There are four official languages spoken in Switzerland, and you sometimes get the feeling that Rolex doesn’t know the word for “speedy” in any of them.
When they discontinued the much-loved Sea-Dweller in 2008 amidst great consternation from the brand faithful, it took them another six years before they finally succumbed to audience pressure and launched its replacement, the Sea-Dweller 4000 ref. 116600.
The Sea-Dweller is capable of going down to 4000 feet under water due to the technology introduced by Rolex.
In between, the languorous watchmakers released the Kraken of all timepieces, the hulking great 44mm Deepsea. Certified to a depth rating of 12,800ft, it was aimed at a niche group of superhuman divers with one especially strong arm, and practically did away with their need for a weight belt.
As much as it’s admired for its technical prowess, the Deepsea has never quite captured the imagination of purists in the same way as the Sea-Dweller, and on its somewhat low-key reintroduction at Baselworld 2014, the updated SD4K was welcomed back like a long-lost friend.
The Submariner’s Bigger Brother
The Sea-Dweller occupies that tricky middle ground between the behemoth-like Deepsea and the legendary Submariner. Never selling in as great a number as its little brother, it’s fair to say it has lived its life rather in its shadow.
As a true professional diver’s tool watch though, the Sea-Dweller is actually the more capable performer. It has always been tougher than its smaller sibling, even in its first iteration from 1967. Sharing the same 40mm diameter but with a thicker case and crystal, the Sea-Dweller has enjoyed a greater level of waterproofness from the outset, starting out at 2,000ft and doubling that rating in 1978 with the production of the ‘Triple 6’ (ref. 16660) the first of the Sea-Dweller 4000’s.
The Double Red Sea-Dweller, the first iteration, was capable of diving down to 2000 feet.
It was also the first model to be released featuring Rolex’s patented Helium Escape Valve (HEV). Developed in conjunction with the US Navy and French deep dive specialists Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises, or Comex, the valve allows for the safe release of Helium molecules that accumulate in the watch during long saturation dives.
While its looks were very much based on the Submariner, which debuted a good 14 years before the Sea-Dweller made an entrance, Rolex traditionalists have always been split over the two watches’ appearance. Until its most recent incarnation, the Sea-Dweller has never featured a Cyclops lens over its date window, a staple on the Submariner since the mid-sixties. Although undoubtedly making it easier to read the numbers underneath, the lens has divided fans since its inclusion, with many feeling the Sea-Dweller remains the more streamlined, symmetrical and, crucially, easier to read without it.
The Cyclops on the newest Sea-Dweller really splits opinions.
For professional divers, omitting the Cyclops seems to make more sense as well. Aesthetics aside, in the dangerous environments in which the Sea-Dweller was designed to operate, a clearly legible dial is more important than knowing what day it is.
The 50th Anniversary Sea-Dweller 4000
In a move that marked a massive departure for Rolex, the comeback kid released in 2014 (ref 116600) has become the last of the breed to be offered without the magnifying lens. Produced for just three years, it brought the Sea-Dweller neatly up to its half century. Its brand new replacement, the ref. 126600, surprised everyone when it launched with a larger 43mm case and a Cyclops in the crystal, leaving the Deepsea as the only date watch in the entirety of the Rolex catalogue without the lens.
The Sea-Dweller reference 116600 made its debut at Baselworld 2014.
For collectors, that means the 2014 Sea-Dweller has now become a very significant piece, as shown by the huge increase in demand for the watch on the pre-owned market.
True to tradition, the Sea-Dweller has gone through a series of modifications during its lifetime, with revisions both internal and external. The movement has changed several times until we reach today’s Caliber 3235. This new generation of movement, first used in the Pearlmaster 39 and also found powering the Datejust 41, packs in 14 Rolex patents along with the new Chronergy escapement. Lighter and more efficient, it helps up the Sea-Dweller’s power reserve from 48 hours to 70.
This guy is the new kid on the block, the Sea-Dweller reference 126600, the latest iteration of the Sea-Dweller.
The new model continues with the Cerachrom bezel from its predecessor, an obvious inclusion for a saturation diver’s watch considering its additional strength and imperviousness to seawater.
While there are huge swathes of the faithful severely displeased with the changes to the Sea-Dweller’s appearance, Rolex has at least gone someway towards placating them with a brief trip down memory lane. The red text on the dial harks back to the watch’s first incarnation, the ref. 1665 ‘Double Red’.
Whether that will be enough to silence the critics remains to be seen.
The Sea-Dweller has always had a stronger sense of exclusivity than the ubiquitous Submariner. More likely to be used for its original purpose than the Sub, it’s worn with just as many wetsuits as business suits.
As a watch to live with every day though, you’d struggle to find one tougher or more durable. It’s going to be a waiting game to determine whether the new bigger size will catch on with loyal followers, but throughout its history Rolex has never shied away from a debate—and what today qualifies as controversial usually becomes highly collectible at some point down the line.