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The Rolex Submariner 126610LV.

The Oyster is the world’s first waterproof wristwatch thanks to its hermetic Oyster case.

The design of the Submariner required the outer case to be opened to access the winding crown.

Rolex conquers the depths

There's no limit to the luxury brand's quest to master the art of waterproofing.
04/12/2020 - 05:50

AS FAR AS DIVING WATCHES GO, few come close to Rolex's Submariner and Sea-Dweller watches.

The brand's mastery of the waterproof watch is one of its hallmarks, ever since founder Hans Wilsdorf set out at the start of the 20th century to make a watch to match the lifestyles of active sportsmen.

The German-born British businessman's challenge, however, was protecting the watch from dust and moisture, which would clog and cause oxidation if they got into the case.

In 1914, Wilsdorf informed Bienne - the company that would later become the Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A. - that he would create a waterproof wristwatch. And in 1922, the Submariner was born.

It was essentially a watch inside a second outer case, with a bezel and crystal screwed down to make the outer case watertight.

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The problem was getting access to the crown to wind or set the time, because it meant opening the outer case. It took another four years, in 1926, before he finally perfected the art of hermetically sealing a watch and patented the Oyster case.

Named after the shellfish's ability to remain underwater for an unlimited time, the secret was in the three-part architecture of the Oyster - a screw-down bezel, caseback and crown - attached to a middle case to make it watertight.

The following year, Wilsdorf got the young British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze to carry it on her attempted swim across the English Channel.

Both Gleitze and the Oyster passed their respective tests with flying colours.


The Oyster case was instrumental in the creation of the Submariner, which was launched in 1953.

It was the first diver's watch to be waterproofed to 100m (330 feet) and the fluted bezel was replaced by a rotatable one with a graduated insert that allowed divers to monitor their time underwater.

More technical advances also saw the Submariner increasing its waterpoof-ness to 200 metres (660 feet) in 1954; while a version of the Submariner with date complication - first introduced in 1969 - became waterproofed to 300 metres (1,000 feet) in 1979. Exactly a decade later, the Submariner followed suit.

To test the reliability of its watches, Rolex often asked professional divers and sea explorers to take its timepieces on expeditions.

In 1960, it partnered with Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh to take an experimental Deep Sea Special watch to extreme depths.

The timepiece, which had a domed crystal that could withstand pressure, was attached to the outside of the bathyscaphe Trieste as it descended 10,916m underwater.

Eight hours later when it resurfaced, the Deep Sea Special prototype was still found to be keeping perfect time.

The experiment paved the way for the range of Sea Dweller watches designed to perform at greater depths.

Rolex achieved that feat with the helium escape valve, which was patented in 1967.

The safety release valve activates automatically when the pressure inside the case becomes too high, allowing excess gas to be released.

That same year, it launched the Sea Dweller which was waterproofed to 610 metres (2,000 feet), before doubling that feat to 1,220 metres (4,000 feet) in 1978.


A partnership with French marine-engineering firm COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises) in 1971 allowed Rolex to continue diving even deeper through the decades.

In 2008, it launched the Deepsea - a watch that could withstand the pressure at a depth of 3,900 metres (12,800 feet) - thanks to the patented Ringlock system, which comprised a slightly domed sapphire crystal, a nitrogenalloyed steel compression ring and a case back made from a titanium alloy.

Even at extreme depths, the watch remains legible because of the Chromalight display, which comes from a luminescent material that emits a blue glow almost twice as long as standard phosphorescent material.

The watch also became the inspiration for the Deepsea Challenge, an experimental divers' watch that was attached to the arm of a submersible piloted by filmmaker James Cameron in 2012.

He took it to the site of Mariana Trench, last visited by Piccard and Walsh in 1960; and the Deepsea Challenge - guaranteed waterproofed to 12,000 metres (39,370 feet) - actually successfully withstood the pressure exerted at 15,000 metres.

At that depth, the Ringlock system's central ring was subjected to the equivalent of a weight of 20 tonnes.

For Rolex, the quest to go deeper never ends as it continues to conquer new depths in the development of its dive watches.