More than 100 metres below the water surface, hard hat divers glided across the seafloor with diving helmets perched atop their shoulders. Inside their helmets were ticking pocket watches mounted right next to the depth meter within the peripheral view of the divers. The only thing that kept their faces and watches dry were precarious air bubbles, formed by tubes that trapped air from the surface, and maintained by desperate prayers that these contraptions would work. This was a period in the 1820s.
As the world transitioned to industrialisation in the early 20th century, measuring time became increasingly important to ensure the success of deep-sea exploration. It was then that Rolex created the world’s first waterproof watch, which had a systematic sealed case to protect the watch movements from dust and moisture. The watch — as well as its case — was christened “Oyster” because “like an oyster, it can remain [for] an unlimited time underwater without detriment to its parts,” said Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex.
A year following the release of the Rolex Oyster in 1926, English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze swam across the English Channel with the watch strapped to her wrist. Her emergence 10 hours later with a perfectly working Rolex Oyster was not just a triumph for sport but also for the brand, standing as ultimate testament to its technical supremacy. With pragmatism shaping the core of his instincts, Wilsdorf viewed that achievement not just as a victory but also an opportunity to extend the Oyster’s capabilities and he began experimenting with a new design language that would become answers to the complex problems within the realm of exploration.
By the early 1950s, Rolex had developed professional watches within the Oyster Perpetual line to serve functions that went far beyond time-telling. In 1953, the house delved deeper into its waterproof endeavours to create the Oyster Perpetual Submariner — the first diver’s wristwatch to guarantee water resistance up to a depth of 100 metres. Keeping time while traversing the ocean’s depths no longer relied on chance, but the hermetically sealed Oyster case, further enhanced from its original invention, which featured a new screw-down winding crown with a Twinlock system, designed for the watch to endure the increased pressure from greater depths.
Courtesy of Rolex
The momentous resurfacing of British swimmer Mercedes Gleitze from the English Channel in 1927.
The Oyster Perpetual Submariner became an iconic watch among modern professional divers as they continued to benefit from the architectural developments of the model. The Triplock winding crown gave an added level of security. The luminescent disc coating the hands and hour markers provided better visibility underwater, while subsequent technical advances rendered the watch waterproof to a depth of 200 metres in 1954 and 300 metres in 1989.
Among the many divers who trialled the watch in their ventures and explorations, was French underwater photographer Dimitri Rebikoff, who wore the Submariner over an extended period of five months as he carried out 132 dives. Rebikoff said, “We are able to confirm that this watch has not only given entire satisfaction in diving conditions which were extremely tough and particularly dangerous for the material used, but that it has proved an indispensable accessory for all those diving with independent equipment.”
At the turn of 21st century, the appeal of the Submariner and the Submariner Date (launched in 1969) has extended beyond the marine industry and the watches have found its way onto the wrists of world luminaries like sport legends and icons of the silver screen. The image of a black-dial stainless steel watch with a rotatable bezel, luminous hands, and an ergonomic bracelet design popularised by the Submariner became a recurring vector anytime someone mentioned the word “performance” with regard to a watch, whether on land, air or sea.
Courtesy of Rolex
As the first divers’ wristwatch waterproof to a depth of 100 metres, the 1953 Submariner marked a major step forward in the history of Rolex and of deep-sea diving.
As a company that preaches “evolution, not revolution,” Rolex has continually improved its products through subtle and important tweaks. The latest Oyster Perpetual Submariner and Submariner Date models remain loyal to the practical qualities that defined the previous versions, while being ever so slightly refined. Both timepieces now feature a larger Oyster case at 41mm, that is joined more seamlessly onto a remodelled bracelet. The bezel and bezel inserts utilise a Rolex patented high-technology ceramic that is not only virtually scratchproof but also accentuates the colour intensity and shine of the watch profile. The Oyster bracelet on these new versions is also equipped with an Oysterlock folding safety clasp, which prevents its accidental opening. And like all Rolex watches, both timepieces carry the Superlative Chronometer stamp of approval.
To the untrained eye, some might find the new models indistinguishable from the older ones. But when the watches are placed side by side, it is clear that Rolex has made a smooth transition over six decades, perfecting an already revolutionary timepiece based on reliability and accountability. That is perhaps how the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Submariner has gained such outsized importance in the industry. In an era where constant innovation and idiosyncrasies play a large part of the industry’s money-making mechanism, the Submariner’s success speaks boldly to the future of the watchmaking business — to create with purpose instead, and a triumphant path will pave itself.
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