National Geographic

DEEPSEA CHALLENGE

Rolex Deep-sea History

A WATCH MEETS THE CHALLENGE OF THE DEEP
Fifty-two years ago Rolex made watchmaking history when it joined the bathyscaphe Trieste, crewed by Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh, as the Swiss-designed bathyscaphe descended to the then deepest-known point in the ocean.

An experimental Rolex Deep Sea Special wristwatch was attached to the exterior of the Trieste when it touched the very bottom of the Mariana Trench on January 23, 1960, reaching a depth of 35,814 feet (10,916 meters). It successfully withstood tremendous pressure that no submersible, let alone watch, had confronted before and that no human could ever survive. The dive marked the culmination of a long association with Jacques Piccard and his father, Auguste Piccard, the inventor of the bathyscaphe, as they stretched the boundaries of deep-sea exploration. It was also the fruit of decades of unrelenting development of the waterproof wristwatch, which was invented by Rolex.

 

A HISTORY OF DISCOVERY
Rolex has always been associated with exploration of the planet’s most extreme frontiers and pushing the limits of human endeavor, in keeping with the spirit instilled by its founder, Hans Wilsdorf. He led the company through the most adventurous decades of the 20th century, a period marked by discovery of the world about us and immense technological progress.

The Swiss watchmaker has, in particular, nurtured a special relationship with the sea and its deepest reaches from the very beginning. Rolex is simply the natural partner for DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, a scientific expedition that heralds the beginning of a new era in marine exploration.

Robust, precise, and highly reliable Rolex Oyster watches have not only accompanied the Trieste on the world’s deepest dive. They also equipped the expedition by Sir John Hunt, Sir Edmund Hillary, and Tenzing Norgay to the top of the world in 1953–leading to the pioneering ascent of Mount Everest–and Chuck Yeager when he broke the sound barrier in 1947.

The Piccards, Don Walsh, and their bathyscaphe followed in the steps of those adventurers, providing the ultimate test for Rolex technology and the experimental Deep Sea Special watch during the 1950s. After the Trieste surfaced from its record dive in 1960, a cable was sent to Rolex headquarters: “HAPPY ANNOUNCE TO YOU YOUR WATCH AS PRECISE AT 11,000 METRES AS ON SURFACE. BEST REGARDS JACQUES PICCARD.”

 

INVENTING AND PROVING THE WATERPROOF WRISTWATCH
Exploits of the kind have also provided a real-life proving ground for Oyster wristwatches from the very beginning. Rolex is in its element in water, and the name chosen for its iconic collection of waterproof wristwatches is no accident.

Waterproofness was a fundamental feature that helped to make the wristwatch reliable and accurate. Rolex invented the first waterproof wristwatch in 1926 and provided a real-life demonstration of its waterproofness when Mercedes Gleitze swam the English Channel wearing one a year later. The Oyster watch innovated with its screw-down case back, bezel, and winding crown, forming the essence of the modern-day sealed case that protects a high-precision movement.

Such reliable waterproofness is today inherent in every Rolex Oyster Perpetual model.

But Rolex has also sustained and extended its position at the forefront of watchmaking for diving and underwater research with groundbreaking innovations.

 

TOOLS OF THE TRADE
During the 1940s and 1950s, developments in diving technology paved the way for a boom in underwater exploration. The exacting professional diving community came to treasure Rolex watches as essential tools of the trade and even helped in their development.

•            The iconic Oyster Perpetual Submariner, first unveiled in 1953, is today waterproof to a depth of 1,000 feet (300 meters).

•            The Sea-Dweller model, first presented in 1967, extended the depth limit for Rolex waterproof watches to 2,000 feet (610 meters) then 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) in 1978.

•            And ultimately the Rolex Deepsea, introduced in 2008, illustrates the supremacy of Rolex in mastering waterproofness. This new-generation divers’ watch is waterproof to a depth of 12,800 feet (3,900 meters), providing a substantial safety margin for those working in the open water at great depth. Each Rolex Deepsea is individually tested in a specially built stainless steel hyperbaric chamber in Geneva.

 

HARNESSING TECHNOLOGY
The test tank for the Rolex Deepsea was developed with specialist engineers from COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises), a world-renowned French company specializing in underwater engineering and hyperbaric technologies. Rolex has been collaborating with COMEX for decades and supplied Submariner and Sea-Dweller models to equip its elite divers.

Timepieces such as the Rolex Deepsea and the state-of-the-art, experimental Rolex DEEPSEA CHALLENGE, carried by James Cameron’s submersible, are the product of nearly a century of finely tuned know-how and innovation. They attest to the pursuit of perfection and the finest engineering. Nonetheless, Rolex’s affinity with the deep does not stop there. It extends to active and sustained sponsorship of renowned marine researchers and ocean exploration, supporting excellence in the advancement of human knowledge.

 

OUR FRIENDS
Don Walsh, one of the pioneers of the Trieste, remains part of the Rolex family, while Rolex testimonees include renowned oceanographer and explorer Sylvia Earle, as well as underwater photographer and marine naturalist David Doubilet.

Rolex was associated with The Deep, an exceptional exhibition of deep-sea creatures conceived by filmmaker Claire Nouvian in collaboration with scientific researchers, providing visitors with a unique opportunity to discover some of the mysteries of the Earth’s largest reservoir of life. Rolex supports the Our World–Underwater Scholarship Society, funding a young Rolex Scholar to gain hands-on experience with leaders in marine-related research, including on scientific expeditions. And the adventurous new spirit of marine exploration actively embodied by DEEPSEA CHALLENGE is also present in SeaOrbiter, a project for a new-generation vessel to monitor ocean life and enhance global scientific research, which is supported by Rolex.

In the same vein, James Cameron’s DEEPSEA CHALLENGE is taking us on a new journey, revealing the secrets held by the ocean floor for centuries and shedding light on the deepest frontier accessible to mankind.

Science Partners

  • Additional major support provided by The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation
  • NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory
  • Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego
  • University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • University of Guam