Rolex was originally a tool watch brand. Founded in 1905 by 24 year old Hans Wilsdorf, the goal of the company was to supply utilitarian watches capable of withstanding grueling conditions in hard use. Soon divers, explorers, mountaineers, swimmers, tennis players, pilots and others rushed to put Rolexes on their wrists. In 1927, Mercedes Gleitze became the first woman to swim across the English Channel, a Rolex Oyster strapped around her neck; in 1935, Sir Malcom Campbell broke the world speed record at Daytona wearing a Rolex; in 1947 Chuck Yeager sported a Rolex while breaking the sound barrier in an X-1 jet.
Rolex is synonymous with achievement in sporting environments, yet in more recent years, the brand has certainly repositioned itself as a luxury brand. Beginning with more modest aims, albeit still prioritizing quality and reliability, Rolex was never considered a luxury brand — rather just a reliable brand. With Rolex’s more contemporary market positioning, the watches shifted to appeal to the luxury segment they now reside comfortably in. Watches have increased in robustness, reliability, and material as the brand worked to redefine luxury watchmaking. Occasionally, however, Rolex releases a watch that unequivocally reminds collectors of the brand’s origins, releasing a piece that reaffirms its commitment to pushing the limits of human achievement in the sporting arena — watches such as the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue James Cameron ref. 116660.
The Rolex Sea-Dweller was released in 1967 as the first watch to feature a helium escape valve. The inaugural reference 1665 changed the history of dive watches, presenting the helium escape valve innovation that would allow Rolex and others (ahem Omega), to continually push the limits of diving depth and underwater pressure. Through the years, the Sea-Dweller has evolved through various references including the 16660 (“triple six”), 16600, and most recently the 116660. Over this period, the depth rating increased substantially from 610 meters on the 1665 to 3900 meters today. In 2014, Rolex released the edition we are covering today, a tribute to James Cameron. In 2012, Cameron descended into the Mariana Trench, known to be the deepest spot in all of Earth’s oceans, more than 7 miles below the surface.
On his wrist, Cameron wore a Rolex made specially for the occasion, as an extension of Rolex’s long history of outfitting sportsmen with capable sports pieces. It is rare that Rolex makes special editions such as the D-blue James Cameron (if it can be considered a special edition). This quirk in the Rolex lineup is a welcome rarity for the brand, and represents one of the brand’s most capable dive pieces made by the brand for general production. Although the quantity of these pieces is believed to be quite limited, Rolex placed no express production numbers on the run (nor do they release production numbers on any watch, ever). After the first James Cameron reference, Rolex released an updated variant with a more refined case profile, the reference 136660.
The Rolex reference 116660 is undoubtedly a substantial piece of steel. At 44mm with a titanium case back, the 116660 has a crystal that’s thicker than many watch movements, at 5mm thick. This crystal thickness is a necessity to maintain the depth rating of 12,800ft. Rolex placed their helium escape valve at 9 o’clock. As opposed to the integration of say, Omega, whose helium escape valve protrudes from the case (a major frustration personally), Rolex has recessed the valve into the case side so that the side profile is undisturbed from the dial side. Additionally, Rolex has maintained the proportions of the smaller professional series models, meaning that while the watch has a serious presence and significant size, it nonetheless feels refined in nature. While most Rolexes have solid dial colors, the James Cameron edition has a gradient “D-Blue” dial that gradually transitions from a blueish white to black. The piece has a strong chapter ring engraved “Original Gas Escape Valve Ring Lock System”. This chapter ring helps to shrink the visual presence of the dial by narrowing the actual diameter of the dial as perceived by the wearer.
Many recognize the piece’s exceptional water resistance, yet few understand the complexity of the waterproofing engineering that was needed to generate this quality. The sapphire crystal is framed by a specialty gasket, which is in turn shrouded by a nitrogen-alloyed steel compression ring. The caseback is also constructed of several components, all to ensure not only water resistance in ideal situations, but overengineering that ensures the longevity of these seals in the future. Solid on the wrist, the weight and substance of the watch is precisely its defining quality— some love it, some hate it. The sides of the case are vertical slabs, fully polished in reflective fashion. Perhaps most admirable is Rolex’s perfect balance of case weight to bracelet weight. When a watch is too heavy for its bracelet, the piece tends to wear uncomfortably, especially if you wear your watch loosely like a bracelet (silent judgment).With this Sea-Dweller, Rolex has made an equally substantive bracelet, ensuring that the weight of the piece is properly distributed across its entirety.
While the case of this piece is completely unique and distinctive to the model, the movement is the opposite. The caliber 3135 is one of Rolex’s most used movements, accompanying Submariners, Datejusts, Yacht Masters, and of course, the Sea-Dweller. This ubiquity within the Rolex lineup is an asset from a servicing and parts perspective, with so many models in circulation powered by the same caliber. The 3135 is incredibly reliable and robust, with 50 hours of power reserve, 31 jewels, and automatic winding for daily wear. The 3135 is also the base for other calibers used by the brand, including the 3136, 3175, and 9001.
Versus the Competition
Alongside the Deepsea, there are various serious dive watches to consider. On the more extreme design side, the Omega Ploprof is likely best compared to the black box of an airplane. Indestructible looking, the piece cannot be particularly comfortable to wear, yet it really is if you can handle its heft, especially on its mesh bracelet. The Ploprof played a significant role in the race to build the most capable dive watch, challenging the limits of robust watchmaking.
Alongside the Ploprof, for a more wearable everyday piece, consider either the Tudor Pelagos FXD, or the Tudor Submariner Snowflake. Both these options represent popular choices at the more practical segment of the market. If you don’t plan on diving to the depths of the Mariana Trench, these pieces are likely way more than sufficient.
Finally, if you are searching for a vintage inspired piece that provides an incredibly compelling value proposition, consider the Omega Seamaster 300. Beautiful faux patina, a blue granular dial, and modern 41mm proportions make a strong case for adding this piece to your collection. Certainly less popular than the famed Seamaster Diver 300M, this piece is an excellent illustration of just how far Omega has come in the last 50 years, as well as the robust history the brand is founded upon.
The collector that purchases a piece like the James Cameron Sea-Dweller likely has a larger wrist capable of wielding a piece of this magnitude. Quite frankly, those with smaller wrists will be physically unable to wear the piece, and should consider the smaller options within Rolex’s contemporary collection.
One of the more obvious collectors for this watch would be a diver capable of actually using the piece for its intended purpose. Although many watches (and other luxury items such as cars) are often built to specs never designed to be tested or used in practical form, a subset of the collecting and customer markets for these products actually do push the limits of that product’s capabilities. This phenomenon can best be likened to the owner of a G-Wagon G400 4×42. 9 times out of 10 the beast is not driven down a river, it’s kept on the highway. That doesn’t detract from the allure of the overbuilt machine, it simply suggests that luxury items are more about the emotional than the practical— nothing new here.
Serving as one of the most interesting and unique releases in Rolex’s modern history, the James Cameron Sea-Dweller Deepsea represents exactly what Rolex should be known for: constructing the most capable tool watches in the industry while respecting the fundamental design attributes of its pieces. As a lover of Rolex history, I would hope to continue to see Rolex pushing the limits of mechanical solutions in order to expand upon the brand’s rich history of references that have accompanied explorers in every sphere into the far reaches (and depths) of the globe.