Q: Who created the world’s first truly underwater wristwatch?
A: Other watchmakers might lay claim to creating the first modern dive watch; not everyone knows, for example, that the Panerai Radiomir (which, incidentally,
used a Rolex movement) predated the Rolex Submariner by almost twenty years! But without question, Rolex made the world’s first waterproof watch, from which all
waterproof watches of any depth are descendants.
Created in 1926, the Rolex Oyster was the first truly waterproof and dustproof wristwatch, the creation of which was a major horological event. It had a
screw-down crown and screw-down caseback, each of which were lined with rubber gaskets — a hermetically-sealed case that protected the movement, the dial
and everything else inside. The 1926 watch marked the origin of the term “oyster,” which today designates waterproofness among myriad Rolex models, from
the Day Date to the Daytona.
In 1927, Rolex founder Hans Wildorf famously gave Mercedes Gleitze one of the earliest Rolex Oysters to wear on her attempt to repeat her swim across the
English Channel. The watch was actually worn around her neck, not on her wrist. After 10 hours In icy cold water — much colder than it was for her first,
successful attempt earlier that year — she was pulled from the water only half-conscious. Her Rolex was bone dry inside. When we think of early Oyster
watches, we think of that Channel swim, just like we think of Sir Edmund Hillary’s successful ascent of Mount Everest with regard to the Rolex Explorer. (Click here to learn more about the history of the Explorer.)
To celebrate Gleitze’s Channel swim and the Oyster’s success, Rolex published a full page ad in the Daily Mail newspaper, in the UK. That was really the start of what we might call Rolex’s tradition of published testimonials, which are wonderful to read. Years later, Rolex published a
beautifully hand-illustrated book called Every Rolex Tells a Story, in which the company reproduced unsolicited customer letters about their
experiences with their Rolexes. One is from a World War II pilot who was ejected through his canopy window at 22,000 feet, traveling at 400 knots at 19Gs.
Another is from a German skier who lost his Rolex on the slopes, only to find it frozen in a block of ice two-and-a-half months later, still in working
order. So many Rolex wearers are such passionate users of their watches — often wearing just one Rolex throughout their lives — that stories like these are
Waterproofness was the first sport feature developed for a watch. Remember that in the 1920s wristwatches were still a novelty; people mostly used pocket
watches. Waterproofing the watch, and the Mercedes Gleitze story, helped people get used to the idea that you don’t have to take off your watch all the
time, you can just keep wearing it. Thus did the Oyster forever link Rolex to the adventurous, sporting life experience for which it has since come to be synonymous.