This week Rolex unveiled what can only be described as a modern technical marvel. The Deepsea Challenge is a watch that was a surprise to all, but something that die-hard fans of the Crown had been hoping for since 2012. The original Deepsea Challenge watch accompanied James Cameron on his record-smashing submarine dive to the deepest point of the world’s ocean, the Mariana Trench, a decade ago. That watch was a 52mm wide, 28mm deep behemoth strapped to the outside of Cameron’s craft and, like the original Rolex Deep Sea Special that went down to the bottom of the Trench in 1960, it performed perfectly. Aside from a very few exhibition-only mockups of the original Deepsea Challenge, those looking to sport the Challenge have been denied the opportunity until now. But you’ll need to work on those bicep curls because this new watch is a whopper.
A watch that is capable of withstanding a depth of 11,000 metres is mind-boggling. Eleven kilometres is a hair over 36,000 feet. Remember your last flight and the captain telling you that you were cruising at an altitude of 36,000 feet? That’s a long way from the ground, whether you are going above or below the surface. The average recreational diver will go no deeper than 130ft (so I’m told – I don’t do scuba), and commercial divers might venture as far as 2000ft in an atmospheric suit as part of a saturation dive. Even nuclear submarines of the Typhoon class only reach a test depth of 900 metres. All this is missing the point. The fact is that Rolex can make a commercial watch that can go to this depth, and it is the culmination of over 70 years of making over-engineered dive watches.
The first Submariner was launched in 1953, and then the Seadweller’s story began in the late 1960s. The Deepsea Challenge is the latest chapter in the helium-escape-valve (HEV) equipped Seadweller opus. One of the earliest uses of the Seadweller was the Tektite project, an underwater habitat consisting of two metal silos submerged on the seabed where aquanauts spent almost two months working. Rolex provided a number of early prototype Sea-Dwellers for the aquanauts to wear during the mission. The Rolex Submariner watches of the era were depth-rated to 200 metres, whereby the prototype Sea-Dweller was able to withstand a depth of 500m. Eventually, all Seadwellers were equipped with HEVs which made them perfect for professional use by commercial saturation divers, which led to a long-standing partnership with one of the most important diving companies in the world.
Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (Comex) was founded in the 1960s by Henri Germain Delauze. He had been very impressed with the Seadweller’s performance at record depths, and for many years, he ordered batches of Submariners and Seadwellers for his divers. Years later, Comex developed and manufactured a hyperbaric tank used to simulate extreme depths for Rolex to test its watches. This was first used for the 2008 Deepsea Seadweller, which is depth-rated to 3900 metres and has been instrumental in testing the Deepsea Challenge.
The new Deepsea Challenge has been refined for its commercial release, with 2mm shaved off its diameter and almost 5mm off its height. The new 50mm watch is also a lot lighter and, therefore, more wearable than the original, thanks to it being made from titanium, which means it is around 30% lighter. This is a key point, as it’s the first titanium watch that Rolex has made commercially, from what it is calling RLX titanium. RLX is grade five titanium and, we can assume, is what the brand used for the prototype Yacht-Master that Ben Ainslie was seen wearing last year. Titanium, as well as being very light, is highly resistant to corrosion and deformation, making it perfect for the Deepsea Challenge. This might be Rolex’s first titanium watch, but younger sibling Tudor has been making the Pelagos since 2012. I own the Pelagos FXD, and whilst it is the largest watch I’ve worn at 42mm, its lightness (and also low profile) make it supremely comfortable on the wrist. There is still no way I personally could wear a 50mm watch that is 23mm high, even in titanium, but there will be, without question, a strong market for such a watch.
One of the key strengths of the Deepsea Challenge is the crystal. The almost 10mm thick glass sits on the Rolex patented Ring Lock System. This system is an enhancement of Hans Wilsdorf’s original Oyster case, reinforcing the midcase with a compression ring made of steel. In fact, in line with the international standards for divers’ watches, the watch has to be tested at 25% over its stated depth. This means that if it had to, the watch could actually survive at a depth of 13,750 meters. As the Mariana Trench, the ocean’s deepest point on earth is ‘only’ around 11k deep, it’s an academic distinction. But we have the Comex machine to vouch for this performance.
The watch features a matte black dial, which a cool touch for fans of vintage Rolex dive watches, and it is the very first non-date Seadweller. Another retro touch is the profile of the lugs, which have a polished chamfer against the brushed lug tops. Rolex hasn’t confirmed if the watch is going to be limited, but again, this is a moot point as demand always exceeds supply with the Crown.
Rolex Deepsea Challenge, Ref: 126067
Movement: Rolex manufacture calibre 3230
Functions: Hours, minutes and seconds.
Case: 50mm RLX titanium
Dial: Matte black with white gold applied hours and Chromalight lume
Strap: RLX titanium Oyster bracelet
Price and availability: £21,850 available now