The history behind the partnership between Rolex and COMEX

Today, we dive into the history of the partnership that existed between Rolex and the Maritime Expertise Company (COMEX) until the early 21st century. A non-exhaustive historical review.

The COMEX Company

Founded in 1962 in Marseille by Henri Germain Delauze, the Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise (better known by its acronym COMEX) quickly became a pioneer in deep-sea industrial diving. COMEX particularly distinguished itself in the development of the offshore oil industry around the world. The name of COMEX is also associated, to a certain extent, with Jacques-Yves Cousteau, in the context of the Argyronète project and the SAGA project.

COMEX's motto: Pushing the boundaries of underwater work to extreme depths under perfect safety conditions and providing man with the means to ensure the perfection of his work.

The numerous operations of COMEX in the marine environment, such as pipeline construction and underwater exploration, have allowed it to establish multiple diving records and contribute to its legend.

COMEX earned its reputation with seasoned divers capable of diving to previously unattained depths. COMEX is somewhat the maritime equivalent of what NASA is for space exploration.

Henri Germain Delauze, Founder of COMEX
Illustration of COMEX divers in action

Rolex, Pioneer in Innovation

For nearly a century, Rolex watches have accompanied explorers and successful individuals around the world, from the highest mountains to the depths of the oceans. Since Mercedes Gleitze's swim across the English Channel, the crown brand has always been a pioneer in the marine universe and associated sporting achievements.

Mercedes Gleitze in preparations
Illustration from the Daily Mail in 1927 depicting Mercedes Gleitze's feat

The Beginnings of a Collaboration

It was not until the 1970s that the vision of the COMEX founder intersected with that of the crown brand.

Indeed, under the initiative of Andre Heiniger, a partnership between Rolex and the Maritime Expertise Company was formed, with its divers being allocated a Rolex-branded watch for their missions. This marked the beginning of a long collaboration.

Andre Heiniger, CEO of Rolex and successor of Hans Wilsdorf
Henri Germain Delauze with his exploration submarine

Henri Germain Delauze is pictured above wearing a suit proudly displaying a badge from the Hydra 8 mission, which set a new deep-sea diving record of -520 meters during work on a Mediterranean pipeline.

This fruitful collaboration notably inspired Rolex to develop a legendary horological innovation: the helium valve. It first appeared on the reference 5513/5514, and then on the Sea-Dweller reference 1665. Numerous tests were conducted in COMEX's hyperbaric chamber to improve it, leading to the current version.

Rolex explains the function of the helium valve as follows:
"The helium valve acts as a safety valve on Rolex deep-sea diving watches, namely the Sea-Dweller and the Rolex Deepsea. Patented by the brand in 1967, this innovation has played a key role in the conquest of the depths since the late 1960s, accompanying a new type of technical diving: saturation diving."

Illustration of the helium valve on a Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 ©Phillips
Diagram of the patented helium valve

Marking the Partnership

In order to differentiate the COMEX watches from those intended for the public, the partnership watches then bore several specificities. The first models (notably the Submariner 5514) had only a very discreet marking on the back of the case. The iconic dial marking followed shortly thereafter.

Illustration of the logo on the dial of Rolex COMEX watches

The early versions then had a dial with "painted" Tritium indexes. The last series from 2000 to 2008 had dials with Luminova-bordered indexes.

Submariner 5514 COMEX auctioned by Antiquorum in 2007 for 35,400 CHF
Illustration of the Submariner ref. 16610 from 2004
Illustration of the 16660 owned by Dr. Diran, auctioned for 118,496 EUR in 2018 by Antiquorum

There are also Rolex COMEX service dials, replaced during revisions at Rolex. These watches can be seen to decrease in value at auction if they possess such a dial.

Illustration of a Rolex COMEX service dial with Luminova
Illustration of the engraving on the back of a 16600 COMEX case

The caseback is engraved with a number, allowing COMEX to keep a register of the watches allocated to its divers (the typography and placement of the engravings have varied over time). The serial number of the case, stamped at the lug, is also engraved on its backside (not visible).

The traceability of a Rolex COMEX with its first owner (usually a diver) must be exemplary. Indeed, many fake Rolex COMEX watches circulate in the collector's watch market. These are models that have been assembled from scratch using dials or box backs that have been recovered (or even counterfeited).

The country code 115 corresponds to special French assignments, notably for COMEX, while the code 119 is more widespread (COMEX assignment)

Punched certificate with the 115 country code
Punched certificate with the 119 country code

There are two categories of Rolex COMEX:
The Submariners
- 5513
- 5514
- 16800
- 16610
The Sea-Dwellers
- 1665
- 16600
- 16660

This partnership ended in 2008 with the Submariner reference 16610 and the Sea-Dweller 16600, whose dial features circled indexes. The serial number of this last production then starts with the letter M.

The collaboration between Rolex and COMEX is still ongoing, particularly through the hyperbaric chamber developed specially by the Marseille-based company to test and develop the Rolex Deep-Sea.

Today, Rolex COMEX watches are among the most sought-after pieces by collectors, especially for their rarity and their significant contribution to the myth of Rolex dive watches.

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