The Rolex Sea-Dweller: King of the Ocean

Written by:Alessandro M.|

Rolex Sea-Dweller. Named after the place where this watch feels right at home: in the depths of the seven seas. At the end of the 1960s, this model joined the already world-famous Submariner’s side in the Rolex catalogue, and wrote another page of history in the mysterious and fascinating diving world.

First prototypes

Officially launched in 1971 with the ref. 1665, the Rolex Sea-Dweller was the product of the Swiss engineers and watchmakers’ ambition and desire to push the boundaries of underwater and diving technology to its limits. In this case, pushing further really means pushing down deeper into the Ocean. The first prototypes date to 1967: the below image features one of the super rare Rolex Sea-Dweller ref. 1665 “Single Red” prototypes.

How can we tell? Firstly, there is no red “Submariner 2000” writing underneath the “Sea-Dweller” nomenclature. Then, by the fact that the depth limit is 500m, a unique characteristic of the Sea-Dweller prototypes. Lastly, the caseback bears a “Patent Pending” engraving – something that was exclusive to the prototypes and the first commercial-dialled Sea-Dwellers: the MK1s.

In November 2018 Phillips, the renown Auction House, sold a Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665 “Single Red” for an extraordinary €670.000 (estimate €440.000-880.000).

The origins

To better understand the history behind the Rolex Sea-Dweller, some context is needed.
In order to reach the profound depths of the ocean, the divers are subject to Helium-rich environments.
This noble gas infiltrates the tiny gaps where the case and the glass meet, and enters the watch. This presents a huge problem when the divers resurface: the gas decompresses and the glass explodes, ruining the watch.

The COMEX Collaboration

The beginning of the 1960s saw the now iconic collaboration between Rolex and COMEX (Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises), a French company which specialized in diving gear. The Swiss watch house armed their divers with Submariners belonging to the 5513 line, but unfortunately, they encountered the exact problem detailed above.

We can instantly recognise these pieces from their signed casebacks and a COMEX stamp on their dials.

The solution: the patented Helium Valve

Every problem requires a solution: there was a need to create a watch that was capable of working at these extreme depths, without sustaining damage in the resurfacing stage, an often critical and delicate part of the diving process. Lo and behold: the all-new Rolex Sea-Dweller model.

What set it apart from the flagship Submariner was it bespoke valve, positioned on the left side of the case, which allowed for Helium to be released from the watch in the decompression stage so as to preserve the watch’s integrity, dive after dive, no matter how extreme.

References and their characteristics

  • 1967 (Prototype) – Ref. 1665: calibre 1575, plastic “crystal”, waterproof up to 500m, 40mm case
  • 1971-1983 – Ref. 1665: calibre 1575, plastic “crystal”, waterproof up to 610m, 40mm case
  • 1978-1988 – Ref. 16660: calibre 3035, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 1220m, 40mm case
  • 1988-2008 – Ref. 16660: calibre 3135, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 1220m, 40mm case
  • 2008-2016 – Ref. 116660 DEEPSEA: calibre 3135, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 3900m, 44mm case
  • 2012 – Ref. 126660 DEEPSEA CHALLENGE: calibre 3135, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 12000m, 51.4mm case
  • 2014-2017 – Ref. 116600: calibre 3035, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 1220m, 40mm case
  • 2017-present day – Ref. 126600 RED SIGNATURE: calibre 3235, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 1220m, 43mm case
  • 2018-present day – Ref. 126660 DEEPSEA: calibre 3235, sapphire crystal, waterproof up to 3900m, 44mm case
  • 2019-present day – Ref.126603 Steel/Gold: calibre 3235, sapphire crystal with Cyclops lense, waterproof up to 1220m, 43mm case.

It is worth noting that the first Sea-Dweller prototypes, manufactured from 1967 to its release, house a case which is very similar in size to that of the first iterations of the Submariners. These are dubbed “low case” or “first series” by avid collectors.

With the exception of the MK1 dial models, the successive references are increasingly thicker: this is due to the larger dimensions of the Helium escape Valve – the deeper you go, the bigger this must be.

The first Rolex Sea-Dweller in Steel and Gold

In the 2019 edition of Baselworld, Rolex revealed the first Steel and Gold Sea-Dweller: the ref. 126603.
Like the ref. 126600 – the 50th Anniversary edition – the Steel and Gold Sea-Dweller has a 43mm case; a waterproof rating to 1200m; a state-of-the-art calibre in the form of the 3235 and a sapphire crystal with a cyclops lens for the date function (only present on these two models).
You could pick this up from your Authorized Dealer for about €15.900 at the time of its release.

The aftermarket

Due to Rolex’s increasingly stringent delivery policy for their professional watches over the past couple of years, the aftermarket for the Sea-Dweller has seen a rise for their demand, and by extension, their asking price.
This phenomenon however doesn’t seem to have applied to the newer Rolex Sea-Dwellers, which we can find on the market for about €11.150 for the ref. 112660, €12.050 for the black-dialled ref. 126660 and €12.350 for the Deep Blue dial for the same reference. These numbers are somewhat similar to their original retail prices.

When it comes to vintage Sea-Dwellers however, it is a completely different story. The Sea-Dweller that has seen the biggest appreciation in value is the ref. 1665, where asking prices start from €15.000 for the white font on the dial, all the way to an extraordinary €100.000 for the rarer “double red” font dials. The average price for a Rolex Sea-Dweller with a double red font dial is around €50.000.

From a collector’s point of view, the end-all, be-all of Rolex Sea-Dwellers is the ref. 16660 – or the “Triple Six”. This is a transitional reference, in that it was the model that bridged the gap between the ref. 1665 and the ref. 16600.  You can find these ref. 16660s on the market for about €15.000 for the matte dial with “drop-applied” tritium (more appealing from an enthusiast’s perspective), and around €10.000 for the glossier version.

The former is significantly more expensive not only as it was in production for less time, but it was the exact version that tied the knot between what is now considered “vintage” and “modern”: from the plexiglass to the sapphire crystal, from 610m to 1220m, from thin to thicker case, the list goes on!

(If you want to learn more about “transitional references”, look no further than our article on the Submariner ref. 1680 here!)

Finally, we have the more recent iterations of the Sea-Dwellers in the Rolex catalogue: the ref. 16600 has an average aftermarket value of €9.000, which surprisingly is the same for the ref. 116660 Deepsea with a black dial. The Deep Blue version however is far more sought-after, with an asking price of about €13.500. The last of the modern Sea-Dwellers – the ref. 116600 comes in at about €13.000.

Translated by Patrick R.


Est. 1993. Mechanical Engineer since 8 years now. He fosters a great passion for watches and the vintage world specifically. Collector and enthusiast he is working on his dream of manufacturing a caliber of its own craft.
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