Rolex Debuts Watch Inspired by James Cameron's Trip Down 36,000 Feet

August 18, 2014 | by Roberta Naas, | Watches

We bring you behind the scenes with Rolex and filmmaker-turned-explorer James Cameron for a firsthand look at how and why the new Rolex Deepsea Challenge came to be.

Cameron after the successful dive with the Rolex Deepsea Challenge on the robotic arm of the Challenger. 

Film director James Cameron caught the ocean-exploration bug when he was just a child. He dreamed of exploring Earth’s deepest frontier. His work as a filmmaker enabled him to bring that daring side to reality. However, his ultimate dream was reignited when he filmed Titanic, as he was one of a select few who got to dive in a submersible and see the Titanic firsthand.

“If big companies could build machines that could bring us inside the Titanic with cameras, then I could build something, too,” Cameron said. 

In fact, he designed and built not only his own futuristic vertical submersible vehicle, but also the 3D cameras that would enable him to explore life at depths of more than 30,000 feet. He spent seven years on research and design to build equipment that could sustain the unbearable pressure at 36,000 feet under the ocean. He coordinated a top-notch team of experts who were just as enthralled and challenged by the dive concept as he was.

Cameron sought out advice from U.S. Navy Lt. Don Walsh, the operator of the bathyscaphe Trieste that made the first (and only previous) venture to the Mariana Trench in 1960. (Rolex was on that journey, too, strapped to the hull of the bathyscaphe.) The team built in arms for taking samples of sand and rock. They rigged bait to catch different species of life for future examination. 

It took Cameron and his team months to test the Deepsea Challenger at different ocean depths. Each and every time he went down—in a pilot’s chamber that measured just 43 inches in diameter and was fitted into the base of the Deepsea Challenger—Cameron risked his life.

Finally on March 26, 2012, with rough seas rolling in and only a tiny window of opportunity in the dark pre-dawn hours to start the historic voyage, Cameron crawled into the pilot’s capsule, watched as the water-tight, 400-pound hatch was closed and sealed, and embarked on his dark, quiet journey down.

Strapped to the outside camera arm was the new experimental Rolex Deepsea Challenge watch, modeled after the new Deepsea Challenge D-Blue watch. 

Rolex Deepsea Challenge D-Blue watch.

Rolex Deepsea Challenge D-Blue watch is water resistant to 12,800 feet. 

Cameron said he experienced an odd calm while crammed into the tight space of the steel pilot’s chamber. After what seemed like endless checks, cross checks, and other tasks, he had some time to contemplate his vertical plunge alone in the dark ocean. As he descended, the outside temperature dropped by 50 degrees and the sphere cooled. He donned a hat and wool socks. Still the Deepsea Challenger continued to drop. Two and a half hours later, Cameron reached the bottom at 35,756 feet deep—a bottom devoid of any signs of real ocean life, save that of plankton.

After taking samples and observing what he could see, Cameron began to experience some difficulties with his equipment. Having been at the bottom of the world for nearly three hours, he decided to press the button to release the more than 1,000 pounds of weights keeping him down. He listened for their release. If they didn't work, he wouldn't ascend. It's difficult to describe his thoughts in those brief moments—between flicking that switch and hearing the weights release. Courage is not a strong enough word. 

The entire exploration—from building the Deepsea Challenger, to the myriad of challenges, setbacks, and even deaths that the team encountered—and the ultimate voyage are the subject of the new National Geographic movie: Deepsea Challenge 3D.

Filmed by Cameron, the movie is a breathtaking exploratory tour not only to the deepest point in the ocean, but also into the deepest part of man’s quest for knowledge. The film goes behind the scenes to demonstrate the sheer courage it takes for men and women to follow their dreams and to turn adventure into scientific information and education. 

To celebrate Cameron and the 2012 trip to the Mariana Trench, Rolex has unveiled the Deepsea Challenge James Cameron watch destined to go down in history as a coveted timepiece not only because of the story behind its making, but also for the D-Blue gradient dial—something Rolex does not do often. In fact, the dial gradiates from a rich blue at 12:00 down to a pitch black at 6:00, reflecting the immersion a diver experiences from entering the ocean to descending toward its floor. The watch reflects the model that dove seven miles down strapped onto the Deepsea Challenger’s arm and continued to operate perfectly.

Dubbed the ultimate divers' watch, the Rolex Deepsea Challenge is water resistant to 12,800 feet – though it clearly sustained deeper depths on Cameron’s wrist inside the Deepsea Challenger. The 44mm Oyster case, reinforced with the brand’s patented Ringlock System, houses the COSC-certified automatic Caliber 3135. 

Founder and editor-in-chief of, Roberta Naas is a veteran award-winning journalist in the watch industry with more than 25 years of experience. She was the first woman watch editor in the US market—breaking in to an “all boys network” with a pioneering spirit that would be her signature to this day. Naas brings responsible, factual—yet always timely and insightful—reporting of the watch industry to the forefront.


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