Review: Rolex Sea-Dweller 126603
Rolex is everywhere. It’s a monster. To think that such huge dominance came from such humble beginnings, that such luxury originated from such a simplified ethos. At some point, these two worlds, form and function, luxury and practicality, collided, and it’s brought us to this: the Rolex Sea-Dweller 126603 in steel and gold. Is that a big mistake?
When I say that Rolex came from humble beginnings, I really mean it. You know those little brands that get a case company to make them a case, a movement company to make them a movement, stick it all together and sell it as their own watch? That, over a century ago, was Rolex.
When it was founded in 1905, it was competing for space in an industry that had long established its biggest players, monumental companies making tens of thousands of watches a year to a level of quality that Rolex could never hope to match.
And when I say Rolex, I don’t mean the Rolex based in secret steel-and-glass factories all across Switzerland like we have today—I mean two guys and a small shop in Hatton Garden, London. Hans Wilsdorf and his brother-in-law Alfred Davies had a brainwave that basic sense would have told them was stupid: build a watch and try to sell it.
This was before the internet, before crowdfunding, before celebrity Tweets. This was a time when enormous companies like Omega and Longines were dominating the world by sponsoring global competitions like the Olympics.
So, here was the challenge: make a watch that was affordable enough to be desirable, provided something its competitors didn’t, and then somehow tell enough people about it to actually sell some—without the size, equipment, skill or budget afforded to the market leaders.
But Wilsdorf had an idea. At the time, watches—predominantly pocket watches—were sold on the basis of one thing: tradition. Big, beautiful, ornate—but not very practical. They weren’t compact, resilient, robust, or even particularly accurate. They were more jewellery pieces than they were functional timekeepers.
That was all very well and good, but how could a man whose experience in watchmaking was virtually zero ever hope to realise his dream? Simple—he’d get other people to do it for him. Dennison, a UK manufacturer of cases and bracelets, and Aegler, a Swiss manufacturer of lever-escapement movements for smaller ladies’ watches, supplied Wilsdorf with the parts he needed, and he and Davies sold them under the Rolex name in their little shop in Hatton Garden.
But here’s the kicker: these weren’t more pocket watches, like everyone else was selling. These were wristwatches, a smaller, more compact way to wear a portable timekeeper. Wilsdorf was so ahead of the game with this idea that it took a World War for people to realise how much more convenient his watches were. By the time his competitors caught wind of the idea, Wilsdorf was already up and running, claiming accuracy records and water-resistance records for wristwatches before anyone else even knew what he was up to.
The ultimate blow that changed not only Rolex’s fortunes, but signalled the changing of the guard from follower to leader was this, the Sea-Dweller. The diving industry was booming, and watch manufacturers sought to keep up with ever-increasing depths divers were reaching. Omega, by this point furious and frustrated at being shown up time and time again by newcomer Rolex, put all the resources it had into the ultimate dive watch. Rolex, meanwhile, quite simply made its existing dive watch, the Submariner, slightly thicker, beating Omega to the punch by several years—and that was that.
From humble beginnings came the Sea-Dweller, and what an icon it would become. It accompanied some of the bravest men this planet has ever seen on some of the most dangerous expeditions ever attempted, into a biome that still to this day remains largely unknown. It was through resourcefulness and clever thinking that this watch became more than just a watch—it became a legend. And now we have this, the steel and gold Sea-Dweller 126603.
It’s a far cry from the original. The original was robust where it needed to be, saved money where it didn’t. Beefed-up case back, case and crystal combined, its total thickness breached 17mm, an inflamed, distorted version of the slender Submariner that could not care less how it looked.
This Sea-Dweller 126603, however, isn’t made for the job that first called the line into existence. It can do that job, assuredly, happily plumbing depths of over 1,200 metres—and I expect it’s capable of much more than that still. But its primary function now is to look good, to represent quality and luxury and status—and nowhere more apparent is this than with the inclusion of gold.
Now, gold has been used in Rolex dive watches since the eighties—no surprise there—but this is the first time it’s ever been featured in the hardcore Sea-Dweller. Compared to the Submariner, the Sea-Dweller is still a great chunk of a watch as it always has been, now inflated to a whopping—for Rolex—43mm, and even with a flat sapphire crystal rather than domed plexiglass, its stands at a not-insignificant 15.2mm thick.
In the Submariner, the ‘Rolesor’—as Rolex calls it—steel-and-gold combination, offers an alternative that perhaps makes it feel more at home out of the water and in a comfortable, luxury environment. Even with the ceramic bezel and fancy clasp, a Rolex Submariner has never been a truly elegant watch, and the gold does go some way to correcting that. With the Sea-Dweller, however, it feels too far removed to get away with it. It’s like having a 911 GT3 RS with the seats from a Rolls Royce.
From a practicality persuasion, gold is a softer material than Rolex’s propriety 904L steel, which increases the risk of damaging and even losing the watch in a situation where doing so could mean life or death. Except, it won’t. Because the Sea-Dweller, like the GT3 RS, isn’t going to be used at ten-tenths of its ability by anyone except the very few. And do you know what? That’s alright.
If you choose to buy a Rolex Sea-Dweller in steel and gold, and if you choose to buy a GT3 RS and pootle down to the shops and back, that’s fine. Only you can dictate your enjoyment of something, and if that’s what makes you happy, then no-one else can tell you otherwise. That the Sea-Dweller can venture the best part of a mile into the deep can be enjoyable just in its existence, never mind in practice. You put it on, it makes you smile, it makes you feel good. As far as I’m concerned, that’s job done.
From humble beginnings. I keep saying it, because it’s a message that applies less and less to Rolex in this new era of luxury and technology and status—but I also think it has a new meaning. It’s so easy and so tempting to judge the choices other people make based on the expectations you have of yourself. And it’s fine to have those expectations of yourself—but for others? Let’s be a little bit more humble ourselves and let other people be happy.
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