Race to the bottom: Rolex and Omega's fight over COMEX
By Andrew Green
The 1960s was an interesting time for watches – and for the world – as the human race ventured further than ever before. There was an obsession with space exploration and the future, fuelled further by films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and The Planet of the Apes (1968). Exploration of any sorts throughout pop culture was cool, relevant and exciting. The world watched on eagerly as we discovered new depths and developed exciting new technology along the way.
Although this excitement peaked with the Moon Landing in 1969, an obsession with conquering the unknown lingered. For brands producing watches, this fascination with exploration presented a new opportunity to take their products to a whole new level, and market to a captive audience.
A time of exploration
Like the famous Space Race, another competition much closer to earth had begun – the race to the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean. In the same vein that Omega attached themselves to the moonwatch, both Rolex and Omega were eager to prove their prowess and jump aboard the new trend that was deep sea diving.
Very much carrying on the tradition that Rolex started in the 1920s, the 1960s and 70s were a time where demonstrating performance was more important than a celebrity sporting your watch. If you’re in the business of tool watches, specifically tools built for diving – then your competitive edge was all about how deep you could go.
Saturation diving was both dangerous and exciting, as the development of experimental underwater habitats, such as SEALAB I, II and III, built to test the limits of the human race demonstrated. Through using saturation diving and isolation, the objective was to learn more about the human limits of physiological and psychological strain – pushing deep sea diving into a new era.
Techniques in saturation diving were being developed to extend dive times. In order to go deeper for longer and combat the stress on the human body at such intense depths, a mixture of breathing gases with high helium content was used. Essentially, divers were kept in a pressurised environment, matched with that of the water, and decompression was done at the end of the tour. Having less decompressions equals less risk, but presents challenges of its own.
Water resistance was only part of the equation, and in 1960 Rolex’s sub-aquatic adventures were well underway. They attached a highly experimental watch to the bathyscaphe Trieste, on an expedition led by Jacques Piccard, a Swiss Oceanographer, and Lt Don Walsh. This radical timepiece, the Deep Sea Special, successfully endured the unfathomable pressures of 10,916 meters, in the depths of the Mariana Trench. When the vessel resurfaced, the Deep Sea Special had kept perfect time.
The other element – helium – presented a challenge; how to build a watch that would stand up to the pressure of extreme depths, and cope with the helium used in saturation diving, while remaining intact upon decompression. Two particularly interesting watches birthed as a solution to the problem, came from Rolex and Omega. Both brands took very different approaches to solving the same problem, with the results aesthetically and functionally very different.
The Perfect Partner
To Rolex and Omega, caught in corporate rivalry, there was tremendous value in alignment with COMEX, as they fought for the opportunity to sell the world's best dive watch.
Omega was first
After unknowingly conquering outer space with their ‘Moon watch’, Omega set their sights closer to home, forging an exclusive partnership with COMEX from 1968 to 1971.They worked closely with the dive firm, testing prototypes and developing new watches. Most famously, the Omega Seamaster 600 Ploprof. Omega wanted to produce the ultimate saturation dive watch, to satisfy the legitimate market demand of a booming industry.
Throughout this relationship, and the development of the Seamaster 600 Ploprof, Comex divers fed back critical information to Omega. This greatly influenced the Ploprof’s design, leading to tweaks like darkening of the dial to allow for a higher contrast under water.
The genuine input from COMEX resulted in a watch that put utility and functionality first. To begin with, they started with an entirely new design in collaboration with COMEX, and decided to tackle this head on with sheer force. Thus, the Omega Seamaster 600 was built from a solid piece of stainless steel, with only two points of entry, the crystal and the crown. Beyond the case design, Omega’s functionality-first approach continues to the Ploprof’s oversized plongeur hands, which were designed with legibility in mind.
Iconic to the Ploprof is the bright red bezel lock, which prevents an accidental knock of the bi-directional bezel. Another secure addition, the Ploprof’s innovative crown lock leveraged torsional stress on the seals to ensure waterproofness. Omega’s innovation extended to the experimental case materials used in early prototypes of the Ploprof, having used both titanium and AC Uranus steel, now more popularly known as 904L. Without a doubt, using a forceful and over-engineered approach, the Ploprof was determined to simply stop Helium gas for entering the case.
Robert was involved heavily with the COMEX relationship, and was a 'go-between' during his time at Omega, staying with Omega until 1972.
A rocky relationship
It is worth noting that the relationship between COMEX and Omega had a rocky start, after the aborted HYDRA mission in 1968. It was planned to be a human dive test aimed at proving the efficacy of a hydrogen-oxygen mix at depths greater than 300m. Omega had high hopes for HYDRA and had planned to market the success with a COMEX-approved press release titled 'Inner space'. A perfect complement to their previous 'outer space’ credentials. Had Omega achieved that same success with COMEX its competitors would have been rather embarrassed, in particular Rolex, who at that time had focused on working with the US Navy in the development of its dive watches.
Eventually Omega’s relationship with COMEX ended, and not long after, Omega released the very first Ploprof to market in 1971. COMEX themselves soared in popularity, thrust further into the limelight, gaining more success, and alongside that, a requirement for more watches.
Much later, in 1977, Omega commercialised the Ploprof 0 (or Seamaster 1000), which interestingly was developed in tandem with the Ploprof 1 (or Seamaster 600). The backstory here is that in 1968 Omega presented both of these watches to COMEX. They gave the feedback that, although a novel idea, the bezel lock of the Ploprof 1 was not needed, preferring the Seamaster 1000 which had the unidirectional bezel with no lock, as it was the easier to use to design.
Ultimately Omega decided to instead bring the Ploprof 1 to market first. A decision which eventually defined ‘the Ploprof’ as we know it today. Looking to recuperate the large investment in the Ploprof, Omega knew they needed to look beyond the rather small pool of professional saturation divers and target the general public. Built to perform with striking looks to match, the Ploprof 1 oozed hardcore dive watch, perfect for anyone looking to play the part.
Rolex shake things up
Prior to the partnership with COMEX, Rolex had a very different approach to testing their products, they would loan their watches out to divers, in exchange for routine test reports. From 1968 to 1971 Rolex aligned themselves with the US Navy, working closely on their experimental diving unit, most famously their underwater SEALAB habitats. Under this relationship, Rolex issued watches to SEALAB divers – known as Aquanauts. Examples of these SEALAB issued Rolexes are extremely rare, and seldom seen.
Initially, Rolex was excited by the vast potential of the relationship, well aware of the upside on such a partnership. However, it appears that the US Navy’s progress was slowed down by bureaucracy. Rolex watched on frustrated, as the Omega and COMEX partnership appeared to advance at a rapid pace.
So, as the story goes, in 1971 then Rolex CEO, Andre Heiniger, reached out to COMEX founder, Henri-Germain Delauze with a rather straightforward proposal. Rolex would provide all COMEX divers with special Rolex Submariner and Sea-Dweller watches at no cost, in exchange for COMEX providing detailed performance analysis reports – thus satisfying COMEX’s need for more timepieces as they grew.
It's important to remember that Rolex didn't get it right straight away. Their Submariner models suffered under decompression as the helium gas would force their crystal's to pop out of the case with some force. Then very first Sea-Dweller models which are often considered prototypes, with a single line of red text, weren't perfect either. Of the six that are known to have been made only two of them feature the crystal-saving helium escape valve.
A common misnomer is that, like Omega – Rolex worked in the same collaborative way with COMEX to develop the Sea-Dweller. In reality, the Sea-Dweller was named by the SEALAB divers, meaning the famous Paten Pending Double Red Sea-Dweller (PPDRSD) ref. 1665 was created prior to Rolex's relationship with COMEX in 1971. That same year the Rolex Sea-Dweller 1665 was launched to the public, after 5 years of prototyping.
At this point, Rolex’s revolutionary Helium Escape Valve had been developed with patents applied for but not yet approved, hence the ‘Patent Pending’ engraved on the early Sea-Dweller’s caseback and diver’s extension link. The HEV’s genius was its simplicity, a spring loaded one-way value that simply opened to allow trapped gas to equalise, when the pressure within the watch exceeded the ambient pressure. In essence, decompressing with the diver.
Nicknamed the Double Red Sea-Dweller, after the two lines of red text on the dial – ‘Sea-Dweller’ and ‘Submariner 2000’ – demonstrating that this model was simply an extension of the Submariner. So, unlike Omega, Rolex didn’t develop a new watch, the relationship was led with the concept of heavy duty product testing, with strategic brand alignment a close second.
The two watches birthed
Side by side, these are two very different watches, representing two very different approaches to the same problem.
On one hand, the Rolex Sea-Dweller, a restrained evolution of an existing model is arguably more significant. With clear design ties to Rolex’s famous submariner, and the game changing helium escape valve, that went on to be commonplace on any serious deep dive watch.
Omega on the other hand developed something entirely new, different, and built for purpose – albeit with less commercial success. Which isn’t to say the Ploprof was a miss, in fact during the 1970s, it was immortalised by Gianni Agnelli. The Chairman of Fiat famously wore his Ploprof over his shirt cuff due to an allergic reaction to the case materials. In an interesting ‘what-if’ of history, had Omega gone with titanium, the Ploprof might’ve not received the same cult status.
As far as the better tool, both did the job, however, the technology developed by Rolex during this process made a bigger splash on the industry in decades to come. Even being adopted by Omega later down the line.
Omega won the battle, but Rolex won the war
Rolex continued their official relationship with Comex until 1997, which ended with the Rolex Sea-Dweller, Reference 16600. Throughout the partnership, Rolex was involved in several highly publicised world records, highlighting just how comfortable the Sea-Dweller was at the deepest depths of the ocean.
For Rolex, functionality, like waterproofness, has been a leading driver behind much of their innovation, and is still a very important thing to them today. Further demonstrating the crown’s passion for the deep seas is their partnership with Rolex ambassador, and film director James Cameron. In 2012 when Cameron made a record-breaking solo dive in the Deepsea Challenger, 10,908 meters (35,787 feet) below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, to the bottom of the Mariana Trench. This marked the first time humans had gone to such depths, since the first historic dive in the bathyscaphe Trieste in 1960. Naturally, just like in 1960, a Rolex accompanied Cameron. Following the successful dive, Rolex went on to release a Sea-Dweller Deepsea (reference 126660) with a gradient blue dial, to commemorate the occasion.
Then, in May 2019, Omega partnered with The Five Deeps expedition team, setting a new world record for the deepest dive in history. Piloted by Victor Vescovo, the dive took 12 hours, and accompanying Vescovo was three specially developed Omega Seamaster Planet Ocean Ultra Deep watches. Using sonar mapping to identify the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, Vescvo piloted his submersible to 10,928m below, just 12 meters deeper than the Bathyscaphe Trieste's 1960 world record.
These examples go to show that corporate one-upmanship is alive and well. A pointed quote on Omega’s website, referencing the dive really drives the point home:
“Like the submersible, OMEGA’s Ultra Deep was built to last: designed for multiple dives and not just a single shot at the world record”
A piece of history
Regardless of the brand, a COMEX-issued piece is rare, special and highly sought after. And understandably so, these weren’t publicly sold watches, and much like military pieces, they were ‘issued’ with a very specific purpose in mind. Thanks to the detailed and often well documented nature of these issued watches value is further boosted by the colourful and fascinating provenance that comes with a COMEX timepiece. Jed McCorrmack, a vintage Rolex expert told us about a Rolex COMEX Submariner 5514 that he owns. Bought from the original owner, a saturation diver involved with the world record salvage recovery of over $100 million dollars of gold bullion from the HMS Edinburgh.
“Watches with a history like this are what it's all about, NOS bank manager's desk diver watches are all well and good, but pieces and people that have been out there and done things really are special in my book.”
Both the Sea-Dweller and Ploprof have stood the test of time, with both brands offering modern day executions, proudly leaning on the fascinating history they both share with saturation diving. For Rolex, in typical fashion, the Sea-Dweller has seen slight evolution over the years, whilst remaining at the forefront of their technical watches.
Omega on the other hand, has commercialised the Ploprof much more. It is currently offered in 10 variations, with a range including precious metals and titanium. In fact, you can even purchase a Ploprof with a clear caseback, made possible, in a deliciously ironic twist of history, thanks to the addition of a helium escape valve.
Thank you to Jed McCormack, Jose from Perezcope.com, and Omega’s Brand Heritage Manager Petros Protopapas.