Truly Madly Deeply
Introduced 50 years ago, the Rolex Sea-dweller was the world’s first deep dive watch, and its latest incarnation harks back to the most fabled chapter in its glorious history, writes Celine Yap
t is hard to think of a more underrated sports watch than the Rolex Sea-dweller. When it comes to Rolex diving watches, the Submariner gets most of, if not all, the love. Granted, the Sea-dweller began as an offshoot of the Submariner, so it is perhaps fair the latter gets more recognition. It does, overwhelmingly so, and this is probably a blessing in disguise for watch connoisseurs who actually favour the Sea-dweller. Not as commonly encountered, the Sea-dweller appeals to a select group of Rolex collectors for whom extreme performance is the holy grail. But its niche appeal is set to widen as the watch celebrates its 50th anniversary this year with a new reference that has made it to the top of every savvy watch collector’s hit list. As with all the most coveted Rolex watches, the waiting list for the new Sea-dweller Ref 126600 is long with a capital L. It is said that this tribute piece checks all the right boxes for an ultracollect able Rolex—a recap of the watch’s history that tells the full story. Trieste. The challenge was for Rolex to create a watch that could accompany the submersible on its dives. The brand delivered spectacularly, creating an experimental Oyster it called the Deep Sea Special, designed to resist the pressures of the deep. In 1960, a revamped Deep Sea Special accompanied the Trieste on its mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, at a record depth of 10,916m. When it surfaced, it was found to have kept perfect time. This was proof of Rolex’s expertise in diving watches, and the beginning of the Sea-dweller legacy. By the early 1960s, Rolex had already been producing the Submariner for a good few years. During this same period, it crossed paths with engineering and deep diving operations firm named Compagnie Maritime d’expertises (Comex). Comex is a pioneer in deep saturation diving and its divers were in need of a utilitarian tool watch that could be trusted to provide accurate bottom time readings legibly and at all times. While the Deep Sea Special could make it to the bottom of the ocean just fine, it had also been designed for a bathyscaphe, not a human. Again, Rolex rose to the challenge and by 1967, had come up with a seminal timepiece known as
it does not have a date magnifier. That all Sea-dwellers, with the exception of the 2017 Ref 126600, come without this feature is an attribute that many collectors cherish deeply, so when Rolex bestowed the 50th-anniversary model with the Cyclops date, some collectors were understandably riled. Indeed, traditionally there has never been a date magnifier on the Sea-dweller’s crystal and the reason for that is a practical one: it introduces weak points on the crystal. The Sea-dweller’s raison d’etre as a professional diver’s watch didn’t allow Rolex to do anything that might compromise its utilitarian nature. With the Ref 126600, however, the manufacture has managed to produce a sapphire crystal that has the magnifier and that doesn’t weaken the integrity of the material, although in typical Rolex fashion, it remains cagey about the technical details.
Rolex worked continually to improve the Sea-dweller and pushing the limits of deep dive timekeeping. In 1978, it introduced the Ref 16660, also known as the Triple Six, which came with a sapphire crystal (as opposed to Plexiglas in the earlier models), a bigger helium escape valve, and increased depth rating to 1,220m. Considered a transitional model, its movement had also been upgraded from the Calibre 1570 to the Calibre 3035 with a higher operational frequency of 28,800vph. The model that came next is the Ref 16600, which boasted the then-new Calibre 3135 that proffered longer power reserve and better shock resistance. This is the most widely obtainable Sea-dweller as Rolex produced it for 20 years (1988–2008) before it was finally discontinued and replaced by the Sea-dweller Deepsea Ref 116660 in 2008. This version boasted the greatest depth rating
in the collection yet: 3,900m. Its supersized 44mm case with a thickness of 17.7mm is milled from top quality 904L steel and paired with a titanium caseback to offset its heft. Modern upgrades such as the scratch-resistant Cerachrom bezel, Chromalight display, Parachrom hairspring, the Oysterlock safety clasp with Glidelock extension system, and the Fliplock extension link are all part of the package. To test for water tightness, Rolex used a pressure chamber developed by Comex expressly for this timepiece. Yet, Rolex couldn’t keep the classic Sea-dweller away from collectors for long. In 2014, it reissued the Sea-dweller 4000 Ref 116600, which is essentially a modern remake of the Ref 16600 plus the latest upgrades that are de rigueur in all Rolex watches. Its pared down 40mm dimensions and balanced bracelet proportions were well-received, especially by traditionalists who were beginning to lament the heft of the Deepsea. such. Legend has it that Rolex had created a handful of Sea-dweller prototypes rated to 500m. These pieces did not feature the “Submariner 2000” in red like the Double Reds, but rather, only “Sea-dweller” was printed in red—all other wordings were white. These watches had casebacks engraved with the words “Patent Pending”. Vintage Single Reds are among the most valuable of all Sea-dwellers, fetching over $100,000 at auctions today. The Ref 126600 may not be the first Single Red Sea-dweller, but it is the first modern throwback and the first one to offer a Cyclops magnifier. Resized to 43mm, it straddles the middle ground between the 40mm Ref 16600 and the ultra-robust 44mm Deepsea Ref 116660. Rolex has also upgraded this model with Calibre 3235, a new-generation calibre featuring 14 patents including the new Chronergy escapement, which combines high energy efficiency with optimal dependability and magnetic resistance. Paying tribute is as much about the past as it is about the future. The Ref 126600 contains a bit of everything as it bridges the familiar with the new. Rolex may have created the Sea-dweller for professional deep-sea divers 50 years ago, but over the years the watch has drawn a whole new pool of admirers—aficionados who recognise it not just as a utility tool but an icon in itself.
GAME FACE ON The 2017 Rolex Sea-dweller is the closest in design codes to the original version
NO BALLOONS HERE Helium gas molecules are small and volatile enough to penetrate the watch case through the gaskets. This patent (below) was filed for Rolex’s one-way gas escape valve, which allows the helium gas to be released during decompression without compromising the water tightness of the watch
DEEP UNKNOWN In 1960, Rolex’s Deep Sea Special accompanied the bathyscaphe Trieste on a sojourn to the deepest point of the world’s oceans—the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The watch kept perfect time, even at a depth of 10,916m
CAPTAIN CAMERON In 2012, film-maker James Cameron made a solo dive to Challenger Deep, the bottommost point of the Mariana Trench, wearing the Rolex SeaDweller Deepsea Challenge. During tests, the watch was put under pressure that could crush a nuclear submarine, but it always kept perfect time