With the possible exception of the Daytona, the Sea-Dweller is feasibly the most collectible of all vintage Rolex.
There are, very theoretically, only five references of the watch, but that narrow band houses the sort of variations that can make differences in price measured in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Going in order, starting at the most costly, is the Single-Red. These are the prototypes Rolex distributed to a tiny number of handpicked professional divers for testing before the watch was put into production, and never made available to the general public.
So nicknamed for the single line of red text on the dial, reading ‘Sea-Dweller’, they also redefine the word rare—there are only about a dozen still in existence. Most of these early watches are actually without the helium escape valve, and they all have a depth rating of 500m on their dials rather than 600m. Considered the holy grail of all dive watches, a fully correct version would likely break the million dollar barrier at auction.
Next up are the Double Red Sea-Dwellers which, as you have probably guessed, have two lines of red text, in this case ‘Sea-Dweller’ and underneath, ‘Submariner 2000’.
Commonly known as the DRSD, there are thought to be at least seven versions. The most valuable remain the first run pieces, sometimes identified as the ‘Patent Pending’ models. Rolex released the watches having filed for the HEV patent but had not as yet received it, and so the case backs are engraved with the two words.
The DRSDs were in production for 10 years and went through a number of changes to the dial or crown, many of which are so minor you would need a loupe to identify them. However, dedicated collectors live for these minute inconsistencies, or rather, the comparative scarcity of each. Of them all, dials Mark I-III are the most sought after, Mark IV the most common, while Mark V, VI and VII are usually service replacements.
In the late 70s, Rolex continued with the same ref. 1665 model, but did away with the red text. These follow-ups came to be called the Great Whites and were essentially unchanged except for the uniformly white lettering. However, they generally sell for much less than the Double Reds.
Again, there were a number of versions released, with some more prized than others. The Mark II dial is about the most coveted of the publically available pieces, what aficionados call the ‘rail dial’. It describes the alignment of the two lines of text—‘Superlative Chronometer’ and ‘Officially Certified’—where the two Cs line up one above the other.
Another stunningly rare type from the Great White category are the COMEX dials. A handful of these models, around 300 or so, were made to order exclusively for employees of the diving outfit and with the company name printed on the dial at the six o’clock. Today, these command huge prices.
In 1978, Rolex launched a new edition of the Sea-Dweller, although they continued to make the Great White as well, and the two references ran side by side until the ref. 1665 was finally retired in 1983.
The updated model, the ref. 16660 or Triple Six, is seen as the first of the modern style. It debuted not only the 28,800vph caliber, but was also the first model to boast 4,000ft waterproofness and a sapphire crystal, replacing the plexiglass of earlier watches. It also introduced a larger HEV and a unidirectional bezel.
The Triple Six became a big favorite in the series, and a relatively high volume were produced during its 11-year run, making them a more attainable option on the vintage market. However, these too have a COMEX version, with even fewer being made than with the Great White, with that rarity reflected in the prices.
The most affordable reference is the next in the chain, the ref. 16600, which stayed around for some 20 years. It is practically identical to the later Triple Sixes but with a slightly improved caliber, the Cal. 3135. Again, there are around 200 special order COMEX pieces out there somewhere, the last time Rolex would supply the company especially, which very occasionally come up for sale.
As we said above, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ref. 116600 from 2014 would be our bet for a great future investment. The last 40mm non-Cyclops model, its three-year tenure was a popular one, but once word came through it was to be discontinued, pre-owned prices started increasing sharply. One to look at sooner rather than later.
Other outliers worth mentioning; there are a smattering of double-signed Sea-Dwellers from the 1970s, sold through the highest of high end retailers such as Tiffany & Co. or Cartier. These have the store’s name on the dial alongside Rolex. While not impossible to find, many collectors can go their whole lives without seeing one in the flesh.
And possibly even more uncommon are the pieces Rolex made for the Sultan of Oman and his royal associates. These have most of the dial text replaced by the country’s national symbol, the Khanjar. Experts believe there are around 100 of these in existence, the emblem in either red or green.