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Neptune’s Watch: The Rolex Sea-Dweller

Jul 24, 2017

The 1960s were the golden age of the so-called tool watch, those timepieces built with features for specific purposes. But it was the dive watch, which rose to prominence with the growing sport of scuba diving, that captured the public’s imagination more than the others. In 1967, an innovative dive watch was introduced that was […]

Ben Bridge Jeweler

The 1960s were the golden age of the so-called tool watch, those timepieces built with features for specific purposes. But it was the dive watch, which rose to prominence with the growing sport of scuba diving, that captured the public’s imagination more than the others. In 1967, an innovative dive watch was introduced that was built for such a narrow audience of users that it didn’t even go on sale publicly for another two years. Now, almost five decades later, that watch, the Rolex Sea-Dweller, remains a tool watch icon and a cult classic.

In the mid-1960s, offshore oil reserves spurred an aquatic gold rush to harvest the millions of barrels below the seafloor, and deep-sea commercial divers were in high demand. The work was difficult and required that the divers live for days at a time in a pressurized chamber underwater. The breathing gas in the chamber was made of predominantly helium with a minimal amount of oxygen.

The largest commercial diving firm, Comex, approached Rolex for a solution. That solution was the Sea-Dweller.

The Sea-Dweller evolved from Rolex’s highly capable Submariner watch, with a beefed-up case and crystal to withstand greater depths. But it’s what they put on the side of the case that made it unique — a gas release valve, allowing helium to harmlessly vent into the atmosphere. The solution worked, and the Rolex Sea-Dweller was quickly adopted as the watch of choice by commercial and military divers working in pressurized habitats.

At Baselworld this spring, Rolex revealed an entirely new Sea-Dweller in commemoration of the icon’s 50th anniversary. The watch is endowed with a new 43mm stainless steel case, a Rolex-signature Cyclops magnifying lens, an engraved ceramic timing bezel, and the latest Rolex calibre 3235. And of course, on the left flank, its calling card — the gas release valve.

It is comforting that Rolex, despite its prestige and status, still embraces its roots in building rugged, specialized watches for specific purposes. Sure, the Sea-Dweller is overkill for all but a handful of commercial divers in the world who needs its specialized features. But when you’re exploring underwater, overkill is still something to appreciate.

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