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Feature: Rolex Submariner vs Sea-Dweller vs Deepsea

A Rolex and the sea are like, well, a duck to water, the brand having kickstarted the entire dive watch legacy pretty much singlehandedly. As far as credentials go, there’s only one you need to know: a Rolex watch has been to the deepest part of the ocean and survived—and that was back in 1960. A watch literally cannot go any deeper than that. And so, Rolex dive watches have come to be heralded as the very best, and we’ve got three of them. But which is the best of the best?

Rolex Submariner 116610LN

Compared to the other two here, the Rolex Submariner is a bit of a wimp. Tapping out at three hundred metres, it’s bailing before the others have even noticed they’re wet. Playing a numbers game, it’s a no-brainer to sack off the Submariner and go for something with a bit more beef—but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

It’s the whole story that tells the whole story, and it begins in the twenties with the Oyster, a Rolex inspired by the saltwater bivalve mollusc of the same name and its ability to seal itself from its briny habitat. Unlike a real oyster, however, the Rolex Oyster used rubber gaskets compressed by screw threads to keep the wet parts wet and the dry parts dry, a design that many believe was a Rolex original—but it wasn’t.

In 1925, two years ahead of the release of the Oyster, a Swiss patent was registered for a crown design that used a screw thread to seal it. This sought inspiration from an American patent from 1881 for a pocket watch with a screw-down crown, which in turn borrowed the idea from an 1872 patent that demonstrated how screw threads could be used to seal a case from water.

Having dictated that his watches must be completely waterproof, Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf eyed these patents with interest, noting that none of them had ever really been put to proper use with a wristwatch. So, he bought the rights to that Swiss patent and had the watchmakers at Aegler, the company that made his watches, develop it into a working prototype.

And it worked … up to a point, and that point was when the mainspring was fully wound. It hadn’t occurred to them that once the power reserve was full, the crown would stop turning, which would prevent it from being screwed down. So, it was back to the patent office for another 1881 patent, this time for a crown clutch that allowed it to keep spinning regardless of the state of wind.

But the technological journey in the pursuit of the ultimate waterproof watch didn’t stop there, because there was another snag to overcome: a hand wound watch with a screw-down crown wore its threads quickly, being sealed and unsealed day after day after day. The solution? The Perpetual movement, which made use of a winding rotor so the watch could remain wound without having to unscrew the crown at all.

All the ingredients for that ultimate waterproof watch were now there, and in 1953 Rolex proudly announced the Submariner to the world. Back then, it maxed out at a puny one hundred metres, but this was revolutionary in a commercially available watch, and it heralded the start of one of the greatest technological races watchmaking has ever seen: the quest for the deep.

Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600

Nobody in the Swiss watch industry had expected what Rolex did in 1953 with the Submariner. The big, old companies like Omega were caught napping, so sure where they in their traditional ways that the idea of a rugged, simple watch for actually doing stuff with was not even a consideration. Well, not until the Submariner became a massive success.

Remember that Rolex was a bit of a newbie at this point, trying to make a name for itself. I imagine that after forcing the industry’s hand into accepting the advancement of puny, silly wristwatches over grand, traditional pocket watches, Wilsdorf and his Rolex brand was starting to annoy the old guard. The Submariner was the tipping point for watchmaking giant Omega, who retaliated with a trifecta of flagship watches, the Seamaster 300, the Railmaster and the Speedmaster.

And Omega wasn’t done there. Rolex had beaten it to the punch and brought an affordable, practical watch to the masses engaging in the new sport of scuba diving, but Omega considered the true prize to be not of the amateur, but the professional. The game was on, both brands challenged to build a watch that could withstand six hundred metres for an attempt on the diving record.

Here’s where the old adage, “work smart not hard” comes to mind. Rolex, as it had demonstrated with many of its accomplishments, including the screw-down crown, made the most of what had already been achieved and refined it, furnished with neither the time nor the budget to start anything from scratch. This promoted quick, clever thinking, quite the opposite of its competition.

Omega’s efforts to build a mega dive watch, however, were outstanding. The company had effectively rewritten the wristwatch rulebook, building a ground-up concept that defined almost every aspect of its operation in a new way. The bezel, that was locked in place with a pusher and was fitted with glowing markers; the crown, it was secured using an additional thread lock to ensure that it could never be damaged or accidentally adjusted; even the case itself was revolutionised, a monobloc shell that far surpassed the requirements needed by over double.

This watch, which Omega dubbed the Plongeur Professionnel, the Professional Diver, was a masterpiece, a tour de force of Omega’s might as a watchmaker, such as to make the Submariner a laughable trinket. But whilst Omega had been working very, very hard, Rolex had worked smart. A thicker case back, a thicker crystal and a valve made the Submariner just about capable enough for the task, and so the Sea-Dweller was born—some years ahead of the PloProf, I might add—and so the game was already won.

Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea 116660

There’s a reason Rolex was so confident with its simplistic approach with the Sea-Dweller, and that’s because nearly a decade earlier, the company had already put the theory to the ultimate test. On the basis that a watch of the same design as the Submariner could quite simply be built thicker and stronger, the Deep Sea Special of 1960 was created.

Now this really did turn up the Submariner to eleven, because with a thicker case, crown, bezel, case back and crystal, the Deep Sea Special ended up at a whopping 54mm thick—and this was before the days of Hublot. But despite its outrageous appearance, all the principles of the watch were the same as that original 1927 Oyster: using screw threads in the bezel, crown and case back, everything was held together with an unbreakable bond that would, in theory, be able to survive the deepest point in all the world’s oceans: the Mariana Trench.

Situated in the Pacific Ocean some thousand miles south-east of Japan, the Mariana Trench, at just under seven miles deep, is capable of completely submerging Mount Everest with another mile and a bit to spare. To conquer it would require not just a watch, but a vehicle, none other than the Trieste, a US Navy-owned bathyscaphe designed by the same Auguste Piccard believed to have been the inspiration for the Federation captain of the same name.

Rolex took the opportunity to hitch a lift on the Trieste, attaching the Deep Sea Special to the outside as it made its way to the ocean floor on the 23rd of January, 1960. Despite experiencing over six tonnes of pressure per square inch<.i>, the watch and the Trieste both emerged in the same condition in which they had departed. It was one of Hans Wilsdorf’s last adventures at the helm of Rolex, passing away a few months later—but at least he did so knowing that he had achieved his life’s work of creating the ultimate waterproof watch.

Of course, the Deep Sea Special was a concept watch that no sensibly minded human would ever consider wearing, but even into the new millennium, some half a century later, Rolex was able to learn from its achievement. And so came the 2008 Sea-Dweller Deepsea, a 3,900m water-resistant monster that … actually isn’t too unreasonably sized at all. When it was first announced, the prospect of a 44mm Rolex was almost unthinkable, but since the panic and the flapping that Rolex was going to make all its watches this big has died down, the Deep Sea presents a rather incredible proposition.

Despite only being 2.5mm thicker than the Sea-Dweller, the Deepsea gains a whopping 2,680m of water resistance, thanks in part to the 5.5mm crystal and titanium case back, but mostly thanks to the patented Ringlock system, which is effectively an additional case housed within the main body of the watch. You can see how thick the inner Ringlock case is between the outer case and dial.

And that’s not all: in 2012, Rolex announced the beefiest version of the Deepsea yet, the Deepsea Challenge, capable of withstanding a depth of 12,000 metres using a similar Ringlock system. Despite being put to the test by director and adventurer James Cameron as he descended to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in his submarine, the Deepsea Challenger, because the trench is only seven miles deep, the full capabilities of the watch will never be challenged on this planet.

It stands to reason: the thicker the watch, the greater the water resistance. There’s almost a century of development by Rolex in the journey of these watches, the Submariner, Sea-Dweller and Deepsea, and each adds a new chapter to the evolution of the original dive watch manufacturer. Which one’s right for you? That depends on your next adventure.

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