The History and Development of The Rolex Sea-DwellerBack to Articles
Ever since Mercedes Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster when she became the first British woman to swim across the English Channel, Rolex have been showing the world what it can do with its Oyster technology. Rolex have been striving to push the boundaries of what a waterproof watch can do, and in 1954 Rolex released its first watch made for divers, the now world-famous Rolex Submariner.
Whilst the Submariner range was sufficiently water resistant for most of the needs of divers, as diving technology advanced in the 1960s, Rolex needed to cater for an ever growing market of deep sea and saturation divers.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller was developed in the late 1960s, and this first, (reference number 1665) was released to the public in 1967. These first models featured all the hallmarks of a Rolex divers watch, such as would be found on the Submariner, such as a similar black dial and bezel, with the famous ‘mercedes’ hands. It even mentioned its sibling on the dial, with two lines of red writing reading "Sea-Dweller / Submariner 2000", giving It the nickname “double red” before the text changed to white in 1977.
The Sea-Dweller differs from the Submariner massively however, when it comes to the capabilities of the watch. The first Sea-Dweller ref 1665 was rated to 2000 feet (660 meters), compared to the Submariners depth of 200 meters. It also didn't have a cyclops magnifying bubble over the date due to the pressure that the domed plexi glass was made to withstand. The thing that put the Sea-Dweller in a league of its own though, was the revolutionary helium escape valve in the case at 9 o’clock.
In late 1967, T. Walker Lloyd, an archaeological diver, highlighted a problem to Rolex after saturation divers using the watches experienced problems during decompression. Helium atoms inside a pressure chamber can work their way inside a watch, and so during decompression, the pressure inside the chamber can decrease more rapidly than the pressure inside the watch case. In some cases, causing the watch crystal to pop off. To combat this, Rolex introduced the helium escape valve to Sea-Dwellers in 1971, and it became one of the model's most defining features.
The helium escape valve added to the models was developed and tested with help from a US Navy diver by the name of Robert A. Barth. Barth pioneered saturation diving during the US Navy Genesis and SEALAB missions in the late 1960s.
Another who would help with the testing of Rolex dive watches was French diving company, Comex. Comex worked with Rolex in the 1960s and 1970s in the supply and development of watches used for off-shore diving. The Comex name is still synonymous with the brand, with Rolex Sea-Dwellers being standard issue for Comex divers to use in their work. Rolex at one point would brand some dials of its divers watches with the Comex logo for Comex employees only. These now vintage watches are now very hard to find and therefore command a very high price when offered for sale by collectors.
In 1978, Rolex released its next generation of Rolex Sea-Dwellers, the ref 16660. This model boasted many improvements on the previous model, with a sapphire crystal glass replacing the domed plexi glass found in the ref 1665, an updated calibre 3035 movement, and the capability to be used at double the depth of the previous model, at 4000 feet (1220 meters). The 16660 became ref 16600 in 1989, thanks to a new calibre 3135 movement. The ref 16600 would be produced until 2009, when Rolex discontinued the Rolex Sea-Dweller.
It would be 5 years before the Rolex Sea-Dweller would return to the Rolex dive watch family. During its time away, Rolex had made several dramatic updates to the design and technology that went into its sports model range, and the new Rolex Sea-Dweller ref 116600 released in 2014, known as the Sea-Dweller 4000, featured a host of these new features. The new case on the ref 116600 housed the same sapphire crystal glass seen on the previous model, but it was complimented with a new ceramic bezel, and ‘Maxi’ dial, to bring it up to date with the rest of the Professional Watch range.
Whilst the Sea-Dweller was not in production from 2009 to 2014, Rolex had filled the gap in the market with a much bigger Rolex diver, the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea. So in 2014 when Rolex reintroduced the Sea-Dweller line with the 4000, to run alongside the more capable Sea-Dweller Deepsea, many people saw it as a rehash of a now less superior model and filling a gap in the market that simply wasn't there. Because of this Rolex only made the Sea-Dweller 4000 ref 116600 for three years before changing it.
With the poor reception given to the Rolex Sea-Dweller 4000 ref 116600, Rolex had some ground to make up, and some faded interests to reignite. 2017 provided the perfect year to do so as it marked 50 years since the release of the first Rolex Sea-Dweller in 1967.
As with many models, Rolex made a special 50th anniversary model to celebrate the milestone, and the 50th anniversary Rolex Sea-Dweller didn't disappoint. This new 50th anniversary Sea-Dweller ref 126660, featured a larger 43mm case, a sapphire crystal glass with a cyclops date bubble, a first for any Sea-Dweller and an updated calibre 3235 movement. Most notably, this anniversary edition saw the return of the two lines of red writing on the dial, making it an instant hit with collectors.
At some point in mid-2019, two years after its release, Rolex made a very subtle change to the dial on the Sea-Dweller 126660, a very small Rolex crown logo appeared under the 6 o’clock marker between the words 'SWISS' and 'MADE'. This is an addition Rolex made to all Rolex models fitted with the new generation of 70 hour power reserve movements, this being the movement that the that the Sea-Dweller 126660 had been fitted with since its birth in 2017. As well as this, Rolex also made a slight change to the font used for the number 1 in “1220m” written under the “Sea-Dweller” on the dial. Because of this change, the first run of Sea-Dweller 126660s without these additions have become known as the MK1 dial variant, and the dial with these changes became known as the MK2 dial variant. Because of this change, it is thought amongst collectors that eventually the MK1 dial will be classed as the original 50th anniversary addition and will be more desirable, much in the same way the ‘flat 4’ variant of the 50th anniversary Submariner is more desirable than other watches with the same model reference.
Before any Rolex release there is always excitement, speculation, and rumours within the circles of watch collectors and fans, but at the Baselworld watch fair in 2019, Rolex announced an addition to the Sea-Dweller range that no one saw coming. The Rolex Sea-Dweller ref 126603 has a 43mm case and oyster bracelet, like its 126660 sibling, but this addition is the first Sea-Dweller to be made with 18ct yellow gold with stainless steel. The familiar black dial dressed up with gold accents and gold hands, with a gold bezel housing a black ceramic bezel with gold inlaid numbers. The bracelet has the same dimensions and feel of the steel counterpart, but with a solid band of yellow gold running down the centre of the links and clasp, giving the once rugged diving focused watch a glamorous, dressed up feel.
To many, the addition of gold into the Sea-Dweller range signals how Rolex wants their watches to be perceived, and where the company is going in the future.
The market that the Rolex Sea-Dweller range was designed for in 1967, has no need for a dive focused tool watch to be made with gold in any way, so why did Rolex make it? Although the origins of these watches is based in technical achievement and ability, the vast majority of people who own one will never take it diving, or push it to its potential. With the restrictions put in place on most Rolex watches today, and the prices increasing almost every year, Rolex have become a maker of watches that, although designed for a very unique market, are sold to the masses as a luxury product, that is so exclusive that the average person, even if they have the money to buy, cannot walk into any authorised dealer in the world and pick one up, and for that reason the 126603 fits into the Rolex line up, and in 2021 is so desirable that is commanding a premium when offered on the used watch market.
Author: Watches by Timepiece
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