If you couldn’t have guessed it by looking at the two models side-by-side, the history of the Sea-Dweller has been deeply linked with the Submariner right from the beginning.
Yet the professional-grade Sea-Dweller has nurtured its own following of exacting collectors far from the droves lusting after the latest Submariner.
So which references paved the way for the present-day 43mm, Cyclops-wearing reference 126600? We answer this question and more throughout this recap of the Sea-Dweller’s intriguing history.
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A Preamble To The Sea-Dweller
As we alluded to earlier, you can’t discuss the beginnings of the earliest Sea-Dwellers without mentioning the Submariner. Why is this?
Well, the Sea-Dweller was designed to be a more technologically advanced watch than the Sub.
Back in the mid ’60s, the divers taking part in the U.S. Navy’s SEALAB I experiments were having issues with their timepieces, specifically their Rolex Subs, during the decompression phase of their dives.
The goal of these projects was to study the viability of saturation diving. This practice amounts to keeping humans in a different ambient so they would acclimate and be able to carry out extreme dives continuously over days or weeks.
When the mission is complete, the divers go through a gradual decompression period during which the air that they breathe is reduced in helium concentration. The helium that previously made its way into the watch during the pressurized stages wants out, often resulting in the crystal popping off of the watch.
Rolex was approached with this issue by T. Walker Lloyd, a Navy diver who was initially hired as an oceanographic consultant for the brand. An ardent fan of the brand and the Submariner itself, Lloyd would go on to hold a 25-year tenure at the Swiss manufacturer.
Prototypes & The Double Red Sea-Dweller
Before the first Sea-Dwellers became publicly available in 1967, Rolex produced various prototypes. These were marked by a single line of red text on the dial which read “Sea-Dweller”. As the first true Sea-Dwellers, most (not all) also boasted a helium escape valve as well as a date at 3 o’clock and 500m of water resistance.
It is believed that there are about a dozen of these in the world today.
When 1967 rolled around, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller to the public as the reference 1665. It was very similar to the prototypes except its dial read “Sea – Dweller / Submariner 2000,” once more in red font. The 610m depth rating had also increased.
The new Sea-Dweller became the preferred timepiece for commercial divers. In fact, Rolex paired up with the French diving company Comex to equip their divers with customized Submariner watches. It has even been speculated that the company was involved in the development of the Helium Escape Valve.
This theory has been broadly debunked, though, as the association didn’t begin until 1971 and the Sea-Dweller had been available before then. Nevertheless, the partnership did produce some very desirable Comex-branded Submariner models under the 5514 reference.
The Sea-Dweller Splits Off
Rolex had spent so much time and effort bringing such a unique diving tool to life, that it didn’t make sense to continue ‘hiding it’ behind the Submariner marquee. In 1977, after just 10 years of production, Rolex made a subtle yet significant change.
The text on the Sea-Dweller’s dial dropped the “Submariner 2000” as well as the red font. This gave way to the ref. 1665 “Great White”.
This kind of slight variation is what Rolex collectors live for, and there are few vintage Rolex models as nuanced as the Sea-Dweller.
For brevity’s sake, we won’t discuss the differences between all dial variations as that would take its very own guide. Suffice it to say, some very small details can have a very big effect on the provenance and price.
The Sea-Dweller “Triple Six”
Soon after the aforementioned Great White came to be, Rolex would also introduce the Sea-Dweller reference 16660.
The Triple Six was characterized by some slight changes over the previous ref. 1665. Most notably, it featured a sapphire crystal as opposed to acrylic. It also had a larger case, which allowed the depth rating to increase to 1,220 meters. Likewise, its bezel was unidirectional for the first time.
Beating inside the 16660 was Rolex’s newest caliber, the 3035, an upgrade over the calibre 1575. Aside from being more advanced, it also possessed the convenient quick-set feature. This same movement was also present in the Datejusts of the time.
Lastly, the Sea-Dweller 16660 also boasted an improved bracelet with solid links. This made for a much more solid ‘feel’ on the wrist, an appropriate sensation for a watch truly designed with professional applications in mind.
Sea-Dweller Ref. 16600 (1988)
Although quite similar in most respects to the 16660 it replaced, the 16600 was also marked by some key differences.
In the new reference, Rolex updated the movement from the 3035 to the 3135. This change once more imparted the latest horological technology to the Sea-Dweller, including a longer power reserve. Indeed, the 3135 would be used in Sea-Dwellers well into the 2010’s.
Another aspect that set the 16600 apart was its glossy black dial. Throughout the two decades in which it was produced, this same dial would see the evolution of Rolex’s luminous of choice. From Tritium, to LumiNova, and finally to Super-LumiNova, all would be used on this Sea-Dweller.
The Deepsea Sea-Dweller
The 16600 would enjoy wild success as a “premium Submariner” until the year 2008, when Rolex would make an usual move. The beloved 16600 was to be discontinued and replaced by a “bigger and badder” version, the Deepsea Sea-Dweller ref. 116660.
The new watch brought with it a series of changes beginning with its case, which had been expanded to 44mm. The larger case was a result of the new depth rating, which had increased to an extraordinary 3900m.
The bezel also possessed a Cerachrom ceramic insert, and the dial was now a “maxi dial” with larger indices and hands. The bracelet, while still an Oyster, was the latest version which now featured the outstanding Glidelock clasp.
The Deepsea, which satisfied a new niche as an “oversized Sub”, was rather popular. So much so, in fact, that Rolex used it as a platform to commemorate James Cameron’s expedition to the deepest place in the world, the Mariana Trench.
The special edition was named the Deepsea Sea-Dweller D-Blue. Everything was the same save for the dial, which now had a blue-to-black gradient symbolizing the trip Cameron embarked on.
Return To The 40mm Sea-Dweller
Six years after a 40mm Sea-Dweller had seen daylight on Rolex’s catalog, a traditionally-sized Sea-Dweller would make a short-lived return. It was the ref. 116600.
The Sea-Dweller 4000 116600 was more like a 16600 than the Deepsea, except many of its components received the Rolex modernization treatment. The case was the beefier super case, the dial was a maxi dial, the bezel was Cerachrom, and the bracelet was the latest Oyster variant.
The water resistance received a significant bump; it lent the name to the model as well, coming in at 4000 feet (1220m).
Unfortunately, the Sea-Dweller 4000 seemed to languish in Rolex dealer cases, and the model was discontinued in 2017 after just 3 years. On the bright side, a short production means a limited supply, a significant factor required to make for a potential investment Rolex.
The 43mm Red Sea-Dweller
As Rolex quietly dropped the 40mm 116600, they also shocked with their new Sea-Dweller 126600.
The watch was an unexpected mix of vintage cues and modern trends. For instance, it had a new 43mm case while also recalling the earliest prototypes with the red text on its dial. Perhaps most controversial of all was the cyclops, an element whose absence had identified the Sea-Dweller since the beginning.
Additionally, it was only natural for Rolex to accompany the new model with a new movement, Rolex’s new-generation calibre 3235.
The 43mm Sea-Dweller was met with some skepticism but, being a Rolex sports model, it too has been swept up in the recent craze; the watch is trading just under $15,000 as of this writing. (retail: $11,350)
If the introduction of a new case size to the Sea-Dweller family wasn’t enough, Rolex went ahead and released a two-tone Sea-Dweller in 2019. The watch marked yet another first, as the Sea-Dweller had never been crafted, completely or in part, of any precious metal.
Final Thoughts & Up Next…
Since the earliest prototypes, the Sea-Dweller was intended to serve a very niche group of people in some of the most extreme conditions on Earth. In this endeavor they were clearly successful.
Alternatively, by introducing a gold-clad option for this traditionally functional watch, the Sea-Dweller has officially made the leap, like so many before it, into the luxury wristwatch realm.
Fortunately, Rolex has a formula in hand which allows them to continuously craft engaging timepieces, and the newest Sea-Dweller watches are no different.
The Sea-Dweller is yet another Rolex family we’re excited to continue tracking through time as it evolves, though it might be some years before we see any more updates. In the meantime, make sure to check out some of our other Rolex guides or leave your thoughts in the comments below:
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"Some great info about the Sea-Dweller in this guide. Personally, I'm a huge proponent of the newest 43mm case size but still getting used to the cyclops."Rating: 5.0★★★★★