Image courtesy of Quill & PadToday, many Rolex diving watches are outfitted with helium escape valves. This tiny valve is one of the many incredible mechanical advancements made by Rolex. And like many of Rolex’s other design achievements, the helium escape valve was designed to fix a problem.
In the 1960s, the United States Navy started their Sealab, which was an experimental underwater habitat. The Sealab was an underwater living quarters that allowed divers to spend multiple days underwater, so they could avoid making frequent dangerous ascents.
This new underwater space had been made possible thanks to the work of US Navy Physician Dr. George F. Bond. Dr. Bond conducted a series of experiments exposing animals to various mixtures of breathing gases underwater, trying to find a way divers could safely spend more time at great depths. He made a groundbreaking discovery: mammals could live and work for long periods at great depths if their breathing gas was mostly helium.
Dr. Bond’s newly discovered mixture of breathing gases is what allowed the Sealab to be created. While the original Sealab project had to be canceled after just 11 days, due to storm conditions, the follow-up projects Sealab II and Sealab III were able to operate successfully.
Divers were able to work underwater for up to 30 days, thanks to the mostly helium air they were breathing. However, divers experienced an issue with their watches, which would often lose their crystals with a loud bang during ascents.
The crystals began popping off these divers’ watches because of the high amount of helium they had been exposed to. Helium made its way into the watches through their gaskets. When divers ascended, the pressure inside the watches remained high in the watch chamber as the pressure outside the watch decreased. When the pressure difference became too extreme, the pressure inside the watch caused the crystal to fly off.
Image courtesy Luxury Top Watches
Rolex heard of this problem and got to work trying to solve it. They created their gas escape valve, which was a one-way pressure-release valve that allowed the helium trapped inside diving watches to safely escape.
The first Rolex watch to come equipped with a gas release valve was the Rolex Sea-Dweller. Divers who worked at Sealab III were outfitted with the watches, which no longer exploded upon ascension.
Today, the helium escape valve can be found on many Rolex diving watches. And while the average diver doesn’t go to the depths that would require the valve, it’s inclusion on Rolex diving watches shows the brand’s dedication to creating only the best diving watches, watches that are designed to go the distance— even if that distance is 3,900 meters under the sea.