How much do you really know about Rolex’s famous dive watches, the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller? Are they really just different versions of the same watch, the original Rolex Oyster? Where do the record-breaking Deepsea models fit in? Exactly how waterproof are all these watches now, compared to when they first came to the market, and why do names like Jacques Cousteau, Sean Connery, and James Cameron keep coming up when these watches enter the conversation? In this historical retrospective, we not only pit Submariner vs. Sea-Dweller in the areas of water-resistance, design, and historical significance; we also trace the evolution of Rolex dive watches and their leading role in the industry.
1926: Introduction of the Rolex Oyster Case
While most watch historians rightly pinpoint the 1950s as the era that gave rise to the modern, purpose-built diver’s watch, Rolex began paving the way as early as the 1920s. Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf was one of the earliest and most prominent proponents of making wristwatches more waterproof, and his 1926 invention, the so-called Oyster case, proved to be (no pun intended) a watershed for an evolving industry.
The Oyster case’s innovative design combined a threaded, hermetically sealed caseback and a crown that screwed securely into the side of the case for a water resistance never before achieved in watches. It took its name from the bivalve mollusk whose traits it emulated, except that its function was the opposite, with the two “shells” of the case clamping tight to keep water outside, rather than inside. The first Oyster watches, released that year (example above), took their name from the groundbreaking invention, and Wilsdorf put his brainchild to the test almost immediately. In 1927, in what would be the first of many celebrity-driven marketing initiatives over the years, Rolex partnered with Mercedes Gleitze, a British professional swimmer, for a widely publicized campaign. Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster watch on a necklace during her first (unsuccessful) attempt to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. The watch was still ticking when she returned to shore, allowing Rolex to tout the waterproofness of its watch in a big way in subsequent advertisements and thus to begin building its longstanding reputation for robustness and reliability as well as stylish design.
1953: First Rolex Submariner (Ref. 6204), first Trieste dive
Rolex used its Oyster case on an expanding series of watches over the subsequent years, gradually improving the waterproofness of its original incarnation, but the needs of a new postwar generation of diving enthusiasts prompted the company to take it to the next level. Like other now-iconic Rolex models, the Submariner originally came as a response to consumer demand brought about by a cultural shift. After World War II, diving had evolved to become a recreational and commercial pursuit rather than strictly a military skill set, and Jacques Cousteau’s historic invention of the Aqualung ensured that this new generation of recreational divers could remain underwater for longer periods. Thus, a new type of watch was needed that enabled a diver to keep track of his air supply. Rolex, which had built some of the first military-issued dive watches, for the Italian firm Panerai in the 1930s and ‘40s, was one of the first watchmakers to respond to this demand in the seminal year of 1953, along with a few others, including Blancpain and Zodiac. The first Submariner, Ref. 6204, established the template for the model — 37mm steel Oyster case, black dial with inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, alternating circle and bar indexes at the hour markers, and a rotating bidirectional bezel with a 60-minute scale that a diver could set to keep track of his time underwater.
The Submariner, which actually went on sale a year later, in 1954, was touted as the first commercial watch that was waterproof to 100 meters — a significant claim, as the Fifty Fathoms, which had preceded it to market, was tested only to the 91.44 meters that matched up to its name. Subsequent references of the Submariner, starting with the Ref. 6205, added the familiar Mercedes handset and even more robust water-resistance ratings, of 200 meters, and eventually 300 meters, which is the standard for the model today. The first models were equipped with the automatic A260 caliber and featured the name “Submariner” on the dial — except for some models sold in Britain, which used “Sub-Aqua” instead. Some models from subsequent years, for whatever reason, left the “Submariner” name off the dials, at least until 1956, when the name became standard among the various text indications, along with “Oyster Perpetual” and the depth rating (at the time, “100m/330 ft”). It wasn’t until 1979 that the Submariner acquired one of the features most strongly associated with the model, a dive-scale bezel that rotated in one direction rather than two (below). This was a practical and potentially life-saving innovation — first used by Blancpain for its Fifty Fathoms models — which prevented a diver from accidentally jarring the bezel in the wrong direction for an inaccurate reading of how much time he’d spent underwater and thus miscalculating how much oxygen he had left in the tank. Submariners have been equipped with this type of bezel ever since. The model reached the 300-meter water resistance that it retains to this day with Ref. 16610, released in 1987.
Original Submariner (1953)
Case size: 37mm; Bezel: Bidirectional, aluminum insert; Water resistance: 100 meters; Movement: Automatic A260/A296, 41-hour power reserve
Modern Submariner/Submariner Date (2020)
Case size: 41mm; Bezel: Unidirectional, Cerachrom insert; Water resistance: 300 meters; Movement: Automatic 3230/3235, 70-hour power reserve
1960: Rolex Deepsea Special and Bathyscaphe Trieste Expedition
The first expedition of the Bathyscaphe Trieste (above), a manned submersible research vessel designed by Swiss inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard, took place in 1953, the same year Rolex introduced the Submariner. (Interestingly, it was also the same year that another adventure-oriented Rolex watch, the Explorer, ascended to the top of Mount Everest with Sir Edmund Hillary on his record-setting summit.) For that descent, 3,131.8 meters beneath the Mediterranean Sea off the Isle of Capri, Piccard attached a prototype version of the Submariner. That watch survived the extreme submergence, much to the delight of Rolex’s team and its marketing efforts for its stylish divers’ watch, but it was only the first of several extreme-depth prototype models to follow.
This initial Bathyscaphe mission ushered in Project Nekton, a series of shallow and deep-submergence dives across the decade. They culminated in January 1960, when the Trieste, operated by Auguste Piccard’s son Jacques Piccard and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh, descended to a then-world-record depth of 10,911 meters (35,797 feet) into the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench off the island of Guam. Fastened to the hull of the Trieste, which became the first crewed vehicle to achieve such a depth, was another specially designed Rolex dive watch called the Deepsea Special (above). This prototype timepiece, believed to be one of only seven ever made, had an ultra-thick steel case with a highly domed sapphire crystal that rendered it water-resistant to an unprecedented 10,000 meters, or more than 35,000 feet, ensuring it was still ticking when the submersible touched the bottom of the Mariana Trench. Today both the watch and the Trieste are on display at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Meanwhile, the remaining, ever-so-rare examples of the Deepsea Special have proven to be some of the most valuable commodities on the auction circuit.
1962: James Bond Wears the Submariner (Ref. 6538)
While Rolex was exploring new underwater endurance frontiers with its prototypes, the “everyday” version of the Submariner was poised to achieve pop cultural icon status as the original “James Bond watch.” Actor Sean Connery famously wore one, specifically the Ref. 5638, notable for its oversized 8mm “Big Crown” and aluminum bezel insert, in the first three Bond films — Dr. No, released in 1962; From Russia with Love (1963); and Goldfinger (1964). As a former naval officer turned spy, who often found himself in underwater danger, Bond’s choosing a Submariner as his go-to timepiece on missions certainly made sense. In Dr. No, the Sub was mounted on a brown leather strap; in Goldfinger, the same watch (presumably) was attached to a notably thin, striped nylon NATO strap. The Submariner's association with the suave superspy undoubtedly aided in its transition from pure tool watch to sport-luxury icon over the years; many purists will forever identify the Ref. 5638 model in particular as the quintessential Bond watch despite Rolex rival Omega’s now-decades-long presence in the movie series.
1967: First Rolex Sea-Dweller (Ref. 1665)
While the Submariner continued its growth as a coveted luxury watch in the wake of its association with James Bond, Rolex was gearing up to return to the bold frontiers of underwater utility that it had reached with the Deepsea Special in 1960. The first Rolex Sea-Dweller, Ref. 1665, had a nearly identical design to the Submariner but from a technical standpoint was a substantial upgrade, aimed at a new breed of professional divers that plied their trade at great depths inside a pressurized diving bell, breathing a mixture of hydrogen, helium, and oxygen that sustained them for prolonged periods underwater. Its 40mm steel Oyster case boasted a water resistance rating of 500 meters (1,600 feet), substantially more robust than the Submariner’s 200-meter rating. In 1969, Rolex was able to increase the waterproof rating to 610 meters (2,000 feet).
The truly revolutionary element that came to define the Sea-Dweller debuted on the second generation of models: a built-in helium release valve in the case, designed to automatically release built-up helium atoms from the pressurized underwater chamber in which the watch would be worn; these atoms could penetrate the watch and cause its crystal to pop free of the case. This gas-expelling device, which Rolex has patented, was the first of its type on a commercially sold watch and is the main differentiating factor between the Sea-Dweller and the Submariner, along with the former’s substantially deeper waterproofness rating. Since 1978, and the long-enduring Ref. 16660 (aka the “Triple Six”), Sea-Dweller watches have carried a depth rating of 1,220 meters, or 4,000 feet.
Like early Submariners, early Sea-Dwellers are prized by collectors and nicknamed by aficionados for their identifying details: the rarest and most valuable are the first-generation “Single Red” models, which were prototypes without helium valves, not sold commercially, and feature the model name “Sea Dweller” on a single line of red text on the dial; the helium-valve-equipped “Double Red” production models are slightly less rare but still very coveted, their nickname derived from the dial’s two lines of red text — “Sea-Dweller” and “Submariner 2000,” the latter indicating the water resistance (in feet) and the model’s original positioning as part of the Submariner line. Also among the most sought-after Sea-Dweller models are the references that bear the logo of the French company COMEX (COmpagnie Maritime d’EXpertises), a pioneer in commercial saturation diving, which commissioned watches from Rolex in the 1970s (example below, photo via Sotheby's).
Original Sea-Dweller (1967)
Case size: 40mm; Bezel: Bidirectional, aluminum insert; Water resistance: 500 meters/610 meters; Movement: Automatic 1575, 48-hour power reserve
Modern Sea-Dweller (2017)
Case size: 43mm; Bezel: Unidirectional, Cerachrom insert; Water resistance: 1,220 meters; Movement: Automatic 3235, 70-hour power reserve
1969: The first Submariner Date (Ref. 1680)
The Sea-Dweller had introduced an element to Rolex dive watches that had previously been absent, namely a date display. The presence of such a practical, day-to-day element to a watch clearly not designed for civilian daily wear (Sea-Dwellers weren’t even sold commercially until 1971) undoubtedly led to Rolex’s addition of a date to the Submariner, a watch that had become far more widely popular outside the world of diving, in 1969. Reference 1680, aka the first Submariner Date, powered by the Rolex Caliber 1575, not only added a date numeral in a window at 3 o’clock; it magnified that numeral via a signature “Cyclops” lens, a practical innovation that Hans Wilsdorf first introduced on the Datejust in 1948 and an element not present on the Sea-Dweller models. (Legend has it that Wilsdorf came up with the feature after his wife lamented to him how difficult it was for her to read the date on her watch, and that the idea came to him after a droplet of water fell onto his watch’s crystal over the date window while he was washing his hands in the bathroom.) The Submariner Date would go on to eclipse the “no-date” Submariner in popularity, though both models remain on the market today.
2008: The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea
Rolex tripled down on the remarkable water-resistance of the Sea-Dweller with the launch of the Sea-Dweller Deepsea in 2008, resurrecting the “Deepsea” moniker of its legendary expedition prototype from 1960. The titanium-cased watch (Ref. 116660) measured a hefty 44mm in diameter and boasted an unheard-of depth rating of 3,990 meters, or 12,800 feet. Rolex achieved the model’s relatively modest thickness of 18mm, which included a 5mm-thick sapphire crystal, by incorporating some of the technological advances the brand had introduced into its production in the 21st century, especially the patented Ringlock case construction, which uses a hardened, nitrogen-alloy central compression ring to surround the movement while supporting the crystal and the caseback, and a rotating bezel made of Cerachrom, Rolex’s sturdy ceramic material. Inside the historically waterproof case is Rolex’s in-house Caliber 3135, a self-winding, chronometer-certified movement that was a mainstay at the time in all of Rolex’s diving watches as well as models like the Datejust.
Deepsea models have “Sea-Dweller” on their dials but are widely regarded as a separate, third branch of Rolex’s dive-watch family tree due to having both a higher depth rating than either the Submariner or the Sea-Dweller as well as a larger case. (If we count the Submariner Date as a separate line from the dateless, original Submariner, as many diehards do, that makes for a grand total of four distinct choices for Rolex dive watch enthusiasts.)
2012: Rolex Deepsea Challenge Prototype and James Cameron Expedition
More than five decades after the Bathyscaphe Trieste made its historic journey to Challenger Deep in 1960, Rolex played a role in another ocean-diving milestone in 2012. Movie director James Cameron, whose fascination with the undersea world was stoked during filming of his 1997 blockbuster Titanic, made the world’s first solo descent to the bottom of the Mariana Trench inside a one-man submersible called the Deepsea Challenger; affixed to the exterior were three specially developed Rolex Deepsea Challenge prototype watches — two on the vehicle’s hull, one on the end of the robotic arm that it used to gather underwater minerals and other samples for study. The watches all survived the expedition, 10,908 meters down to the ocean floor, unscathed, even though the robotic arm itself sustained damage.
Two years afterward, coinciding with Cameron’s documentary film about the milestone, National Geographic-sponsored mission, Rolex introduced the popular “D-Blue” version of the Deepsea (above) to the market, notable for its gradient blue-to-black dial and the line of bright sea-green text for the model name “DEEPSEA.” In 2023, perhaps partly as a response to Omega’s launch of the Planet Ocean Ultra Deep models the year prior, whose 6,000-meter depth rating made them the most waterproof watches sold at retail, Rolex upped the ante yet again with the newest version of the Deepsea Challenge (below), with a hulking 50mm case (more than 20mm thick) made of light-but-robust RLX titanium and water-resistant to a new-record 11,000 meters (35,800 feet).
Original Deep Sea Special (1960)
Case size: 43mm; Bezel: Stationary, no dive scale; Water resistance: 10,908 meters; Movement: Automatic 1030, 36-hour power reserve
Modern Sea-Dweller Deepsea (2018)
Case size: 44mm; Bezel: Unidirectional, Cerachrom insert; Water resistance: 3,900 meters; Movement: Automatic 3235, 70-hour power reserve
Modern Deepsea Challenge (2023)
Case size: 50mm, RLX titanium; Bezel: Unidirectional, Cerachrom insert; Water resistance: 11,000 meters; Movement: Automatic 3230, 70-hour power reserve
As should be clear to anyone who’s read this far, Rolex has never opted to rest on its considerable laurels when it comes to updating and optimizing its internationally popular lines of dive watches. In addition to its dedication to push even further the frontiers of waterproofness through its deep-sea exploration partnerships, Rolex also continues to focus on the smallest of details to improve each individual model. All Submariner, Sea-Dweller, and Deepsea watches are now equipped with the most up-to-date, chronometer-certified manufacture calibers, with patented innovations like the energy-efficient Chronergy escapement, antimagnetic Parachrom hairspring, optimized Paraflex shock absorbers, and the perpetual winding rotor that amasses a lengthy 70-hour power reserve.
The cases’ impressive water resistance — whether it’s 300, 1,200, 3,900 or even 11,000 meters — is ensured by the brand’s Twinlock double-waterproofed crown design and by the design of the hermetically sealed fluted caseback that can be opened only by a special tool exclusive to Rolex watchmakers. Rolex’s proprietary bright-blue-glowing Chromalight luminous substance on the dials’ hands and markers makes the watches legible in the deepest of underwater depths. The bracelets are equipped with a secure Oysterlock folding clasp (above) and the Glidelock extension system that allows for easy adjustment of the bracelet length. As the centennial anniversary approaches for the groundbreaking Oyster case, Rolex’s mission statement of making attractive watches for all kinds of underwater use is as front and center as it ever was.
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Beautifully presented. I’ll take one of each please.