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Watch Magazine

Air Time

He turned up on an old beaten up scooter and from the offset I could tell that, for him, his watch meant more than just money. As he handed it to me, my heart sank.

‘Thought you said it was in good condition’, I said, sensing an opportunity for discount.
‘All things considered it is, isn’t it?’ Yeah, if you towed it behind your scooter down the M4 from Bath, I thought. He was now agitated by my lack of reply.

‘Look mate’, he said. ‘I don’t wanna sell the bloody thing, but I promised the missus I’d try’.
This was no bluff, so deciding there was still room for profit I gave him the lolly.

‘So, did ya have many close shaves with sharks then?’ I said, trying to alleviate the tension as he begrudgingly counted the money. I took his silence to mean my question was not worthy of answer.
‘So what was it like then, working for the great Comex?’ I asked. I was more embarrassed than interested.

‘See that watch on your wrist’, he said, meaning his ‘ex’ which I had rather insensitively put on. ‘It belonged to a dead man. That man was my friend, so if you’re genuinely interested, fine. Otherwise, let’s call it a day’.

I was hooked.

The race for the first truly successful waterproof watch was won by Rolex in 1926 with the Oyster. Why the race was of such importance to so many companies is puzzling, as wristwatches weren’t used for out-and-out diving purposes for another ten years. Maybe they knew that every jackknife, pool-diving Mediterranean playboy would have to be seen wearing one!

While companies such as Panerai were producing diving watches for military purposes as early as 1936, the sport of diving didn’t take off until the early ‘50’s with the invention of the Aqualung by Jacques Cousteau & E Gagnan. The Aqualung worked by way of a valve, allowing the diver to take breath only when needed, whereas previously a rotating tap was used producing a constant stream of air, proving both awkward and time consuming.

Within a few years, Rolex had come out with the Submariner, Eterna and Kontiki and Blancpain the Fifty Fathoms. The newly emerging world of underwater exploration had given the Swiss wristwatch industry a massive boost. In truth, all these early models were much of a muchness, apart from one. Rolex’s Submariner had, yet again, come first. It actually enjoyed a full year’s head start over it’s competitors, proving more than enough time for their formidable advertising machine to take hold. 007 eventually used it, the Royal Navy used it and, perhaps more importantly to the diver’s diver,

Comex used it.

Comex (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise) were, and still are, the most prestigious diving company in the world. They are depended on by multi-million dollar oil companies and, as a result, employ the world’s leading divers. Rolex, wanting to be associated with the company struck a deal consisting of, in short, advertising rights in exchange for cheap watches.

Whilst Rolex’s claim of the Submariner withstanding a depth of up to 660 feet was confirmed, the problem was that they didn’t come up again! The gases produced by such pressure of depth penetrated the watches, not in itself a problem, but on decompression they had no way of exiting and the watches were blown apart.

Not one for entertaining the concept of failure, Rolex invented a one-way valve so alleviating the problem, and the partnership continued. Could they have taken a leaf from the Aqualung book?
It was only now, as I listened to this guy, that my opinion of these rare watches (ref. 1665) being merely a commodity one bought and sold was irreparably altered.

It transpired that his friend had fallen asleep in a bell after surfacing from a dive when a swell took charge of it, smashing the bell into the platform, decapitating him.
‘Jesus Christ’, I said, ‘Was that sort of thing a regular occurrence?’
What? Decapitation? he said laughing, ‘No, but I remember one year I lost...’ he paused to count. ‘Five, yeah five friends it was. And no shark attacks either’ he continued, giving me a sarcastic wink.‘What did they die of?’ I asked, feeding my humanistic fascination with death.
‘Bends, embolisms, shit like that’, he said nonchalantly.‘Why do they call it the bends?’ I asked.
‘Your joints’d be prised apart and before you knew it you’d be doin’ the limbo. I’ve seen guys arch their backs so far their heads would be chatting to their heels’.

Apparently, at depth the nitrogen in the air they breathed turned to liquid, flooding their bodies. Upon decompression, the liquid turned to gas, which was then expelled through the lungs. The problems came when it wasn’t. To combat this they’d have to spend days, even weeks, in a pressurised chamber not much bigger than a portaloo.

‘Wasn’t much fun if you weren’t into the company either. What’s that programme where ten people are locked in a plush apartment and come out to a heroes’ welcome?’ he asked.
‘Big Brother’
‘That’s right. Big fucking Brother. I tell ya, the world’s gone bloody mad.’‘Why did you do it then?’
‘What? Decompression tanks? Guess I’ve never been into the limbo’.
‘No, but seriously, was the money that good?’ I asked, assuming a natural comparison with other high risk vocations, such as boxing or car racing.
‘Would I be riding that’, he said pointing to his scooter. ‘ Or selling the watch if the money was good’.
‘Fair play’. It was yet another foolish question.
‘We did it for the buzz, I guess. Back then I wanted to be somebody, and divers had the reputation of being sort of astronaut cowboys from the deep’. He paused in deep reflection. ‘Truth is, we were expendable pawns in a billion dollar industry.’
‘So, do you see any of your old mates’, I asked, trying to lighten the conversation.
‘Na, he said putting on his jacket.’ They’re all alcoholics or basket cases now anyway’.
‘Well, I’d better be off or the missus’ll think I’ve done the money. Wear it well’, he said, glancing at my wrist before leaving.

I sat for a minute trying to digest what he’d told me with, it has to be said, a quick scrutiny of my new kettle. It seemed he yearned for some form of recognition for what he’d been through - and why not? After all, divers of today adhere to the rules that true explorers like him laid down with their lives.

Well, I for one salute you.

D2 Interactive