The Complete History Of
The Rolex Submariner & SEA-DWELLER
Rolex's Conquest Of The Ocean
Part 1: Genesis
The Rolex Submariner is the most iconic watch in history. Many people have tried to copy it, but nobody has ever duplicated or surpassed it successfully. This is the complete story of Rolex Diving Watches from A-Z and it offers much great new insight and amazing historical photography that has never been published.
In many, many ways this story is the truest and most comprehensive story of Rolex history, which will give you, the reader, the greatest overview of the Rolex brand and its core essence. This is The Rolex Story...
U.S. Navy SEA-LAB 3 In The Pacific Ocean off San Clemente Island, California
[55 Nautical Miles (102 Kilometers) Off The Coast of California]
This is one really deep story (pun intended ;-))))) When it is done, if you are alive, it will have made you laugh and cry. It is a story about human ingenuity, stick-to-itiveness, perseverance, achievement, leadership, amazing gain & profound loss. It is about the human condition and the human machine.
We will be hearing new podcast interviews with major historical diving figures including Bob Barth from the U.S. Navy SEA-LAB program as well as Henry Delauze, the founder and Chairman of COMEX. Of course, as usual we will be separating the fact from the fiction and busting some long standing and significant myths.
I have written some heavy duty articles in the past including The History Of The Rolex President, and the The History Of Tenzing Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary's Conquest Of Mount Everest, but I think this story will surpass them all in scope and breadth. As I begin to write this it occurs to me that this will perhaps be my magnum opus on Rolex history.
Thank You Very Much!!!!!!
I would like to dedicate this story to the following people who continue to inspire me to climb higher and faster in my research of Rolex history:
First and foremost my great pal Leo (the Idle Swede). Leo has been an amazing pal and his friendship has been an incredible source of inspiration. Leo is a true Rolex fanatic which leads to the next person I wish to dedicate this story to which is J.J. Irani who, I believe ties Leo in being a die-hard Rolex fanatic.
J.J. is from New Zealand and he is the King of RolexForums.com. J.J.'s Rolex fanaticism (for lack of a better word) has been a true source of inspiration for me.
To my great pal Haris Durakovic. Haris is the resident watchmaker on Jake's Rolex Watch Blog and he is the proprieter of USA Watch Service. Haris has been an amazing pal. Haris has taken so much time to share his amazing insight into what makes a Rolex tick with me. Haris has also taught me the true meaning of kindness.
John Goldberger from Italy, who is the author of many books on watches including 100 Superlative Rolex Watches. John has been an amazing source of Rolex history and an invaluable source of insight.
Jocke from Sweden. Jocke's photography, depth of Rolex knowledge and passion have been a tremendous source of inspiration for me.
Stefano Mazzariol in Italy who is has an absolute love and deep appreciation of Rolex design and history.
Vintage Rolex dealer and expert Eric Ku for his friendship and sharing his insight with me. Eric is a great man and I always enjoy his company.
My great pal and fellow Rolex fanatic Seth Chandler, who has been an excellent friend and supporter of Jake's Rolex Watch Blog.
Also my friend Abel in Argentina who has been a great source of inspiration and has shared my enthusiasm from everything from Jacques Cousteau, to I SPY to SEA-HUNT.
Sheldon Smith of Minus4Plus6.com. Sheldon has been a great friend and a true source of inspiration for me. His never ending horological curiosity and willingness to share his insight is uncanny and kind.
James Cameron of Corvus Watch who has been an incredible friend and fellow WIS. James has shared so much invaluable insight with me on the construction and mechanical engineering of watches and his exploration into horological design continues to be a profound source of inspiration for me. James' deep knowledge and appreciation of military watch history continually blows me away!!!
Jean-Michel from France who is a kindred soul and extremely passionate about diving and NASA's conquest of the moon. Jean-Michel has created many superb horilogical websites that are invaluable references such as his excellent Omega homage to NASA located at Speedmaster-Mission.net as well as his Navitimer.net. Jean Michel also has all his personal sites at lesmala.com which includes links to all of his websites including his personal diving site named EscapeBleu.
Manuela from Germany who has been assisting me with another watch related project I am working on. Manuela is probably the sweetest woman I have ever met. She also has an extremely talented design mind and her communication skills are second to none.
Bob Barth (pictured below on left shaking hands wearing the green cap) who is a U.S. Navy diver. Bob is the only U.S. Navy diver to participate in the U.S. Navy Project Genesis as well as on all 3 SEA-LAB dive teams. Bob and I have become pals and Bob has been invaluable in his contributions to this story. As you will learn later, Bob Barth is really the central figure in this story.
U.S. Navy SEA-LAB Aquanauts: Bob Barth, Wilbur Eaton & Scott Carpenter
Team 1 Preparing To Dive Down To SEA-LAB 2 Habitat [August 28, 1965]
Scott Carpenter (pictured above in SCUBA on right side of photo) who was a U.S. Navy Test Pilot, one of the Original 7 NASA Mercury Astronauts as well as a U.S. Navy SEA-LAB diver. Scott and his family have all been extremely gracious and all made me feel like a member of their family. In particular, I would like to thank Scott's daughter, Kris Stoever who is a fascinating, intelligent and passionate woman.
Henri Delauze (Pictured below) the founder of COMEX. Henri was extremely gracious and kind with his time and sharing his amazing insight.
Founder Of COMEX, Henri Delauze 
There are many other people I would like to thank. If I have not listed you here, let me take this opportunity to thank you for your kindness and passion.
I would also like to thank you–my readers. You have also been great and I have made so many great friends all over the world. You continue to inspire me!!!
From The Ocean
We know Rolex is the most recognized premier producer and manufacturer of fine Swiss watches in the world today. So what is the big deal about diving watches? What makes the Rolex Submariner the most iconic watch in history?
I believe it is because we all come from the sea. As a scientist I believe all life began in the ocean. Think about it. Three quarters of planet earth is covered with water and our bodies consist primarily of water. We are of the Ocean...
By the way, that is Jacques Cousteau's granddaughter, Celine Cousteau swimming through the ocean with dolphins. Notice Celine is NOT wearing a tank but just a snorkel. Radical!!!! Check out the length of those flippers!!! She must get some serious speed going with those!!!
I argue that since we are of the ocean, we seek to return to it, just like a duck to water. Our distant ancestors many, many millions of years ago lived in the water and it is second nature to us.
The story of Rolex is the story of Man & Machine and this story begins with the elusive historical figure and founder of Rolex, Hans Wilsdorf who is pictured below.
"It is not with low prices, but on the contrary it is with improved quality that we can not only hold the market but improve it." –Hans Wilsdorf 1912
"We want to be the first in the field and Rolex should be seen as the one and only–the best." –Hans Wilsdorf 1914
Hans Wilsdorf was born on March 22, 1881 in Kulmach, Bavaria (which is now part of Germany) to Ferdinand and Anna Wilsdorf. Unfortunately Hans Wilsdorf's parents passed away unexpectedly when he was only 12 years old. Hans and his two siblings went from living a sheltered life with his parents to live with his maternal uncles.
Hans attended a boarding school in Coburg and went on to attend business school in Bayreuth before he left Germany at the end of the 20th century. Hans Wilsdorf's mother was a descendent of the popular Maisel brewing family, but he was not interested in going into that business. Han's was to inherit a significant amount of money from his parents estate but it was stolen when he was a child so he had to fend for himself.
Hans moved to Geneva, Switzerland to work for a pearl dealer. He then went to work for Cuna Korten in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1900. Cuna Korten was a fancy Swiss company that specialized in exporting Swiss pocket watches. Since Hans spoke English, German and French he was responsible for handling the business correspondence which helped him later in understanding international strategic marketing.
Hans was also responsible for winding several hundred watches daily and monitoring their accuracy. Cuna Korten was a large and profitable organization and being exposed to all those watches obviously resulted in Hans developing severe WISitus as well as a very deep appreciation for precision and beauty.
Cuna Korten obtained the majority of their merchandise from vendors in France, Germany and Switzerland. While at Cuna Korten, Hans became obsessed with creating perfect watches. Hans then had to go back to Germany to serve in the Army in 1902. When he got out of the German Army he moved to London, England where he met and fell in love with his first wife and went on to become a British Citizen.
In 1905, Hans started his first business with a much older business partner named Alfred James Davis. Their company was named Wilsdorf & Davis and they specialized in selling watches and watch parts.
Hans Wilsdorf created the Rolex brand in London, England in 1908 and later, in 1919 moved Rolex headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland.
Hans Wilsdorf was an extremely innovate man who constantly pushed the envelope and built one the most amazing and internationally recognizable brands in history.
Rolex definitely has a British sensibility as well as a teutonic and logical German disposition coupled with the conservative Swiss disposition–this all comes from its founder, Hans Wilsdorf.
From a design perspective, Hans' design ethos and aesthetic was far more German than French, Italian or Swiss and I argue that this is still true to this day. In other words, Rolex design to this day, is more Germanic that anything else. As a matter of fact, Hans was chauffeured in a Mercedes for many years of his life and the CEO of Rolls Royce kept trying to get him to switch but he refused. Hans was German to the core as were his masterpiece teutonic Rolex watches.
It is interesting to note that Hans Wildorf was brought up as in the Protestant faith. In Bavaria he was teased by boys who were part of the primarily Catholic faith so he was treated as an outsider.
Two decades after Hans moved to England and began to build Rolex, World War I broke out and the British developed a severe hatred of the German's. Since Hans was of German descent, with a German name and accent, he was looked down upon which is likely one of the reasons he moved Rolex's headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland and moved to Geneva himself.
When we think of the Rolex brand today, we think of it as one of the most established Swiss brands, that is steeped in Swiss tradition, but for at least the first half of Rolex' existence, it was looked down upon by the Swiss watchmaking establishment. Rolex was considered an alien company or an outsider, which made Hans work that much harder to achieve success and ultimately greatness.
Hans Wilsdorf's Great Challenge
In Europe the great cathedral's were the first to have clocks that would allow passers-by to tell the time.
Then the development of the pocket-watch changed everything with its introduction several hundred years ago. For the first time, two men could accurately synchronize their actions with a device they carried in their vest. The pocket-watch changed everything.
Despite the fact that Hans Wilsdorf was responsible for the popularization of the wristwatch, he was also a huge collector of pocket watches. As a matter of fact, the pocket watch below is from Hans Wildsdorf's personal collection that covered pocket watches going back 400 years.
The pocket watch below was made in 1665 in Germany by Jeremias Flug of Passau. The watch is fully enameled and the form has silver-set turquoise and the back enamel depicts the Departure of Ulysses.
The most fascinating detail on the pocket watch below is that the original pocket watches only had one hand which was an hour hand. Second hands did not come along for many years and were really the first complication. I think there is a simple elegance to a one handed watch. To learn more about the Hans Wildorf Collection please click here.
When Hans Wilsdorf started his first watch company in London in 1905 with his brother-in-law it was named Wilsdorf and Davis. At the time, pocket-watches were everywhere and wrist-watches were only worn by ladies. The first wrist watches were simply pocket watches with wire lugs soldered onto the pocket-watch case.
All pocket watches had the same basic snap-back case construction for hundreds of years and this created a challenge in humid, tropical environments. The challenge was that the dust and moisture and perspiration could penetrate the watch case and corrode the watch from the inside.
The following five images are from James Dowling & Jeff Hess' book The Best Of Time and they help illustrate the evolution of the watch to make it waterproof.
The Snap-Back Case
This first image is a snap-back Rebberg Rolex watch from 1914. Essentially it is a pocketwatch on a leather strap.
If you look closely at the image above, you notice the watch has a hinge on the left side of the case. If you flip the watch around onto its face (as seen below) you notice that if you open the rear door it exposes the movement. (Note: the snap-back door on the photo below is not in sharp focus, but it is on the left edge of the photo sitting upright perpendicular to the case). The challenge is there is no seal or gasket to stop dust, perspiration, water or humidity from entering the case.
Snap Front Hunting Case
Pictured below is another Rolex wristwatch from 1915, this time with a snap front Hunting Case and if you look closely you notice it is simply a pocket watch with lugs soldered on to the case along with a leather piece sewn on to the wired lugs. Very primitive and fragile by todays standards.
The reason it had the snap front case-cover was to help protect the glass crystal from getting cracked when a gentleman went hunting.
It is important to note that prior to World War I wrist watches for men did not exist. Ladies wore watches on straps around their wrist, but men wore their pocket watches on a chain and they kept their pocket watches in their vest pocket of their suit.
When a man was asked what he thought about wearing a watch on his wrist, one man remarked he wouldn't be caught doing such an unrefined thing. He said you would be as likely to catch him in a dress as you would wearing a watch on his wrist.
When you examine these first generation wristwatches, with the skinny strap, you can kind of understand why men would have thought they were feminine at the time.
When men went to fight in World War I having a timing device to synchronize events was invaluable. The challenge was that if you were a soldier living and fighting in a trench and you had to keep your pocket watch in your vest and it was freezing cold in the trench, in order to time events, you would have to take off your gloves, unbutton your trench-coat, unbutton your coat and reach in your pocket, while holding your rifle in the other hand. This process was clumsy and laborious.
Rare photo of a British soldier wearing a wristwatch in 1917 During World War I
With a wrist watch you could simply, glance at your wrist, even if you had gloves on. The modern wrist watch we take for granted today was born of war and began its life as a professional timing tool and war machine.
The Hermetically-Sealed Case
The next Rolex pictured below is called a Hermetic watch and it was made in 1924. This new style of watch completely protected the entire movement and notice that when it is sealed the watch winding crown is hidden inside the watch.
Think of a Hermetically sealed watch as being like a jar lid (with a round glass window) screwed on a jar. Once the lid is screwed into place, it forms an impervious barrier. No liquid can get in our out of the jar when the lid is securely screwed into place. (This of course is if you do not submerge the watch in deep water. At some point, without a gasket the case would fail and let water in).
This design was revolutionary at the time because it consited of two pieces. Basically you would spin the threaded cap off the front of the watch (think jar lid). The challenge was that in order to change the time or wind the watch–every day–you had to spin-off the top every time and then spin it back on afterward. Even though it worked, this design was short lived because it was a bit like having the on-off switch for the windshield wipers in the glove compartment of your car.
Notice also the face of the cap has a machined or fluted edge to make it easy to grip. Another challenge was that over time the fluted bezel would wear down so if you used it for a long time, eventually you would no longer be able to grip the face to twist it off.
This machined edge or fluted bezel is the genesis for the fluted bezels on modern Rolex watches including the Day-Date, Datejust and even on the sport Rolex professional models like the Submariner and GMT Master.
Note the wire lugs are soldered to the case, so the only way to replace the leather strap was to cut off the old one and sew on the new one. I think people got lazy with the sewing the strap in place deal and as you can see in the image below, they simply sewed across the strap horizontally as you can see at the bottom of the strap.
Hermetically sealed watches had a really interesting look since the winding crown was hidden in the case. Also notice in the photo of the hermetically sealed Rolex above that the fluting is not worn down. That is because this watch is steel, which is much harder than gold (like the two watches pictured above this one).
In part 2 of this series we will examine the revolutionary Rolex Oyster case and its profound impact on horology.
Table Of Contents
Part 8: The Birth Of The Rolex DEEP-SEA: Jacques Piccard & Captain Don Walsh aboard the U.S. Navy Bathyscaphe Trieste
Part 9: The First SEA-DWELLER's: Doctor Bond. U.S. Navy Project Genesis and Jacques Cousteau & Project CONSHELF
Part 10: The Birth Of The Rolex SEA-DWELLER: Bob Barth, Scott Carpenter & U.S. Navy SEA-LAB
Part 11: Henri Delauze & COMEX
Part 12: Dr. George Bass [The Father Of Underwater Archeology]
Part 13: Dr. Sylvia Earle: The First Female Aquanaut
Part 14: Dr. Phil Nuytten [Pioneering DEEP-SEA Explorer: The Real Aquaman]
Part 15: Dr. Robert Ballard: The Ultimate U.S. Navy DEEP-SEA Discovery Of The 20th Century–Finding The Titanic
Part 16: The Return of The Rolex DEEP-SEA