James Bond may have saved the world from Dr. No and a host of other creepy villains while wearing his Rolex Submariner, but in real life, it is Rolex that is saving the world. Rolex S.A., the Geneva watch manufacturer, is owned by the Hans Wilsdorf Foundation, a private trust which also operates the Rolex Institute, a division dedicated to philanthropy. The foundation was set up by Rolex’s founder Hans Wilsdorf in 1944, to ensure that a portion of the company’s income would always go to charity. Since then, Rolex has donated millions to causes that aim to improve the world.
As in the making of its watches, the Rolex philanthropic division is run with precision to exacting standards. The two main programs are the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, and the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Arts Initiative.
The Rolex Awards for Enterprise was inaugurated in 1976 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Oyster chronometer by supporting men and women dedicated to advancing human knowledge and well-being, on both large and small scales. “The Rolex Awards support men and women around the globe who exemplify the ingenuity and excellence that defines the Rolex brand,” says Rebecca Irvin, Head of Philanthropy at Rolex. Projects are focused in the areas of science, technology, exploration, the environment and cultural heritage, and each laureate is awarded 100,000 Swiss francs to further their initiatives.
The focus of the Awards for Enterprise is on individuals rather than organizations, and the 125 laureates to date – aged from 25 to 74 – are an impressive group. Among the recipients this year is Mark Kendall, an Australian biomedical engineer who is developing a needle-free nanopatch to revolutionize the delivery of vaccines in the developing world. It has the potential to save the lives of millions of people who live in poverty and are vulnerable to disease. Another laureate, conservationist Sergei Bereznuk, is working to save the endangered Amur tiger in northern Russia, which is being driven to extinction because of excessive poaching.
Other projects range from the environmental (such as turning rice husks into cheap, clean energy), to the educational (establishing a traveling school for young Siberian nomads). Laureates are chosen by an international jury of independent experts, which typically includes explorers, conservationists, scientists, doctors, educators and innovators. In 2009, the program was expanded to include a Young Laureates program for budding visionaries between the ages of 18 and 30, who each receive 50,000 Swiss francs to support their projects.
The second program, launched in 2002, is the Rolex Mentor and Protégé Initiative. Its purpose, says Irvin, is “to revive the traditional relationship of master and apprentice by pairing young professionals with established artistic masters and funding them for a year of one-to-one collaboration. In this way, we envisaged contributing to and rekindling the passing on of art from one generation to another.”
To date the program has given 29 young artists the opportunity to benefit from a year of guidance and inspiration by working with a master in their field. “We have found, however, that rather than just ‘passing down’ their art and being the ‘givers,’ mentors benefit almost equally from the relationship,” says Irvin. “They are able to see their art through younger eyes and refresh their own outlook on their discipline, thereby typically learning from their protégé as well. To quote former film mentor Martin Scorsese: ‘The mentor gets as much inspiration as the protégé.’ ”
Rolex has paired artists in dance, film, literature, music, theatre, visual arts and architecture. This year’s teams include author Margaret Atwood, with protégé Naomi Alderman, and film editor Walter Murch with protégé Sara Fgaier. The goal for Rolex is to make a contribution to global culture and to encourage an enriching dialogue between generations of artists. Some have even resulted in serious collaborations.
“We have found that several of the protégés and mentors have begun working together on projects,” says Irvin. “One good example is Julia Leigh, the literature protégé from the first cycle, who called on Ben Frost, one of the music protégés to compose the music for her recent film. And, in April, there was a unique gathering of program participants at the Baxter Theatre Center in Cape Town, where William Kentridge, Peter Sellars and Wole Soyinka, all present and former mentors in the Arts Initiative, will join in an artistic exchange with Lara Foot, the center CEO and artistic director and herself a former protégé.”
When you buy your next Rolex, then, remember that you are not just adding some prestige to your collection (although you are doing that). You are also contributing to a life-line that fuels initiatives affecting millions of people. As the slogan goes: “With the right amount of passion, anyone can change everything.”