The Origin of the COMEX Rolex ‘Sea Dweller’ Diver’s Watch

Rolex "Sea Dweller"

Rolex "Sea Dweller"

During the late 1960s, in collaboration with COMEX—a France-based professional dive company—Rolex developed its “Submariner” model to meet the most stringent technical and professional demands of the professional deep-sea diver. In the process, Rolex eventually produced a very different watch from the Submariner and named it the “Sea Dweller,” which is still in production today.

COMEX divers not only needed solutions for water resistance at extreme depth, they also faced the danger of explosive decompression caused by helium penetrating the interior of the watch (divers breathed the mixture of oxygen and helium within their hyperbaric chamber after lengthy deep sea dives). To maintain a pressure identical to that underwater, the mixture in the hyperbaric chambers remained the same during the different phases of work and rest periods. This system was designed to eliminate the need to depressurize the chamber after each phase of work.

Before returning to free air, and depending on the depth attained, a period of depressurization was necessary to equalize the internal and external tension of the human organism. Though the process of depressurization is slow, the gas that accumulated inside the watch, having no means to escape fast enough, exploded the crystal off the watch, thereby risking injury to those inside the chamber and severely damaging an expensive watch.

Rolex collaborated with COMEX to develop a solution by installing a one-way pressure escape valve on the side of the watch case, at the nine o’clock position. The one-way valve will begin to equalize the pressure inside the watch when the difference between the exterior and interior of the watch exceeded 2.5 kg. per sq. cm.

The Helium Gas Escape Valve (HEV) was featured and tested on the Single Red and Double Red Patent Pending Submariner Sea-Dwellers, circa 1967-1969. Once the testing was successfully completed and Patent of the HEV approved, COMEX placed a special order with Rolex for the supply of a number of dive watches featuring the HEV and case with either ref. 5513 or 5514. This would be delivered to COMEX only and not provided for general sale.

The development and delivery of this unique reference evolved from a modified ref. 5513 to the final ref. 5514 with big case back numbers, circa 1975. The first COMEX deliveries were the Submariner ref. 5513, which can be found in a number of iterations: 1- The earliest ref. 5513 COMEX watches that have surfaced circa 1969/70 have non-HEV cases, non-logo dials and case backs which are engraved ‘Crown-Rolex-Comex.’

The serial number engraved inside the case back matches the serial number between the lugs at 6 o’clock. 2- The ref. 5513 COMEX watches with HEV (an improved version introduced post Patent approval) that followed (circa 1972) were mostly produced with a small or medium sized issue number engraved on the case back and a plain matt non-logo dial.

Approximately one third of the original issued ref. 5513 COMEX watches had a matt logo dial and very few have survived, thus making the ref. 5513 with the original COMEX logo dial configuration one of the rarest COMEX watches to exist (estimates have been made in the region of 50-60 watches in total).

The initial batch of ref. 5514 with HEV can be found with small & medium case back numbers (and generally non COMEX logo dials) and were delivered alongside the final batch of the ref. 5513 COMEX watches in 1972. Most deliveries from 1974 to 1977 of the COMEX “Submariner” with HEV only had the unique model ref. 5514 and not the ref. 5513. The model ref. 5514 was never sold to the public. The ref. 5514 from these batches featured two different case back styles with four variations of small, medium and large issue numbers. The original dials were still the matt variety, but the majority now featured the COMEX logo. In total the ref. 5514 was actually produced in higher numbers (approximately 600 to 700) than many of the other COMEX models, however, a far lower number have survived in their original configuration. The ref. 5514 remains a key watch to collectors purely because of the unique COMEX only reference number.

Comex Sea Dweller Rolex’s are highly desirable collector and investment watches. They fetch six-figure prices when offered for sale and are very hard to find in today’s watch market. Many watch manufacturers produce professional dive watches, but only the Rolex Sea Dweller has a helium escape valve. The variations of the Sea Dweller through its development can make a huge difference in the desirability and price of an individual watch.

David Mycko is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in antique and vintage watches.

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