Rolex: extreme waterproofness for optimal performances

August 3, 2021By Bonetto Cinturini

Rolex: when beauty meets functionality

When we think about the Rolex brand, we immediately associate it with watches that are luxurious, expensive, not to mention for collectors, maybe made even more precious by the addition of diamonds and prestigious straps. However, many people do not know that behind an accessory as iconic as this one lies a wealth of research which was started at the beginning of the 1900s to answer the need to create a watch that was not just a symbol of elegance and sophistication but which was also functional, in full harmony with the new life habits of the time.

Hans Wilsdorf was a watchmaker who at the time worked for a prestigious maison in La Chaux-de-Fonds. While observing the change that society was facing, a society that preferred dedicating itself more and more to free time and sport, he began to understand that pocket watches would not last much longer, and that something more comfortable and practical was needed.

He established the Rolex brand a few years later, a watch that was very precise, reliable and, more importantly, that could be worn on the wrist.

His greatest challenge was creating a watch that was fully protected from external agents (like dust, dirt, humidity) and above all that could resist water.

After extensive research, in 1922 Rolex marketed Submariner, a watch that was completely waterproof thanks to its second case: this meant that the external case had to be opened before using the crown to adjust the time or load the movement.

This type of case, so in advance of its time, was patented four years later under the name of Oyster because, as Wilsdorf explained, the watch could live in water without being damaged in any way, just like an oyster.

To test and promote what would later become one of the biggest conquests in the history of watchmaking, one year after being patented, the watch with Oyster case was used to swim across the Channel, demonstrating its impeccable waterproofness.

As a result, the Rolex brand became important in the waterproof watch world. The Oyster case appeared on the market, followed by years of perfecting and developing what would soon become the favourite watch of underwater explorers, who began choosing Rolex for its great reliability even hundreds of meters below the surface of the water.

With the 1953 Submariner, the brand officially became sports people’s best friend, and collaborations began with the best explorers of the time, as well as with the underwater photographer and engineer Dimitri Rebikoff. By testing Submariner, Rebikoff was able to give the company important indications for improving the technical characteristics and ergonomics of the watch.

The ensuing result at the end of the ‘80s was a watch with Oyster case that no longer remained watertight to the standard depth of 100 metres but went well beyond, 300 metres in fact, without any internal damage.

Furthermore, thanks to the presence of a rotating bezel, luminescent hands and a graded insert, Submariner allowed scuba divers to monitor their time in the water, so representing an important instrument for their safety.

But it was when the American navy lieutenant Don Walsh and the oceanographer Jacques Piccard went on their expedition in 1960 that Rolex descended into the deepest part of the Pacific ocean, the Mariana Trench, accompanying the explorers on an immersion that lasted eight and a half hours.

An important piece was missing for Rolex watches to become suitable for longer explorations, though: the brand had to be perfected further for what is called saturation diving, which lasts for days and even weeks.

During these explorations, to contrast the damage that pressure has on a human body, the divers must stay inside a pressurised environment and dive from it.

In this situation, watches can suffer from the negative effects caused by the elevated concentration of helium; its microparticles can penetrate even waterproof models, causing irreversible damage that can even break the instrument. As a result, and after numerous developments, in 1967 Rolex patented a valve for helium release: it is a safety system that activates automatically, allowing the excess gas to escape from the case when the pressure becomes too high.

This is how Sea-Dweller came about, a watch that can be worn to depths of up to 1200 metres without time limits. As a result, the name Rolex became associated with saturation diving, working alongside deep sea divers, true pioneers, conquering an important piece of watchmaking history.

From great underwater explorations to today

But the Sea-Dweller is only one of the great conquests of the brand, which already in 1967 had started a prestigious collaboration with HYCO (International Hydrodynamics Company), the leading producer of submarines in Canada.

And in 1971, with the start of the partnership with Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises), the deep diving and engineering company in Marseille equipped its subs with Rolex watches, giving important reports on watch performance in water, so as to contribute enormously to the further perfection of their reliability and functionality.

Thanks to this collaboration, the Sea-Dweller became the official watch of the 1988 expedition, when the divers faced a saturation dive to a depth of 534 metres, still an unbroken record for open sea diving.

In 2008 Rolex patented the Ring Lock system, a combination of rotating bezel, curved sapphire crystal and above all a black ceramic insert which, thanks to the special colour that is resistant to UV rays and which has anti-scratch properties, made it possible to go on extraordinary missions.

This watch was worn by the film director James Cameron in 2012 when he descended into the Mariana Trench to emulate Walsh and Piccard’s 1960 expedition: here, at a depth of 12000 metres, Ring Lock had to support a pressure equivalent to the weight of more than twenty tonnes, but it returned to the surface undamaged, passing all the test phases with full marks.

Today Rolex is still in the game, and challenging underwater pressure with even greater objectives. In 2020 it marketed both the Oyster Perpetual Submariner and the Oyster Perpetual Submariner Date, two watches with an impeccable design, completely renovated, with new proportions, and a case that is 4.1 cm bigger. As the size makes it possible, the watch shows not just the time but also the date, while maintaining the iconic black dial.

Even though always faithful to its original aesthetics, Rolex is a brand intent on improving and perfecting itself continually so as to offer numerous functions and adapt itself to the multiple environmental and climatic situations. This is why, even though commonly associated with luxury watches, Rolex plays a fundamental role in the underwater world, perfectly answering the characteristics that are necessary for quality performance.