It’s the mid-1990s. You’re a professional diver working for the French dive and underwater engineering company, COMEX (or Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises). You’re suited up, ready to go in the water for your shift. But you left your Rolex SeaDweller on your nightstand that morning. Sorry… the boss is NOT letting you in the water without it.
OK, I’m not a professional diver and I don’t even KNOW any, so I don’t know how that scenario would really have gone. But it is a fact that, up until the late 1990s and the development of dive computers in wrist-sized packages, COMEX divers were not allowed in the water in any capacity without a Submariner on their wrist.
So how did that curious – and apparently, life preserving – fact come to be?
To explore that story, we need to back up a bit. In the 1950s and 60s, the United States Interstate Highway System was growing by leaps and bounds. And Detroit was pumping out large, gas-thirsty cars to take full advantage of these newly minted super slabs. New sources of crude oil were needed to feed those thirsty automobiles, and the oil companies looked to the continental shelf for new, untapped deposits.
But that meant men working at those depths in eight hour shifts. To save the decent and assent time required to reach those depths meant living for days at a time in pressurized underwater habitats. And that meant breathing a helium-rich atmosphere necessary to prevent oxygen poisoning due to the pressurized habitat.
You can see the domino effect happening, can’t you? All these factors required dive watches that were uniquely suited to the conditions.
That’s where the worlds of Rolex and COMEX came together. The two companies, leaders in their respective industries, embarked on a joint venture to develop a watch that could stand the pressures of the depths required, and on the other hand, not explode at normal atmospheric pressure due to internal pressure from helium buildup while spending days in those pressurized underwater habitats (the small helium molecules could sneak past the otherwise impervious seals in the watch).
The first watch to be developed with a helium escape valve was the now-famous double red SeaDweller – a watch signed ‘SeaDweller, Submariner 2000” in red on the dial. Basically, it was nothing more than a Submariner 5513 with a one-way helium escape valve on the nine o’clock side of the case. That watch appeared in 1967. And a significant update to a heavier case came along in 1971. Further evolutionary developments followed over the years.
Watches destined for COMEX bore the acronym in black letters on a white field on the dial and were also engraved on the case back, among the only Rollies ever to be so decorated. These watches are among the most coveted dive watches in all of Rolexdom.
But it’s worth noting that finding one with all original parts is nearly impossible. As life-critical tools for their divers, COMEX pulled these watches from active duty every six months and sent them back to Rolex for service. Rolex, as is typical for them, updated the watches with any newly developed components that had come along since the previous service. Thus, even older serial numbered examples may well have updated movements, hands, bezels, and dials.
We’ve been on a history jag this week. Tune in tomorrow, when we take a look at the evolution of the Rolex Day-Date over the last seven decades.
- Ed Estlow