Engineered to withstand extreme depths and coveted by the most dedicated collectors, divers’ watches perform just as well on land as they do at sea.
GENEVA - If you know even a little about vintage sports Rolexes, it is likely that you would be very happy to own a watch that bears the black on white logo of Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises), the famous Marseilles-based underwater exploration and engineering company. Those five letters would indicate that the watch was issued to one of the firm’s professional divers, and their presence on the dial of a Rolex can increase its value tenfold.
JAMES CAMERON WORE A ROLEX DURING NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC’S DEEPSEA CHALLENGE IN 2012. PHOTO © MARK THIESSEN/NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.
Comex is, in fact, shorthand for an entire chapter in the history of Rolex’s diving watch. As Comex developed technology that enabled deeper, longer dives it noted that the internal pressure inside the Rolexes issued to its divers equalised during extended periods at great depth, meaning that upon decompression, the glass face had a tendency to blow out. The solution Rolex devised in the early 1970s – placing a unidirectional helium escape valve in the case wall at nine o’clock – resulted in the first of their so-called Sea-Dweller watches with a dial marked 660 feet/200 metres.
What makes the Comex Rolex so exciting is that, while its origins may have been entirely practical, the powerful spell it casts over collectors is almost entirely emotional. While most owners of Comex Rolexes would probably make fairly poor saturation divers, what this watch offers them is a tangible, wearable link to an evocative period in undersea exploration.
Last year I had the pleasure to meet Jean-Jacques Fiechter, one of the early innvators of the diving watch. An Egyptologist, historian, biographer, thriller writer and underwater archaeologist, Fiechter also ran his family watch company Blancpain between 1950 and 1980. Blancpain’s Fifty Fathoms model is almost as famous as the Rolex Sea-Dweller, and was born from Fiechter’s friendship with diving legend Jacques Cousteau.
Fifty Fathoms-wearer Cousteau had begun his diving career in the French Navy, which in the early 1950s was looking for an underwater watch for its Special Forces, and adopted the Blancpain. A version capable of surviving depths of up to 400 feet was also worn by United States Navy personnel.
These heroic, even romantic, origins make the diving watch sector today a crowded one. The depths at which these older models can function were exceeded long ago by modern watches, which count their submersibility in thousands of metres. Most remarkable is the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, the dial of which proclaims a functioning depth of 12,000 metres. This comfortably exceeds the deepest known place on the planet, the Mariana Trench, which is just shy of 11,000 metres under water.
Rolex’s current Deepsea Sea-Dweller retains a similar build quality, durability and performance, and it eclipses the older Comexes in every respect, except one. With a British retail price of just over £8,000, today’s model costs a good deal less than a vintage Comex – one rare model offered at Sotheby’s in Geneva this May has an estimate of CHF40,000–60,000. It just proves that precision and performance cannot always match emotion and history.
Nick Foulkes is a contributing editor of Vanity Fair and How to Spend It and luxury editor of GQ.