Just inside the dimly lit Explorers Club—a fantastical man cave, replete taxidermied polar bears, that’s called outdoorsman and adventurers like Teddy Roosevelt and Buzz Aldrin members—is a glass case holding three Rolex watches. When the jungle explorer Garrett Cooper pops in, he likes to stop at this case and make sure whoever he’s with takes the time to admire the Explorer II, the one with the white dial and one traffic-cone orange hand. “I definitely get some cool points when I walk in and say, ‘Oh, that’s the watch I wore on an expedition,’” he says. The watch accompanied Cooper on a trek down the Mekong river, and when it’s not on another adventure (or adventurer’s wrist), it rests next to a Rolex Submariner and an original Explorer. Together the three watches comprise the Explorers Club expedition watch program, formed in the summer of 2018 to formally codify a decades-long partnership that saw Rolex cutting checks for watch-less adventures.
Way before watches, the big thing at the Explorers Club was the organization’s honorary flag: in 1918, members started carrying them on expeditions—a miniature one went up with Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to the moon. Today a committee sifts through applications and grants the very best a flag. Those selected receive a Rolex and grant money, which is always in short supply for club members. “[The Rolex program] is more prestigious by definition because it’s rarer,” says David Concannon, the chair of the expedition committee. There are only three Rolex watches to go around, and members can’t even apply for them—Concannon skims the very best flag applications and passes them on to a separate selection committee within the club, and another group at Rolex. “I don’t go to the club very much anymore, but when I do [members] bitch: ‘I think I should’ve gotten a Rolex for my expedition,’” says Concannon. “I’m like, ‘Well, no, you’re just not that important.’”
The stuff that gets your adventure a Rolex is pretty simple. The expedition must have significant scientific merit, and should discover or be in search of something of real value. “The Explorers Club stays away from stunts,” says Concannon. The adventures should also fit within the given watch’s wheelhouse: diving missions will get the Submariner while kayaking down the Mekong, while excavating ancient tombs pairs nicely with one of the Explorers.
Once the watch sets out with a club member, Concannon only wants it back after it’s been knocked around a little. “Don’t baby it. It’s a tool,” he tells them. Banging around watches worth thousands of dollars sounds counterintuitive, but is actually a tried-and-true Rolex marketing strategy. Adventurers have long served as mascots for Rolex: Edmund Hillary, the first person to summit Everest, wore a Rolex Oyster on his trek, and Mercedes Gleitze, the first woman to swim the English Channel, wore the same watch during her one very long lap. These are three of the watches’ most recent stories.
The Submariner diving for pirate-wrecked ships
Denéa Buckingham, the founder of Discover Humanity, a project documenting cultures around the world, didn’t exactly need a watch for her expedition to a patch of Greek islands. She’s one of a number of young club members who tell Concannon they don’t typically wear a watch. But she didn’t need much convincing to take one of the Club’s Rolexes out with her to Fournoi Korseon, an archipelago roughly 150 miles east of Athens where a goldmine of underwater shipwrecks was discovered in 2015. While Fourni was once a hub for travelers from 700 BC to around the 17th century, it fell off the map and was remote enough that essentially all its shipwrecks remained untouched. From the start, it was a bonanza: during the first 15 days diving, 23 ships wrecked by causes like storms, tiny obscured islands like ocean speed bumps, and piracy were found.