When you think about Rolex dive watches, the Submariner – in all its possible declinations – will surely be the first model you’ll have in mind. Being the first of its kind for the brand, and one of the earliest watches specifically designed for professional diving, it does make sense to mention it. There is, however, one other dive watch in the Crown’s portfolio that truly deserves attention. A watch that has somehow always flew under the radar of the mainstream public, a watch that true tool watch enthusiasts know to be the go-to solution; the Sea-Dweller. And among the multiple executions available, there’s one that stands out for many reasons. A short-lived watch, with great proportions, historically-relevant design and features and all the beauty of a modern Rolex. Today, we discuss the great Rolex Sea-Dweller 116600 and why it might be the best modern dive watch the crown has produced.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller was born first as an upgrade of the Submariner, intended for professional saturation divers – the presence of a helium escape valve is the main aspect to take into account here, even more than the increased level of water-resistance. Pro divers, true pioneers of their times, including those from the SeaLab explorations or the Cousteau teams, noticed that after a dive, the crystal of their Submariner could pop out in the decompression chamber. Far from recreational divers, these scientists and hardcore divers needed something that could resist the test of saturation diving.
This technique, used to withstand dives for extended periods of time, requires the presence of helium in the breathing mixture, which could eventually penetrate the watch cases. And during the decompression, the helium had to find a way out of the case, usually done through its weakest point, the plexiglass crystal on top. The answer to this issue will be the HEV, or helium escape valve. And if the paternity of this device is rather contested – Doxa is often referred to as the first – this element will be the main differentiating aspect between the Sea-Dweller and the Submariner. In fact, early SD watches were still showing the Submariner logo on their dial.
The story starts in 1967, with the reference 1665. Let aside a handful of prototypes nicknamed “Single Red Sea-Dweller” and having, for most of them, a 500m waterproof case, the first production model available to the public was the Rolex Double Red Sea-Dweller (DRSD) reference 1665, produced from 1967 to 1977. The difference with a Submariner was mostly to be seen in the details and the diving specifications; 40mm case with HEV, highly domed sapphire, date without cyclops, and a water-resistance increased to an impressive 610m. It will be followed by an evolution model, yet with the same reference number, the Rolex Sea-Dweller Great White reference 1665. Visually, the logo was now entirely white, but it retains the same case and the same diving credentials. It will be produced from 1977 to 1983.
Then come modern times, with the 5-digit series, starting with the Rolex Sea-Dweller Triple Six reference 16660. Produced from 1978 to 1989, the main difference was the replacement of the plexiglass by a sapphire crystal. Thanks to this and a slightly revised case, the watch came with a doubled water-resistance (1,220m or 4,000ft). It’s also part of the transitional Rolex series, as available with matte dial with painted markers or glossy dial with applied markers. In 1989, and up until 2009, the SD will be available with the Rolex Sea-Dweller reference 16600. Visually almost identical to the late Triple Six models, it came mostly with mechanical evolutions and it was produced under the switch from Tritium to SLN.
Putting aside the Deepsea launched in 2008 (which is a fairly different model in our books, even though bearing the name SD on its dial), the classic Sea-Dweller will be out of production for five years, before its comeback in 2014 with the Rolex Sea-Dweller 116600, the archetypal modern instrument dive watch by Rolex. Produced from 2014 to 2017 only, it came with multiple upgrades, such as a new case, a ceramic bezel with a fully-marked scale or a much better bracelet. Finally, the latest evolution is the Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600, available since 2017 with a modern 3235 movement, a case size increased to 43mm and for the first time, a cyclops over the date. There’s also a cool reference to the early prototypes, with a Single Red mention. This was Rolex’s solution to differentiate the SD from the Submariner.
The Sea-Dweller 116600, the best of both worlds
What is the Rolex Sea-Dweller? In short, it’s a watch that has long lived in the shadows of the Submariner, and is often seen as the uber-Submariner – for the most enthusiastic of us – or a simple evolution of the Submariner – for those who don’t really see the interest of this watch. We, at MONOCHROME, and mostly our founder Frank and myself, have a very special affection for the Sea-Dweller and, mainly, the Sea-Dweller 116600.
If some will see the SD as an upgraded Submariner – which is obviously not entirely wrong – I’ll explain why I believe this model is special to us. In the early days of diving, and coincidentally of dive watches, these timepieces were true instruments meant to be used and abused, worn for professional reasons. Things changed later – around the late 1970s – when Rolex sports models started to become status symbols to be worn onshore. The Submariner changed from an instrument to a casual gentlemen’s watch for weekends and holidays, which could complete a collection of elegant gold watches. The decline of the “tool dive watch” also coincides with the advent of diving computers, which made such watches rather irrelevant, or at least less of a necessity, being relegated to the role of mechanical backup (I know our resident diver Derek won’t entirely agree with me, but he has a sentimental connection with dive watches, even today).
As such, if the Submariner became the archetypal luxury weekend watch, the Sea-Dweller barely took the trend and stayed, for many, an instrument with way too high capacities and less comfort on the wrist. But as always, there are two sides to a coin. And you can also look at things in a different way. To us, here at MONO, the Sea-Dweller is the last of its kind for Rolex, a resurgence of the old days of instruments dive watches, a niche watch that is not meant to be shown, a watch that isn’t meant to be a status symbol, but a watch made for those attracted by technicality, those who recognize the beauty of the specifications, the sheer technical masterpiece that is a Sea-Dweller. You want a cool watch for the weekend, something that does the job for a recreational dive, but that also says something about yourself? Get a modern Submariner. If you have a strong interest in dive watches, in the history of professional divers and in everything overly-technical, the SD is your watch.
But keep in mind that all SD models are not equal. And that leads us to the Rolex Sea-Dweller 116600. What makes this watch one of the greatest modern Rolexes, in our opinion, is a very fine equation of elements, which have to be compared to other models. The SD 4000 is not a watch that will immediately attract you, it’s a watch that needs to be explored closely to then understand its beauty. Within the SD lineup, you can get vintage models, understand all generations of 1665. Superb watches that come with all the flaws of vintage, and aren’t the best when it comes to truly wear them – we’re not really into “safe queens” at MONO… You then can look at the 16660 or the 16600, which are both great watches but, then again, are not as comfortable, well-equipped and safe as a Sea-Dweller 116600.
Then comes the currently-produced 126600 option. And with its 43mm case and cyclops over the date, it is a watch that has somehow lost the appeal of the original Sea-Dweller. This evolution, when it comes to commercial matters and coherence of the collection, is understandable. But we are sentimental, and that oversized watch with a cyclops does not create the same emotions. Another option, which surely is a safe option, could be the Submariner models that were available at the same time as the Sea-Dweller 116600, meaning the modern ceramic references with 6-digit references – 116610 Date and 114060 No-Date. Putting aside the technical downgrade these represent compared to an SD, there’s the issue of the “square-ish” super-case. Great watches, for sure, but they can’t rival with a Sea-Dweller in terms of specifications and, something slightly more subjective, the beauty of the lines of an SD 116600.
This leaves us with the following equation: vintage models are too fragile to be worn on a daily basis, the modern 43mm is not anymore the SD we’ve come to love, the 6-digit Submariner (previous generation) is not technically on par with an SD and its case has less appeal. And now, you start to understand the beauty of the Sea-Dweller 116600. First of all, it retains all the elements of the collection and its comeback in 2014, after 5 years of absence, has created a warm welcome by a community of long-lasting enthusiasts. The case, still measuring 40mm in diameter, is somehow superbly balanced, with lugs that are thinner than a Submariner. There’s something so right about its proportions.
Looking at the 116600 in the details, you’ll be able to see the superb execution of a modern Rolex watch. It’s neat, like really, really neat. The case is fairly heavy, fairly thick but at the same time, the casebands have been kept to a reasonable height, and most of the additional thickness compared to the Submariner is located on the caseback. Some will tell you that the Sea-Dweller 4000 is a watch that lacks comfort and feels “top-heavy” but, by our own experience, it really depends on the wearer and the shape of his wrist.
Multiple design aspects of the Sea-Dweller 116600 are noticeable. First of all, it retains the classic cyclops-less design, something that has always been a distinctive element of this collection. I know that the absence of a cyclops is down to technical reasons first and foremost, but it remains an important fact in the sleek, instrumental look of the SD. That non-magnified date simply looks cool and unique within Rolex’s portfolio. Then, there is the greatness of typical Rolex modern features. The ceramic (Cerachrom) insert is here equipped with a fully graduated scale, making it less glossy, more technical. The bezel is a pure joy to use, smooth and stiff at the same time, giving a reassuring feeling of quality and of a perfectly adjusted device. Inside, you’ll find the calibre 3135, and even if doesn’t have all the features of the new 32XX, this movement is a no-brainer. Reliable, precise, ultra-robust.
The bracelet might be the most desirable feature compared to vintage or even youngtimer models. With its modernly manufactured links and end-links, it feels solid as a rock. And the clasp is an engineer’s masterpiece, equipped with the Oysterlock safety catch, the double extension system that allows the watch to be worn over a diving suit, and finally, the Rolex Glidelock, which allows the wearer to fine-adjust the length of the bracelet by 20mm, in 2mm increments. All of that in one small clasp…
To us, the shape of the case, its proportions, the cyclops-less date, the 40mm diameter, the over-engineered feeling when you handle this reference 116600, makes it the last of the true Sea-Dweller. Surely, it’s not perfect, as it might not suit smaller wrists. Surely, a Submariner will be more than enough when it comes to making a jump in the pool. Yes, this is a heavy and relatively thick watch (about 15.5mm) but the clever construction of the case somehow makes it visually thinner. But there’s an undeniable charm to this watch, the instrument feeling that only the SD has (or had…) And that makes it, to us, the best of the modern dive Rolex watches.
Collectability of the Rolex Sea-Dweller 116600
The final point is more of a collector’s argument. The Sea-Dweller 116600 is one of the Rolex models with the shortest production run, having been produced for 3 years only – 2014-2017. Adding to that the fact that the Sea-Dweller has never been the most produced of the Rolex models, you can expect this reference 116600 to be a relatively rare watch, at least according to Rolex’s standards. This surely still means multiple thousands of examples, yet nothing compared to a Submariner 116610LN. If you think about it, the combination of a short production run and the current popularity of steel Rolexes might make it a relatively safe bet.
We’ve seen a recent surge in the prices of 116600. After its discontinuation, a mint example could be yours for about 10k euros (which was about retail price). Now, expect around 17k euros. It might have to do with the overall trend of the market, more than with the rarity of the model itself. There’s possibly something to explore if you want one of the truly great modern dive watches, and at the same time something that could potentially hold its value in the future.