The Future Grail Series: The Rolex Sky-Dweller ref. 326139
It’s safe to say that the 2012 launch of the Sky-Dweller series was a big moment in the Rolex story.
The world’s most successful watchmaker introduces brand new models about as often as astronomers discover new planets, and they hadn’t brought out an entirely original family with a never-before-seen name since the first of the Yacht-Masters emerged in the early nineties. The last one before that was the Daytona, way back in 1963.
In between, they had given us ‘sequels’ to already established watches; so we had the GMT-Master II, which was very similar to its foundation piece, along with the Explorer II and Yacht-Master II, which were not.
Globe Trotter’s Companion
As well as being an almost once in a lifetime event, the Sky-Dweller also signposted a possible new direction for Rolex as a manufacturer. Often criticized for barely dipping their toes into the world of complications, their new flagship aviation-inspired model was by far their most complex to date.
The barely explored path of added functionality that started with the mechanical memory and flyback feature on the Yacht-Master II had taken a different turn with the Sky-Dweller. Impressive though the skipper’s watch was, a piece that’s sole purpose was to time the starting procedure of a sailing regatta was going to have limited scope outside of those who, well…competed in sailing regattas.
With a GMT dual time indicator and Rolex’s first annual calendar, alongside the traditional date function, the Sky-Dweller had a far wider potential audience and it was billed as the ultimate traveler’s watch. The price tag, however, narrowed that broad field down considerably and ‘the ultimate luxury traveler’s watch’ is perhaps more apt.
The three initial versions released in 2012 caught the Rolex faithful by surprise. When the Sky-Dweller name first started to be bandied about by those in the know, months before any other details emerged, many pictured a more robust version of the GMT-Master; sort of a Sea-Dweller to the GMT’s Submariner.
Instead, what they got was a complete departure from the time-honored and accepted Rolex design language—the elegant minimalism that had taken them to the top of the horology tree and kept them there for more than half a century.
The stark unfussiness of the traditional models had been replaced with a convoluted, asymmetrical face, with an off-center sub dial that decapitated the lower hour markers. Only available in one of the three flavors of 18K gold, two of them fitted on a corresponding Oyster bracelet, a design that was meant to be clean and contemporary was bordering on (whisper it) outdated and even a touch ostentatious.
As has happened several times throughout Rolex’s history, the perplexing styling immediately split opinion and left some wondering about such a radically overblown departure from the norm.
It wasn’t until Baselworld 2014 that Rolex unveiled three refreshed styles, their overt grandness tempered by new, more harmonious dial colors and, crucially, the addition on the yellow and white gold versions of leather straps, that the Sky-Dweller started to come into its own.
The Rolex Sky-Dweller ref. 326139
With truly fine timepieces, it’s amazing just how much difference a seemingly small change can make. Something as trivial as varying the shape of the hands or substituting Arabic indexes for Roman numerals can completely alter the personality of a watch.
So when the Sky-Dweller ref. 326139 surfaced, having introduced a black dial and matching alligator strap to the white gold version for the first time, it was almost like looking at an entirely new model.
What had once been grandiose and showy was now elegantly sporty. Still clearly a luxury watch, the silver vibrancy of the case caught the eye without the need to shout for attention. The fluted bezel, a design trait Rolex has been using since their very earliest days, added enough formality to take you from first class lounge to cocktail party without needing to change watches, and the black dial with its complementary GMT disc had become among the most legible in the whole series.
But it was the strap that gave the piece its character. Only an option on Rolex’s dress watch collection, the contrast between a Sky-Dweller on an metal band and one on leather is like night and day. Where the Oyster bracelet blends with the case, giving the piece a look as if it was hewn from a single solid block, on leather, there are two very distinct yet beautifully crafted elements. It took a watch impressive enough to justifiably brag about its own abilities and turned it into one that was understated and modest—a class act in other words.
With the introduction of the more low-key, incognito versions, the Sky-Dweller’s standing has started to improve, but it is still a controversial addition to the Rolex lineup among brand purists. The main bugbear remains the eccentric, skewed 24-hour disc, with many critics demanding to know what exactly was wrong with the simple elegance of a fourth hand to track a second time zone. Apparently forgetting that both the Explorer II and the GMT-Master II exist and pretty much have that system covered, it is also somewhat missing the point.
The Sky-Dweller represents a whole new concept, one which is equally as effective at displaying GMT as an extra hand, and the rotating sub dial works beautifully. The inverted triangle above it points out the hour as well as adding a welcome pop of color to the otherwise monochrome faces.
On the ref. 326139, the brilliantly inventive annual calendar brings an additional splash. The tiny apertures above each of the hour markers correspond to the months of the year, with the current one marked in red. So, a filled-in window above the seven o’clock index, for instance, tells us it’s July.
Rolex have christened their system SAROS, after the astronomical term used to predict solar and lunar eclipses. In the Sky-Dweller, it automatically compensates for the differing number of days of various months, meaning the watch only needs to be manually adjusted once a year, in February. (Blame the Romans).
Powering it all is a brand new movement, the Cal. 9001. A product of years of in-house development, it is Rolex’s most complicated mechanism to date, built from 380 separate components and protected by seven patents. Even so, it is the watchmaker’s friend, with an architecture reportedly so well thought-out that it is easier to service and maintain than the Yacht-Master II’s Cal. 4161 or even the chronograph movement from the Daytona.
Underlying its credentials as a member of the dress collection rather than one of the brand’s professional tool watches, the Sky-Dweller has kept its silhouette as discreet as a Datejust or Day-Date. Incredibly for a model with such advanced functionality, it needs no supplementary pushers to operate its features.
Instead, everything is controlled via the winding crown and the bezel working in conjunction. The approach that made its first appearance with the Yacht-Master II’s regatta countdown has been refined and enhanced for the Sky-Dweller, and its fluted surround acts as an analogue function selector.
Called the Ring Command Bezel, it operates in three positions, with each one unlocking a different action. It means the date, local time and reference time can all be set by simply turning the crown, doing away with any need for extra buttons on the case that would ruin the aesthetic balance. It is a solution of Rolex’s own invention and its elegant efficiency has won the Sky-Dweller the begrudging respect of even those who hesitate over its looks.
Trying to predict whether such a recent inclusion to the catalog is destined for classic status is by nature an inexact science, so we are into educated guess territory.
The Sky-Dweller ref. 326139 has innovation on its side with its new take on the GMT complication and Rolex’s first ever annual calendar—elements that future collectors and investors will certainly be looking for. And with its hefty fee it is likely to be produced in relatively limited numbers which will give it an intrinsic rarity value.
But, of course, there is no way to know how long Rolex will continue to make this particular model or indeed the Sky-Dweller series as a whole, and discontinued watches are always going to be more sought after than those still being churned out on the assembly line.
What we do know for sure is that it is a fantastically impressive achievement, in both design and engineering, Rolex’s first all new creation for several generations and the definitive watch for well-heeled globetrotters.
Whether it goes on to become a grail piece, only time will tell. But there is very little else out there that can do what the Sky-Dweller does so well.