Of all the dive copy watches ever created, one holds a special place in history, as both an icon of all things horologically cool but also a great in the field of research and innovation. That is the Rolex Sea-Dweller, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year (1967-2017). We explain why it’s an icon and speculate on how Rolex will celebrate this anniversary.
A purpose-built watch for pros
The Sea-Dweller’s history is deeply linked to the history of diving on its own, and essential to the development of the dive watch that started in the 1950s. After WWII, leisure diving grew in popularity and dive watches began to be commercialized for military, professional and civilian use.
The birth of the dive watch can be summed up by one timepiece, the Submariner ref. 6200, the world’s first commercially produced dive watch that was released in 1954, boasting a 100m water resistance (which later improved to 200m). Then in the 1960s, experiments with saturation diving for commercial deep-sea divers had begun bringing about the need for watches with greater water resistance. At that time, the standard Submariner ref. 5513 could endure 200m of pressure but the goal of Rolex was to triple it.
Experiments were carried by Rolex in collaboration with COMEX, the French deep-sea diving specialist, leading to the invention of a feature that would later become the hallmark of the Sea-Dweller: the helium escape valve.
The valve was first retrofitted on best cheap fake Submariner ref. 5514 watches made for COMEX, but in 1967, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller ref. 1665, the first watch designed with helium escape valve that was also available for civilian purchase.
The early models from 1967 – production was estimated to slightly over 100 pieces – were very similar to the Submariner ref. 5514 COMEX. Key characteristics of the early Sea-Dwellers are a “double red” dial – having two lines of text on the dial in red print – along with “Submariner 2000” and “patent pending” engraved on the case back (as Rolex had then filed for, but had not yet received, the patent for the helium valve).
Several evolutions took place over the life of the Sea-Dweller. Very rare examples include the “single red” model, which were prototypes (with estimated production of four watches) rated to 500m.
One of the best-known variants is the “Double Red” Sea-Dweller (with the “Submariner 2000” mention too), produced from 1971 to 1977, featuring a 2000ft or 610m water resistance and “patent pending” caseback.
In 1977, the Replica Rolex Sea-Dweller transformed again, becoming a model nicknamed the “Great White”. This model got rid of the red lettering on the dial as well as any mention of “Submariner 2000”, so as to better differentiate between the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller models.
Then in 1978, while the ref. 1665 was still in production, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller ref. 16660 that fitted with a sapphire crystal, a bigger helium release valve and an improved depth rating of 4,000ft or 1,220m. Finally in 1988 came the Sea-Dweller ref. 16600 that was powered by the modern calibre 3135, while also having solid end-links on the bracelet and a glossy-finish dial. After many decades in service, the Sea-Dweller was finally discontinued in 2008, replaced by the extra-large Deepsea that was 44mm in diameter.
Rolex stopped the production of the Sea-Dweller 4000 to replace it with a timepiece that had even greater water resistance: the Deepsea Sea-Dweller, rated to 12,000ft or 3,900m.
While technically more advanced, the Deepsea couldn’t replace the Sea-Dweller in the heart of collectors and perhaps for that reason the Sea-Dweller 4000 returned to the catalogue in 2014 as the ref. 116600. That model has all the same features as the classic Sea-Dweller: 1,220m water resistance, a helium escape valve, no magnifier on the date, but also some subtle improvements, including a slightly slimmer case, ceramic bezel and adjustable Glidelock bracelet.
What about the 50th anniversary?
With such history and pedigree, it would be difficult for Rolex to pass on the chance for a 50th anniversary Sea-Dweller. Many expect to see a “red” version of the Sea-Dweller 4000 that harks back to the 1970s version.
Yet, Rolex doesn’t just do vintage-inspired pieces, instead preferring to introduce high-end versions of existing models to mark anniversary’s, as it did with the platinum Daytona for that model’s jubilee. Even if precious metals go against the very nature of the replica rolex sea-dweller automatic watches with green ceramic bezel, Rolex could potentially do a gold or platinum version of the watch.
Another possibility is a different dial on the steel version of the Sea-Dweller. Why not a graduated tone dial colour, as seen in the Deepsea D-Blue? We’ll find out very soon.