The Helium Escape Valve: Essential or Irrelevant?

The Helium Escape Valve: Essential or Irrelevant?

It’s hard to believe that something so small could inspire such strong opinions. A tiny, spring-loaded, one-way pressure release valve for a single element has actually led to some fairly high-pressure arguments in horological circles. Forget the polarization of the American political system -- the pro-HEV vs. anti-HEV debate is even more contentious. Let’s dive into the fray, pun definitely intended, to discover the differences between these two platforms. 

The Design and History of the Helium Escape Valve 

Before we hear from both sides, let’s establish common ground by reviewing how the helium escape valve works. Rolex first developed the HEV in response to an increase in long-term saturation dives, when divers would live in underwater habitats or pressurized chambers for days or weeks. Scientists had figured out how to use gradual depressurization to prevent illness in divers, but diving tools didn’t always fare so well. In the 1960s, the dive watch was an essential part of decompression technology. However, deep sea diving caused such extreme changes in pressure that the physical components of a watch couldn’t always hold up. As divers underwent depressurization in decompression chambers, the crystal on their watches would crack, shatter, or even explode because helium couldn’t escape the watch. 

To respond to this new need in commercial diving, Rolex introduced a gasketed valve that allowed gasses escape the watch without letting water into the movement. Problem solved. Of course, as technology continued to advance, the once-essential dive watch was jettisoned in favor of dive computers. The use of dive watches for deep sea saturation diving noticeably dropped. 

helium escape valve

The Pro-HEV Position 

Do we have any saturation divers reading this article? That’s pretty unlikely, since some estimates place the total number of saturation divers in the US at 336. If you are a deep sea diver who wears a dive watch, you are probably pro-HEV, and we can’t say we blame you. For anyone other than a saturation diver, though, the tangible benefits of a HEV are a bit hazier. 

People who are pro-HEV don’t want to divorce the dive watch from its original function. For them, a dive watch with a helium escape valve reminds the wearer of the watch’s identity as a tool watch. Even if they don’t plan on saturation diving any time soon, they choose a watch with a HEV because they value the long history of technological innovation that it represents.   

The Anti-HEV Objection  

People who feel that the HEV isn’t essential on a luxury dive watch wouldn’t necessarily describe themselves as “anti-HEV.” They usually understand the history and tradition of the HEV, and why it’s retained on some of Rolex’s dive watches. What these folks would criticize is the idea that a HEV makes a dive watch inherently more “authentic” or useful. Certainly, Rolex watches are still used by some professional divers, but the primary identity of these watches is now a luxury item. A person who doesn’t need a HEV on a dive watch would argue that it’s an unnecessary design element that doesn’t add anything to the function of a watch.  

helium escape valve

Everest Bands: Building a Bridge to Unity 

In the polarized environment surrounding this contentious issue, coming to a mutual agreement may not be possible. The Pro-HEV contingency could relax its stance a bit, agreeing that for most watch collectors, the HEV is extraneous. Maybe the Anti-HEV alliance could concede that the history and function of the valve is pretty impressive. Whichever side of the issue you fall on, at least we can all agree on one thing: nothing looks better on a Rolex Sea-Dweller than a brand new Everest Bands rubber strap.

Written by Meghan Clark

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