The Watch That Crossed The English Channel
Rolex was a pioneer with water-resistant wristwatches with the Oyster watchcase in 1926. It was the first watchmaker to combine the key elements of a modern water-resistant wristwatch – a back, bezel and crown that screwed into the case – to seal the watch case, preventing moisture and dust from entering, protecting the mechanical movement inside.
Alongside the Oyster Rolex also became a pioneer in celebrity endorsements, when Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel in 1927, becoming the first woman to complete the feat. In the more than 10 hours Gleitze braved the chilly waters of the Channel, her Rolex Oyster wristwatch kept perfect time, putting the Oyster into the road of fame and longevity.
So impressive were the Oyster’s water-resistant properties that Rolex was contracted in the 1930s to make wristwatches for Officine Panerai, then a supplier of instruments to the Italian navy. The now famous cushion-shaped Radiomir watches – essentially an enlarged Rolex Oyster case – that equipped the navy’s elite frogmen during the Second World War were actually Rolex timepieces.
Rolex continued the development of water-resistant watches that were able to go deeper and deeper. When scuba diving became a popular leisure pursuit, dive watches for civilians grew in popularity alongside. That’s when Rolex introduced the first ever Submariner in 1953, creating the template that has defined its dive watches since.
Water-resistant to 100m, exceptional at the time, the Submariner formed the foundation for Rolex’s first saturation diver’s wristwatch, the Sea-Dweller. When commercial saturation diving began in the 1960s, particularly for the offshore oil and gas industry, scuba diving watches like the Submariner were insufficient as divers descended to unprecedented depths. Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX), the French firm that was a pioneer in deep sea commercial diving, needed a watch for its divers and turned to Rolex.
In saturation diving, a mix of gases is used to fill pressurized chambers that divers can reside in for up to several weeks, allowing them to work at great depths underwater of up to several hundred meters. The challenge for Rolex was to create a timepiece impervious to the helium gas used in the pressurized chambers, because helium molecules are small enough to squeeze past the seals in an ordinary watchcase. During decompression, the helium trapped inside the case could pop the crystal out. Consequently Rolex invented a simple but effective solution: the one-way valve drilled into the side of the Sea-Dweller that made its debut in 1967, a depth rating of 610m. In the intervening decades, the Sea-Dweller has since evolved into the Rolex Deepsea that’s water-resistant to an astounding 3900m.
But the pinnacle of the Rolex Oyster’s achievements came in March 2012, when filmmaker James Cameron steered the Deepsea Challenge submersible into the Marianas Trench, reaching the bottom of the undersea valley in the Pacific Ocean. At 10,908m below sea level – Mount Everest is 8848m in the other direction – Cameron had reached the deepest point on Earth. And from start to finish, an experimental Rolex Deepsea Challenge wristwatch was mounted on the hull of the submersible, ticking contentedly into the history books.
All images and text are credited to Rolex Official site.