To Dive For: How the Rolex Oyster Changed Watches Forever


Earlier this spring, Rolex introduced a number of new Oyster watches at Baselworld in Switzerland. Headlining the assortment is the GMT-Master II, which includes a brand-new Rolex movement (called Calibre 3285) and offers a fresh cosmopolitan look with a bidirectional rotatable bezel and two-color Cerachrom insert. What’s most impressive about this watch, perhaps, is that its heritage dates back more than 90 years, when Rolex first debuted the Oyster model—the first waterproof and dustproof watch in the world.

Created in 1926, the Rolex Oyster was the first-ever completely hermetic wristwatch. “Gentlemen, we make the best wristwatch in the world,” Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf declared to an assembly of retailers a few months later, in January 1927, assuring them, “The Oyster is, in our opinion, the most important invention regarding watches of recent years.” The design’s airtight seal was the result of a patented system with a screw-down bezel, case back, and winding crown. Most importantly, the watch didn’t sacrifice form for function and maintained a sleek aesthetic design. 

Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea

A few years later, in 1931, Rolex patented a self-winding mechanism called Perpetual (soon to be the standard adopted by the entire watch industry), perfecting the Oyster’s precision, waterproofing, and reliability. Over the decades, the brand has developed an extensive collection from the Oyster Perpetual, continuing to incorporate new innovations that allow the watch to withstand the most extreme elements.

In 1927, Wilsdorf outfitted English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze with an Oyster to cross the English Channel, and the watch endured more than 10 hours under water. Eight years later, race-car driver Sir Malcolm Campbell wore his Oyster as he broke the mythical speed barrier, reporting, “The Rolex watch is still keeping perfect time. I was wearing it yesterday when Bluebird exceeded 300 mph.” And in 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Sir John Hunt were the first to reach Everest’s summit wearing, you guessed it, a Rolex Oyster. 

From Jacques Piccard’s 35,000-foot dive in 1960 to James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge expedition with National Geographic Society in 2012, the Oyster has proven its durability to the depths of the ocean. “It’s a tremendous example of engineering and know-how,” Cameron said. Today, the Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea continues to evolve, and this year’s Baselworld introduction features the cutting-edge Calibre 3235, which provides a power reserve of approximately 70 hours. 

For many, appreciating the model’s technical superiority stems from a love of good design, but for others, it’s a matter of life and death. “The only diving instruments which performed all the time were our Rolex watches—the Oyster Perpetual Rolex Deepsea model,” noted Emmanuelle Périé, a member of the 2010 Deepsea Under the Pole Expitition. From the depths of the ocean to the peaks of Everest, 92 years of testimonials speak for themselves.