Diving Rex - An Original Owner of the Rolex Comex coming up for auction at Phillips Hong Kong Watch Sale XIIBy Ross Povey
What is it that makes people collect watches? What is it that makes a watch collectible? There are no right or wrong answers to either question and one man’s junk is another man’s treasure; never is a truer word said when it comes to wristwatches. I use the term junk carefully, but often watches were simply cast aside as retired tools-of-the-trade by some professionals, ‘tools’ that can now be worth small fortunes! This is particularly the case when it comes to dive watches and especially those made by Rolex. The two most famous professional applications for the Rolex Submariner was its being issued to the British MOD and to divers employed by Comex.
Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (Comex) was established in the 1960s and is still regarded as one of the leading commercial diving companies. As well as offering commercial diving solutions to different sectors, they have always been at the forefront of setting new diving records. Comex founder, Henri Germain Delauze, forged a long-standing relationship with Rolex having been impressed with the Sea-Dweller’s capability at record depths. This relationship led to Rolex commissioning Comex to develop and manufacture a hyperbaric tank that can simulate the conditions of extreme depths in which Rolex can test its watches. In 2008 Rolex released the Deepsea Sea-Dweller, which is depth-rated to 3900 metres. The Comex-manufactured tank is used to test each of the Deepsea Sea-Dwellers produced.
I was introduced to Rex Whistler through his son, himself a friend of Revolution founder Wei Koh. Rex and I both live in the North of the UK and over a few conversations I learnt of his work with Comex and the fact that he was issued a watch to use during his time with the company. Fast forward a few months and that watch is now in the upcoming Phillips Hong Kong Watch Sale XII. The watch in question is a Comex issued Rolex Submariner reference 5513 that is equipped with a helium escape valve. The watch has been with Rex since he was given it in 1972, but the time has come for him to let it go, having been sitting in a safe for the best part of the last decade. Rex explains, “A while ago, my son made me aware that these old Rolex Subs are getting more and more valuable. Whilst it holds a wealth of memories for me of my time working all over the world as a commercial diver, I haven’t worn it for some time now for fear of losing it or damaging it in some way.”
A Life Aquatic
Rex Whistler was a career diver who prior to Comex, worked with Risdon Beazley as a diver and engineer working in salvage operations. Diving was not something unusual to the family, as Rex’s wife’s grandfather had been a diver, amazingly also at Risdon Beazley. Rex initially learnt to dive with the BASC, as an amateur diver in order to further his interest in underwater archeology. “I worked with a group that was excavating the Mary Ross in Portsmouth harbour. The work involved using underwater suction dredgers to remove mud and silt from what remained of the Henry VIII warship which seemed like a pretty good experience.”
He joined Risdon Beazley Marine in 1970 and at the time Risdon’s were engaged in salvage of war wreckage from sunken ships, the primary means of salvaging being a Hydraulic grab directed by divers to recover ordinance and coal, which were in short supply at that time. Says Rex, “The Diving dress was a Siebe Gorman hard hat, which was an interesting introduction to a diving career!” He joined Comex as a Diver in Spring 1973 at the age of 24 and attended a 3 months training course at COMEX in Marseilles where he was taught bell diving, technical skills, familiarity with the systems, diving equipment and physiology of diving. Rex continues, “After qualifying I worked primarily in the North Sea UK sector, Norway and the West Indies. I later returned to COMEX Marseilles for further training as a Superintendent and Caisson Master. I was present at the latter end of a series of trial dives to depths of up to 610M using Oxy/Helium to monitor physical and mental changes and HPNS (high pressure nervous syndrome) during saturation and to test decompression tables for commercial use. I was part of the team supporting some of these trials and participated in some of the dives testing decompression tables.”
Comex had a large presence in the North Sea and it was here that Rex Whistler spent a good amount of his career. “During my time with COMEX I initially worked with a small team in support of drilling operations in depths up to 160m in the North Sea and Norway. I then moved to saturation work for construction projects. As the North Sea moved quickly into the new construction phase there was a need for working at depth for extended periods. This required both new equipment and the use of ‘saturation’ as a means to maintain teams of divers at depth for up to 30 days (legal limit in UK waters at the time), followed by a single decompression in the surface diving complex. The saturation systems consist of a number of living chambers, a ‘wet’ transfer chamber, and a diving bell. Equipment rapidly developed with the innovation of hot-water suits and much improved breathing equipment such as the Kirby Morgan masks/helmets. Particularly the move to operating from a DSV (diving support vessel) using DP (dynamic positioning) to maintain position over the worksite which created a new set of challenges, particularly the safety of divers if the vessel should experience a DP runoff, which was not uncommon.”
Life After Comex
Rex left COMEX in 1978 to join Prodive Ltd as Training Director responsible for running UK government approved commercial diving courses providing training for North Sea divers. He co-authored the “Commercial Diving Manual”, published by David & Charles. It became the standard textbook for commercial diving training in the UK which is still in use today and is in its third edition. Following this, Rex joined Oceaneering in 1981 as Vehicles Manager responsible for the atmospheric “JIM” suit and ROV’s. “I returned to COMEX/Wharton Williams Taylor as Project manager in 1983 and was appointed Operations Manager of Wilhelmson Underwater engineering Norway (joint venture with Wilhelmson shipping and COMEX/2W). I moved on in 2001 to Conoco/Phillips in Norway and South East Asia over a period of 12 years working on offshore oil and gas projects.” Rex retired in 2012 and now lives in North Yorkshire.
The watch has been well looked after, like any piece of equipment that a diver would use. “When we were first given the watches, we were required to return them to Rolex for inspection each year, but by the late 70’s this stopped, and I had the watch serviced myself about every 10 years thereafter. I have been wearing the watch pretty much all the time since 1972. The original bracelet was very weak and was not fit for purpose (referring to the original folded link Oyster bracelet). For a long time, many divers used a grey UK Navy ‘clearance diver’ strap which could be expanded.”
The 5513 is one of approximately 250 Submariners that were given to divers by Comex between 1971 and 1973. The watch consigned by Rex has both the Rolex and Comex engravings on the caseback as well as the issue number, 240. Far from being a watch that he wore on dry land at the bar or when out for dinner, it was a watch that he wore when undertaking diving duties and when in saturation. “I was given the watch in around 1972. I used the watch for most of my diving career, particularly in saturation. The watch was first used during work in COMEX Marseilles to develop deep diving decompression tables. The exposure to a Helium environment during decompression required the gas to escape otherwise the watch crystal would explode and pop off the watch, as it was not possible to seal the watch.”
So there is it. An interesting watch, from an interesting original owner with a fascinating story. With something of a surge in interest in Comex Rolex watches recently, I’m sure this old Sub will perform well at auction.
The Hong Kong Watch Auction: XII by Phillips starts on June 5.