Rolex Deep Sea Special

Dive Watches – Part One – 1926 to 1953

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In this short series we’re going to examine the main categories of wristwatch that you will come across on your daily horological journeys and this time it’s the ‘Dive Watch’.

In the first of these pieces we discussed the Sports Watch.  We said that it was a tricky term and that it was possible that not too many people could actually define what it meant.  I’m guessing that the same isn’t true for Dive Watches so this piece will focus on its timeline, a note on each of the most historically important ones and perhaps an opinion on who makes the best ones.  We’ll also look at what has moved the dive watch from literally being a tool designed to keep a diver alive underwater to an everyday wearer for someone who never goes further than the deep end of the holiday swimming pool.

You may be surprised to hear that it was as long ago as the mid 1600s when watchmakers first tried to waterproof pocket watches, using beeswax among other things, but it was generally given up as a bad job. For Three Hundred Years. That’s a LONG time for an entire industry to make no developments in a specified field.

It wasn’t until after the wristwatch became popular following the end of The Great War in 1918 that efforts were redoubled and progress made – enter one Hans Wilsdorf who designed and patented the ‘Rolex Oyster’ in 1926.  With its screw down crown and caseback and sealed crystal, it is the world’s first truly water-resistant watch case.  Always a man who liked grand demonstrations of his creations, in 1927 Wilsdorf worked with Mercedes Gleitze on her attempt to become the first British woman to swim the English Channel. Ms Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster watch on a chain around her neck during the swim and while she was ultimately unsuccessful, the Oyster performed admirably.

Rolex advert from 1926
The first Rolex Oyster
Rolex advert from 1926

Interestingly, despite these achievements, Wilsdorf never actually intended to produce a dive watch and so the Rolex Oyster wasn’t made available to the general public.  This left the door wide open for a well known Swiss manufacturer who are very much still with us today.

In 1932, Omega produced the ‘Marine’ which while not a fully fledged dive watch as we know them now, was the first commercially available waterproof watch, maintaining its integrity down to pressures equal to a depth of 73 metres.  Omega took a different approach to Rolex, achieving their waterproofing using two tightly fitting rectangular cases, one of which slid inside the other, with a lever locking them tightly together. (You can see the mechanism in the photos of the reissue Marine below).

While not a commercial hit, the Marine was taken very seriously by professional divers such as oceanographer Charles William Beebe and Yves Le Prieur, the inventor of the aqualung.  So it seems that both scientist and explorer divers alike were very happy with the Omega Marine.

Omega Marine
Omega Marine Reissue
Omega Marine

In the run up to the Second World War, ‘frogmen’ and Submariners used standard waterproof watches like the Omega Marine, but it was clear that military divers were becoming more demanding of their watches.  Just before WWII in 1936, the Italian Navy changed the world of dive watches forever, by beginning discussions with naval instrument maker, Panerai over something altogether more specialised.

The Italian navy wanted a watch that was not only waterproof to 30 metres but one that could also be very clearly seen underwater, irrespective of the conditions.  Panerai developed what was later to be known as the ‘ 3646 Radiomir’, so named for the use of (radioactive) Radium on its dial, which (unsurprisingly) glowed quite brightly in the dark!

In order to contribute further to the legibility of the watch, Panerai commissioned Rolex to make 47mm cushion cases (they would have been considered enormous in the day) along with movements that drove just two hands on the very large Radium dial.

In 1955, the model was changed to the now familiar ‘Luminor’ with its integrated crown guard but despite being a very successful tool watch, the Panerai was never considered for production for the public.  After making only a few hundred watches for the navy, the Panerai watch division ceased production and faded into obscurity in the 1960’s – Until the next chapter began in 1993.

Panerai Radiomir
Panerai Radiomir
Panerai Radiomir

After WWII and the introduction of Jacques Cousteau’s improved SCUBA equipment, diving became much safer and consequently more popular for reasons of both industry and leisure.  It was around this time that the bathyscaphe ‘Trieste’ became the deepest diving vessel crewed by humans, and it did so while wearing a Rolex watch – yup – the submarine wore the first Rolex Deep Sea strapped to its hull.

More of a tool than a watch – even the most adventurous of you couldn’t really wear it – the Deep Sea was designed as a concept piece to prove that Rolex had developed the technology to create a watch that could withstand the enormous pressures of The Deep.  A place of which US Navy Captain and Mariana Trench explorer Don Walsh famously said: “More people have walked on the moon than have been to the deepest place in the ocean.”

 In 1953, the Deep Sea Special reached a depth of 3,150 metres with the Trieste – but it was seven years later in 1960, when it took part in a record dive 10,916 metres into the depths of Challenger Deep with Captain Walsh.  On returning to the surface, Trieste Captain Jacques Piccard sent the following telegram to Rolex HQ: “Happy to announce that your watch works as well at 11,000 metres as it does on the surface.”

It is generally believed that three Deep Sea Specials were made, at least one of which was bi-metal for some reason….

Rolex Deep Sea Special
Rolex Deep Sea Special
Rolex Deep Sea Special
Rolex Deep Sea Special
Rolex Deep Sea Special

I hope you’ve found the first part of this Dive watch Blog interesting – the next part starts in 1954 when Rolex changes the dive watch world forever….

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