Feature: Rolex Sea-Dweller vs Tudor Pelagos
If you’re looking to buy a serious dive watch, then the Rolex Sea-Dweller 126600 is likely to be right at the top of your wish list. It’s got the history, it’s got the heritage—but it’s also got a problem: the Tudor Pelagos.
Rolex’s mighty Sea-Dweller has seen off far worse than this before. The Omega PloProf, for example, back in the sixties when both watches were vying for the contract with deep sea diving agency COMEX; Rolex came through on time with a product that boasted both brains and brawn, seeing off Omega’s opposition which languished behind on specification and, more importantly, deadline.
More deep dive watches have come and gone since, but the beefed-up Sea-Dweller has remained on top throughout. The recipe was simple: take one Submariner, make it all a bit stronger, add a helium escape valve to prevent the crystal popping off during decompression, and there you have it. Rolex always has understood the power of simplicity.
But this new contender is something different. It’s not even strictly speaking a competitor, Tudor a sub-brand of the Rolex umbrella, created in 1926 to sell more watches at an affordable price by using cheaper movements in Rolex cases. And it wasn’t just entry level models that could be purchased in Tudor guise; even Rolex’s iconic Submariner was given the Tudor treatment. Cleverly, this meant Rolex founder Hans Wilsdorf could sell his Submariner to international armed forces despite having an exclusive contract with the British MoD for the Rolex.
But the Sea-Dweller has always been kept from the Tudor brand, standing alone as Rolex’s professional flagship—and although that still remains true today, it seems that Tudor has found a way around that. Of course, nothing Tudor does can be executed without Rolex’s blessing, but nevertheless in 2012 Tudor presented to the world a dive watch with five hundred metres of water resistance. This may be less than half what the production Sea-Dweller had, but it’s still on par with that of the early prototypes. In fact, it’s exactly what the very first prototype Sea-Dweller had.
But there's another watch to be considered here, one that gave Rolex more headroom over the Pelagos. After the discontinuation of the classic Sea-Dweller 16600, Rolex went all out and gave us the 2008 Deepsea 116660, a 44mm behemoth with almost four times the water resistance of that original prototype Sea-Dweller. Plenty of space from Tudor’s Pelagos, no problems there. But given how people are used to minor incremental updates from Rolex, the Deepsea was a big pill to swallow, and so in 2014 Rolex plugged the gap the old Sea-Dweller used to fill with the 116600.
The 116600 was to the Submariner what it had always been, a thicker, sturdier version with a helium escape valve, only marginally different visually and still at 40mm. Only by this point, people were actually getting used to the Deepsea’s heft, leaving the 116600 feeling somewhat conservative. In one of the shortest production runs in Rolex history, the 116600 was discontinued after just three years, replaced by a watch that sat more evenly between the mega Deepsea and the benchmark Submariner: and that’s this, the 43mm Sea-Dweller 126600.
All this around-the-houses has left Rolex with a watch that unintentionally has a direct competitor in the Tudor stable: the Pelagos. And it's not just a pretty face: the 42mm watch, here in 'LHD' guise, has some serious hardware to back it up. For a start, it’s the first Tudor or Rolex to be made in titanium. Both brands have partially featured the material before, but this is the first time either of them has ever committed to it wholly.
Next is the matte black ceramic bezel—not so impressive in itself these days, but given that all the markings on it glow just like the dial and hands, it’s a welcome advancement that makes the watch even more usable as a deep sea diver. There’s a helium escape valve of course, but more of a surprise is the bracelet. The familiar Oyster style has handy on-the-fly micro adjustment and a full divers’ extension, just like the modern Sea-Dweller, but it’s also got another little trick up its sleeve.
Where the Rolex micro adjustment moves up and down, locking into position on a ratchet of teeth to the user’s desired setting, the Pelagos goes one further. Think about all those times in a hot climate where moving from an air-conditioned room to the baking heat outdoors to the cool sea has your wrist expanding and contracting like an accordion; micro adjustment can only do so much.
So, Tudor has thought of something clever: you get three settings for standard micro adjustment, as indicated by the notch in the clasp—and then there’s a fourth, dynamic setting. Use that and a set of springs hidden behind the clasp kick into action, pulling the watch suitably tight around the wrist while offering the flexibility to change size automatically in order to stay comfortable. It’s like those elasticated bracelets you see on market stalls, but about a million times better.
The cherry on the cake is the movement: where the Pelagos contained an ETA movement when it was first launched, it now holds the in-house MT5612—the ‘LHD’ version for the left-hander—a COSC-certified caliber with a 70-hour power reserve. Overall, the Pelagos is a step forward from the classic Sea-Dweller, a fresh look replete with the tech to match. But what of the Rolex?
Despite the on-paper similarities, the 126600 is a rather different animal indeed. If the Pelagos is Ford Raptor pickup truck, built rugged and focused, the Sea-Dweller is more akin to a Rolls Royce Cullinan; refined, elegant—but it’ll still get the job done if it really has to. The hands and markers, despite being cased in white gold and set on a deep gloss black dial, still glow; the bezel, in polished ceramic with numbers contrasted in platinum, is still unidirectional; the case, although split with crisp brushing and a mirror polish, can still take 1,220m of crushing depth without breaking a sweat.
I think it’s easier to view these two watches not as competitors, but as the same watch from alternate timelines. There’s one timeline, this one, where mechanical watches have become as much about the pursuit of elegance and finesse as they have telling the time, and it’s the Rolex Sea-Dweller that results, purposeful but plush; then there’s the alternate timeline where mechanical is still on top, where Rolex still battles Omega to keep its crown as number one. If that was the timeline we lived in, then the Pelagos—that’s the watch Rolex would be making.
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