Have you ever received a dive watch and noticed a strange circular component on the side of its case or that it had an additional crown that didn’t have any apparent function? Well, you are certainly not alone and are in good company! In this article, we will be “diving deeper” in to the world of “helium escape/release valves”, to provide a better understanding of their function and use.
(Photo Credit: Doxa Watches)
The “Helium Escape Valve” or “Helium Release Valve” was co-developed by Rolex and Doxa during the 1960’s. These valves were developed to address the recurring issue of diver’s watch crystals being dislodged during a decompression. By the later part of the 1960’s, the helium release valve was patented and was incorporated into Rolex’s Seadweller for the commercial market and into Doxa’s 300T for the recreational diving market. Since that time, they have been incorporated into many professional dive watches, from well known brands, like Omega and TAG Heuer all the way down to smaller, “microbrand” makers, such as Benarus, Boschett and Zelos.
(Photo credit: Tudor Watch)
Where Does The Helium Come From?
During commercial dives, a professional diver often operates at great depths, for prolonged periods of time. They can spend up to a month in a diving bell, under pressure and breathing a specialized mixture of helium gas and/or other gasses ("saturation diving"). Due to the extremely small size of the Helium molecules, they are able to work their way inside sealed dive watches. It is due to the presence of this gas, that helium valves become an essential tool in helping to prevent damage to dive watches.
(Photo credit: Aegir Watches)
What's The Issue?
During commercial dives, a diver often operates at great depths, for prolonged periods of time. They can spend up to a month in a diving bell, under pressure and breathing a specialized mixture of helium gas and/or other gasses. As a result of this exposure, the tiny helium gas particles are able to work their way inside the sealed dive watches, around the gaskets and other components that make a dive watch water resistant. It is at this point where helium valves come into the picture and become a handy tool for divers.
Once the helium makes its way inside a watch case, it remains there while the diver is in the diving bell. When it comes time for the end of a diving mission the diving bell is slowly raised back to the surface and decompression process begins. It is during this time is when the pressure is then returned to atmospheric levels and when the helium valve should be opened (automatically or manually).
The purpose of a helium valve is to help alleviate the pressure built up by helium gas trapped in a watch case. Through the use these one-way, spring-loaded valves, helium gas is released from the case, which allows the pressure to equalize between the inside and the outside environment. By doing so, it eliminates the risk of the watch crystals popping out of the case and causing damage to the watch and/or the diver.
(Photo credit: Aegir Watches)
Are There Different Kinds?
Generally, there are two different kinds of helium valves – Automatic and Manual. Both designs serve the same purpose and basically function the same when actuated but are activated differently. These valves are both actuated in dry conditions, inside a diving bell, while a diver is ascending to the surface. Below is a brief description of both and how they operate.
Manual Helium Valves
This style of helium valve features a separate crown, which is mounted and screws down to the watch case. To operate this style of valve, you must first manually unscrew its crown prior to beginning your ascent to the surface. Once this is accomplished, the one-way valve inside lets the pressure from the helium trapped inside the case escape and equalizes the atmospheric pressure to that the dive bell.
It is important to note, if the helium valve crown is not unscrewed, the valve will not operate. This will subject the watch to the same risk of damage that it would if there was no helium valve installed.
Automatic Helium Valves
Automatic helium valves are just that, automatic. This style of valve is installed directly through watch case and sit flush with the case surface. They automatically operate when the pressure inside of the watch reaches a level significantly higher than that outside of the watch. When actuated, the spring-loaded, one-way valve opens and releases the trapped helium gas.
(Photo credit: Rolex)
Are They Necessary?
In a nutshell, NO!
There are many reasons why we feel that helium valves are not necessary equipment for a dive watch and more of a conversation starter than mandatory equipment for a dive watch. In the section below, we get a bit more granular into explaining the reasons why:
- Are you a "saturation diver"? There extremely small population of commercial divers, who spend extended amounts of time in a helium-enriched diving bell environment. Accordingly, unless you are one of these individuals, you will not have an excess buildup of helium in you watch that will need to be released in order to avoid damaging your watch. However, if you are one of the few brave souls who do this kind of rugged work, please disregard and move onto the next point.
- Have you searched for other options? In addition to helium valves, there are watches built which utilized different methods for counteracting the helium effects of bell diving. These watches are built with robust designs, precise margins and rugged engineering. A prime example are the professional dive watches designed by Seiko, such as the Prospex Marinemaster 300m (SBDX017) dive watch.
- Just open the main crown of your watch! Yes, its as simple as remembering to unscrew your crown prior to ascent. This essentially provides the same benefit as the helium valves, but without the water resistance properties. However, since you are generally in a dry diving bell during decompression and ascending to the surface, water resistance is really a moot point.
(Photo credit: Aegir Watches)
The Final Word...
Now that you know a little more about helium valves and their function, you are now equipped with the information needed to determine if they are an element that you would like to have in a watch. At the end of the day, it really comes down to personal choice when it comes to helium valves, because for the typical enthusiast, they are more of a conversation point than a necessity on a dive watch. So, if you want a cool helium valve on your watch, we say go for it, if not...that's cool too.
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