There are so many incredible, diverse stories from individuals, organisations and events that shaped the watch industry into what it is today. To honour International Women's Day this coming Sunday (8th March) we wanted to celebrate the story of one such individual...
In 1926, open water swimming activity was reaching the peak of interest. A young English lady from Brighton, who was working as a typist in London, was training furtively. Mercedes Gleitze wanted so desperately to swim the English Channel, and in doing so prove to everyone that she had the grit and determination to do something extraordinary. At that time in history, women athletes were not regularly in the public eye, so this was Mercedes’ chance to show the world what “the fairer sex” was capable of. Sure enough in 1927, Mercedes swam the English Channel in record time; covering 21 miles of open ocean in 15 hours and 15 minutes, she fulfilled her dream and in doing so welcomed international attention. The celebrations were short lived however, for another lady objected to Mercedes’ achievement, claiming she had swam it faster. That this challenger’s claim was suspicious, and subsequent investigation proving it to be a hoax, didn’t matter, for Mercedes and her crowning glory was now under similar suspicion.
Feeling the pressure to vindicate herself, she set about repeating her efforts, albeit this time under increased scrutiny unlike her first completion. Such was the press attention and hype around this second attempt, that Rolex contacted Mercedes and arranged for her to wear one of their Oyster watches, the first of its kind, around her neck on a ribbon as she swam. Mercedes set off in conditions far colder than when she had before, and due to this she fell short.
After 10 hours fighting forward in freezing water Mercedes couldn’t continue and the challenge was aborted. However, due to her incredible determination and endurance in such horrible conditions, the public and record adjudicators were convinced that her original record was legitimate, and should stand. The Rolex tied around her neck had survived this ordeal too, and from that point forward Mercedes Gleitze and the Rolex Oyster were inextricably linked. Rolex used her success story and the Oyster that accompanied her to launch an advertisement campaign in Britain, and to this day Rolex still uses Gleitze’s name in their publicity.
After her successes Mercedes became a sporting phenomenon. Her life was now completely focussed on open water swimming, travelling the world to swim stretches of water filled with risk and adversity, including a particularly shark infested route in South Africa. After conquering the globe Mercedes decided it was time to hang up the swimming cap and never spoke of her achievements again. Crushing misogyny from men unwilling to let such a pioneering woman shine, the onset of arthritis and a young family forced Mercedes into retirement and it wasn’t until after her death that her daughter, Doleranda Pember, discovered by chance her Mum’s past and what she had achieved.
Despite her worldwide fame Mercedes gave back almost all of her winnings and sponsorship fees, through her charity work and the Mercedes Gleitze Home, established in 1933 in Leicester to provide for the homeless and destitute. Despite being bombed in WW2, the fund lived on and still delivers to this day charitable donations. An incredible legacy.
If you fancy reading more about this remarkable person, you can! Doloranda Pember has written a book titled In the Wake of Mercedes Gleitze: Open Water Swimming Pioneer, all about her Mums’ life and achievements, and can be picked up at all great book shops now. (And Kindle, for those of a tech persuasion.)