Conquering the Deep: The Relationship Between Rolex and COMEX
As one of the brands that first pioneered the dive watch category back in 1953, Rolex is one of the industry leaders in producing timepieces that can withstand the harsh and demanding conditions that exist deep below the surface of the ocean. While the vast majority of recreational scuba diving occurs in less than 30 meters of water – a depth that is easily reached by most dive watches – it was the commercial diving industry and their experiments with different gas mixtures during the late 1960s, that forced the professional dive watch to evolve.
In 1961, Henri Germain Delauze, a French commercial diver and engineer founded Compagnie Maritime d'Expertises (COMEX). Delauze’s formal education was in engineering, and his professional background included everything from research with Jacques Cousteau to consultant work for the United States Navy. The diverse accumulation of more than twenty years of experience gave him an excellent understanding of the future needs of underwater sea work, and the perfect skillset to start a company that would specialize in this growing industry.
Shortly after its founding, COMEX quickly grew to occupy a leading position within the offshore oil drilling industry, since few other companies had the ability to perform the necessary repairs on off-shore platforms. Saturation diving and hydrogen/helium-based air mixtures allowed COMEX divers to dive deeper and stay at-depth longer; however standard dive watches were no longer able to keep up with their increasingly demanding needs, forcing them to look elsewhere for a viable underwater timekeeping device.
Rolex has a longstanding commitment to the world of deep-sea exploration, and as COMEX’s needs outgrew the abilities of their existing dive watches, Rolex began designing the next generation of dive-specific timepieces, which could withstand the needs of modern commercial divers. For Rolex, their relationship with COMEX was far more than just a simple publicity stunt. COMEX’s position at the forefront of deep-sea exploration gave Rolex the best possible testing ground for their new technologies, and also provided them with real-world feedback from the very divers that would ultimately use these highly capable, dive-specific timepieces.
It was through this partnership that the (now super collectable) COMEX Submariner and Sea-Dweller watches were manufactured. In total, nine different references were issued to COMEX divers: 5513, 5514, 1665, 1680, 16660, 16800, 168000, 16600, and 16610. While most of these watches have the COMEX logo printed on their dials and engravings on their case-backs, some of the earliest watches lacked these distinctive features, such as the reference 5513 Submariners fitted with prototype helium gas escape valves that were issued to select divers at COMEX for extensive field testing.
The reference 5514 is unique among the various Rolex COMEX watches, as it is the one reference number among the nine that was never officially released and sold to the public. After successful testing of their patented, helium escape valve on prototype reference 5513 Submariner watches, COMEX placed an order for additional watches with this feature-set, and Rolex filled this order with the reference 5514. Several batches of reference 5514 watches were manufactured, each with its own subtle differences; however no reference 5514 watches were ever sold through authorized retailers to the public.
Today, the various surviving examples of Rolex watches with the “COMEX” logo on their dials rank among the most collectable and highly sought-after dive timepieces in existence. While vintage dive watches are (or at least used to be) necessary pieces of equipment that were once required for scuba diving, they would have no purpose or illustrious history without the divers that once used them for their intended purposes. Although many were simply manufactured as a means to field-test Rolex’s next generation of dive watch technologies, they have come to represent the overlap of two legendary and pioneering companies, each one at the forefront of its own respective industry.