The iconic brand’s long association with deep-sea diving and ocean exploration has resulted in some
of its finest watches.
A year after Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, invented the first waterproof watch in 1926, he hit upon a brilliant idea to publicly test the capability of his creation. He got Mercedes Gleitze, the young British secretary and the first British woman to swim the English Channel who was planning a second attempt to vindicate her own record, to wear the Oyster. The 26-year-old spent more than 10 hours in the chilly waters between France and Great Britain. At the end of the swim, the waterproof wristwatch was declared to be in perfect working order, gaining Wilsdorf and Rolex worldwide fame and respect.
The pioneering partnership with Gleitze opened a whole new world for Rolex.
Aware of the mutual benefit to both parties and seeing the world as a living laboratory, Wilsdorf equipped Ocean explorers, divers, and adventurers with an Oyster watch on their expeditions, a practice that was taken up ceaselessly by his successors with newly developed watches through the years. To test the reliability of its timepieces, Rolex equips professional divers with newly developed watches on their missions, gathering impressions and suggestions for ergonomic and technical improvements. This procedure became an integral part of the Rolex development process, resulting in some of the brand’s most iconic timepieces. Here are the most famous ones.
ROLEX SUBMARINER: FIRST DIVERS’ WRISTWATCH WATERPROOF TO 100 METRES
One of Wilsdorf’s main challenges was finding a way to protect the watches from dust and moisture, which can cause clogging or oxidisation if they find their way inside the case. In a letter in 1914, he spoke of his intentions to Aegler, the firm in Bienne, Switzerland, which would later become the Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A.: “We must find a way to create a waterproof wristwatch.”
Just as changing lifestyles prompted Rolex to invent a waterproof case, the brand next turned its attention to the design and development of wristwatches that met the needs of the new deep-sea diving professionals. In 1953, the Submariner was created: the first divers’ wristwatch guaranteed waterproof to a depth of 100 metres (330 feet). Its rotatable bezel with a graduated insert allowed divers to monitor their time underwater, helping them manage their breathing gas reserves. The security of the Oyster case was enhanced, thanks to a new screw-down winding crown with the Twinlock system, benefitting from two sealed zones.
In 1970, the principle was further developed by introducing a third sealed zone, and the Triplock winding crown was born. The hands and hour markers were coated with a luminescent material, enabling divers to read the time in the dark conditions underwater. Rolex made further technical advances that rendered the Submariner waterproof to a depth of 200 metres in 1954 and 300 metres in 1989. The version with date, introduced in 1969, was then waterproof to a depth of 300 metres by 1979.
OYSTER: FIRST WATERPROOF WRISTWATCH
In 1926, Wilsdorf’s efforts to achieve waterproofness proved successful with the unveiling of the Oyster, the first waterproof wristwatch in the world. Thanks to an ingenious patented system consisting of a screw-down bezel, case back, and winding crown, the case was hermetically sealed, thereby offering optimal protection for the movement. The fluting of the bezel and the case back served a functional purpose. It was used to screw the components onto the middle case with a specific tool invented by Rolex. The fluting also gave the watch its visual identity and unique personality. Today, the bezels on watches in the Oyster Perpetual collection are no longer screwed down on to the case. However, the bezels on some models still feature the characteristic fluting, which has become one of the brand’s signature aesthetic styles.
ROLEX DEEPSEA CHALLENGE: A WATCH FOR THE DEEPEST OF THE DEEP
The Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea Challenge is an experimental divers’ watch guaranteed waterproof to a depth of 12,000 metres, developed and manufactured by Rolex to resist the extreme pressure present in the deepest reaches of the oceans. Its inherent qualities were tested and proven in real-life conditions during film-maker and explorer James Cameron’s famous dive.
The Rolex Deepsea was the inspiration behind the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, the experimental divers’ watch that — on March 26, 2012 — attached to a manipulator arm of the submersible piloted by explorer and film-maker James Cameron, descended to the place last visited by Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh in 1960: the Mariana Trench. Guaranteed waterproof to the extreme depth of 12,000 metres, the watch included all of the brand’s technical innovations in terms of waterproofness and, in the test phases, successfully withstood the pressure exerted at 15,000 metres. At this depth, the Ringlock system’s central ring is subjected to a pressure equivalent to a weight of 20 tonnes.
ROLEX SEA-DWELLER: THE TECHNICAL DIVERS’ WATCH
The Sea-Dweller, launched in 1967, is a technical divers’ watch designed for the pioneers of professional deep-sea diving. It is equipped with the helium escape valve, patented by Rolex the same year. This safety valve allows excess pressure built up inside the watch case to escape during a diver’s decompression phase in a hyperbaric chamber without compromising the waterproofness of the watch.
As a natural progression, the brand partnered with the underwater habitat project Tektite in 1969, for which four aquanauts spent 58 days below the surface. They were equipped with Rolex watches. The following year, as part of Tektite II, Sylvia Earle led an all-female mission. The marine biologist — a Rolex Testimonee since 1982 and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence since 1999 — wore a Rolex watch during the two weeks spent working in a sub-aquatic habitat.