In 1952, Rolex approached Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard to provide him with a specially designed watch for his upcoming deep dive trials in the newly constructed bathyscaphe “Trieste.” Instead of the spherical design that was originally planned, Rolex was able to build a more traditionally constructed — though still quite unusual-looking — watch, consisting basically of an oversized case, a thick caseback, and a huge crystal.
This watch, which became known as the Rolex “Deep-Sea Special,” was then successfully tested to a simulated depth of 6,000 meters before it accompanied Piccard and his son Jacques for its first “real” test in 1953, in which it descended to a record depth of 3,150 meters. In 1959, the Trieste (and the Rolex Deep Sea Special) reached 5,500 meters and, shortly afterward, another record depth of 7,700 meters. On January 23, 1960, Jacques Piccard and United States Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh (the U.S. Navy had acquired the bathyscaphe in 1958 for $250,000 and modified it extensively) achieved the ultimate goal, as the Trieste became the first (and, for 52 years, the only) manned vessel to reach the bottom of the Challenger Deep, the successful goal of the so-called Project Nekton. Of course, this also made the Rolex Deep Sea Special the first watch ever to reach such a depth — 10,916 meters — at which the watch survived a 20-minute stay at the ocean’s bottom, under a pressure of 1.25 metric tons per square centimeter.
Somewhat less challenging was the role of the other timing devices involved in that mission: a chronometer from Movado and two stopwatches from Longines were used on the inside of the pressure sphere. The two Longines watches were used exclusively to time the activation of the two ballast tanks. Piccard himself wore a Longines 13ZN chronograph during the dive in 1953.
It is estimated that approximately 10 Rolex watches were made and used for deep-dive missions, and that several other individually numbered models were produced and given away to commemorate some of these achievements. Some of them occasionally go on display (such as at the Musée International d’Horlogerie in 2003, and at the SalonQP in 2012). The watch numbered “36” is on permanent display at the Beyer Clock and Watch Museum in Zurich, which (along with the MIH) should be considered a must-visit for any watch lover visiting Switzerland.
The Trieste itself is on display in the National Museum of the U.S. Navy in Washington, DC, retired after a total of 128 dives (including the successful location of the U.S.S. Thresher in 1963). But for an actual look inside the pressure sphere you would have to travel to the Deutsche Museum in Munich, where a reproduction of the 2.16-meter observation gondola is on display (as well as another Rolex display model).