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1960-2010: ROLEX Celebrate 50 Years of Underwater Heritage

In January 1960, Rolex accompanied the submersible bathyscaph Trieste on the historic U.S. Navy dive to the Mariana Trench, reaching 10,916 metres (35,800 feet) onto the ocean floor.

On the evening of January 23, 1960 as the setting sun turned the surface of the Pacific Ocean deep orange, Swiss oceanographer and engineer Jacques Piccard and United States Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh packed up chocolate, nuts and their courage before lowering themselves through the narrow tube and into the cabin of the bathyscaph, Trieste. Unaware that they were about to make history and even less aware of what might await them at the bottom of the ocean, Piccard and Walsh watched as assistant Giuseppe Buono closed the heavy cabin door from above and all daylight disappeared. While Buono opened the air vents from topside, the crew bolted it shut from the inside and their adventure began.

After having purchased the vessel, organized and financed the entire endeavour, the U.S. Navy then spent nine months preparing the Trieste and her team to participate in Project Nekton, a series of scientifically conducted deep dives carried out near the island of Guam in the Western Pacific. Nekton was, according to a U.S. Navy press release, a high-level undertaking intended to provide "scientific knowledge of sunlight penetration, underwater visibility, transmission of man-made sounds, and marine geological studies." Strapped to the outside of the Trieste was a Rolex “Deep Sea Special”, the most advanced in a series of prototypes designed to withstand pressure that no human could ever survive. Together, the Rolex and the Trieste descended into uncharted waters.

Engineered to explore the approximately seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water, the bathyscaph was a design of simple genius. Auguste Piccard, the brilliant and inquisitive inventor of the bathyscaph and Jacques Piccard’s father, was fond of stating that he firmly believed “the first answer is never the right answer”. When the Piccards began to test the Trieste in 1953, the engineers at Rolex had been on their own quest for perfection for decades and were equally eager to embark on the bold series of missions that were to come. The participation of the U.S. Navy allowed Professor Piccard to put his creation into action and realize his dream of the ultimate underwater exploratory mission.

Rolex was present from 1953, when the Trieste was first launched, allowing the Swiss watch company to gain enormous experience and knowledge from the close collaboration in the years that would follow. In tandem with dives undertaken by the Trieste, Rolex carried out rigorous testing of the second version of its Deep Sea Special. In August 1953 the Trieste, with the Deep Sea Special strapped to the outside, descended to 1,080 metres (approximately 3,543 feet), then to 3,150 metres (approximately 10,334 feet) later the same year, finally reaching 3,700 metres (approximately 12,138 feet) in 1956.

In early 1958 the U.S. Navy purchased the Trieste from the Piccards; Jacques was hired as a consultant to train personnel to maintain and operate it. The sphere of the Trieste - originally designed to withstand pressure at 6,000 metres (approximately 19,684 feet) - was then enlarged and perfected to withstand 11,000 metres (approximately 36,088 feet) of pressure. In all, the Trieste carried out 64 dives before the ship and her crew were ready for the ultimate test.

In jarringly rough seas on January 23, 1960 and with Piccard at his side, Walsh piloted the Trieste toward the silent darkness of the Mariana Trench. At almost 11 kilometres (approximately 6.8 miles) below sea level the area known as the Challenger Deep - the deepest known depression on the surface of our planet - was believed to be inhospitable to any life form, harbouring only skeletons. While the approximate location of the Trench was known, its exact coordinates were not and dynamite charges and sound propagation calculations were used to decipher the exact location some 320 kilometres (approximately 200 miles) off of the coast of Guam.

At 10,916 metres (35, 800 feet), the pressure is over one metric tonne per square centimetre (approximately 1.1 U.S. tons per .15 of a square inch). To the surprise of the crew and, later, to the entire scientific community, with the help of the light provided by the bathyscaph’s mercury vapour lamps, Walsh and Piccard witnessed something no man had seen: marine life at the very bottom of the ocean. When the Trieste surfaced nearly 9 hours later, it became the first vessel – manned or unmanned – to reach the deepest part of the Earth’s ocean. The record set that day one half a century ago remains unequalled by any manned vessel to this day. On January 25, 1960, a telegram arrived at the Rolex headquarters in Geneva. “Happy to announce that your watch works as well at 11,000 meters as it does on the surface”. It was signed Jacques Piccard.

Ever since Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf named the first waterproof wristwatch the “Oyster” in 1926, Rolex has been studying the tools needed by professionals in extreme conditions. The Deep Sea Special was developed to demonstrate the efficiency of the waterproof Oyster. Direct descendants of the Deep Sea Special, the Submariner (launched in 1953), and the Sea-Dweller (launched in 1967) permitted, for the first time, those working in fields other than those dedicated to science and research to understand the technical marvel Rolex had produced. Both models became indispensible equipment for serious underwater exploration such as that undertaken by the professional divers of COMEX, the French dive specialists with whom Rolex worked to perfect their underwater watches. The Trieste dive made Rolex watches a part of the collective, professional conscience, and scientists have regularly relied on them ever since.

Rolex has continually encouraged the world’s foremost scientists in their explorations, enjoying long relationships with some of the best-known ocean pioneers in the world. Jacques-Yves Cousteau, the maverick undersea explorer, was an internationally known champion of the seas. Like him, Sylvia Earle, the intrepid U.S. marine biologist, understands the importance of exploration to man’s very survival on this planet. “We are dependant on the natural systems that sustain us. If we take care of the ocean and the rest of the natural world we're really taking care of ourselves.” With over 7,000 hours underwater, Dr. Earle’s experience is an invaluable contribution to the vital task of education.

The quest for perfection has been the driving force at the heart of every technological advance made by Rolex for more than one hundred years. In the preceding century, it became clear that this knowledge and determination could also be put towards actions that would make the planet a better place for future generations. As such Rolex has a long history of supporting endeavours to maintain the delicate equilibrium that exists between man and animal, and to preserving the Earth’s natural resources.

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