One of the world’s best dive watches with an intriguing history, the Rolex Sea-Dweller has been the choice for serious divers for decades. We look at how this watch came into being and the unlikely icon it was to become.
When we think of Rolex watches the Sea-Dweller is not likely the first thing to come to mind. James Bond seared the Submariner into both our collective psyche and timepiece history. The Day-Date has stunned with its golden elegance since the 1950s. The Rolex Datejust has the esteemed honor of being the dignified forefather to the modern dress watch. The Sea-Dweller has always been slightly out of the spotlight, and that’s one of its strengths.
SeaLab Found a Flaw
Let’s jump into the Wayback Machine for a trip to 1967. Everything was going groovy for the Rolex Submariner, one of the world’s most-popular dive watches at the time. Or so it would seem. Serious divers, notably those on the U.S. SeaLab team, came across a problem with the Submariner. The pressure of post-dive decompression would often cause the crystal to pop off. Oops! Rolex had to address the weakness and they did so by building a watch. The watch was better equipped to handle the rigors of professional deep diving. Still, Rolex met the extreme challenge with the Sea-Dweller (along with some technical help from NASA and the French diving company COMEX).
But it wasn’t all about durability. Rolex, being Rolex, wanted something with inimitable style. While it may have seemed like a small touch at the time, the two lines of red text across the original Sea-Dweller’s face earned it the nickname “Double Red” and helped to make the watch the much-sought-after collectible it is today. Depending on the model and year (they were made from 1967 to 1977), an original Double Red can go for up to $200,000 USD!
Ever adaptable, the watch changed with the times. In 1977, when Jaws became the highest-grossing movie on the planet, the latest Sea-Dweller was aptly dubbed the “Great White,” swapping out red letters for white. Known as the “Decade of Greed,” the 1980s saw the Sea-Dweller get suitably glossy with a high-polish dial.
A Look at Today’s Timepieces
Watch history is all well and good, but what makes a Sea-Dweller so special today? The more-modern incarnation of the watch came in 2008 with the debut of the DeepSea Ref 116660. That watch is notable for its patented Ringlock System, which includes a sturdy ring between the titanium case back and the sapphire crystal that makes the watch water resistant under more-extreme pressure. The 2008 model also includes a helium escape valve which can easily handle that decompression problem SeaLab first discovered decades earlier.
The watch got an update in 2014 with the Sea-Dweller 4000, with Cerachrom alloy bezel that’s just about scratch proof and immune to ultraviolet light, all but guaranteeing it won’t fade with time. Add in the Glidelock bracelet system and Oysterlock clasp and Sea-Dweller aficionados were suitably impressed. That gets us to the Sea-Dweller that bowed in 2017, the 50th anniversary of the first, with a return of red lettering in an homage to the original. While it is much the same classic as ever, the case grew from 40 to 43-mm and a magnifier appeared on the crystal over the date window.
What’s the Sea-Dweller for Right Now?
Let’s talk about two-tone! The latest Sea-Dweller to gain attention is the Ref. 126603, a two-tone steel and yellow gold model that’s markedly more elegant than most of its predecessors. It shares many of the attributes we saw in 2017, with a 43-mm case that features a helium escape valve on its left side. It has the same high-end bezel and runs on the same formidable caliber 3235 movement. But now it all comes in a glowing golden package that Rolex dubs “Yellow Rolesor.” The links of the outer bracelet and case are made of steel, while the inner links, crown and bezel ring are solid gold.
The watch caused some controversy at Baselworld 2019. Purists felt that the Sea-Dweller was straying too far from its tool-watch roots with this swerve toward gilded luxury. What right-thinking pro diver wants gold on their wrist while exploring the dark depths of the sea? But more practical-minded watch lovers are quick to point out that the Sea-Dweller (like most dive watches really) are more often worn on land. They’re for making a statement at work or for adding some upscale flair to a dress-casual ensemble. Why not go for the gold? You shelled out big bucks for a new Rolex and deserve to brandish a bit of bling!
Options for Everyone
Luckily, there’s still the classic for those who wants a dive watch with an amazing heritage. You can pick up a traditional model in full Oystersteel. It’s an alloy that was specially developed to resist corrosion and maintain a fine high-polish finish. It’s more stunning when paired with the Sea-Dweller’s iconic black dial with red lettering and Chromalight display.
This dive watch was built specifically to handle the rigors of the world’s most-advanced deep-diving teams. It’s waterproof up to 1,220 meters. The watch has a helium escape valve should you ever encounter extreme conditions that would warrant its use. Nickel-phosphorus movement is nearly impervious to magnetic interference. And Paraflex shock absorption means the watch can get banged around without a hint of damage.
Sure, there are other great dive watches out there. You may like the Omega Seamaster, TAG Heuer Aquaracer or Tudor Heritage Black Bay. But if you want to stand just apart from the dive-watch crowd, if you want a piece of history that began with a SeaLab discovery, check out a Rolex Sea-Dweller.