When talking about the history of diving and dive watches, it is often worth remembering that even today, after decades of exploration and technological development, we still know very little about the oceans. They cover 70% of our planet, and yet 95% of them remain completely unseen by human eyes. The legend of the Rolex Submariner stems from its creation directly in response to the human desire to discover what lies beyond this ultimate frontier.


In 1953, Rene P. Jeanneret was feeling this desire. An amateur diver, Rene also happened to be head of Rolex and good friends with a certain Jacques Cousteau, the mythic oceanographer extraordinaire. Cousteau was making The Silent World, an underwater masterpiece that brought the ocean's spectacular secrets to the public in colour for the first time, and the only documentary to win the Palme d'Or at Cannes until 2004 (it also won an Oscar).


The film was released in 1956 and prominently features a prototype Submariner on Cousteau's wrist. The watch was the result of Jeanneret's decision to heavily invest in diving technology, and was shown to the world at Baselworld 1954. Not only was it extremely reliable, easy to read and waterproof to 200m, but the Submariner also featured a 'revolutionary time-recorder', or what we today call a rotating bezel. It seems such a simple thing to us now, but before the bezel, 1950s scuba divers couldn't accurately measure decompression periods, a crucial part of diving safety.


A legend had been born, and in its inimitable fashion, Rolex continued to adapt the watch over the next sixty years one small step at a time, as new technologies and design details were discovered. A collaboration with COMEX, the top underwater research group, led to the famed helium escape valve. COMEX found that for the kind of deep saturation dives it conducted, it was safer for divers to breathe a mix of oxygen and helium. But helium molecules are small enough to fit past otherwise perfect seals, building up in a watch until it pops open. The one-way valve introduced to solve this problem has been used on all Rolex Sea-Dwellers since, despite its very specialist application.


While Rolex's R&D department was speaking in squeaky voices during the 1960s, its sales team was having a field day. The Submariner had already been accepted by the professional community as the dive watch of choice, and it was also becoming a hit with the wider public, thanks largely to the phenomenon of James Bond. Sean Connery's übermensch spy wore the watch in several early films, and an association with his effortless suave was immediately established.


Since this time, of course, the vast majority of Submariners have never even seen the sea. The watch is so fashionable and popular that it has become one of the most commonly counterfeited timepieces in history. But its continued appeal remains rooted in the everlasting enchantment of the ocean, and nothing can take that away from it. John Wallis is a contributor to Watchfinder & Co.'s digital publication The Watch Magazine. Visit thewatchmagazine.com for more on the world of watches, and watchfinder.co.uk to browse a selection of fine pre-owned watches.