With names like that, and since they’ve both been at the top of the game in their respective categories for their entire existence, is it any wonder these two companies got together? Seems destined, doesn’t it? And really… what tool watch nerd doesn’t go weak in the knees upon seeing or hearing that magical word, COMEX?
But really, what’s the story?
Let’s start with COMEX. The word is an acronym for Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises. Frenchman Henri Germain Delauze created the company in Marseille. This was after a diving career of roughly 30 years had already elapsed. That career was made up of both military and commercial experience, and included secret missions for the US Army. During the 1950s he crossed paths with Jacques-Yves Cousteau and the two worked together on several projects.
All of that uniquely prepared Delauze for an industrial endeavor that challenged the depths of the sea. And by the time the 1970s rolled around, the world had an oil crisis on its hands. One answer was off-shore drilling. That meant more underwater work. Not unlike Red Adair fighting oil fires, COMEX was nearly the only organization in the world able to effect underwater repair of the off-shore oil rigs.
Ultimately, COMEX facilities included an R&D center, a simulation center, manufacturing facilities, and 2000 employees around the world. 800 of those employees were divers. During the 1960s and 1970s, COMEX divers set numerous time-at-depth records in actual and simulated conditions.
Of course, those divers needed good watches with unique features beyond keeping simple accurate time. Namely, helium escape valves. And COMEX came to Rolex for watches so-equipped. Rolex had developed and patented just such a feature in the early 1960s, following the suggestion of U.S. Navy diver, Bob Barth.
Thus were born the Rolex COMEX Submariners and Sea-Dwellers. In all, nine references qualified to carry the black-on-white COMEX label and engraved caseback: 5513, 5514, 1665, 1680, 16600, 16610, 16660, 16800, and 168000. As it turns out, not all COMEX Rollies were so-labeled however, especially some of the early R&D models.
And if that list of references doesn’t give collectors enough to drool over, think of the additional variations. Different dial versions, case number styles, and the fact that these watches weren’t sold in stores. Rather, they were issued through Rolex and COMEX. Add to that the variations and fascinations you might find in accompanying provenance (one ex-diver’s e-mail to DoubleRedSeaDweller.com basically said his watch morphed from a 5513 to a 5514 over a series of routine service procedures at Rolex – all documented with Rolex paperwork!), etc. and you’ve got the makings of a collector’s grail.
In fact, if you have a little time on your hands and want to get a flavor for what a typical professional diver’s life is like, pour yourself a beverage of your choice and read this account of a diver’s career and how he relied on his "plain old, plastic glass Sea-Dweller." Fair warning – you’ll need to control yourself when you see the photo of the plain old thing.