Monday, September 19, 2022

Updating the Deepsea Challenge



In 2012, when James Cameron landed at the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the Earth's deepest abyss, he looked at the manipulator arm of the submersible he singlehandedly piloted and saw the Rolex Deepsea Challenge ticking. 

"Oh, I see the second hand going!" he said out loud. "Yeah baby, we are good! We have us a working watch!!!"


This year marks 10 years since Cameron's historic dive to the Mariana Trench. But 2022 marks also 150 years since the HMS Challenger left on the scientific mission that first discovered the deepest point on the planet where Cameron landed his submersible—a spot aptly named "Challenger Deep," after the British vessel.

The 12,000-meter-rated Rolex watch attached to the outside of Cameron's submersible is now a decade old and should be updated.


Since 2019, Omega on its website is claiming the No. 1 spot from Rolex: Omega says its Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional holds the record for the deepest dive. In 2019, Victor Vescovo piloted his submersible to the deepest point on planet Earth after having sonar-mapped the ocean floor to find the deepest spot in the Mariana Trench, deeper than Cameron's landing spot, according to depth measurements of that day. The Planet Ocean strapped to Vescovo's submersible had been tested in Omega's labs to 15,000m. 


A decade ago, when Rolex watchmakers were testing Cameron's Deepsea Challenge for the first time in the so-called "Mariannes" tank inside Rolex labs in Switzerland, the tension in the room was palpable. The design engineers, watchmakers and several other people involved in the project had gathered to attend the test. And when the watch came out of the tank unscathed, everyone burst into applause, a rare display of emotions for the cool-and-collected, buttoned-up Swiss company.


To be sure, in 1960, another experimental Rolex, the Rolex Deep Sea Special, was attached to the exterior of the bathyscaphe Trieste piloted by U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh and oceanographer Jacques Piccard reaching a record depth of 10,916m. But it looked nothing like Cameron's Deepsea, which had all the updated technology, complete with a ceramic bezel, sapphire crystal and Rolex's 3135 movement.
Now Rolex should update further its 2012 record-setting watch. 

For starters, the watch should be equipped with the new, state-of-the-art 3230 movement, a no-date movement which is a departure from Cameron's Deepsea Challenge. No one really needs to know what date it is at 10.9km below the surface, where the bigger concern is being crushed by the pressure equivalent of six SUVs piled on top of your Rolex. Design-wise the no-date choice makes the watch dial more balanced and more pro-looking. Omega's Planet Ocean Ultra Deep Professional also eschews a date complication.

The new watch should be made entirely from titanium. A year ago, I wrote about Sir Ben Ainslie's Rolex Yacht-Master prototype in full titanium which has yet to be commercialized. Cameron's watch in 2012 was built with the heavier 904L steel and a case back in titanium. Still, the new Deepsea Challenge should be updated with the full case in ultra-resistant Grade 5 titanium.

The Swiss watchmaking industry is competing against the biggest watch seller of our days—Apple—with the four pillars untouched by smartwatches: 

1. Timelessness. Rolex uses the word "perpetual" while Patek talks about watches lasting generations
2. Cosplay. Whether it's a watch worn on the Moon, by James Bond, aviators, or in ocean's greatest depths. 
3. Heritage. Faux patina, model reissue, or just a red text saying "Sea-Dweller." Rolex's historical arc, beginning in 1905, is unmatched. 
4. Luxury. Two-tone Explorer, Rootbeer GMT, Bluesy Sub or meteorite-dial Daytona, luxury watches are still men's jewelry—a domain hardly touched by smartwatches.

While the Deepsea Challenge has timelessness, cosplay and luxury (it's a Rolex after all), it does lack the heritage angle essential to the four pillars of today's mechanical watch marketing. I would add a throwback James Cameron gradiant blue dial or a commemorative engraving on the caseback à la Speedmaster.


Either way, the Deepsea Challenge is an important watch in the history of watchmaking and in the history of exploration. After 1960 and for more than half a century, the Rolex Deep Sea Special remained the only watch to be tested at the deepest ocean floor in real life conditions. When James Cameron made his historic dive, fewer people had gone to the deepest point of the ocean than to the Moon. It's time for Rolex to update its Deepsea Challenge and reclaim the title of King of the Deep.