If you’ve been looking into investing in a luxury dive watch, then you’ve come across the phrase ‘helium escape valve’. You’ll often see this phrase associated with the functions and specs of many dive watches, but what exactly is it?
With dive watches being one of the most popular category of luxury watches, there’s a lot of confusion as to whether you need a helium escape valve to dive with your watch on.
What are these valves? How do they work? And most importantly — do I need one on my watch? We answer these questions below.
A Brief History of the Helium Escape Valve
The Helium Escape Valve was developed and patented by Rolex in 1967 (photo: Rolex)
The advent of the escape valve came when professional divers complained about the damage to their watch glass while they decompressed. Saturation divers frequently lost watches due to decompression.
Rolex teamed up with the French diving company, Comex to develop this watch valve in the 60s. The diving team was given modified Rolex Submariners that held a helium escape valve.
The Rolex Deepsea is fitted with the helium escape valve for saturation diving
In 1967, Rolex premiered the Sea-Dweller with a helium escape valve that they set into the left side of the case. Three features added, including the helium escape valve, made the Sea-Dweller an iconic dive watch. This watch was considered highly specialized and only old to commercial diving companies.
While divers found that they could unscrew the crown and wind their watch to help the trapped helium escape the case, the pressurized nature of the decompression chamber pushed dust, dirt, and grime inside the case. Because of this saturation divers’ watches needed far more frequent servicing.
The one-way helium escape valve was designed to release the helium from the watch case before it expanded and did not create any opportunities for dirt and grime to enter the watch case.
How does the helium escape valve work?
Why were they needed?
The Omega Seamaster PloProf has a water resistance of up to 1200M and a helium escape valve near 4 o’clock
Saturation diving allows divers to go much deeper for much longer than they used to. To understand the helium escape valve, we need to talk about what saturation divers go through. While diving, the gas molecules from the air in their tanks get broken down and enter the bloodstream. Diving puts the body under greater amounts of pressure. If that pressure lessens too quickly, then the gas molecules in our bloodstream are released too fast and form deadly bubbles.
To slow down this pressure change, divers go through controlled decompression to release the gases from the bloodstream at the proper rate. This is problem number one.
Problem number two is that the deeper they dive, the less they can handle our normal air to breathe. Nitrogen (78% of the normal air we breathe) becomes a problem under high pressure and can actually make divers feel drunk. That’s not a great state of mind for someone that needs to stay alert and focused. At these deep depths, helium is used to replace the nitrogen in the air. Helium is perfectly safe for these divers to breathe at these depths, but the molecules are much smaller than nitrogen.
Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 16600 has a helium escape valve to allow decompression after deep diving
Those tiny helium molecules move through the diving suit and eventually work their way around the gaskets of your watch. This is made easier by the high-pressure everything is under. This isn’t an issue while everything is still under pressure. Dive watches are specifically designed to survive the pressures of diving to rather deep depths, but they aren’t designed to withstand the pressure that originates from the inside.
During decompression, as the outside pressure decreases, the volume of those tiny helium molecules, now inside the watch, increases. Depending on how long the watch has been collecting those helium molecules, this internal pressure from the growing helium can be enough to blow the crystal right off the watch!
How does it work?
The Rolex Sea-Dweller’s automatic helium release can be found on the left side of the case
The helium escape valve is a one-way valve that allows the pressure building from the helium molecules to be vented from inside the case.
Watches like the Sea-Dweller by Rolex have automatic helium release valves that appear as little circles on the left-hand side of the case. The valve is kept closed by a specialized spring. When that spring is compressed by rising internal pressure, the valve opens to release the trapped helium. As the pressure decreases, the spring is released which closes the valve again.
The Omega Seamaster Diver 300m has a manual escape valve near 10 o’clock
Watches like the Omega Seamaster Diver 300m, use manual escape valves. These valves have to be purposefully unscrewed before the trapped helium will escape. They also have to remain open until your decompression is complete. Most prefer the automatic valves as they provide less opportunity for dirt and grime to enter the case.
Do I need a helium escape valve on my watch?
The Omega Planet Ocean is capable of deep diving and desk diving
Probably not. There’s a reason they were only originally included on dive watches sold to commercial divers. Most divers don’t go through the saturation process that allows helium into the watch.
Unless you’re a professional diver that must endure a period of decompression after spending a good amount of time under high-pressure dives with helium-rich air, then you won’t likely use a helium escape valve.
The Omega Seamaster Diver 300M has a chronograph for added versatility
Actually, the number of divers on the planet that need this valve is pretty low. The amount of saturation diving required for this is a small need. We’re talking days or weeks spent working deep in the ocean.
If you ask most professional divers (not saturation divers) they prefer dive watches without the helium release valve. They won’t need them or use them and having them on the watch provides one more place where gaskets could fail and let water into the watch.
Helium Escape Valve: Final Thoughts
We hope that this article has given you a deeper understanding of the helium escape valve.
It’s important to know what these valves do and how they work so that when you go shopping for a new watch at SwissWatchExpo.com or need to replace one that has stopped working properly, you can make an informed decision about whether or not one is necessary for your particular needs.