Since the 1920s, the history of Rolex as a company has been inextricably linked to the sea. That was the decade that brought us their revolutionary Oyster case, the first workable, production-built waterproof watch housing.
Not only did it transform the fortunes of Rolex itself, it also heralded a paradigm shift in the way wristwatches as a whole were viewed by the public. Whereas up until then they had been regarded as little more than fragile and decorative items of jewelry worn exclusively by women, the new cases made them robust enough to be used in far more inhospitable environments.
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The Dive Trio
By the 1950s, Scuba diving had become both a profession and a popular recreation. With decades of development on the Oyster behind them, Rolex were perfectly placed to take advantage of the phenomenon, and introduced a watch that would go onto become perhaps the most iconic timepiece ever made.
The Rolex Submariner was released in 1953, the first model to boast water resistance to 330ft, or 100m. Although it can’t be considered the originator of the modern dive watch (that has to go to the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms, launched a matter of months prior) its styling and abilities have made it by far the most famous.
By the 1960s, commercial diving had progressed to such an extent that even the Sub’s talents were found wanting, and Rolex again changed the game with the release of the Sea-Dweller, capable of surviving a plunge to, and crucially, the ascent back from 2,000ft.
The duo held the fort right up until 2008, when Rolex, in a bizarre move, decided to briefly retire the beloved Sea-Dweller and replace it with a watch whose capacities far exceeded any credible real world use and were more a showcase of just what Rolex was capable of—the Deepsea.
Let’s look at each in turn and see how they measure up to each other.
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The Rolex Submariner
The early life of the world’s most famous dive watch was particularly turbulent, with the model going through 10 different references in its first decade of production.
But it wouldn’t be until 1959 and the arrival of the ref. 5512 that the Sub settled down to its now accepted aesthetic; complete with crown guards, a 40mm diameter and a serrated-edged bezel that overhung the case to allow it to be used more easily while wearing diving gloves.
The biggest upheaval though, happened in 1969 when the Submariner effectively split into two families, the date and no-date.
The no-date Subs continued on very much in the same vein as they always had, never straying from a stainless steel construction and a simple black dial and bezel livery.
The date Subs however quickly left their underwater adventurer roots behind, being issued in increasingly luxurious outfits of both yellow and white gold, as well as Rolesor, Rolex’s own concoction of gold and steel. One of the most recognizable watches in the world, they have long been more status symbol than dive buddy.
Interestingly, until 1981, no Submariner can technically be called a dive watch at all. The standards set down in ISO 6425 states a prerequisite to be a unidirectional bezel, as in one that rotates only one way. It is an effective safety feature meaning, if knocked, the surround, engraved with 60 minute markings, will overestimate the length of time which has been spent underwater. That will bring the dive to an end sooner, avoiding any risk of decompression sickness.
Photo credit: @rolexdiver
But the patent for the unidirectional bezel was held by Blancpain and their aforementioned Fifty Fathoms, the license for which didn’t elapse until 1983. The ref. 16800 was the first Submariner to feature it, as well as being the first to have a waterproof rating of 300m.
These days, the Sub is still one of the most sought after watches from Rolex or any other manufacturer. The current range, now all safe to 300m, has pieces in a range of colors and forged in a variety of metals, with perhaps the most desirable being the ref. 116610LV, a green dialed and bezeled steel model nicknamed the Hulk.
Although the Submariner collection has stayed true to its 40mm dimensions (and received criticism for it of late, with voices in some quarters calling it too small for a true diver) it has been upgraded to what Rolex call their Super Case, with lugs and crown guards twice the width of before.
It gives the Submariner the wrist presence of a larger watch, without having to break from tradition.
Photo credit: @rolex_sea_dweller_4000
The Rolex Sea-Dweller
The once big brother, and now middle child, the Sea-Dweller was released in 1967 as a collaboration between Rolex and French saturation diving specialists COMEX.
COMEX’s crews, working in the deep sea oil fields of the Atlantic, were required to spend long periods living and working in underwater habitats, under great pressures. In order to breathe safely at such depth, a specially controlled gas mixture is used, containing a high proportion of helium.
With helium having the smallest molecules of practically any gas, tiny bubbles would seep into the diver’s watches. Upon ascent, those bubbles would expand, popping the crystals off the face of the watch, often at some speed.
Rolex’s solution was the HEV, or Helium Escape Valve. In essence a simple one-way regulator set in the side of the case, it would open when pressure increased inside the watch, allowing the helium to seep out harmlessly.
It was trialed in a retrofit Submariner ref. 5513 (becoming the ref. 5514 in the process) and then released as the Sea-Dweller itself, with the ref. 1665. Known as the Double Red Sea-Dweller, or DRSD, for the two lines of red text on the dial, the combination of a thicker case, domed sapphire and, of course, its HEV, meant it was rated waterproof to some 2,000ft, or 610m.
Ten years later, that resistance was doubled to 4,000ft, with the ref. 16660, or Triple Six.
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Unlike the Sub, the Sea-Dweller has stayed as an all-steel model—or it had until very recently. The watch’s 50th anniversary in 2017 was marked by a big change, with the SD’s dimensions growing to 43mm from the previous 40mm. As if that wasn’t enough, 2019 brought us the first Sea-Dweller in yellow Rolesor, giving hints of Rolex taking it down the same luxurious route as its smaller sibling. Where it will go from here is anyone’s guess, but seeing one of the toughest tool watches ever made in solid gold is no longer out of the question.
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The Rolex Deepsea
While its general styling puts the Deepsea as very much part of the Rolex diving family, inside it is a much altered beast.
At 44mm in diameter, and some 17.7mm thick, it is the biggest watch the brand makes. That, of course, is to be expected of something that is expected to keep working at 12,800ft; as near as makes no difference two-and-a-half miles underwater.
At that depth, the pressure is around 5,500 lbs. per square inch, so building a timepiece which can survive it calls for the pinnacle of engineering prowess. Key to it is something Rolex call their Ringlock System, which consists of three main components.
The first is a sapphire crystal, the element with the largest exposed surface area, which measures around 5.5mm in thickness, the same as the whole of some dress watches.
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Secondly is a two-piece case back made from grade 5 TA6V titanium which is designed to flex slightly to absorb the incredible forces. And finally, encircling it all is a central ring forged from a nitrogen-alloyed steel mainly used for surgical implants, called BioDur 108. Three times stronger than even the 904L steel Rolex uses in their cases and bracelets (already the toughest steel used by any mainstream manufacturer) it redistributes the crushing weight pushing down on the crystal around the circumference of the Deepsea’s body.
On its release, the model took the Guinness World Record for water resistance in an automatic timepiece, beating the ‘CX Swiss Military Watch™ 12,000 FEET’. But it held the title for only a year, before CX hit back with the ‘20,000 FEET’ in 2019. However, although the Deepsea is a large watch, it is still eminently wearable, whereas the ‘20,000 FEET’ weighs in at 46mm in diameter and a punishing 28.5mm thick. There aren’t many shirt sleeves something with that sort of bulk will be slipping under.
It is a testament to the unrivalled ingenuity on display at Rolex that a watch with so vast a performance capability can still be worn as an everyday piece.
Which is Best?
There is, of course, no right answer. Every one of Rolex’s famed trio possesses more than enough strength to survive just about any dive a human is capable of. The difference between the three is really down to which visual you prefer.
The Submariner remains the smallest, and the one available in the widest range of color and metal options.
The Sea-Dweller has a few extra millimeters in diameter, but with a relatively slender profile. It also has the recently introduced half and half Rolesor option.
The Deepsea is the most noticeably weighty of them all, but is still an easy wear, particularly since its slight redesign in 2018 that slimmed the lugs and widened the bracelet, providing a better overall balance. It comes in the standard black dial variant as well as a very special, two-tone ombré style known as the D-Blue.
Made to honor the achievement of movie director James Cameron as he became the first person to dive solo to the deepest point on earth, the Challenger Deep inside the Mariana Trench, the dial starts in a royal blue at the top before fading to a rich black at the bottom, a visual representation of the descent into the fathomless depths.
So, three dive watches from the world’s leading watchmaker, each really building on the achievements of the other. It is a story of relentless progress going back over 60+ years, and they remain the very best of their type to this day.