The Crown is trying out new materials and breaking records.
A new Rolex of any kind is cause for celebration. And usually, we get those moments in the spring when the mack daddy of watch brands rolls out its slate of pieces for the year. (Remember the new black-and-green destro GMT?) Today, though, Rolex released the Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge—a watch that, even on day one, is already crushing records with its mega-massive proportions. This Rolex is a particularly big deal, and I mean that literally and figuratively.
Rolex’s new release sets the depth-rating record for a commercial watch by many multitudes. The deepest diver in Rolex’s catalog before today was the Deepsea, which can reach a relatively shallow 3,900 meters (12,800 feet). Today’s Rolex is rated to go three times deeper, to 11,000 meters (36,090 feet). (Maybe now collectors can stop worrying if it’s okay to take this watch in the shower or a dip in the pool.) To put into context how giant a leap (or plunge?) Rolex is taking, consider that the previous world record for a commercial watch was set just six months ago. Earlier this year, Omega released the Seamaster Ultra Deep, which can dive 6,000 meters (19685 feet) underwater—the Deepsea nearly doubles that figure!
To accommodate its new capabilities, this Rolex is huge. The watch is 50 millimeters in diameter and 23 honking millimeters thick. (The Luminor from Panerai, the king of big-boy watches, measures in at 44mm wide and 4.5mm thick.) All that extra heft and thickness is purposeful, though. While those outside the watch world might see the Crown as a maker of delicate luxury goods and gem-set beauties, collectors who follow the brand know Rolex’s foundation is in tool watches: the Oyster Perpetual on the wrist of Mercedes Gleitze while she swam across the English Channel or the OP Sir Edmund Hillary wore when he became the first person to summit Everest in 1953. The new OP Deepsea Challenge comes with an even more illustrious history.
The development of this watch can be traced all the way back to 1960. The new watch’s caseback is engraved with the phrase “Mariana Trench,” the deepest point on earth, and two dates: “23-01-1960” and “26-03-2012.” Let’s start with the former. In 1960, Rolex developed the Deep Sea Special, a watch with a domed bubble-like crystal built to endure the tremendous pressure of a deep, deep ocean dive. So when oceanographer Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh boarded the submarine-like Trieste (technically, a bathyscaphe) and plunged 35,814 feet to the bottom of the ocean, what was attached to the outside of the ship? Rolex’s Deep Sea Special, which was in perfect working order when the Trieste reemerged from the ocean.
(Those Deep Sea Special prototypes developed for the 1960 dive are coveted collector’s items. During the same weekend last fall, both Phillips and Christie’s sold prototypes of the watches for $1,158,952 and 1,890,000 Swiss Francs, roughly the same amount in today’s dollars.)
In 2012, James Cameron—yes, the Avatar director—completed a similar voyage to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Like his predecessors, he wanted to bring a Rolex along for the ride—and in just a couple of months, Rolex managed to whip together something for him to bring on his seven-hour dive. Like the 1960 Deep Sea Special, the watch surfaced just fine. And while Cameron’s piece remained just a prototype, these experiments made the new Oyster Perpetual Deepsea Challenge possible.
But those aren’t the only watches that contributed to the development of this piece. Last fall, Rolex Magazine discovered that the British sailor Ben Ainslie was wearing a Rolex Yachtmaster prototype out in the open unbeknownst to anyone. This watch is important to our story because it was the first-ever watch Rolex made out of titanium. For Ainslie, this was important because titanium is so lightweight. “Every little bit of weight that we can save helps us to go faster,” Ainslie told Rolex Magazine. Shaving weight off a watch like the new OP Deepsea Challenge is important because this thing is thicc. Making the watch out of titanium makes it “30% lighter than the experimental model of 2012,” Rolex said in a press release.
And that, ultimately, is what feels so captivating about the new Deepsea: the way it’s been painstakingly developed over long stretches. To see how clearly a watch in 1960 was a building block in a watch that finally realizes its potential a full six decades later is pretty cool.