Rolex’s current status as the undisputed leader in fine watchmaking has really been founded on two things: the timeless designs of its core offerings, and the overall versatility of everything it produces. For the most part, almost every model in the brand’s portfolio can easily do double duty – tough and capable enough to serve as your daily watch, styled tastefully enough to be worn with just about any attire.
Nowhere is this better demonstrated than with the brand’s dive watches. The Submariner, the Sea-Dweller, and (to a lesser extent) the Deepsea, exemplify that ‘one watch for any occasion’ quality. While the latter might be a little too imposing to slip under a tailored shirtsleeve at the most formal of events, the former two have perfected the minimalist elegance, which means that they will never look out of place.
But what is there to choose between them? At first glance, they appear practically identical and in reality, they do share many of the same qualities. However, each has its own virtues and talents, and there are enough distinctions between them to make a meaningful comparison worthwhile. Below, we have outlined everything you need to know about two of the very best dive watches in the business: the Rolex Submariner and the Rolex Sea-Dweller.
Submariner Key Features:
Case Size: 41mm
Materials: Stainless Steel, Yellow Rolesor, 18k Yellow Gold, 18k White Gold
Functions: Time w/Running Seconds, Date Display
Dial: Black or Blue with Chromalight Hour Markers
Bezel: Unidirectional, Black/Blue/Green Cerachrom w/ 60-Minute Scale
Crystal: Sapphire w/Cyclops on Date Models
Water Resistance: 300 Meters / 1,000 Feet
Movement: Caliber 3235
Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet
Sea-Dweller Key Features:
Case Size: 43mm
Materials: Stainless Steel, Yellow Rolesor
Functions: Time w/Running Seconds. Date Display
Dial: Black with Chromalight Hour Markers
Bezel: Unidirectional, Black Cerachrom w/ 60-Minute Scale
Crystal: Sapphire w/Cyclops
Water Resistance: 1,220 Meters / 4,000 Feet
Movement: Caliber 3235
Bracelet: Oyster Bracelet
The History of the Rolex Submariner and Sea-Dweller
As Rolex’s two dive watch collections, the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller have intertwined histories. However, the Sea-Dweller has always been positioned as the more advanced and capable model between these two professional dive watches.
Rolex Submariner History
Anyone with even a passing acquaintance with Rolex will probably be aware of these two model’s backstory, so we won’t go into forensic detail here, but rather stick to the salient points.
The Submariner came first, created all the way back in 1953, and going on general sale the following year. Although it wasn’t the earliest example of a modern dive watch as is sometimes touted (the argument for that honor will go on forever, but the most likely contender will remain the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, which launched only a few months prior). However, it was the first to be rated waterproof down to the magic number of 100 meters.
The Sub was built to cater to the fledgling sport of scuba diving, which was exploding in popularity thanks to the invention of the Aqualung by famed underwater pioneer, Jacques Cousteau. The Frenchman’s groundbreaking innovation, coupled with his enthralling Oscar-winning documentaries of the subaquatic world, captured the imagination of the public and brought the craze for recreational diving to the masses.
Recognizing the new gap in the market, Rolex board member Rene-Paul Jeanneret actually worked with Cousteau himself to develop a watch that would serve, with the two men already good friends.
The end result was a stainless steel model with a high contrast white on black dial and a bidirectional rotating bezel, housed in one of the brand’s already proven 38mm Oyster cases. To ensure its then-unheard of water resistance, Rolex upgraded their existing screw-down crown design, building in a pair of O-ring gaskets to create two internal sealed zones to protect the mechanism from any moisture intrusion. They christened their new system the Twinlock.
After a busy first handful of years in production, during which time the Submariner received a seemingly never-ending series of tweaks and fine-tuning, the enduring blueprint for the watch arrived with the ref. 5512 in 1959. 40mm in diameter, with a reworked bezel design to make it easy to manipulate even while wearing gloves, and with guards to protect the winding crown, the fundamental shape barely altered for the next half-century.
However, that doesn’t mean the Rolex Submariner stood still. Already a highly desirable watch by the 60s, it earned legendary status after appearing on Sean Connery’s wrist in the James Bond film, Dr. No, (and then became Bond’s go-to watch for a host of other outings) and has never looked back.
It is one of the most frequently upgraded and relentlessly improved models that Rolex makes, although you would be hard put to spot it from the outside. Its movement has been regularly renewed, the bezel perfected by making it rotate in only one direction (a failsafe against mistakenly underestimating immersion time), and the materials from which it is made have been kept right on the cutting-edge.
Over its long run, it has picked up a date function, tripled its water-resistance to 300 meters, been cast in a wide variety of colors and metals (including solid gold iterations), and even been given gemstone enhancements. The latest version, released in 2020, finally brought about an increase in size, up to a still relatively modest 41mm.
It may be just a hair short of its 70th birthday, but the Rolex Submariner is still the benchmark for every luxury dive watch in production today, one that has been emulated endlessly but never bettered. When someone talking about horology uses the word iconic, this is the watch they mean.
Rolex Sea-Dweller History
In a situation reminiscent of how the original GMT-Master came into being, the Sea-Dweller was created in a collaboration between Rolex and a professional outfit in dire need of a timepiece capable of performing a specific task. But where it was Pan Am Airlines contributing their expertise to the formation of the GMT, with the Sea-Dweller, it was French commercial diving specialists, COMEX.
Throughout the 1960s, as exploration of the world’s oceans uncovered vast oil reserves, more and more saturation divers were needed to work at enormous depths. These crews often lived in dry habitats deep underwater, sometimes for weeks at a time. Due to the huge pressures and the narcotic effects of nitrogen at these depths, the divers needed to breathe a gas mixture in which helium replaces the nitrogen in the air.
The problem COMEX divers had experienced with their watches was actually on the ascent back to the surface. With helium molecules being almost the smallest out of all the natural gases, they were able to seep in past the seals of even Rolex’s fabled Oyster cases, where they would expand as the diver returned to sea level, eventually blowing the crystal off the face of the watch.
What COMEX needed was a way for the gas to escape safely before that happened, and they turned to Rolex for help. Rolex in turn worked with fellow Swiss brand Doxa and together they invented the HEV or Helium Escape Valve. Simply put, the HEV is a small, spring-loaded one-way regulator set into the case at nine o’clock, which opens once the pressure inside the watch is greater than the ambient, allowing the helium to safely vacate the case. So, in effect, the watch and diver decompress at the same time.
The first examples were retrofitted to a ref. 5513 Submariner and put through extensive, and successful, field testing. In 1967, Rolex announced the debut of the purpose-built Sea-Dweller. While, looks-wise, it may have been quite obviously based on the Submariner, the ref. 1665 (known by collectors alternatively as the Double Red or the Great White depending on era and color of dial text) had a significantly thicker case and crystal. On top of that, it saw the introduction of the next generation of Rolex’s winding crown system, this time with three sealed zones instead of two and called (not surprisingly) the Triplock. All told, it gave the Sea-Dweller a waterproof rating of an incredible 2,000 ft.
However, although it shared the Submariner’s aesthetics – no-nonsense minimalism designed for perfect legibility – the two watches have progressed in very different ways. Even by the end of the 60s when the Sea-Dweller first appeared, the Submariner was far more of a status symbol than the proper tool watch it had once been. The arrival of a date display, and especially its controversial Cyclops magnification lens, had already driven it in that direction, and Rolex deciding to release the watch in solid 18k yellow gold and Rolesor (two-tone steel and gold) editions removed the last of any pretense.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller, on the other hand, was more than capable of taking over. Bigger and weightier, it was a steel-only creation for the majority of its run, and while it too had a date function, there was no magnifying lens over the top to unbalance the dial. By the end of the 1970s, it had doubled its rating to 4,000ft, making it just about the most accomplished diver on the market. More importantly, it retained the essence of the ‘old’ Rolex: a manufacturer of watches designed to accompany the fearless on real adventures rather than the daily commute and Monday meetings.
However, in a rare misjudgment of the market, Rolex actually discontinued the Sea-Dweller for a short while, retiring it in 2008 to make way for the insane Deepsea – a triumph of engineering able to withstand some 12,800ft of crushing underwater pressures. Happily, the middle child was reintroduced in 2014 with the ref. 116600, the first Sea-Dweller to be fitted with a Cerachrom bezel on its redesigned Maxi case.
After that, Rolex marked the Sea-Dweller’s 50th anniversary with a big shakeup in 2017, increasing the model’s dimensions to 43mm on the current iteration, the ref. 126600. But while the larger size worked to separate the watch visually from the Submariner, the new version was given a Cyclops lens of its own, much to the chagrin of many purists. Opinions were split still further with the unveiling of the ref. 126603 in 2019 – the first two-tone Sea-Dweller, perhaps introducing the once king of the oceans to a more corporate role.
Although it might be argued the addition of 18k gold has lost the Rolex Sea-Dweller some of its edge, the combination of elegant styling and ferocious abilities could well make it the best all-around luxury dive watch available today.
So, let’s see which Rolex dive watch is the right choice for you.
Rolex Submariner Vs. Rolex Sea-Dweller: Looks
It is fair to say that when Rolex released the first Submariner, the rest of the watchmaking industry essentially said, “Oh, that’s what a dive watch is supposed to look like” (with a couple of exceptions). The basic formula was really set in stone from that point, so much so that the brand clearly felt no need to mess with it when it came time to create the Rolex Sea-Dweller.
Both watches appear remarkably similar, and even their sizes are heading back towards parity with the release of the current Sub. The 3mm difference between the current Sea-Dweller and the previous generation of the Submariner has now closed to two, with the pair coming in at 43mm and 41mm, respectively.
On a like-for-like basis (steel vs. steel or Rolesor vs. Rolesor, all with black dials and bezels) you have to concentrate hard to tell them apart. There are differences though. If you look at the engraving on the bezels, you will notice the Sea-Dweller carries its minute markings all the way around, whereas on the Submariner, they stop after the first 15 minutes.
These are actually there to make it easier to accurately time vital decompression stops at the end of a dive, with the thinking obviously being that Sea-Dweller wearers will have been deeper and need to spend longer amounts of time at their decompression stops. Other than that, Rolex has changed up the text color on the Sea-Dweller. The two-tone model gets its name in gold to match its bezel numerals, while the standard piece has its script in red as a nod to the original DRSD, or Double Red Sea-Dweller. On the Submariner, all wording is now in white.
The most noticeable difference between the two models only really becomes apparent once they are on your wrist. At approximately 15.25mm (not including the Cyclops lens), the Sea-Dweller is slightly thicker than its older brother, as well as being larger in diameter by 2mm.
But what else is there to say about the pair? Not only are they the archetype for what a dive model should look like, that basic form is so ingrained in our minds that it is usually also the image that pops up as soon as you just think of a dive watch. In other words, you can’t go wrong with either.
Rolex Submariner Vs. Rolex Sea-Dweller: Options
Originally, both these watches were exclusively crafted from stainless steel, as befit their tool-like natures. That changed at the end of the 1960s, at least for the Submariner, with the arrival of the ref. 1680/8, the first time the Sub had been cast in 18k yellow gold. A two-tone Rolesor edition followed soon after with the next generation, and both it and the all-gold model were available with either blue or black dials and bezels. Modern versions of all these are still in the contemporary roster, among others.
Added to those are a solid 18k white gold piece with blue Cerachrom bezel (ref. 126619LB) and three stainless steel examples; with a standard black dial and bezel (ref. 126610LN) and with a black dial and green bezel (ref. 126610LV). The last of the steel models, the ref. 124060, is a little different. When the Submariner was given its date function in 1969, Rolex actually split the range, producing both date and no-date models – a trend that continues to this day.
It was the date-displaying watches that were offered in all sorts of precious metal finery, while the no-date variant has always been cast exclusively in stainless steel. In fact, if you wanted to get really technical about it, the Submariner No-Date is the one called simply the Submariner, while all the others are officially Rolex Submariner Date watches.
There is no such confusion with the Sea-Dweller. Always in the role of the more serious player, it was a steel-only offering from its inception in 1967 all the way up until 2019, when the ref. 126603 emerged in its two-tone Rolesor getup. Those are the only two available today, with none of the color variations of its sibling. Regardless of metal type, dials and bezels are black on both Rolex Sea-Dweller references.
The metals themselves are as impressive as you would imagine. All golds are 18k in purity and manufactured by Rolex inside its own in-house foundry, as is the brand’s proprietary stainless steel alloy, which is christened Oystersteel. Part of the 904L family, it is particularly resistant to corrosion from the effects of seawater, and therefore ideal for the job.
A similar statement can be made for the ceramic inserts used in the bezels. The brand debuted its Cerachrom material in 2005 on the GMT-Master II, before rolling it out across much of the Professional Collection. Scratchproof, fade-proof, and impervious to corrosion, the numerals are coated in either platinum or 18k gold via a PVD process to keep from losing their luster over time.
On the dial, the hour markers – the trademark mix of dots and batons, with an inverted triangle at 12 o’clock – are outlined in white gold, as are the Mercedes hands (another signature of Rolex sports watches) to keep them from tarnishing. Essentially, any modern Submariner or Sea-Dweller that you buy today should look brand-new pretty much forever, with the only exceptions being any scratches or scuffs to the metal itself.
Rolex Submariner Vs. Rolex Sea-Dweller: Features
At their heart, both the Submariner and Sea-Dweller are relatively simple time-and-date watches (with the one exception being the no-date Sub). The only major difference is at what depth underwater each will carry on telling you the time and what day it is.
The Rolex Submariner was designed from the outset for recreational diving. Its 300m water resistance is obviously way beyond anything the majority of wearers will ever experience, but the inherent sturdiness needed to secure a rating like that more or less guarantees it as impenetrable by water during any and all daily activities.
As for the Rolex Sea-Dweller, it is quite literally on another level. It was conceived in an era time before dive computers when a reliable watch could truly mean the difference between life and death for saturation crews. Built to keep working at 1,220m, or 4,000ft, it can withstand an immense amount of pressure, equal to around 1,800 PSI pushing down on the watch. Are you ever going to need that? Probably not, but the engineering prowess required to wrap up that sort of performance into a model of such modest proportions can only be admired. And let’s not forget, it still has the HEV – which you won’t be using unless you are actually a commercial saturation diver.
One other distinction between the two concerns the bracelet. Each comes as standard with Rolex’s own three-link Oyster. The Submariner has a lug-to-lug width of 21mm on the newest model, whereas the Sea-Dweller’s is 22mm, and both have the ingenious Glidelock system which allows for approximately 20mm of extension in 2mm intervals.
However, the stainless steel version of the Sea-Dweller also has the Fliplock extension, giving an additional 26mm to fit the watch over the sleeve of a drysuit or particularly thick wetsuit. With that in mind, the Rolesor edition of the Sea-Dweller lacks the Fliplock extension, as it is intended to be the more luxury-oriented option within the lineup and thus won’t likely need to fit over the thick sleeve of a dry suit.
In the end, the respective abilities of these watches may well be academic in your choice, as both far exceed anything that you are ever likely to encounter.
Rolex Submariner Vs. Rolex Sea-Dweller: Movements
It took Rolex a while, but the brand has finally given the Submariner the same next-generation movement that has been driving the current Sea-Dweller since 2017. The Caliber 3235 sits inside both models, the replacement for the legendary Caliber 3135, the most widely-used and successful movement Rolex has ever made.
The new mechanism is much more than a simple update. It has replaced or renewed around 90% of the Cal. 3135’s components, including incorporating the groundbreaking Chronergy escapement. The Cal. 3235 follows the time-honored Rolex decree of doing as much as possible with the fewest number of parts to ensure there is less to go wrong. It is also a physically large movement, which lends it an intrinsic strength.
As with all Rolex movements, the Caliber 3235 is subject to the brand’s own draconian accuracy benchmark, the Superlative Chronometer certificate. It guarantees a timekeeping accuracy of between -2/+2 seconds a day, tested across seven positions both before and after casing. It also has a far greater power reserve than its predecessor, up to 70-hours over the former’s 48, while keeping the same 28,800vph frequency as the rest of Rolex’s portfolio.
The outgoing Cal. 3135 was regarded as one of the best mass-produced movements of all time, and there is no reason to think the Cal. 3235 will be any different. It may not have the exquisite finishing of some of its contemporaries from rival manufactures – something Rolex has never really done – but in terms of all-around reliability and staggering precision, there isn’t really anything that comes close at this price. And, as with all Rolex watches since 2015, the brand offers an industry-leading five-year warranty.
Rolex Submariner Vs. Rolex Sea-Dweller: Pricing
The retail price for a brand-new stainless steel Submariner with a black dial and bezel is $9,150 ($8,100 for the no-date model). That rises to $9,550 for the green bezel version. Both Rolesor models (black or blue dial and bezel) come in at $14,300, while the solid 18k gold models cost $36,950 and $39,650 for yellow and white gold respectively. With the Rolex Sea-Dweller, the standard stainless steel piece is currently priced at $11,700, while the two-tone version costs $16,600.
Of course, that is not the whole story. As anyone who has tried will tell you, picking either of these up at a Rolex retailer is not something that you can just walk in off the street and do. There are waiting lists to sit on first, unless you already have a longstanding relationship with your local retailer (read: have spent many thousands of dollars with them in the past).
So, what’s the story on the pre-owned market? Well, with the Rolex Sea-Dweller having been on the market for a few years now, its pre-owned price (while still higher than retail) is now more or less the same as the Sub’s, which was only launched last year. Looking at stainless steel examples of the Sea-Dweller and the Submariner, both start around the $13,000-$14,000 mark.
There’s a tiny bit more disparity between the Rolesor models, with the Submariner ( ref. 126613) coming in at about $16,500, and the Sea-Dweller (the ref. 126603) at around $17,000. But, just as with their respective depth ratings, the difference in price is going to be largely irrelevant to anyone’s choice.
Rolex Submariner Vs. Rolex Sea-Dweller: Which One?
So there we have our comparison between two of the most famous, revered, and highly sought-after dive watches of this or any other era. The one you pick is very likely to come down to which looks better on your wrist. There’s no doubt the Sea-Dweller is the heftier of the duo, with a solidity that inspires boundless confidence in its ability to withstand just about anything.
The Submariner is as it always has been, the epitome of an understated and versatile sports watch, one you don’t have to worry about looking out of place or clashing with an outfit. The recent return to its former slender profile has only increased its all-around versatility as well, and it is the quintessential beach-to-boardroom timepiece.
Price-wise, these two Rolex dive watches are practically identical, at least on the pre-owned market, which is more-or-less the only place to buy them without spending a considerable amount of time on a waiting list. While the buy-in price might seem high, both watches are pretty much sure bets when it comes to their ability to retain their value over the years.
In the end, there truly is no wrong choice. Our advice is to pick the one that appeals to you the most and matches your lifestyle the best. From there, you can rest assured in the knowledge that you own one of the very finest dive watches that money can buy.