The enterprising Hans Wilsdorf, founder of Rolex, along with a host of pioneering divers in the 20th century, brought an ever-lasting evolution in horlogerie. These people are responsible for designing, then developing, the waterproof wristwatch, the Oyster. It wasn’t the first water-resistant timepiece but, it’s undoubtedly one of the standard bearers of these types of watches.
Noting the growing popularity of sports and outdoor hobbies in the early 1900s, Wilsdorf decided he wanted to create a watch the owners could use as part of their active lives. At the time, the popular pocket watches used were obviously not suited to certain activities, especially any aquatic ones.
One of the main challenges back then was protecting the watches from dust and moisture, which can cause clogging or oxidization if they get into the case. They needed to be waterproof to keep functioning reliably and accurately.
Rolex launched the Submarine in 1922 - a major breakthrough in the history of watchmaking. Accessing the crown on this watch for winding or setting the time required opening the outer case. It became a template for creating a completely sealed watch case that was convenient to use.
The Oyster was launched and patented in 1926. According to Hans Wilsdorf, the watch, as well as its case, is ‘like an oyster, it can remain an unlimited time underwater without detriment to its parts.’
This watch was attached on a hinge inside a second, outer case, whose bezel and crystal screwed down making the outer case watertight. This system of screwing down these parts against the middle case ensured the case was hermetically sealed. It protected the inside of the watch from harmful elements on the outside.
Four years later, a young English swimmer, Mercedes Gleitze, offered a wonderful opportunity to demonstrate the Rolex watch was completely waterproof. She was the first female British woman to successfully swim the English Channel and carried the timepiece on Wilsdorf’s request. The Times newspaper reported at the time: ‘carried a small gold watch … kept good time throughout.’
The positive publicity and Rolex’s partnership with oceanic adventurers were only just the beginning. The Swiss brand built on their waterproof case by designing and developing wristwatches for deep-sea diving professionals.
The Submariner arrived in 1953 as the first divers’ wristwatch guaranteed waterproof to a depth of 100 metres (330 feet). Its rotatable bezel featured a graduated insert allowing divers to monitor their time underwater and helping them to 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.
One of those to wear, and test, a Submariner on his expeditions was French underwater photographer, engineer and explorer Dimitri Rebikoff. He’s the inventor of the first underwater scooter and electronic flash. Asking these professional divers to test the reliability of their watches became an integral part of the Rolex development process. It gave them real-time feedback allowing for ergonomic or technical improvements.
Rebikoff tested the watch across 132 dives, highlighting the usefulness of the graduated rotatable bezel, which considerably increased divers’ safety by enabling them to check the amount of time they spent underwater. He was impressed too with its robustness, despite many hours spent in seawater and receiving several impacts in the course of the dives.
Rolex took this testing process to even further depths! They teamed up with Swiss oceanographer, Jacques Piccard, and U.S. Navy Lieutenant, Don Walsh, for an unprecedented expedition in 1960. They descended 35,814 feet into the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean.
They reached the deepest part of the world’s oceans onboard a bathyscaphe called the Trieste. A Rolex timepiece, the Deep Sea Special, was attached to the outside of the submersible. At the end of the eight and a half hour dive, the timepiece was found to have kept perfect time.
James Cameron replicated this journey to what is considered the most remote place on the planet in 2012. The Hollywood director and Swiss watchmaker collaborated with the National Geographic Society for this scientific expedition as part of the Deepsea Challenge project. He reached over 35,000 feet into the Mariana Trench in what is a record-breaking solo dive.
Like the Trieste before it, this submersible was carrying an experimental Rolex timepiece, the specially made Rolex Deepsea Challenge watch. It was attached on the exterior of the submersible’s hydraulic manipulator arm, with an additional two on its hull. As a tribute, the watch from the 1960 expedition, the Deep Sea Special, was onboard for the journey.
Descending into this abyss, the water pressure is more than 1,000 times greater than at sea level. The watches kept time perfectly throughout nearly seven hours beneath the water, emerging unharmed. James Cameron quoted afterwards:
“The Rolex Deepsea Challenge was the reliable companion throughout the dive, it was visible on the sub’s manipulator arm and working precisely at more than 10,908 metres down at the bottom of Challenger Deep.”
In 1970, a third sealed zone was introduced to the Oyster case and the Triplock winding crown was born. A potential life-saving feature was also unveiled; the hands and hour markers were coated with a luminescent material. This enabled divers to read the time in the dark and murky conditions underwater.
Rolex went on to make further technical advances 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.
The Rolex waterproof watch has evolved impressively from Hans Wilsdorf’s initial vision of a timepiece users wear during activities. The Submariner collection has established a trailblazing reputation and legacy, almost a century since the Oyster case was first introduced to the world.
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