Rolex’s Sky-Dweller has always been something of an opinion splitter. Originally released in 2012, making it the brand’s most recent all-new issue, it took most people a little by surprise. The Rolex Sky-Dweller name had been circulating for months before it was unveiled, and was just about the only detail known about the watch. What many pictured was a more robust version of the GMT-Master II, in the same vein as the Sea-Dweller being the beefed-up Submariner. The Rolex rumor mill had us all expecting a grizzled aviation-inspired piece for hardworking professionals.
What we got instead was something that out-Day-Dated the Day-Date. When initially launched, it was clad only in the finest precious metals, the graceful silhouette was unadorned with anything as workaday as push pieces, and the inclusion of a fluted bezel identified the Rolex Sky-Dweller as most definitely not of the tool watch collection. To top it all off, it also introduced a host of breakthroughs for Rolex. It brought us their first annual calendar; it was, by far, the most complicated watch they had ever made, and it was powered by a caliber containing the greatest number of components.
So far, so good. As far as the buying public was concerned, there were only two minor problems with the Sky-Dweller; the looks and the price!
We have all grown accustomed to the conservativeness of the Rolex design book. Everything is styled to be as tastefully unpretentious as possible, which is the reason those watches from the 50s still look so good today. However, since the start of this century, Rolex seems to be making strides to shake things up, firstly with the highly unconventional Yacht-Master II from 2007. That was also a polarizing effort among the purists and the Sky-Dweller’s weird off-centered sub-dial decapitating the lower hour markers drew criticism as well.
Additionally, the choice of materials meant that Rolex’s latest was crushingly expensive. Available in one of each flavor of 18k gold, the cheapest of the three (in Everose on a leather strap) retailed at the time for about 37,700 Swiss Francs, or roughly $38,700. That set it several thousand ahead even of a comparable Day-Date, which was to be expected considering the extra utility, but significantly narrowed down the list of potential buyers. As such, the first round of Sky-Dwellers were not big sellers. But now, all that has changed.
The Sky-Dweller Comes Down to Earth
Five years after the collection was originally launched, the first Sky-Dwellers made with stainless steel emerged. They arrived as the answer to the prayers of many who had grown to appreciate the watch’s visuals and who had a specific need of its GMT and annual calendar function, but who didn’t want to spend the kids’ college fund on one.
That single rethink in metals cut the asking price of the model in half, opening it up an entirely new audience and changing the buying fortunes of the previously modest performer.
The pair of 2017 releases were not all steel however, rather a mix of steel with gold, what Rolex have long called Rolesor. The yellow Rolesor piece, comprising a steel case with yellow gold bezel and center bracelet links, remains perhaps the archetypal look of the brand. But for those after something aesthetically incognito, the other Rolesor version, with white gold on the fluted bezel only, looked low-key enough to attract even the most determinedly unshowy of customers. All of a sudden, the expensive also-ran became the watch to own – even in a year that saw the introduction of a thoroughly updated 50th anniversary Sea-Dweller.
There were a couple of other key factors that upped the desirability. The busy dial was toned down by replacing the Arabic or Roman numerals with plain batons, and by making the GMT disc the same (or similar) color as the rest of the dial. Previously, the 24-hour ring had typically been picked out in a contrasting tone, but making the entire dial more monochromatic actually added to the legibility, along with giving the whole thing a little dab of extra class. The stick hands were made a touch longer as well, again helping the readability of what is still an information-rich frontage.
Beyond that, there was no need to change anything else. The movement remained Rolex superb in-house Caliber 9001, its 380 components garnering it a total of seven patents. 60 of those parts were taken up by the bezel assembly, the second generation of the Ring Command – the first iteration of which was brought out on the Yacht-Master II.
Rather than merely being an attractive design element, on both those watches the Ring Command bezel is an integral part of the whole system. With the Yacht-Master II, it acts as an analogue on/off switch to facilitate setting the countdown timer. But on the Sky-Dweller, it is a fully-fledged function selector. Connected directly to the movement and controlled by the winding crown, rotating the bezel between its three positions unlocks the watch’s various capabilities.
Position one gives access to the date, which can be altered by turning the crown forwards or backwards, and is also used to adjust the annual calendar. A second counter-clockwise turn allows control of the independently adjustable local hour hand that jumps in one hour increments, and the final position opens up access to the revolving off-center GMT disc.
It would be an incredible amount of utility even with the benefit of additional buttons or pushers; the fact the Sky-Dweller can achieve all of this without them is not only a testament to the skill and imagination of Rolex’s engineers, but also ensures that the watch has a built-in sturdiness. A solid case will always be more resilient and waterproof than one with extra holes drilled in it, no matter how strong the gaskets are.
With its mix of useful functionality and the inclusion of a more robust mix of metals, the stainless steel Rolex Sky-Dweller has become the perfect everyday luxury watch.
The Big Question
Anyone who has tried to part with perfectly good money at an authorized Rolex Retailer for a stainless steel sports watch in the last few years will tell you just what a thankless and infuriating exercise it can be.
If you had your heart set on a GMT-Master II, a ceramic Daytona, or even a Submariner, chances are that your local AD will have added your name to the end of a very long waiting list. In some cases, even that doesn’t happen, with a number of retailers claiming that the lists are just getting too vast to have any significant meaning.
At the moment, the same shortage is not quite as extreme for the stainless steel Sky-Dweller – or at least, not just yet. Calling round a few dealers, the lengthiest wait that I would have to put up with seems to be about two years. Yes, that is still a long time, but others are quoting in months, and one or two even had a model in stock as we spoke.
Additionally, prices for the stainless steel Sky-Dweller are being kept realistic on the secondary market. While Pepsi or Batman GMTs are selling in droves at twice their official retail prices, the Sky-Dweller adds a slight premium for the immediate availability, but nothing like others in the catalog. However, I can’t imagine that situation is going to last indefinitely. The frustration felt by potential Rolex customers when they can’t buy the exact model they want from an AD (and refuse to pay significantly above retail for it through other channels) will likely drive them to watches like the stainless steel Sky-Dweller, which in turn will drive up prices.
Of course, if you have a stainless steel Sky-Dweller, or are thinking of buying one fairly soon, that is all good news. Steel Rolex watches are one of the few luxury items that qualify as shrewd investments, and you could see yours increase in value as time goes on. The contemporary collection has a total of six Rolesor models. In yellow, you can take your pick of a black, white or champagne dial. The white Rolesor examples again have black and white options, along with a striking sunburst blue which is proving to be one of the standouts among fans of the watch.