Born to ply the mysterious depths of our largely unknown seas, Rolex’s Sea-Dweller is a tool watch icon. In 2017, Rolex announced the 50th-anniversary of their burly dive watch with the reference 126600 Sea-Dweller. Bearing a red signature that reached back to the model’s own roots, the 12660 was a notable update that managed to double-down on the ethos that has always separated the Sea-Dweller from the likes of the Submariner. Understandably, we couldn’t think of a better watch to mark World Oceans Day. Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600
For the full inside scoop on the 126600, look no further than this exhaustive review, written by Ben back in July of 2017. From the history of Rolex dive watches to notable past references and a full breakdown of the new model, the Sea-Dweller remains endlessly cool and a great watch for summer, above and below the waves. It’s a long read, but what else are weekends for?
The Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600 was announced at Baselworld 2017, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the model (launched in 1967). The Sea-Dweller is one of Rolex’s most important, though arguably least commercial products – a true tool watch catering to true professionals. This latest incarnation is very much a Sea-Dweller, but there are many updates, including some that are technically minor but emotionally significant departures from models that came before. In this A Week On The Wrist review, I’ll examine those and try to unpack just what they mean. Also, we’ll talk about what this watch is meant to do, and what it’s not meant to do.
In my detailed look at Rolex from 2015, I talk about founder Hans Wildorf’s pursuit of three different properties that would come to define Rolex watches: precision timekeeping, an automatic movement, and finally, resistance to water. Why was this so important to Wilsdorf? Because prior to the introduction of the Oyster in 1926, watches (then mostly of the pocket variety) were often seen at sporting events, but always on the sidelines.
However, Wilsdorf believed there was a real market for watches that could be worn during active sports by participants themselves. The early Oyster cases featured the first fluted bezels used by Rolex, so that watchmakers could screw them in tighter to the case middle. Of course, the screw-down Oyster crown was an important innovation from the Rolex family that further allowed wearers of these watches to go deeper than ever before.
In 1953, Rolex and Blancpain both showed professional dive watches (which came first is debatable and therefore frequently debated) and the category that many of us love so much was born. While the Fifty Fathoms was discontinued decades ago before being reintroduced by the modern incarnation of Blancpain, the Submariner has remained a constant force in the watch world for over 60 years. When it was first shown, complete with its screw-down crown, luminous radium dial, and rotating bezel, one could expect water resistance up to an impressive (for that time) 100 meters.
Indeed, reference 6204 and the original “big crown” reference 6200 offered divers remarkably robust tool watches. The later 6205, 6536, and 6538 followed suit, as the did the later Submariners that we all know today.
Before that though, Rolex produced what was arguably the ne plus ultra of pre-1950s dive watches as well, they just didn’t have the Rolex name on the dial. Yes, some of the original Panerais – during this period created predominantly for Italian military divers – were made completely by Rolex, and feature Rolex cases and movements. It should be noted not all of the early Panerai wristwatches used Rolex movements and cases, but several of the earliest did and they remain very collectible – one such example is the tropical dial piece owned by John Goldberger and seen in his episode of Talking Watches.
Rolex continued to produce the Submariner in a host of variants without interruption, and as you all know, continues to produce it today. In the first couple of decades of consumer and professional dive watch production, there were certainly other serious dive watches out there, but many of them though impressive technically were not widely distributed, and few reached the level of commercial or professional success of the Sub. Omega’s Seamaster line is truly the Submariner’s only contender in the 1960s for a readily available dive watch, and they should not be over looked – though the story of the Seamaster has far more tangents than that of the Submariner. But this story isn’t about the Submariner, is it? Let’s move on to the introduction of the other Rolex dive watch, which came about 14 years later.
In many ways, the Sea-Dweller is the best expression of Rolex as a brand. From its very beginning, the model showed a preoccupation on Rolex’s part with extensive over-engineering, and performance above all else. Remember, Rolex already had a more than capable dive watch in the 5512 and 5513 Submariners, and yet it wanted to build something even tougher – a watch meant for those who not only worked, but in some cases, actually lived underwater.
The Sea-Dweller was born in an era when the next great stage of exploration – of extreme environments never before visited – was just beginning. Man had not yet been to the moon. It was just a decade before that Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay scaled Everest for the first time; a few short years later, in 1960, the bathyscaphe Trieste successfully descended to the deepest point in the ocean. It was also during this time that the first permanent research stations were established in Antarctica, and that Nautilus, the first nuclear submarine, traveled under the Polar ice cap to the North Pole.
This was an era of scientific discovery, and the world was captivated by these feats of perseverance and determination to the point where the dive into the Marianas Trench landed Bob Walsh and Jacques Piccard on the cover of Life Magazine, arguably the magazine of record for most Americans at the time. These years of prosperity led to some of mankind’s greatest explorations, and it was these feats by the greatest generation that captured the minds and hearts of the baby boomers. There was simply nothing more exciting than exploration in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whether of outer space or the deepest oceans, and this is why it makes perfect sense that during this period, Rolex developed the Sea-Dweller.
It should be noted that the Sea-Dweller did come after the Deep-Sea Special, the watch clamped to the outside of the Trieste when it descended to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. But that watch was enormous – completely unwearable – and of course, it wasn’t even really designed to be worn in the first place. The same can be said for another experimental watch made by Rolex in 2012, the Deepsea Challenge, a monster 51mm mega-dive watch that James Cameron strapped to the outside of his vessel when he recreated the historic 1960 dive. The Sea-Dweller wasn’t devised as a one-time use tool, or a prototype from which other technology could be taken – it was made for the most serious divers in the world, and meant to be worn daily, over a long period of time.
As mentioned, the connection between outer space and “inner space,” (a term that was coined by the Eisenhower administration after the successful dives of Trieste) was a real one. In fact, one of NASA’s most famous names played a part in both. Scott Carpenter, one of the original seven Mercury astronauts and the pilot of the second manned orbital flight by an American, in Aurora 7, took leave from NASA in 1965 to participate in the U.S. Navy’s “Man-in-the-Sea” Project called SEALAB. (Because hey, isn’t that what most of us would do if given a leave of absence from NASA?) As a team leader for SEALAB II off the coast of La Jolla, California in the summer of 1965, Carpenter and his team members spent 30 days living and working on the ocean floor conducting studies from a seafloor habitat at 205 feet underwater.
With Carpenter was Bob Barth, who was the only man to participate in the three different SEALAB missions. His Submariner reference 5512 was offered for sale a few years back though the seller made no mention of how important this Submariner and its owner were for the development of the Sea-Dweller.
In an interview conducted by Jason Heaton back in 2012, Barth tells of how he and his fellow crew members, while undergoing decompression in a decompression chamber, would sometimes hear a quick “pop” only to find that the crystal of someone’s watch – Submariners, Blancpains, and Tudors, mostly – had come off. The basic problem was the helium in the breathing gasses used in SEALAB. Helium forms very small molecules, which can over time penetrate the seals of a dive watch and build up in the case. Divers would spend several days in a decompression chamber, where air pressure would gradually be lowered from that at working depth, to air pressure at sea level. The helium would not be able to leak back out of the watch case quickly enough and the result was increasingly greater pressure inside the watch case – often, enough to pop the crystal off. It was the SEALAB missions that first called for a helium escape valve, which was introduced within the Rolex range on the Sea-Dweller and remains a staple of this model to this day.
The Sea-Dweller reference 1665 was introduced in 1967 as Rolex’s biggest, baddest, most capable dive watch. It was water resistant to 610 meters, roughly double what a 5513 was rated to at the time, and featured two lines of red text reading “Sea-Dweller / Submariner 2000”. The crown was a Trip-Lock; the watch featured a date (useful to saturation divers who could spend days in a decompression chamber) and it was the first time a Rolex diver would feature the complication, predating the 1680 Submariner ever so briefly.
The crystal was domed and cyclops-less. The bracelet had an extension clasp that allowed the owner to quickly open up the bracelet to allow it to fit on the outside of a diving suit. This is how the Sea-Dweller was born and how it remained for some time (we would lose the red lettering in the mid 70s around the same time the 1680 lost its red from the dial) and over the years we would see continual improvements to water resistant engineering in Rolex’s most professional line. That is, of course, until Rolex killed the Sea-Dweller as we know it.
Now, Rolex is nothing if not consistent. And to think that one of the mighty five Rolex sports watches introduced in the 1950s and 60s could be effectively killed off is hard to believe. But it happened, sort of. From 2009 to 2014, there was no Sea-Dweller in the Rolex catalog. Okay, so there was the 44mm Sea-Dweller Deep-Sea, which took the concept of a pro tool diver even further, with its downright silly 3,900 meter depth rating. But along with it came an oversized 44mm case, and then in 2014, the gradient blue to black dial of the “D-Blue” edition.
It was the first time in recent years that Rolex creating a special dial for one of its existing sports watches, and it did not sit well with everyone. Still, the D-Blue was one of the hottest watches in the world when it was announced, and the traditional black dial 44mm, titanium caseback Sea-Dweller Deep-Sea is very much a Rolex – it’s just that many yearned for a serious diver in a traditional 40mm size.
At Baselworld 2014, that’s what we got with the Sea-Dweller 4000. Reference 116600 was 40mm in diameter, featured a cyclops-less crystal and ceramic bezel, and was rated to 4000 feet, or 1,220 meters. This may not have been a super exciting reference, but it filled a void that had been vacant for half a decade and all was well with the world of Rolex divers. And then came Baselworld 2017.
Rolex at Baselworld 2017 was a little anti-climactic for some, at least relative to 2016. There wasn’t an A-list mega introduction like there was last year with the Daytona. Instead there was an update to the least well-known and certainly least understood tool watch made by Rolex.
The new Sea-Dweller came as a surprise in some ways but not others. Of course, 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the introduction of the first Sea-Dweller 1665. But also it’s important to note that we got a whole new Sea-Dweller in 2014 – that’s a heck of a short run for a Rolex reference when you remember that the first Sea-Dweller was made from 1967 all the way up until the 1980s. The 5513 ran from the early ’60s through the late ’80s.
This is Rolex, dammit, and things shouldn’t change too quickly – but they did. Though the 116600 Sea-Dweller 4000 was a great watch, with its cyclops-less crystal, 40mm case, and ceramic bezel, Rolex replaced it just three years after it was introduced.
The new Rolex 126600 is very much a Sea-Dweller though, don’t be confused about that. It has a helium escape valve just as it should and it’s water resistant to 1,300 feet deeper than the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building, is high. The thing is incredible, undoubtedly. However we gained three millimeters in diameter from 2014 to 2017, and that means it’s no longer the same case size as the original. Further we have a cyclops window on the crystal, which if you’re a Sea-Dweller guy, could be seen as something of a tragedy. Let’s go through the reference 126600 in detail, now that I’ve had a chance to spend a week wearing it.