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Mercedes Gleitze was the first person to jump in the water with a Rolex. In 1927, the tightly sealed timepiece—like an oyster, it was described—was around her neck, as the U.K. native swam across the English Channel. That began the company’s legacy with waterproof technology. And another important thing was founded by Gleitze: you don’t have to take off your watch just because you’re getting in the water. (If you’re wearing a Rolex, anyway.)
It would be 26 years before Rolex changed the timepiece game again, as the company set out to create a diving watch. In the race to perfect it: Blancpain, Omega, and Officine Panerai. All succeeded, but why do we think of Rolex first when it comes to diving watches?
As the story goes, then head of Rolex, Rene P. Jeanneret, an amateur diver, wanted a watch to wear while diving. Rolex began testing what would be known as an Oyster case with a pair of father and son divers who were attempting to break world records for diving. Later, the Submariner would be launched, the first divers’ watch waterproof to 100 meters, with a rotating bezel to keep track of immersion time. It would be worn by adventurers both scientific (Jacques Cousteau) and celluloid. (Sean Connery wore a Submariner in Dr. No, the first James Bond movie.)
The company was into cinematic adventure. In 1960 Rolex strapped an experimental dive watch, dubbed the Deepsea Special, to the outside of the Bathyscaphe Triese as it descended into the deepest part of the world's ocean, the Mariana Trench. The submarine went below 10,000 feet and suffered some damage. The watch came back perfect.
All the while, the company was accruing R+D, which would find its way to the wrists of men and women everywhere. In 1967 the Oyster Perpetual Sea-Dweller debuted, known as the ref. 1665. It was waterproof to 610 meters, besting its brother the Submariner. To meet the needs of professional deep-sea divers, the case was equipped with a helium escape valve so that, during long decompression phases in hyperbaric chambers, the helium from the gas mixtures used could be released without risking damage to the watch. (Swiss patent CH492246, for what it’s worth.)
In 1978, the Sea-Dweller 4000 became waterproof to 4,000 feet (1,200 meters) and the next iteration, 2008’s Rolex Deepsea, dovetailed with the aughts trend of extreme sports—and extreme exploration. The timepiece’s Ringlock System allows the case to withstand water pressure equivalent to a weight of three tons, able to go 100 times deeper than a human could physically survive. Few men want to get in a submarine and do that. Of course, Oscar-winning director James Cameron knows a little bit about deep-sea exploration.
In 2012, the Titanic director, and a member of the Rolex mentor program took the watch along on the Rolex Deepsea Challenge. He revisited the famous 1960 dive the Trieste took. This time, he was alone, becoming the first-ever solo explorer of the Mariana Trench. He was sponsored by Rolex and, of course, a watch went down with him. There are only three of those today, prototypes with a 51mm diameter, 28.5mm thickness and heavy bracelet, and able to withstand up to 13.6 tons of pressure. It’s rated down to 12,000 meters deep. Cameron called the watch, basically the Wilson to his castaway, “a reliable companion.” (Later, Rolex released a special, so-called James Cameron Rolex Deepsea Sea-Dweller D-Blue Dial, which is now a hard-find-cult item.)
The latest incarnation debuted at Baselworld last year, the Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Sea-Dweller. Water-resistant to 3,900 meters, the patented Ringlock case construction that enables the timepiece’s exceptional water resistance, which combines a 5.5-mm-thick sapphire crystal, a nitrogen-alloyed stainless steel ring positioned in the case middle, and a steel and grade-5 titanium caseback; the screw-down Triplock winding crown; and a helium-release valve of the type that Rolex introduced—and patented—for the first Sea-Dweller watch in 1967.
Whether you’re a Deep-Sea or Submariner, or just a land lover and watch collector, you can feel good about getting your Rolex wet. Whether it’s over a scuba suit or under a navy-blue suit in the rain.