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Watches

How the Rolex Sea-Dweller Became a Life Saver

Discover how the Rolex Sea-Dweller became the preferred watch of professional divers in this latest episode of Sotheby’s Stories. The featured Rolex Comex Sea-Dweller, Reference 16600 belonged to revered deep sea diver Thèo Mavrostomos and is a highlight of our upcoming sale of Important Watches (12 May | Geneva).

T he emergence and subsequent progression of scuba diving during the 60s and 70s called for specially designed equipment. Watches in particular played a significant role in the undertakings of professional divers and were therefore relied upon heavily. This new demand for precision timepieces that could tolerate the stresses of prolonged deep water submersion sparked a period of significant innovation within the major Swiss manufactures, keen to capitalise on a fresh and growing market.

Introduced in 1967, The Rolex Sea-Dweller was manufactured as an evolution of the Submariner reference 5513. The 5513, perhaps one of the most famous diving watches in Rolex’s repertoire, was unable to withstand excessive depths for long periods of time. As divers plunged ever deeper the current technology was tested to its limits and new technologies had to be developed.

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Rolex, Comex Sea-Dweller, Ref 16600 Stainless Steel Wristwatch with Date and Bracelet, circa 1998. Estimate €80,000–120,000.

Helium atoms represent the smallest naturally occurring particles of any gas and as such could breach the seals and seep into watch cases. The pressure difference caused by this was identified as the leading cause of breaks while decompressing after a dive. The Helium Escape Valve (HEV) was primarily introduced in the 60s and first appeared on Submariners before they were then adopted and solely used by the Sea-Dweller to release pressure caused by helium infiltration.

While these watches are rightly considered rare, what is rarer is an example so wonderfully and completely documented as the present lot. Issued to Thèo Mavrostomos in 1998, Mavrostomos was a revered deep sea diver, having worked with COMEX for 20 years. Awarded the French Order of Merit in 1997 for achieving a simulated ‘saturation’ dive of 701m during COMEX's Hydra X trials, Mavrostomos was used by Rolex as an ambassador of the brand, appearing in their adverts for the Sea Dweller. The case back has been inscribed to celebrate this tremendous event and the watch is still retaining all original accessories.

Comex (Compagnie Maritime d'Expertise) was founded in 1961, in Marseille, at a time when industrial deep-sea diving did not yet exist. Very soon, however, Comex promoted new technology and became a pioneer in deep sea diving operations for the offshore oil industry. Today, Comex has over 2000 employees and 800 divers located all over the world.

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