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A fascinating look at the evolution of waterproof timepieces by Rolex

The Edge Singapore
The Edge Singapore • 12 min read
A fascinating look at the evolution of waterproof timepieces by Rolex
Going back in time with the Rolex's legendary waterproof watches.
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Visionary founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf, began his quest in the 1900s when telling time was done via pocket watches. He saw how lifestyles were changing and particularly the rise in popularity of sports and outdoor pursuits.

Observing this, Wilsdorf created watches to be worn on the wrist that their owners could count on for reliability and accuracy in their modern, active lives.

One of the main challenges facing Wilsdorf was to find a way to protect the watches from dust and moisture, which can cause clogging or oxidization if they find their way inside the case. In a letter he wrote in 1914, he spoke of his intentions to Aegler, the firm in Bienne which would later become the Manufacture des Montres Rolex S.A.: “We must find a way to create a waterproof wristwatch.”

1922 - The design of the Submarine required the outer case to be opened to access the winding crown.

Wilsdorf kept his promise and in 1922, Rolex launched the Submarine – a watch attached on a hinge inside a second, outer case, whose bezel and crystal screwed down to make the outer case watertight. Accessing the crown – to wind the watch or set the time – required opening the outer case. The Submarine represented the first step in Wilsdorf’s efforts to create a completely sealed watch.

1926 - The Oyster is the worldʼs first waterproof wristwatch thanks to its hermetic Oyster case.

A case in point

The Oyster case, the fruit of these efforts, was patented four years later in 1926. Other features, included a system of screwing down the bezel, case back and winding crown against the middle case ensured that the case was hermetically sealed and protected the inside of the watch from harmful elements on the outside. This invention marked a major breakthrough in the history of watchmaking.

1927 - Mercedes Gleitze, British swimmer, is the first Rolex Testimony.

The name “Oyster” was selected because “like an oyster, it can remain an unlimited time underwater without detriment to its parts,” said Wilsdorf. To promote the exceptional quality of his Oyster watch, Wilsdorf asked Mercedes Gleitze, a young secretary from Brighton, England, to wear his watch while she swam across the English Channel. The watch passed the test with flying colours and emerged from the water completely waterproofed.

The bezel on the original Oyster case was fluted, allowing it to be screwed down onto the middle case using a tool exclusive to Rolex. In following years, the architecture of the Oyster case evolved to become more robust and reliable.

The technical changes brought to the case also made it possible for a rotatable bezel to be fitted, on divers’ watches in particular. The back of the Oyster case was edged with fine fluting – as it still is today – enabling it to be screwed down hermetically against the middle case. On the current divers’ watches, depending on the model or version, the case back is made of Oystersteel, 18 ct gold or a titanium alloy.

In 1953, Rolex introduced the Twinlock winding crown, which incorporated a patented system with a double seal. The principle was taken a step further in 1970: the Triplock winding crown, comprising an additional sealed zone, reinforced the waterproofness of the watches on which it was fitted.

1953 - The first diversʼ wristwatch waterproof to a depth of 100 metres (330 feet), the Submariner marked a major step forward in the history of Rolex and of deep-sea diving.

1954 - The waterproofness of the Submariner is increased to 200 metres (660 feet) in 1954.

Ocean exploration

In 1953 the Submariner was created to meet the growing needs of deep-sea diving professionals. This very 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 with the introduction of 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 dark conditions underwater.

Further technical advances were made that rendered the Submariner waterproof to a depth of 200 metres (660 feet) in 1954, and 300 metres (1,000 feet) in 1989. The version with date, introduced in 1969, would be waterproof to a depth of 300 metres (1,000 feet) by 1979.

Mercedes Gleitze was the first adventurer to test the watch’s waterproofness and she certainly wasn’t the last as more exceptional individuals were later accompanied by Rolex in their ventures and explorations. Aware of the mutual benefit to both parties and seeing the world as a living laboratory, Wilsdorf equipped them on their expeditions with Oyster watches.

To test the reliability of its timepieces, Rolex asked professional divers to wear them on their missions, afterwards gathering impressions and suggestions for ergonomic or technical improvements. This procedure became an integral part of the Rolex development process.

Among the people Rolex worked with to test, the Submariner was French underwater photographer, engineer and explorer Dimitri Rebikoff. In testing the watch, over five months Rebikoff carried out 132 dives, which took him to depths of between 12 and 60 metres.

Rebikoff reported: “We are able to confirm that this watch has not only given entire satisfaction in diving conditions which were extremely tough and particularly dangerous for the material used, but that it has proved an indispensable accessory for all diving with independent equipment.”

He particularly highlighted the usefulness of the graduated rotatable bezel, which considerably increases divers’ safety by enabling them to check the amount of time they spend underwater. He also underlined the robustness of the watch, which spent many hours in seawater and received several impacts in the course of the dives.

1960 - Affixed to the outside of their bathyscaphe, Trieste, during their voyage into the Mariana Trench in 1960, the experimental Deep Sea Special watch successfully endured the colossal pressure that reigns at a depth of almost 11,000 metres (36,100 feet). 43mm

Certain sub-aquatic scientific projects and expeditions also presented ideal opportunities for Rolex to test its watches in real-life conditions. In 1960, the brand teamed up with one such project, an expedition led by Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh. On 23 January, on board the bathyscaphe Trieste – designed by Jacques’ father, Auguste Piccard, a Swiss physicist and explorer with whom Rolex had worked since the early 1950s – Piccard and Walsh achieved a feat by descending to the deepest part of the world’s oceans, the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.

Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh made the first dive into the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the world's oceans.

Affixed to the outside of the submersible was an experimental Rolex watch called the Deep Sea Special, which accompanied the two men to the extreme depth of 10,916 metres (35,814 feet). The domed crystal on this prototype was designed to withstand the enormous pressure exerted at such a depth. When the Trieste resurfaced after some eight and a half hours under the sea, the watch was found to have kept perfect time, which validated the technical choices made by the brand during its design. It would be decades before any such expedition would be repeated.

More improvements made

In the 1960s, new techniques were developed that made extended dives possible at ever greater depths. One of these new methods, designed for divers working on undersea infrastructures, for example, was “saturation” diving.

A special mix of breathing gases with a high helium content made it possible for divers to stay under the sea for periods of several days or even weeks, and avoid the toxic effects on the human body of pressure at great depths. It also involves keeping the divers in an environment with a pressure equivalent to that of the water at their working depth.

To do this, the divers stay for several days or weeks at a time in a pressurized habitat – a hyperbaric chamber – which they leave only to carry out their dives. It also means that they need only undergo a single decompression process at the very end of the mission.

In the hyperbaric chambers, the watches worn by the divers gradually fill with helium, a gas with atoms so tiny they can penetrate the waterproof seals. During decompression, this helium remains trapped in the watch case with the attendant risk of creating a pressure differential in relation to the chamber. If the gas in the watch case is unable to escape as quickly as the external pressure is dropping, it could, damage the watch or force the crystal out of the case.

This issue was addressed by Rolex in 1967 with a patented helium escape valve, a safety release valve that activates automatically when the pressure inside the case is too high, allowing the surplus gas to escape. That same year, Rolex launched the Sea-Dweller, a divers’ watch guaranteed waterproof to 610 metres (2,000 feet), and to 1,220 metres (4,000 feet) in 1978. Equipped with a helium escape valve, it was the ideal tool for saturation divers, the explorers and pioneers of the deep sea.

1969 - First Submariner Date.

In 1969 Rolex partnered with the underwater habitat project Tektite in 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 from 1999 – wore a Rolex watch during the two weeks spent working in a sub-aquatic habitat.

1984 - The Submariner Date is now equipped with the Triplock winding crown (1977), a sapphire crystal (1979) and a dial with applique hour markers (1984). Its waterproofness increases to a guaranteed depth of 300 metres (1,000 feet) in 1979.

In 1971, Rolex formalized its partnership with COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises). This French marine-engineering firm based in Marseilles agreed to equip its divers with Rolex watches and report back regularly on the watches’ performance so the brand could further enhance their reliability and functionality.

COMEX also conducted tests in view of developing new technologies to assist its operations. Among these were hyperbaric chambers that reproduced the pressure exerted at depth and posed great difficulties for divers and equipment.

In 1988, COMEX organized the Hydra VIII expedition, during which six saturation divers descended to 534 metres (1,752 feet), setting a world depth record for open-sea diving that still stands today. All were equipped with Sea-Dweller watches. A few years later, in 1992, for the Hydra X experiment, a COMEX diver reached a simulated depth of 701 metres (2,300 feet) in a hyperbaric chamber. For the 43 days of his mission he was wearing a Sea Dweller watch.

Pushing technical boundaries

In 2008, Rolex introduced the Rolex Deepsea, with the Ringlock system, a patented case architecture that can withstand the pressure at a depth of 3,900 metres (12,800 feet). The system comprises a slightly domed sapphire crystal, a nitrogen-alloyed steel compression ring and a case back made from a titanium alloy.

The unidirectional rotatable bezel of the Rolex Deepsea is fitted with a 60-minute graduated black Cerachrom insert that allows divers to safely monitor their immersion time. The properties of this high-tech ceramic produce an insert that is exceptionally strong, virtually scratchproof, and whose colour, unaffected by ultraviolet rays, remains stable over time, the dream of all deep-sea divers.

Made for extreme depths, this watch is also equipped with another exclusive invention that enhances its legibility: the Chromalight display. An innovative luminescent material emitting a blue glow is applied to the hands, hour markers and the capsule on the bezel. The luminosity duration is almost double that of a standard phosphorescent material, and the intensity of the glow is more consistent over the emission time.

2010 - First Submariner Date in steel and a Cerachrom bezel insert in ceramic.

In accordance with the standard for this type of watch, all Rolex divers’ watches are tested at their guaranteed waterproofness depth plus an additional 25 per cent. This effectively means that in the laboratory, within a hyperbaric tank developed jointly by Rolex and COMEX, the Rolex Deepsea (which is guaranteed waterproof to 3,900 metres) is subjected to the pressure exerted at 4,875 metres deep.

The experimental Rolex Deepsea Challenge watch was affixed to the articulated arm of the DEEPSEA CHALLENGER submersible.

The Rolex Deepsea was the inspiration behind the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, the experimental divers’ watch that, on 26 March 2012, whilst attached to a manipulator arm of the submersible piloted by explorer and filmmaker 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 (39,370 feet), 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.

2020 - With a subtly redesigned case, the Submariner is now equipped with a movement at the forefront of technology.

In the present time

In 2020, Rolex debuts the new generation of its Oyster Perpetual Submariner and Oyster Perpetual Submariner Date. Both watches feature a redesigned, slightly larger case of 41 mm with a broader bracelet.

The Submariner is equipped with calibre 3230 that was launched this year, and the Submariner Date incorporates calibre 3235, a movement that includes a date function in addition to the time and is being brought to the Submariner range for the first time.

The new and beautiful Submariner in Oystersteel has a black dial and black rotatable bezel with matching Cerachrom insert. Among the new versions of the Submariner Date presented, two special configurations stand out: the dial and the rotatable bezel with Cerachrom insert are different colours. The first combination – in Oystersteel – features a black dial with a green bezel; the second – in 18 ct white gold – a black dial with a blue bezel.

Like all Rolex watches, the Oyster Perpetual Submariner and Submariner Date carry the Superlative Chronometer certification. This assures customers that every watch leaving the brand’s workshops has successfully undergone a series of tests conducted by Rolex in its own laboratories according to its own criteria.

Visit Kee Hing Hung to discover the Rolex 2020 new watches.

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