Mercedes Gleitze is a bit of a hero of ours because, not only was she a Brighton born girl who achieved something remarkable for the time, she did it in a Rolex watch. The 1920s was a great era for pioneers which saw all kinds of people doing new and exciting things like climbing mountains and creating new inventions but it was also a pioneering time for women in sport. Disregarded almost completely up to that point, women started making achievements in sport that got them noticed and one of those was Mercedes Gleitze when she became the first British woman to swim the English Channel.
Born in Brighton in 1900, Mercedes Gleitze had a passion for swimming and practiced regularly swimming the Thames while working as a typist in London. Before attempting the Channel swim that made her famous, she set a record by swimming 27 miles in the River Thames before going on to swim 120 miles along the river over 11 days in July 1927. American woman Gertrude Ederle may have become the first woman in the world to swim the Channel in 1926 but Gleitze was still determined to attempt it.
The Channel Swim
In October 1927, after seven failed attempts to swim the Channel, Gleitze set off from Cap Gris Nez in France at 3am in thick fog. She swam for 15 hours with a fishing boat to protect her from other vessels and her trainer feeding her grapes, tea, honey and cocoa along the way until she reached the shore in England. Unfortunately, the English Channel Swimming Association refused to acknowledge her achievement as they’d had recent false claims so Gleitze agreed to try again two weeks later. This later swim became known as the ‘Vindication Swim’ and although she was unable to complete the swim, the 10 hours she did manage were enough to convince the Association that her initial claim had been genuine.
Rolex Poster Girl
It was actually the ‘Vindication Swim’ which brought Gleitze notoriety and caught the attention of Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex Watches, who wanted to prove the reliability of his new Rolex Oyster waterproof watch. He gave one to Gleitze for her to wear swimming the Channel and when she did it and found the watch was still keeping perfect time after 15 hours in the water, she appeared in a full page advert in the Daily Mail which lead to further sponsorship deals.
Further Swimming Achievements
In addition to some impressive sea swims including the Strait of Gibraltar (she was the first woman to manage this swim), the Hellespont, Sydney and Wellington harbours, Gleitze did some amazing endurance pool swims too. One of these saw her swim continuously for 46 hours. She went on to found her own charitable trust and then retired from swimming in 1933 to live out her life with her husband and three children before dying in 1981.
We think Mercedes Gleitze and Rolex are a great combination because she achieved impressive things and kept pushing herself to do better and better just like Rolex do with their watches. While none of us at James Ross Jewellers can claim to be great swimmers (and tend to find the sea even here in Brighton a bit nippy for our taste), we do sell some great watches including lots of vintage Rolexes. If you’re interesting in buying or selling a prestige watch, we’d love to hear from you either by calling 01273 239763 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.