It has now been more than half a century since Rolex launched their underwater exploration tool, the Rolex Sea-Dweller. Water-resistant to a world-leading 2,000ft (600m), the watch established new levels of “waterproofness” for the watch industry. It was fitting that such a development came from the brand that was the first to produce a water-resistant watch – the Oyster – that had wowed the world in 1926.
Many iterations followed, with a great deal produced for and in conjunction with the Comex diving company, whose pioneering experiments in ultra-deep conditions gifted Rolex with not only a valuable insight into the risks and challenges of such a superhuman endeavor but also a god-sent marketing campaign that catapulted the Rolex Sea-Dweller and its offspring, the Deepsea, to the forefront of consumer consciousness.
Launched in 1967, the Sea-Dweller built on the experience garnered from the preceding Oyster and the iconic Rolex Submariner. In addition to increasing the depth rating, the Sea-Dweller was the first watch to feature an integrated helium valve to allow the safe release of minuscule helium particles from the watch during decompression.
It is arguable that a helium valve has no place on a dive watch unless it is being used in a pressurized environment full of helium-rich breathing gas, as any ‘hole’ in the case is a potential weak spot. Although the tolerances of manufacturing used in luxury tool watches like the Sea-Dweller and the Deepsea are such these days that any failure is so unlikely it is basically negligible, the theoretical objection to helium valves remains valid.
The truth is, however, most Rolex Sea-Dweller and Rolex Deepsea watches will never be pushed to the limits of their capability. As with all tool watches appropriated for fashion and status, these two iconic Rolexes are symbols of adventure and risk. Wearing them to the office may look a tad ridiculous (especially the Deepsea given its large proportions), but it will no doubt elicit the respect of those in the know.
So which models are the most collectible and why? The first generation 1665 Sea-Dweller, known as the ‘double red’ due to its dial printing, is not only a beautiful piece, boasting an incredibly wearable diameter (40mm) and historically significant, it’s full of cute quirks that appeal to collectors. My favorite of which is the thick, domed Plexiglass that distinguished the Sea-Dweller from the Submariner of the time, because it dropped the Cyclops date magnifier (in those days the Cyclops window was glued onto the crystal with UV glue, which was not able to withstand the depths to which the Rolex Sea-Dweller was designed to go. A perfect example of 1665 could go for seven figures at auction and is the most highly sought after of all Sea-Dwellers.
If the archetypal features of vintage Rolexes, such as Plexiglases, bi-directional bezels, and painted numerals, aren’t your thing, the transitional 16660 (‘triple six’) might be the best example of an old ‘modern’ Sea-Dweller. Although there were many incremental advancements, it’s possible to find a mixture of old and newt features under this reference as this was the era the bezel became unidirectional, the sapphire crystal was first deployed, and the dial shifted from a matte, painted variant, to a glossy version sporting applied markers edged in white gold.
Whatever you tool watch tastes there is a Sea-Dweller or Deepsea out there for you. A watch steeped in history and the forerunner to many technologies we now take for granted, the colossal size of the most recent Deepsea iteration might well be the most uncompromisingly cool dive watch on the market.