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A Quick Dive into the History of the Rolex Sea Dweller
Rolex Sea Dweller History: Six References
While the Rolex Submariner has taken a more luxurious turn during its history, the Sea Dweller has stayed true to its roots as a utilitarian tool watch. This year, Rolex’s extreme dive watch celebrates its 50th anniversary. So, let’s review the Sea Dweller history of six references that Rolex has manufactured from 1967 until today.
Sea Dweller ref. 1665 “Double Red Sea Dweller”
The inaugural Sea Dweller ref. 1665 sprung out of a collaboration with the commercial diving company, COMEX. Because COMEX’s pro divers were required to plunge to further depths than ever before, Rolex was charged with producing a diving watch that could withstand the pressure. And, the Swiss watchmaker came up with a modified Submariner and called it the Sea Dweller.
Equipped with a thicker case to accommodate the Helium Escape Valve (HEV), a domed crystal protecting the dial, and the lack of a Cyclops lens, the Sea Dweller ref. 1665 boasted a water resistance of 2,000 feet—an incredible increase from the Submariner’s depth rating of 660 feet. While the Sea Dweller’s case was substantially thicker, its diameter was identical to the Submariner at 40mm. Powering the Sea Dweller ref. 1665 is the Caliber 1575.
Nicknamed the Double Red Sea Dweller (DRSD) for its two lines of red text on the dial, the Sea Dweller ref. 1665 DRSD is one of the most coveted vintage Rolex watches today.
Sea Dweller ref. 1665 “Great White”
A decade after the launch of the Sea Dweller, Rolex followed up with a revamped model in 1977, yet kept the same 1665 reference number and the same caliber.
This time however, the second version of the Sea Dweller ref. 1665 gains the nickname “Great White” since its red text was replaced by white font. Furthermore, the original “SUBMARINER 2000” label was dropped, therefore, indicating that the Sea Dweller was ready to branch out as its own collection.
Sea Dweller ref. 16660
Only one year after the debut of the Sea Dweller ref. 1665 “Great White,” Rolex unveiled the Sea Dweller ref. 16660 in 1978. However, Rolex continued to produce both Sea Dweller models simultaneously for years.
Our Sea Dweller history shows that ref. 16660 brought about a slew of improvements. Firstly, water resistance increased to 4,000 feet due in part to a larger HEV. Secondly, it came outfitted with sapphire crystal. Thirdly, the once bi-directional bezel became unidirectional for better diver’s safety. And, finally, the movement changed to the Caliber 3035.
Sea Dweller ref. 16600
In 1988, Rolex introduced the Sea Dweller ref. 16600 with few, yet important enhancements. In fact, the Rolex Sea Dweller mens ref. 16600 was the first Rolex watch ever to feature solid end links on its Oyster bracelet.
What’s more, the Sea Dweller ref. 16600 ran on the then-new Caliber 3135, which remains today. Manufactured for 20 years, the Sea Dweller ref. 16600 was discontinued in 2008, marking the end of the collection to make room for the new Deepsea.
Sea Dweller ref. 116600
After a six-year hiatus, Rolex revived the collection with the Sea Dweller 4000 ref. 116600, including plenty of modern touches.
For instance, rather than an aluminum bezel, the Sea Dweller ref. 116600 has the popular Cerachrom ceramic bezel. Additionally, the Sea Dweller 4000 sports the black “Maxi dial” with larger indexes and broader hands for better legibility. Plus, its Oyster bracelet includes the Glidelock extension system for easy length adjusting.
Sea Dweller ref. 126600
Just this year, Rolex surprised everyone with a very different Sea Dweller. Not only is the new Sea Dweller ref. 126600 much larger with its 43mm Oyster case, but it also includes a wider Oyster bracelet.
But the most contentious design trait of the new Sea Dweller is the inclusion of the Cyclops lens. Prior to this year, a distinguishing factor of the Sea Dweller was the absence of the magnification lens on the crystal—a detail many fans loved. Discover the newest creations for the new Rolex watches presented at Baselworld 2017.
Since 2017 marks 50 years of Rolex’s pro diving watch, it’s only appropriate that the new anniversary Sea Dweller pays homage to the original by including a red “SEA-DWELLER” print on the dial.
Our Sea Dweller history illustrates that it has certainly come a long way from its beginnings in the late 1960s. And the above six models each offer a different take on one of Rolex’s most celebrated sports watches.
To understand the history and development of the Rolex Sea Dweller (a deep-diving version of the Submariner), one has to understand the history and development of commercial diving. Largely in response the United States’ increasing need for gasoline (and subsequent energy crisis) oil companies began to go deeper below the ocean’s surface than ever before in search of oil reserves. Special deep sea divers developed techniques for reaching these depths – saturation diving was born. Parallel efforts by the U.S. Navy, the French commercial diving firm COMEX (the French diving company who developed the decompression chambers and employed all the divers training in saturation diving) and diving legend Jacques Cousteau were developing a way for man to live on the ocean floor by breathing a gas mixture made up of a majority of inert helium combined with oxygen.
The Solution For Decompression
“Saturation diving” as the new method was called, greatly increased possibilities for living underwater by removing the need to frequently come to the surface to decompress. Instead, saturation divers would spend time in a decompression chamber in order to regulate their bodies back to life above sea level. COMEX approached Rolex to help solve a unique problem divers were experiencing during decompression – the crystals of their watches were blowing off upon decompression at the end of their time on the seabed. Helium atoms (which are small enough to permeate a watch crystal) were passing through the watch crystal and collecting in the space between the watch crystal and dial. During decompression, the helium would slowly build in pressure until the watch crystal literally blew off. A new dive watch was needed, and Rolex responded with the now-legendary Sea Dweller.
Rolex Sea Dweller Milestones
Rolex patents the one-way gas release valve. The valve was fitted to a small number of 5513 Submariners made for COMEX by Rolex. Later that same year, COMEX requested added production and Rolex officially produces a small number of Ref. 5514 Submariners with COMEX dials. and the added helium escape valve. By mid-1967, Rolex began producing the Ref. 5514 for the public and re-named it the Ref. 1665 Sea Dweller.
Rolex releases the “Double Red” Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665 variant which continued until 1977.
Rolex releases the 16660 Sea Dweller with a sapphire crystal and an improved water resistance rating of 1220 meters (2000 ft.) and a larger, improved helium gas release valve.
Rolex discontinues the Ref. 16660 Sea Dweller and replaces it with the Sea Dweller Deepsea.