Sure, we expected ‘something’ to happen with the Sea-Dweller this year. What Rolex actually decided upon however, came as a complete surprise and was even considered controversial by some. It may not be the watch some long-time Rolex collectors were hoping for, however, the new Rolex Sea-Dweller 43mm Ref. 126600 has still definitely been one of the main talking pieces of Baselworld 2017, not unlike the Ceramic / Steel Daytona, which made headlines in 2016. Unlike the star of last year’s novelties though, the main novelty from Rolex for 2017 is arguably a little less easy to understand. That’s why we’re going in-depth (Monochrome style), giving you all possible explanations for the direction and design of the new Rolex Sea-Dweller 43mm Ref. 126600, a watch that maybe needs more than just a quick glance to be fully understood.
When Rolex does something, there’s always a good reason behind it. Whether you like the brand or not, you cannot say they do a half job – even if on very rare occasions, they have to correct one or two details (see the 2016 Explorer I.) Whenever one change is made or one feature added to a watch, the motivation is simple: make it better or make it more coherent. With the new Rolex Sea-Dweller 43mm Ref. 126600, some people (actually quite a lot of people) have been surprised by several features; the larger diameter and the cyclops over the date window being the main points of controversy. Of course, we asked the question, and of course Rolex had a clear explanation for “everything new” in this Sea-Dweller 126600. Here’s what we heard… plus of course our take on things!
50 Years of Innovation and Constant Evolution
The Sea-Dweller’s history is linked to the history of dive watches and of scuba diving on its own. Following WWII, diving became an increasingly popular sport, or recreational activity, thus necessitating the further development of dive watches. Soon, dive watches became available for both military, professional and civilian recreational divers. The Submariner ref. 6200 was the world’s first commercially produced dive watch, which was released in 1954, with a 100m water resistance (later 200m and 300m). In the early 1960s, experiments on saturated diving had started and immediately the need for watches with greater water resistance emerged. At that time, the Submariner ref. 5513 could withstand 200 meters of depth, but the goal of Rolex was to triple the depth rating.
The First version of the Sea-Dweller, 1967
Experiments were carried out by Rolex in collaboration with COMEX (a professional diving company), for the creation of a feature that would later become the hallmark of the Sea-Dweller: the helium escape valve. It was first introduced on the Submariner ref. 5514, and shortly after, in 1967, Rolex introduced the Sea-Dweller ref. 1665. This was actually the first Sea-Dweller and became the recognizable diver watch with helium escape valve. The early models from 1967 (production estimated to approx. 100 pieces) were very similar to the Submariner 5514 COMEX that was retrofitted with a helium escape valve. Characteristics are a “double red” dial with “Submariner 2000” and a “patent pending” case back (as Rolex had filed for patent, but had not yet received the patent on the helium valve). Very rare examples can be seen in the “single red” version. These prototypes (with estimated production of 4 watches) were rated for 500m.
A rare “single red” version of the Sea-Dweller, rated for 500m
Over the decades, the Sea-Dweller has evolved through a number of different models. The “Double Red” Sea-Dweller (with the aforementioned “Submariner 2000”) was produced from 1971 to 1977, still with a 2000ft / 610m water resistance and “patent pending” caseback. In 1977, the Rolex Sea-Dweller evolves again, becoming the “great white”. No red indication anymore, no mention of “Submariner 2000” anymore, with the idea being to better differentiate between the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller watches. In 1978, alongside the ref. 1665, Rolex introduced the ref. 16660 Sea-Dweller fitted with a sapphire crystal, a bigger helium release valve and an upgraded depth rating to 4,000 feet or 1,220 metres. Finally, in 1988, Rolex launched the Ref. 16600, with the modern calibre 3135, solid end-links on the bracelet and a glossy dial. The ref. 16600 was discontinued twenty years later, in 2008, and replaced by the Sea-Dweller Deepsea.
Left- The Sea-Dweller 2014, 40mm diameter ref. 116600 – Right- The Sea-Dweller 2017, 43mm diameter ref. 126600 (note the red inscription and cyclops)
In 2008, Rolex stopped the production of the Sea-Dweller 4000ft to focus on a watch with even greater water resistance and a a stronger professional orientation: the Sea-Dweller Deepsea, offering 12,000 feet or 3,900 metres of water resistance, a 44mm case and of course the helium escape valve. While technically more advanced and more efficient, this watch couldn’t replace the SD in the heart of collectors and so the Sea-Dweller 4000 came back into production in 2014 as ref. 116600. The now discontinued ref. 116600 has the same 1,220 meters water resistance, the helium valve and features a slimmer case, a ceramic bezel and a Glidelock bracelet, and of course white text on the black dial, no cyclops and a 40mm case.
The 43mm Diameter of the Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600
The first, and probably main, topic of discussion for the new Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600 is its size, a large diameter of 43mm to be precise. This is not the first time that Rolex has made a large watch (see the 44mm Deepsea), but usually, there’s a technical reason behind an increased case size. For decades, the standard diameter of sports watches at Rolex has been 40mm, a quite reasonable and wearable size, suitable for most. You can find this size on the Submariner, on the GMT-Master II, on the Yacht-Master, and… on the previous Sea-Dweller ref. 116600.
The Sea-Dweller has always been a bit in the shadow of the Submariner. Maybe that’s because both models are not only visually but also size-wise extremely close. With the 2014 edition, there might have been a “differentiation issue”, because the SD4K (Sea-Dweller 4,000ft) is a bit thicker than the Submariner, but it has more elegant lugs. The only other differences are the absence of a cyclops, a slightly more precise scale on the bezel and the different (higher) depth-rate with helium escape valve (1,220m vs. 300m). Still, in modern days, this water-resistance factor makes less sense than in the 1960s, as few of us are really using a Rolex as a professional piece of equipment to dive (affordable and very reliable diving computers are widely used these days). You might have guessed then the point of the 43mm diameter: differentiation! It will be the answer for certain markets, where people prefer larger watches (US mainly), and it adds some emphasis on the robust tool-watch look.
In order to create a real contrast between the these dive watches that are the Submariner and the Sea-Dweller, Rolex chose to make the latter larger – it is a deliberate choice, motivated and well thought out (Rolex doesn’t usually do things in a rush). Like it or not, the mild success of the previous 40mm Ref. 116600 required a correction. Thus, the new Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600 becomes larger, not only in diameter but the whole watch has grown: larger case of course, larger bracelet (22mm instead of 20mm), larger bezel, larger indexes, larger hands, larger buckle (correcting one of the flaws of the 116600, with a too thin buckle). Overall, Rolex wanted to keep proportions intact and to stick to the look of the Sea-Dweller, even if it’s larger.
Technically, the Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600 shows no changes: same 1,220m / 4,000ft water resistance, still the iconic helium escape valve on the left side of the case (the hallmark of the model), still the 60-minute scale on the ceramic bezel, with one-minute markers from 0 to 60 (not on the Submariner), same display, same Triplock crown, same prominent caseback, same buckle with long diving extension, same overall quality and feeling of having a proper “tool” on the wrist.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600 on a small wrist (below 17cm / 6.7 inches)
Talking about “on the wrist“… how does this watch look in its natural habitat? Well, to be honest, I have small wrists and I usually love smaller watches. I’m a regular wearer of 40mm Rolex watches or 41mm Tudor dive watches, and they have, to me, perfect proportions, offering a nice balance between sporty and a certain elegance that you want when wearing a luxury watch. Yet, the Sea-Dweller 126600 has to be regarded differently, as a proper tool watch. So the bigger case does not bother me that much. Moreover, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the way it looks on the wrist (see the photo above… It’s large but not overly large).
The case has been redesigned and the lugs are shorter and more curved, thus suitable for smaller wrists too. Of course, people with 19cm / 7.5 inches or bigger wrists will be even more pleased. Then, there’s the balance on the wrist. Some found the previous 40mm Sea-Dweller slightly unbalanced on the wrist, because it was ‘only’ 40mm and rather thick; too thick for such a diameter, making this watch quite wobbly when worn. The new 43mm feels more stable. Surprising, but it really does. In the end, the 43mm diameter will have supporters and critics, but you can’t deny the two factors: a clear differentiation from the Submariner and more comfort on the wrist.
The Single Red Dial
Things are changing at Rolex. I dare to say it, but this simple red line of text on the dial is an important move for the brand. What would have been insignificant for most other brands, is for Rolex quite a revolution (relatively speaking of course…) Jokes aside, the brand has evolved over the past 2 – 3 years, with the addition of a rubber bracelet, a rather unexpected dial on the Air King (and yes, it is a success in stores) and the unavowed vintage-inspired Daytona Steel / Ceramic. This “Single Red” feature is in that same vein, a subtle reference to model’s origins.
Without saying that Rolex is about to introduce a Heritage Collection (no spoiler alert…), it seems that the “Crown” does want to please some collectors and to reassure them with small but iconic details, such as panda dials or this red model name. This makes even more sense on this Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600, launched exactly 50 years after the introduction of the model in 1967. Rolex, without losing its innovative spirit of “always looking forward”, could rely more often on such small details to create hype around certain models. This “single red” dial must be the most appreciated feature in this new version.
The Cyclops on the Date Window
Now comes the other feature that created heated discussion about the Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600: the cyclops over the date window. This was clearly unexpected and somehow contradicted the idea of the original model, which has always been without the magnifying cyclops. Still, its appearance has to be explained, and it is justified by Rolex and its DNA.
If you take a close look at the Rolex collection, you’ll notice that every single watch in the collection that features a date window comes with a cyclops (Datejust, Day-Date, Sky-Dweller, Submariner Date, Explorer II, GMT-Master II, Yacht-Master 40). There’s only one exception: the Sea-Dweller Deepsea. The date magnifier is entirely part of the brand’s DNA. It has been absent on the Sea-Dweller for all these years, however not for aesthetic reasons, but for technical reasons. Whether we look at the vintage versions with Plexiglas or more modern editions with sapphire, the 120-bar pressure that the Sea-Dweller had to withstand was so high that the cyclops would simply break from the crystal.
Now, you have to think with Rolex neurons… Which means that “if technically we are able to do it, there’s no reason not to do it“. Plus, as we said, the cyclops is an iconic feature of Rolex watches with a date. And now that Rolex has found a solution (no detailed explanations were given by the brand, other than that it had been achieved), which enables it to have a cyclops that can resist the pressure endured by the Sea-Dweller, there is no longer any reason for the brand not to glue it on the SD’s crystal. It might be quite disappointing for some collectors, however when you look at things through the eyes of the “Crown”, it simply makes sense. (note: the Deepsea is now the only date-equipped model without a cyclops, for 2 reasons – the immense pressure it is designed to withstand makes it impossible to have this feature, plus the crystal is not flat but domed). Now the question of whether you like/dislike it is a personal one, and final clients will be the only real judges of the relevance of the added cyclops.
The New Generation of Rolex Movement (Calibre 3235)
This is the feature that everyone seems to agree on: the Calibre 3235. The Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600 will be the first watch of the professional collection to benefit from the new generation of movements, the 32xx introduced first on the 2015 Day-Date and later used on the 2016 Datejust. From now on, it seems that every new Rolex watch (entirely new ones, not just new dials…) will benefit from this upgrade. And honestly, as good as the older 31xx movements are, this new-gen is simply better in all aspects.
Compared to the previous series of movements, the Calibre 3235 has 90% new parts: new barrel, new gear train, new escapement, new bridges and plates, new rotor, new automatic winding system. Not only the parts are new but most of them come with modern technologies, with a clear efficiency goal.
The 3235 has 70 hour power reserve, thanks to a more efficient escapement (dubbed Chronergy, which increases the efficiency of the escapement by 15%, and contributes to almost half of the gain in power reserve), an optimized gear train, with high-performance lubricants with a longer useful life and greater stability over time (less friction, less wear, less energy consumption), a high-capacity barrel (with a longer main-spring without changing the size of the barrel), blue Parachrom hairspring (resistant to magnetic fields), in-house high-performance Paraflex shock absorbers, large balance wheel with variable inertia and finally new self-winding module, for a more rapid winding of the new high-capacity mainspring.
The overall finishing has been improved, with bevelled bridges, circular brushing, jewels in gold chatons and other details that make this movement better looking than the previous 3135. Of course, as with all Rolex movements, the Calibre 3235 is a Superlative Chronometer (-2 / +2 seconds per day) and comes with a 5-year warranty.
The new Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600 has created some debates, raised some some questions and shown a stronger evolution than what we’ve seen in the past. And I personally think that is a good thing. I guess that we (journalists, collectors, watch lovers, owners) might have had a rather narrow, conservative, expectation from the brand. This watch, alongside the provocative Air-King or the much-hyped Daytona Steel / Ceramic, shows a new strategy – nothing brutal, still relying on the DNA of the brand, but more in line with the expectations of the market.
In fact, I think Rolex will benefit from a bit of controversy, instead of doing products that most will like, but few will love or hate. We have to remember that the purchase of a €10k watch is mainly driven by emotion and with the Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600, Rolex comes back to more emotional, yet more segmented products. The SD has always been rather niche in the collection and for such a product, most decisions the brand made about this 2017 edition seem quite coherent.
And to answer the unavoidable question: do you like it? Well, I would say that my first reaction was been on the negative side, however now, after a few days, I have to admit that it is growing on me. I guess that Rolex might have made the right decision here, with a more tool-like, professional style.
Specifications of the Rolex Sea-Dweller Ref. 126600
- Case: 43mm diameter – 904L stainless steel, polished and brushed – screwed caseback, helium escape valve – sapphire crystal with cyclops – 1,220m water resistance
- Movement: Calibre 3235, in-house, superlative chronometer certified – automatic – 4Hz frequency – 70h power reserve – hours, minute, seconds, date
- Bracelet: stainless steel, Oyster bracelet – Oysterlock buckle, with Glidelock diving extension
- Price: EUR 10,400 / CHF 10,800 / USD 11,350
- Availability: April 2017