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The Death Dodger and His Radioactive Rolex

One of the most popular Horolonomics posts details the story of a radioactive, strontium-laced Rolex GMT Master. The Navy pilot who owned the watch in question sued Rolex. The watch also traced a surprising path through the hands of the owner's descendants, ending up in the inventory of a watch dealer in Florida. In many ways, my Horolonomics post was "Chapter 2" of the dangerously radioactive GMT Master story. Chapter 1 was authored by Steven Pulvirent, in collaboration with Eric Wind, while Pulvirent was still writing for Hodinkee.

With this post, I offer Chapter 3 of the radioactive Rolex saga. This chapter also involves a Navy pilot, one who is much more well known than the Rolex owner in Chapter 2. Along the way, we will learn some interesting facts which shed light on the history of Rolex. Let's begin at the beginning.

Moar Archives

A few weeks ago I found myself poking around, virtually, in the archives of the Smithsonion National Air and Space Museum.
Scott Crossfield stands in the middle of this picture holding a rolled up document. To his left is US President John F. Kennedy. They're enjoying a lighter moment during a ceremony in the White House, 1961.
I've been brainstorming about two new book projects. One involves the Smithsonian archives but it does not primarily involve Rolex. Nonetheless, out of curiousity I checked whether the Smithsonian archives had materials pertaining to Rolex. A quick search surfaced an entire folder holding correspondence between Rolex and one of the most important pilots to ever walk the Earth: Scott Crossfield.

Crossfield was born in 1921 in Berkeley, California. At age 13, his family moved to Washington state. In his younger years, Crossfield suffered serious medical conditions which isolated him for extended periods of time. During these lonely stretches, Crossfield began to daydream about becoming a pilot. With the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Navy and fulfilled his dreams. Crossfield flew the F6F Hellcat and F4U Corsair along with a number of other platforms. He did not see combat and returned to Washington state after completing his service. There, he earned undergradate and graduate degrees in aeronautical engineering from the University of Washington. By 1950, Crossfield could claim one of the broadest portfolios in piloting. He had practical experience flying challenging aircraft and he had advanced academic achievement in the field of aeronautics.

In 1950, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NASA's predecessor) reviewed Crossfield's qualifications as a job candidate.
Crossfield in pilot's garb as a passenger on a flight. Source: Life photo archives.
They liked what they saw and hired him as a test pilot. In that role, Crossfield lived on the ragged edge of speed and control in the cockpit of America's most novel and unproven airplanes. He survived more than 100 missions in experimental aircraft including the X-1, XF-92, X-4, X-5, Douglas D-558-I Skystreak, and the Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket. In November, 1953, Crossfield became the fastest human alive when he flew the Douglas Skyrocket past Mach 2, or twice the speed of sound. His record would only last about a month. Chuck Yeager flew faster while piloting the X-1A in December.

In a recent biographical article, author George Spencer gave Crossfield the nickname "Death Dodger." During one flight, the windshield iced up and Crossfield couldn't see out. He took off his shoe and sock and used the warmth of his foot to defrost the glass. The X-15's engines exploded at 45,000 feet when Crossfield took the plane on its third powered flight. He managed to land, but the plane's fuselage buckled after a high speed landing on the dry lakebed runway. During a ground test of new engines for the X-15, the airplane exploded and hurled Crossfield 20 feet while strapped into the cockpit. It is estimated he experienced 50 Gs. For context, Omega's Speedmaster was "only" required to survive a 40 G impact in order to earn certification for spaceflight.

According to a post on Jake's Rolex World and the archival records I've obtained, by 1959 Crossfield faced a silent hazard on an almost daily basis, even while he was not flying. The hazard was a watch he'd acquired: the Rolex GMT-Master reference 6542.

A Test Wearer

Here, I won't go into all the details surounding the GMT-Master during the late 1950s and early 1960s.
A GMT Master formerly owned by Marlon Brando. This one is missing the rotating bezel.
I'd encourage the reader to go back and check out the articles I link to in the opening paragraph. The punchline is that during this period, Rolex sold some GMT-Masters containing strontium 90 as luminous material. This particular radioactive isotope was (and is) heavily regulated in the United States, in part because strontium is hazardous to health. The U. S. Atomic Energy Commission contacted Rolex, and a few other brands, regarding the strontium in the GMT-Masters and coordinated a "recall" of the radioactive watches in mid-December, 1959. Their efforts began roughly two months after photos were taken of Crossfield wearing his GMT-Master at an event for the Society of Experimental Test Pilots.

The Smithsonian archival records I've obtained consist of letters between Crossfield and Rolex employee Rene-Paul Jeanneret.
Rene-Paul Jeanneret in his early years, here adventuring in the Mediterranean. Photo credit: Jeff Kingston's lecture at HSNY.
The archived letters begin in July, 1966 and end in November, 1967. Jeanneret was a high-level employee at Rolex. He held the title Director and he was close to Rolex's co-founder, Hans Wilsdorf. A letter from Jeanneret to Crossfield is the earliest dated document in the Smithsonian records. In that letter, Jeanneret mentioned that Crossfield would travel to Geneva sometime in early August and offered to host Crossfield at Rolex headquarters. Jeanneret also offered a note of caution, though. The "watchmakers holiday" would be in full effect during that time of year so the Rolex facilities would be quiet during any visit. He encouraged Crossfield to travel later in the month. Finally, Jeanneret encouraged Crossfield to ship his Rolex watch to Geneva as soon as possible so that it would arrive before everyone scattered for the watchmaker's holiday.

In late July, Jeanneret sent another letter to Crossfield with the assessment of his watch's condition. Jeanneret shared, "I am sorry to report that the damage was extensive - rust had invaded the entire movement and none of it was worth salvaging." It's possible that Crossfield somehow allowed water to penetrate the case. Jeanneret noted that he would replace the movement, dial, hands and bezel as part of the service.

Crossfield's reply, in turn, connects him to the strontium 90 GMT-Master saga. At some point, Jeanneret asked him to write down and send details regarding the recall of his reference 6542 for "Strontium 90 content." It's possible Jeanneret initially made this request while Crossfield was visiting Geneva but Jeanneret wanted a written summary of their conversation. Crossfield agreed. In an early September letter, Crossfield shared that he was an "aeromedical subject, with very consistent personal physical and medical records kept," and that he "may be a unique source of experiment" for Rolex. During those years, the "A. E. C." (likely the Atomic Energy Commission), the Lovelace Foundation, and the Air Force recorded Crossfield's "whole body radiation count."

These records were likely taken while Crossfield flew experimental aircraft.
A Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket.
The Douglas D-558-II Skyrocket piloted by Crossfield reached 62,000 feet of altitude when it broke mach 2. According to a chart published by the Federal Aviation Administration, flying at higher altitude and farther from the equator results in a higher rate of cosmic radiation exposure due to diminished protection from the atmosphere. During his Mach 2 flight of the Skyrocket, Crossfied was exposed to more than 6 millisieverts per hour, or more than 60 times the dose of an X-ray. For this reason, many organizations were likely interested in keeping track of cumulative radiation exposure for high altitude test pilots.

Crossfield also shared with Jeanneret that he consulted with one of the physicians who was involved in monitoring his radiation exposure. This particular physician, Dr. Wright Langham, was affiliated with Los Alamos National Laboratory. Since Los Alamos participated in the development of nuclear weapons, Langham was involved in physiological and biological experimentation with radiation. When Crossfield asked if there was a way to gather data about the health effects of the radioactive GMT-Master, Langham indicated, "there was no merit in the concern for the material in the watch being deleterious to health. [Crossfield] then told [Langham] [he] was not going to turn the watch in because of its souveneir value in the future. [Langham] indicated (again in [Crossfield's] interpretation) that he knew of no reason why [Crossfield] should from a radiation and health standpoint." Crossfield, in the end, did return his GMT-Master because we was "ordered to return it for rework under threat of impounding or a subpoena or the like."

In response, Jeanneret wrote, "you most kindly put on record your experience with our GMT-Master chronometer as a potential source of dangerous radiation. We are very pleased to add your letter to our bulky file on this sore subject!" My guess is that Rolex leadership was more than pleased with this letter, they were probably ecstatic. Crossfield's attestation regarding the harmlessness of the radioactive Rolexes would serve as a powerful deterrant to anyone seeking legal damages as a consequence of the watches. In fact, I've wondered if the known lawsuits over this matter were withdrawn once attorneys became aware of an expert Los Alamos physician who claimed the watches were harmless (full disclosure: this is not medical advice regarding the health dangers associated with these watches, to read more on this matter I recommend Jack Forrester's article on the subject).

Later correspondence between Crossfield and Jeanneret made it clear that the two ultimately developed a personal relationship that each valued. Crossfield inquired after Jeanneret's family members by name and checked in on a particular health condition that Jeanneret was managing. Likewise, Jeanneret added a hand written note to a typewritten letter inquiring after Crossfield's wife, who was also coping with a challenging health condition at the time.

Beyond the personal, Jeanneret was happy to promote the professional accomplishments of Crossfield's experimental aircraft projects. Jeanneret requested a "dramatic" photograph of the X-15 and planned to include it in a promotional film for "jewellers and their staff, or possibly local clubs."
President Kennedy receiving a scale model of the X-15 in 1961.
Crossfield likely valued this high profile acknowledgement of an endeavor which he clearly loved. The X-15 would be portrayed alongside "Professor Piccard's bathyscaph which dived into the Marianas Trench," as well as "Sir John Hunt during his first successful attempt at climbing Mount Everest." In appreciation, Crossfield sent Jeanneret an X-15 scale model which Rolex placed on display in their reception hall. A similar model was presented to President John Kennedy, as shown in the photograph reproduced here.

Correspondence between Jeanneret and Crossfield in late 1966 and early 1967 reveals that Jeanneret hoped to leverage his relationship with Crossfield in furtherance of Rolex's commercial goals. In particular, Rolex had fallen behind one of their principle competitors and Jeanneret seemed intent upon closing the gap. It seems Crossfield may have been central to that effort.

An Ambassador to Space Ambassadors

In my book on Rolex, I provide evidence that the brand viewed Omega as a principle competitor in the mid to late 1960s.
A slide providing details about how the Speedmaster arrived in space. Source: HSNY lecture by watchmaker Bernhard W. Stoeber, who serviced space-flown Speedmasters for Omega.
Through serrendipity, Omega enjoyed a public relations triumph in 1962 when astronaut Wally Schirra wore the Speedmaster in outer space. Omega only learned of the Omega flown to space after Schirra returnd to terra firma. By 1965, the Omega Speedmaster was the only watch that was qualified for spaceflight by NASA. Crossfield's role as a highly accomplished pilot at the edge of the atmosphere placed him figuratively, if not literally, close to the astronaut community. This became apparent to Jeanneret. For example, in November of 1966, Jeanneret learned from Crossfield that astronaut Jack Swigart "had such bad luck with his Rolex." Jeanneret enrolled Crossfield as an intermediary and gave Crossfield contact information for Rene Dentan, President of the American Rolex Watch Co. Swigart's watch was given VIP service treatment and Jeanneret worked hard to ensure the astronaut was happy with his timepiece. The efforts paid off. In Crossfield's opinion, Jack Swigert became a "permanent Rolex [supporter] all due to your very courtious [sic] handling of [his] watch problems." Jeanneret's efforts showed remarkable foresight. Four years later, Swigart joined the Apollo 13 crew and achieved fame as part of the team that snatched victory (survival against incredible odds) from the jaws of defeat. In the movie "Apollo 13" Swigert was played by Kevin Bacon. There is evidence that Swigert wore both a Rolex and an Omega watch during the Apollo 13 mission.

Perhaps in appreciation for Crossfield's connecting Rolex with the astronaut community, thereby possibly countering Omega's lead among spacefarers, Rene Denton and Crossfield went out for lunch. According to Crossfield's subsequent letter to Jeanneret, they "set about to and did imbibe quite to excess. I hope it didn't raise too many questions in his mind about the character of your friends." It's unlikely that Jeanneret held any such concerns with the man who was an entre to top tier pilots and / or astronauts.

Jeanneret collaborated with Crossfield in an effort to get GMT-Masters on the wrists of other top-tier pilots besides Swigert. In late September, Jeanneret asked, "does Major William Knight, and/or the other pilots currently responsible for the X-15, wear a GMT-Master? If not, how should we go about applying a remedy to the situation?" By mid-April, 1967, Jeanneret and Knight were communicating directly by mail, likely due to Crossfield's efforts. Jeanneret thanked Knight for agreeing to wear a GMT Master while flying the X-15 "at something like Mach Number 6.5." Jeanneret described this as "a highly unusual opportunity for our watches to show what they are worth." Jeanneret also noted a "dire shortage" of GMT-Masters (a reminder that the modern shortage of Rolex sports watches has precedent). Exactly one week after Jeanneret penned his letter, as documented on Rolex Magazine Knight was provided with a complementary GMT-Master. Knight wore the watch when he set a Mach 6.7 hypersonic record while piloting the X-15. It's reasonable to assume that Crossfield helped make this happen since Jeanneret seems to have provided him with a copy of his letter to Knight. Jeanneret also offered to add Knight's photograph to Rolex's "Great Names Gallery" which was a strictly private collection of a "select few" who were invited to dedicate a photograph to Rolex.

In mid-November, 1966, Jeanneret wrote that he'd read about the M2-F2 "space glider" and its debut pilot Milton Thompson.
The Northrop M2-F2 "Space Glider."
Jeanneret asked Crossfield if Thompson or other pilots in that program were wearing Rolexes. He also shared that it would be "of great interest to us to submit our GMT-Master to test under these unusual conditions." Jeanneret apparently believed that the M2-F2 would expose a Rolex to "higher speed and gravity" than any other type of aircraft. Unfortunately, it seems that Crossfield and Jeanneret did not receive the reponse from Thompson that they hoped. Jeanneret later wrote "Thank you for your explanation about Milt Thompson. We will have to play it his way, I'm afraid. Now if only we had a clear idea what his way is! Perhaps he will feel like explaining one of these days." There is some chance that Thompson encountered a restriction on receiving gifts. This is common for US federal government employees in the modern era. Indeed, after the first moon landing in 1969, even President Nixon was not able to accept a gold Speedmaster from Omega, as detailed here. Nevertheless, there was still room for Crossfield to contribute to Rolex in other ways.

Space Forces and Product Development

Towards the end of November, 1966, Jeanneret began soliciting Crossfield's opinion regarding how various spacetravel forces might impact Rolex watches. Jeanneret wrote, "All of us here followed with the greatest interest the magnificent performance of Gemini 12 and are full of admiration for the two cosmonauts ... I read somewhere that at takeoff, the acceleration of the Gemini rocket goes from 0 to 8 km in one second. Would you think that this kind of acceleration would put a stress on a normal wristwatch, and that it would be difficult for a watch to perform normally while crossing the Van Allen Belt?" The Van Allen Belt is a region of "highly energetic charged particles" surrounding Earth at different distances. It is also worth noting that Jeanneret's use of the Russian term "cosmonaut" in his letter may have raised an eyebrow or two. There is some possibility that Rolex was exchanging similar letters with Soviet space authorities. Finally, in the same letter, Jeanneret indicated that Rolex would like to supply "GMT chronometers" to the Apollo program.

Crossfield happily offered some extensive thoughts on these matters.
A stamp from the Rolex office of Rene-Paul Jeanneret, complete with his signature. This stamp was from an April, 1967 letter sent to Crosfield.
He wrote, "Accelerations and gravity loads have been at human tolerance limits for years and cannot change until we get a new model man. Your Rolex on centrifuge machines evidently has been subjected to higher than flight loads ever experienced in my own experiments. Incidently, I also went through a simulated ejection with it once (22g) with no problem. The typical accelerations of the arm (throwing a ball, boxing, banging the table) are many orders of magnitude in excess of any flight loads. Once on the X-15 program while testing a tape recorder, I whimisically added your watch and it was subjected to 10g for 15 minutes. If I remember correctly, it lost a little time but ran the whole time. This is not surprising as attitude only effects it at one g and, of course, the friction is up and the spring is loaded." Here, we see that Crossfield provides extremely valuable "test data" which Rolex would have struggled to obtain independently. It is unlikely they could have independently run a test load of 22g while someone was wearing one of their watches. Similarly, Rolex received free evidence of how their watch performed during a long, high G centrifuge run.

In the same letter, Crossfield indicated that he was not aware of a "deleterious effect" of the Van Allen Belt on a wristwatch. He did believe that "long durations (weeks perhaps) in a hard vacuum" could affect the seals on a watch. However, he couldn't foresee why a wristwatch would be exposed to that kind of vacuum for such a long period of time. Extra-vehicular activities in outer space or on the moon surface typically did not exceed 9 hours in the 1960s and 70s (a fact which is true to this day).

Toward the end of 1967, Jeanneret solicited Crossfield's help with some more sub-space questions. He asked Crossfield how "Jumbo Jets" and similar airplanes would impact a pilot's "timekeeping" and whether the GMT-Master would suffice for that use case. He also asked if the "particularities of the SST jets" would require special watch functions. Here, Jeanneret is referring to supersonic passenger jet travel, which was just over the horizon. The first Concorde flight was March 2, 1969. Jeanneret even offered to "build a prototype for [Crossfield] to test," because Rolex, "[wanted] to keep moving with our times, even if it has to be done as (sic) [supersonic] speed!"

Whether such a prototype was ever developed or built is a question which will remain for future research. Jeanneret's query regarding modern passenger air travel is part of the last letter I obtained from the Smithsonian archives.


The Smithsonian archive of Crossfield-Jeanneret correspondence provides a number of valuable insights into Rolex during the mid-to-late 1960s. One of the world's top pilots was touched by the strontium-laced GMT-Masters and helped Rolex understand the health implications of their flawed product. In the space race between Omega and Rolex, Crossfield was critical in advancing Rolex's interests on the wrists of some of the most important pilots and astronauts of the era. Just as Griffith Pough helped Rolex understand the impact of extreme environmental conditions on timekeeping, Crossfield supplied the brand with valuable insights into the timekeeping impact of high G forces, vacuums and extraplanetary radiation. Much of this story is undoubtedly still untold, but through the Crossfield-Jeanneret letters we see, once again, that Rolex enjoyed a multifaceted return from its relationship with an accomplished outsider.

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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  1. Test pilot William "Pete" Knight flew sixteen successful X-15 missions, among which flight 188 (3 October 1967) a high speed record at Mach 6.7, and flight 190 (17 October 1967) flying above 85 kilometers considered a US Air Force spaceflight. During both these flights, Knight wore his personal Rolex GMT-master 1675 "Pepsi" pilot watch !


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