The Future Grail Watch Series: A Tale of Two Divers
The Rolex name has been inextricably linked to the world of diving since the 1950s and the launch of the Submariner, surely the most famous dive watch there has ever been. Even earlier, long before undersea exploring had become a recreation, they had paved the way for their future direction with the Oyster range, the first usable, serially-produced waterproof wristwatches.
The brand’s never-ending quest for perfection over the subsequent decades gave rise to two companions for the omnipresent Sub, with the sort of abilities and performance even the most prophetic Rolex engineer would not have dreamed possible 60+ years ago.
In 1967, the first of the big brothers emerged, an all-out professional tool watch designed for and with the assistance of the commercial diving industry, named the Sea-Dweller. Bigger, stronger and meaner, it could go places no other model could and found an immediate audience with the public among those looking for something with a touch more individuality over the Submariner.
It was the top dog diver in the range for 40 years, with several references that have since crossed over into grail status, until it was granted an unexpected retirement in 2008 to make way for an absolute leviathan of a watch. The Sea-Dweller Deepsea dwarfed anything Rolex had made before, in both scale and power; a wrist tank that could withstand unimaginable pressures while still retaining the family’s good looks.
Yet, impressive though this new master of the deep was, the loss of the standard Sea-Dweller was too much to bear for brand and fans alike and it was to the delight of the adoring faithful that an all-new model announced its comeback in 2014.
By complete coincidence, that year also saw the release of a new version of the Deepsea, commissioned to celebrate an incredible achievement by one of the movie world’s true visionaries.
Linked by a faultless pedigree and an unmatched history of technical progress, these two watches are the subject of this week’s ‘Future Grail’ article—the Sea-Dweller 4000 ref. 116600 and the Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue Dial ref. 116660.
The Sea-Dweller 4000 ref. 116600
The Sea-Dweller’s 6 year retirement was well spent, and the next chapter in the diving middle child’s story arrived refreshed and ready to go.
All the elements that had made the previous iterations some of the most well-loved models in the catalog were present and correct, but there was a modern, updated feel to the overall design that was impossible to miss.
The most obvious difference was the addition of Rolex’s own Cerachrom bezel. Replacing the aluminum inserts of earlier references, the patented, virtually unbreakable ceramic material is resistant to corrosion from seawater and fading from UV rays, making it the perfect finishing touch for a saturation diver’s watch.
Its engraved markers now extended the full circumference of the bezel, giving it an at-a-glance distinction from the Submariner, and they, as well as the numerals, were filled with platinum plating for extra resilience. Aesthetically, the fully-graduated surround had strong echoes of the ref. 5517 Milsub, the piece designed specifically for the UK’s special forces regiments, with all the inherent toughness that implies.
Another element making its first appearance on the comeback Sea-Dweller was the new style Maxi dial, its indexes and hands markedly larger than before, lending it a much improved legibility. The dial itself saw a return to the matte finish reminiscent of several noteworthy vintage examples, and the less shiny surface provided the face an altogether deeper, darker look.
Same, But Different
Size-wise, the ref. 116600 followed the overriding design ethos Rolex started to introduce throughout the whole of their sports range, as in retaining the same case dimensions, but endowing the watch with a more muscular stance by beefing up lugs and crown guards. On the wrist, this new model has a greater presence than any of its ancestors, going some way to satisfying contemporary tastes for bigger watches.
And to the joy of many fans, Swiss engineers had finally addressed one of the real points of contention among brand advocates and performed a major reworking of the Sea-Dweller’s Oyster bracelet. Now, all of the three piece links were solid, giving a reassuring weight to the band, and it borrowed the newly-introduced Glidelock and Fliplock extension systems from the Deepsea.
With the Fliplock, the bracelet could be instantly lengthened by up to 26mm to fit around the sleeve of a wet or drysuit, while the Glidelock allowed for fine adjustments, in 2mm increments up to 20mm—an especially welcome feature for hot days when wrists expand and watches get tight.
On the inside, the Cal. 3135 movement was carried over from the ref. 16600 that had come before, mainly because there was no need to mess with a winning formula. Rolex’s longest and widest serving movement ever exemplified the sort of reliability which had made them famous in the first place, and ensures the accuracy and endurance of any piece it sits in for generations to come.
Shrouding it all, the 904L steel case was built to resist tremendous forces and, with a thickness of 15.1mm, slotted neatly in the middle of the dive trio, between the Sub’s 12.5mm and the Deepsea’s astonishing 17.7mm.
Together with the Triplock crown and its five insulators, along with a deeper sapphire crystal, the Sea-Dweller 4000 is rated waterproof down to, you guessed it, 4000ft (1,220M if you prefer your metrics). And with the Helium Escape Valve occupying its usual spot at 9 o’clock, the watch is safe and protected on the way back up as well.
Certainly a beautiful and highly capable offering then, but beautiful and highly capable are par for the course with Rolex and by themselves do not guarantee future grail status. Fortunately, the ref. 116600 has two very important extra points in its favor that have seen it already break into the wish lists of many savvy collectors.
Firstly, it had a particularly brief production run. After just three short years, it was replaced in 2017 by the much bigger ref. 126600 which, at 43mm, weighed in at almost the same size as the Deepsea. With such a meager time in the spotlight, the Sea-Dweller 4000 has an inbuilt rarity value that makes it highly desirable.
And secondly, it was the last in the series to come without a Cyclops over the date window. The magnifying lens was introduced by Rolex back in 1954 and has been annoying a lot of people ever since. Many think it ruins the symmetry of the dial, taking up too much room and affecting readability. Until the ref. 126600, only the Submariner had the Cyclops, but of course it also had the option of the no-date version for the real purists.
A large percentage of the Sea-Dweller’s fan base was made up of those who wanted both a date function as well as a Cyclops-free dial. The modern-day Sea-Dweller caused a stir when it emerged with its magnified window for the first time, forcing potential buyers into a choice between the titanic Deepsea or taking a step back and hunting down a discontinued ref. 116600.
All evidence points to the Sea-Dweller 4000 being the preferred choice, with prices for the watch on the pre-owned market climbing steadily upwards, a trend that is unlikely to change considering its relative scarcity and finite quantities.
While no one can predict with absolute certainty which of Rolex’s extensive back catalog is destined to be a future all-time classic, with its provenance and history, the Sea-Dweller 4000 ref. 116600 is one model most definitely worth careful consideration.
The Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue Dial ref. 116660
The Deepsea arrived in 2008 as very much the answer to a question nobody was asking. While the Submariner’s abilities were eminently suitable for the recreational diver, although the closest the majority get to the water is when the Brita filter needs changing, and the Sea-Dweller had the commercial diving world covered with all the functionality they would ever need, the Deepsea was built to go places no human would ever realistically venture.
In fact, with a waterproof rating of an absurd 12,800ft, there isn’t even a nuclear submarine that can worry it.
So what was Rolex’s thinking in creating, at enormous expense, a watch that could survive a drop to—as near as makes no difference—two and a half miles underwater?
It would be tempting, and a touch mean-spirited, to suggest it was an uncharacteristic bit of grandstanding by the usually stoic watchmaker. A little reminder to the young upstarts that, as far as technological achievement goes, the ocean was still their territory. While there may have been an element of that (and who can blame them?) it is important not to ignore the company’s history of pushing the limits of what is possible to the absolute extreme, and using their findings to build ever better creations for the rest of us.
A History of Exploration
The origins of the Deepsea can really be traced back to 1960, when Rolex created the experimental Deepsea Special to join the mission to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, the lowest point on earth, aboard the Bathyscaphe Trieste. The huge, bubble-glassed watch, strapped to the outside of the two-man submersible, shrugged off the effects of the 11,000m descent and never missed a beat.
Some 52 years later, movie director James Cameron would repeat the expedition, becoming the first man to attempt the voyage solo and, again, it was Rolex who provided the timekeeping hardware. His vessel, the Deepsea Challenger, carried another of the brand’s prototypes to the deepest part of the Pacific Ocean, secured to one of the craft’s robotic arms. Once more, the watch, named the Rolex Deepsea Challenge, performed faultlessly, proving more reliable than the arm, which malfunctioned.
It was to commemorate the launch of Cameron’s movie about the journey two years later that Rolex introduced the D-Blue Dial version of their ultra-hardy, flagship dive watch. Identical in every other respect to the standard-issue piece, even down to sharing a reference number, it is the unique, dual-tone design on the face that sets the two models apart.
The ombré coloring, gradually blending from a rich blue at the top to an abyssal black at the bottom, was incorporated to mimic the effect of diving deeper than any sunlight can reach. It gives the watch a distinct, active aesthetic, catching the eye even more than a 44mm diameter, 17.7mm thick behemoth normally would.
To round off the celebratory dial, the Deepsea name moved from the 12 o’clock position to the 6 and was picked out in the same lime green as Cameron’s submersible.
The mechanics of the D-Blue are otherwise the same as the original. The patented RINGLOCK system does most of the heavy lifting, Rolex’s own solution to the problem of creating something that can survive the weight of 5,500lbs per square inch.
Formed of an inner compression disc cut from Biodur 108, a nitrogen-alloyed steel three times stronger than even the 904L used on the case and bracelet, the RINGLOCK shoulders the immense pressures and transfers them evenly around its surface area. The two-part case back, made from TA6V titanium alloy, is allowed to flex to soak up the stresses, the whole system working synergistically, which each individual element protecting the other.
The crystal, potentially the weakest point and the one with the largest expanse, has been thickened to some 5.5mm—the depth of some dress watches. It shields the unorthodox dial, with its white gold-filled Maxi hands and indexes and the now unique non-Cyclops date window.
In all, the Deepsea you can stroll into a Rolex dealers and pick up off the shelf is just a scaled down version of the one created to join Cameron at the very bottom of the ocean, and not even scaled down that much. There is very little in the horology world that can match its performance while still remaining so wearable.
So, an impressive version of an impressive watch, released to commemorate a record-breaking achievement by one of the most successful auteurs of all time.
The future classic markers are looking good for the D-Blue, and coupled with the fact that the Deepsea is produced in far lower numbers than either of its diving siblings anyway, it is a definite contender.
The major difference between it and the Sea-Dweller 4000 is, of course, that it is still being made. However, the first whispers of its imminent departure are starting to circulate, and Rolex do seem to make a habit of quietly shutting down various pieces without any form of warning.
Maybe the time to invest in a D-Blue is approaching. As an example of Rolex’s prowess and their ongoing relationship with the world’s pioneers, it is nigh on unbeatable.
— Featured and Body Photo Credits: BeckerTime’s Archive.