered to engrave the caseback to commemorate the successful summit attempt. I will return to this engraving later

We've now seen Pugh's first contribution to horology at Rolex: he wore a timepiece at least once on an Everest expedition and reported on the watch's performance. He also helped Rolex by sending his watch back to Geneva twice so that the company could inspect a timepiece which had experienced some of the most extreme mountaineering conditions. In addition, there was a timekeeping performance puzzle which Pugh presented to the brand. Based upon a late December letter sent from Winter, it seems Pugh reported that his Rolex was not keeping great time. Winter notes that none of the other 1953 expedition members had this issue. Pugh did admit to having dropped his watch roughly three feet onto rock. Watchmakers in Geneva had apparently determined that the balance pivots were slightly bent. After repairing this issue, and conducting other service items, the watch's timekeeping was restored. Correspondence suggests that this repair took some time, though. Winter's Secretary confirmed that the watch was mailed back to Pough on August 20, 1957, more than three years after it left Pugh's hands (there is some chance that archival records are incomplete and this could have been the third round trip made by the watch).

Post-Everest Collaboration

In late 1957, Pugh wrote to Winter and thanked him for returning his "arcticised" watch. He expressed a note of concern to Winter. Pugh was part of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (CTAE), lead by Edmund Hillary and Vivian Fuchs. This was the first successful attempt to cross the entirety of the Antarctic via the South Pole. Pugh indicated that the team needed to navigate by sextant because compasses would not be reliable at the pole (north is in every direction, more or less). Using a sextant would require reliable measures of time and radio checks for time would be infrequent. Pugh inquired if there was a particular watch which would be reliable in such circumstances.

The weight of this question can not be overstated. Rolex's reliability, or lack thereof, could have a huge impact on the ability of the expedition to survive life-threatening conditions in the Antarctic. Winter replied to Pugh that, based upon his limited experience with navigation in the Royal Air Force, Pugh's watch should be able to handle the task. Winter clarified that inaccuracy was not the concern. Rather, any inaccuracy must be known and consistent in order for Pugh and his team to navigate successfully. They would simply correct for inaccuracy. Winter also supplied a fascinating bit of information regarding Oyster Perpetuals of the era. He stated:
We find that, speaking in terms of degrees centigrade, our watches (regulated as they are in a normal temperate climate) will vary about .23 per second per day per degree centigrade. If, therefore, you are going to work in sub-zero temperatures down to (say) 20 or so degress frost, making a drop from normal temperature of just over 40 degrees centigrade, this would be equivalent to dropping the rating 15 seconds a day from a normal temperate day in London
Winter then asked for the watch's present "rating," in order to plan an adjustment to the watch's timing for the CTAE. In a responding letter dated September 13, 1957, Pugh replied that he would begin to take the watch's rating, which is our first hint that he had some level of skill in horology.

Pugh also offered details regarding work he would do on Rolex's behalf. This effort undoubtedly supplied data the brand would not have otherwise. Pugh had access to a cold chamber, presumably near his "base" at the Medical Research Council Laboratories in Hempstead, England. Pugh's experiment involved placing his Rolex on the wrist of a subject. The watch was covered by clothing worn by the subject. Watch and wearer would then spend some time in the cold chamber, which was registering -30 degrees Celsisus (-22 Farenheit) at the time. Pugh then measured the temperature the watch achieved and planned to send that measurement to Rolex. In the same letter detailing this plan, Pugh mentioned a report from an advance team in Antarctica indicating that Rolex's "chonometer" was performing better than others due to an "absence of large fluctuations."

Rolex-London received Pugh's measurements from the -30 C test, along with his watch, in early November, 1957. In one week the watch traveled to Geneva, was "adjusted" by Rolex, and returned to Pugh (a service timeline anyone would be envious of). Pugh then conducted a second experiment once the temperature of the cold chamber was lowered to -40 C (-40 F). In this case, the subject was Major Adam, who wore the watch under protective clothing in the chamber for a daunting 48 hours. Pugh then recorded performance measures for the watch.

Only a few months after this experiment was concluded, the CTAE met with success. After, Pugh sent his watch back to Rolex - London for service once again. In a handwritten note to Winter he requested "re-oiling" of his watch and the addition of an inscription to read "South Pole Jan 1958." It is with this note that the horologically important archival records end (among those records which I was able to obtain).

Finding the Watches

Much as I did with my story on the strontium-laced GMT watch, I decided to see if I could locate the Rolex mentioned by Pugh in his archival records. I did find it. It is not easy to get in touch with descendants, but I managed to find an email address for one of Pugh's family members and begin a dialogue regarding what I had found in the archives. The family is and was incredibly generous with details regarding Pugh and his watches. It was with great relief that I learned the family knew the exact location of the Rolex. They sent me pictures which I share below with the owner's permission. In many ways this moment was the most exciting part of this project.

Pugh's Rolex Oyster Perpetual, likely ref. 6098.
I do not have measurements of the watch or the assessment of a watchmaker, so in what follows I describe, to the best of my ability and based upon photographs, details regarding the Rolex. The photos sent by the present owner are presented here. I believe Pugh's watch is an Oyster Perpetual in steel reference 6098 "Bubbleback" with a light colored dial. This particular design has a number of nicknames, including Ovettone (Egg), pre-Explorer and the "Everest." The time-only watch features applied baton indices ending at a point directed at the dial center. The indices are doubled at 12 and a small applied coronet is just beneath. The dauphine hands are lumed and there is a dot of lume above the flat end of each index. This lume is likely radium and it would have been vital in the overnight conditions encountered on Pugh's various expeditions. The words "ROLEX," "Oyster Perpetual," and "Officially Certified Chronometer" adorn the dial. Beneath the 6 o'clock index, the word "SWISS" resides.

The caseback of Pugh's Rolex Oyster Perpetual.
What physically distinguishes this watch from all others are the caseback engravings. They are as described in the archives. The first engraving, on top, reads "EVEREST" followed by "1953." Beneath that there is the engraving "SOUTH POLE" followed by "JAN 1958." There is one more engraving beneath this of Pugh's name which curves along the interior edge of the caseback.

Pugh's Omega Chronograph.
Pugh's family also shared photos of a second watch owned by Pugh: an Omega three register chronograph. I believe this is the timepiece with a "12-hour stopwatch" which Pugh claimed to have worn during the Everest expedition. Indeed, the photos shared by Pugh's family show a 12 hour accumulator at 6 o'clock. This watch is harder for me to identify. In all honesty, it bears close resemblance to a Lemania reference 174, minus the tachymeter scale. Indeed, very similar watches have been described by dealers as a reference 174-3 (2451) holding the legendary caliber 321 (the caliber behind the first Omega Speedmaster in space). On Pugh's watch, the sword hands are lumed as are the arabic numberals.
The caseback of Pugh's Omega Chronograph.
There is a "flat four" and "hooked seven" that differentiates the watch from many other contemporary designs. The crown appears oversized and the watch has long pump pushers. All lume is intact and the watch is generally in good condition (there may be a small region of pitting on the caseback).

The present owner of the watches is a highly trustworthy steward of these historically important timepieces. Too often we lose these treasures to the passage of time. I am glad that, in this case, there is little to worry in that regard.

Conclusion

Pugh's contributions to the fields of horology and physiology are an important reminder of the vital role science plays in accomplishing seemingly impossible tasks. While the work of scientists is too often unsung, my hope is that with this post there will be greater appreciation for how important Griffith Pugh is and was in the history of horology, Rolex and extreme climate exploring. Pugh's story also adds an important page to the history of Omega: we now know that this brand was present during the conquering of Everest. That moment was an important waypoint in Omega's ongoing role at even more extreme altitudes found in outer space. While there is common knowledge that Rolex and Omega vied for position on James Bond's wrist, we now know that their rivalry also included the wrist of adventurer and scientist Griffith Pugh.

Sources

Pugh Obituary

L.C.G.E. Pugh Papers. MSS 491. Special Collections & Archives, UC San Diego Library
My book on the history of Rolex marketing is now available on Amazon! It debuted as the #1 New Release in its category. You can find it here.

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