This generation of Sea-Dwellers is waterproof to 4,000 feet — made to withstand the stress of deep, long-term professional dives
With the exception of the Sky-Dweller and Yacht-Master (and Yacht-Master II), every single watch in the current Rolex collection, including new pieces released at Basel 2015, is either a direct descendant or takes obvious inspiration from Rolexes available in the 1950s and ’60s. This Sea-Dweller, reference 16600 from circa 2007 — in new old stock condition, complete with box and papers — is no different; it traces its history to 1967 and is one of the most robust of all the Rolex tool watches — Chris Greenberg
All Rolex tool replica watches from the 1950s and ‘60s — the Milgauss, GMT-Master, Cosmograph Daytona, Submariner, and Sea-Dweller — used Oyster cases. But only the Sub and Sea-Dweller were truly meant for professional use underwater. Both have military connections from the era but the Submariner was always more of a gentleman’s diver. The Sea-Dweller, however, really pushed the technical limits of the mechanical watch. Made to meet the demands of the most extreme diving conditions, the watch was developed with input from the US Navy Sea-Lab and tested by civilian divers employed at Compagnie Maritime d’Expertise,’ COMEX.
Rolex’s relationship with COMEX began in 1963, once the practice of ‘saturation’ diving emerged as a viable means to undertake incredibly deep water construction and salvage dives. (The practice, still followed today, saturates divers’ tissues with a mixture of helium and oxygen in a pressurized environment for long periods of time before and during a dive.) Wristwatches were life and death tools of the trade for divers at those depths, and as dives went deeper, a problem emerged: While the human body could rid itself of helium during decompression (albeit slowly), wristwatches could not. Watches would explode as the pressure changed. Rolex set about to fix that.
The Rolex HEV
Rolex solved that problem by fitting a reference 5513 Submariner with a helium escape valve (HEV), which automatically bleeds helium from the watch during decompression. Hence, the first Sea-Dwellers weren’t Sea-Dwellers at all, they were modified Submariner reference 5513s given to COMEX divers and re-referenced as 5514s. These pieces were never available to the public and today are some of the most sought-after vintage Rolexes, particularly if they have solid provenance. Many COMEX divers were extremely proud of their Rolexes and kept everything the watch came with, adding dive logs and photos to the package. (This watch comes with all the accoutrements, part of our Rolex Box and Papers sale on Christie’s Watch Shop.)
The 5514 gave way to the first official dial-signed Sea-Dweller, the reference 1665, released in 1967. The watch had a depth rating of 2,000 feet, which was three times what the venerable Submariner reference 5513 could do. Eleven years later, after receiving indispensable feedback gleaned from thousands of professional dives, Rolex released the 1665’s successor, the ‘transitional’ reference 16660. It sported a thicker case, a sapphire crystal, a new movement, an advanced HEV, and a depth rating of 4,000 feet. Rolex upgraded the movement again to the cal. 3135 and in 1988 the 16660 became the 16600, like this watch here (Rolex produced both references for the majority of 1988 before discontinuing the 16660). For a bit of context, the USS Seawolf, a nuclear-powered submarine first commissioned in 1997, had a maximum operating depth of 610 meters or 2,000 feet. The Sea-Dweller doubled that.
Aside from its upgraded movement, the 16600 is almost identical to its 16660 forebear. This watch is a perfect example of something lovely and slightly contentious about collecting Rolex: The brand moves at a glacial pace with respect to new movements, complications and watches, but it does so because of a strict adherence to its heritage, which is a big reason for its reputation. As a result, this 2007 Sea-Dweller looks like every reference 16600 produced since 1988 and like all 16660s since about 1983 (when Rolex made changes to the dial). It is at once a contemporary looking piece and a conversation starter to vintage Rolex.