At Baselworld 2017, Rolex unveiled the newest version of the Sea-Dweller to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the mega dive watch. While previous versions of the Sea-Dweller stayed pretty much true to the inaugural version from 1967 with just a few improvements, the new Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 126600 brought about plenty of significant changes. And some of these changes are indeed controversial! Let’s have a closer look at what the new features are of the 50th anniversary Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600 and find out why they’re so polarizing.
Rolex’s Other Dive Watch
Although it’s safe to say that the Submariner is Rolex’s most famous dive watch, in 1967–14 years after the first Submariner made its appearance–the company introduced a more robust version intended for professional deep-sea divers. In fact, the Sea-Dweller was born from a collaboration between Rolex and Comex, a French company specializing in deep diving operations since Comex was in need of tool watches for their pro divers. If this story sounds familiar, it should. Remember, Rolex also created tool watches for Pan Am after the airline requested timepieces for their pilots–hence the development of the GMT-Master pilot watch. If there’s one thing Rolex is really good at, it is developing utilitarian watches for a specific niche, only to later market them to a larger audience.
To pass the Comex test so to speak, the new professional Rolex dive watch had to not only offer better water resistance than the Submariner but also be able to withstand changes in pressure during decompression periods. When divers plunge to great depths under great pressure, they often take in a breathing gas mix that includes helium. This helium can also make its way into the watch, which can then cause the crystal to pop off once the decompression period begins due to a change in pressure. To solve this, Rolex built a helium escape valve which permits the watch to automatically release any built up gases, thus avoiding damage to the timepiece from pressure changes. The Submariner ref. 5513 was then fitted with the helium escape valve and tested by Comex divers.
The helium escape valve was (and still is) a fundamental component to the Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 from 1967. If you look closely at the dial from that first Sea-Dweller, you’ll see the “SUBMARINER 2000” label. This was to highlight the incredible 2,000 feet water resistance of the Sea-Dweller compared to the standard Submariner’s depth rating of 660 feet. Aside from the rating, the color of the text is also important. The two lines of red text on the Sea-Dweller led to the famous nickname among Rolex collectors–the Double Red Sea-Dweller (DRSD).
The Rolex Sea-Dweller Evolution
Rolex produced the Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 DRSD until it was eventually replaced by a newer Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 in 1977. This time, the red text gave way to white text, therefore this particular model picked up the “Great White” nickname”. Also, the Submariner label was dropped from the Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 Great White watch, signaling that this model is one that stands on its own rather than just a modified Sub.
Just a year later, Rolex launched the Sea-Dweller ref. 16660 (while still producing the ref. 1665 simultaneously for a few years) with double the water resistance, sapphire crystal instead of acrylic, and the then-new Rolex Cal. 3035 movement with quickset date.
in 1988, the Sea-Dweller ref. 16600 joined the Rolex catalog. Modifications included solid end links (SEL) on the Oyster bracelet, as well as the new Caliber 3135 automatic movement. In 2008, Rolex stopped producing the Sea-Dweller all together to focus on the larger and even more water resistant Deepsea dive watch.
Thankfully, six years later, Rolex brought back the 40mm Sea-Dweller in 2014 with the Sea-Dweller 4000 ref. 116600. This time, as a modern Rolex sports watch, the Sea-Dweller ref. 116600 sports a Cerachrom ceramic bezel, larger lume plots, and broader Mercedes-style hands. Only in production for three short years, the Sea-Dweller ref. 116600 was the last Sea-Dweller to include a 40mm size case and no Cyclops lens above the date window.
The 50th Anniversary Sea-Dweller 126600
Since 2017 marked five decades of the Sea-Dweller, Rolex enthusiasts were indeed expecting a new model. However, the major changes the Sea-Dweller 126600 brought to the collection were surprising to many. First of all, it now includes a 43mm Oyster case rather than the standard 40mm size. Although the Sea-Dweller was always thicker than the Submariner, the two watches shared the 40mm diameter. Now with the new size, the Sea-Dweller is unmistakably bigger than the Submariner–even from a distance. With the addition of the Sea-Dweller ref. 126600, Rolex fans now have a choice of a 40mm Submariner, a 43mm Sea-Dweller, or a 44mm Deepsea.
Another big change to the new Sea-Dweller is the addition of the Cyclops lens above the date window. Prior to 2017, the Sea-Dweller was one of the few Rolex watches with a date window that did not include the signature magnification lens protruding from the exterior of the crystal. Despite its practicality, since it makes the date window easier to read, there are those that prefer the look of a Rolex without the Cyclops.
While the magnification lens and larger size are passionately debated design traits, almost everyone welcomed the return of the red text on the dial of new Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600. A fantastic homage to the inaugural Double Red Sea-Dweller, the red “SEA-DWELLER” text is a great touch.
Also new to the latest Sea-Dweller watch is the new generation Rolex Caliber 3235 automatic movement with a boosted 70-hour power reserve and an accuracy rating of -2/+2 seconds per day.
Details that did not change on the new Sea-Dweller are the use of Cerachrom ceramic for the unidirectional dive bezel, the water resistance of 4000 feet, the inclusion of the HEV, the Glidelock diver’s extension on the Oyster bracelet, and the highly luminescent dial.
Old or New Sea-Dweller?
Whilst there those who debate some of the details of the new Sea-Dweller ref. 126600, there are just as many that appreciate the modern appeal of the professional dive watch.
Bigger and bolder, with a subtle nod to the vintage Double Red Sea-Dweller, the Sea-Dweller 126600 will no doubt be a highly collectible model in the future. It is, after all, the one that changed the course of the famous Rolex professional dive watch.