Those who are into vintage Rolex know that red is a pretty exciting colour.
“Single Red” 1680 Submariners and Single or Double-Red Sea-Dwellers are the grails when it comes these old dive watches.
The “Red” element refers to the lines of red writing across the dial and creates the same effect for collectors as red rags to a bull.
They want it, badly.
So much so that in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Sea-Dweller in 2017, Rolex released a new beast in 43mm with a single line of red text on the dial stating “Sea-Dweller” in a nod to the now infamous vintage reds.
Naturally Rolex nerds being Rolex nerds were overjoyed at the return of the red writing but appalled at the increase in size and the addition of a cyclops over the date, something that traditionally the Sea-Dweller never had.
Rolex continues to delight and infuriate in equal measure.
That though, is a story for another day.
Today we’re taking a nose at a 1977 double red sea-dweller with some fantastic history behind it.
I warn you now that this is going to be a very potted version as I could go on about this for a week, there are so many strands of intrigue for this model.
The Sea-Dweller was released in 1967 in response to a very specific problem - Helium.
Launched in 1953 The Submariner at this point was already well into its existence and proving to be popular as a tool. But, as the 60s was an era where exploration of both the skies and seas really started to boom, it was also where the venerable Sub ran into difficulties when faced with saturation diving, so called because at great depths, the body becomes saturated with gas which needs to be dissipated slowly in a controlled manner in order to prevent a phenomenon known as decompression sickness.
This was where decompression chambers became necessary for divers safe transition from body crushing depths and dry land.
They would sit in a controlled decompression chamber post deep dive until their bodies returned to normal.
Bob Barth was one such diver on board the US Navy’s SEALAB 1, which, in short, was lab/research station parked on the sea bed and used to test human response to artificial atmosphere, eg - pressurised air when exploring the depths of the sea or space, and test the viability of saturation diving for ocean exploration.
The gas inside SEALAB that the divers (or Aquanauts as they were known) were breathing was a mix of 95% helium and 5% oxygen. As their bodies became saturated with this gas, they could stay at depth indefinitely and live within the research station completing daily tasks, experiments, eating, drinking, sleeping etc.
Barth noticed during decompression an alarming ping and plink, which was the sound of the crystal popping off his Submariner due to the expulsion of helium which had built up within the watch whilst Bob was working in SEALAB.
His time in decompression wasn’t long enough for helium particles to dissipate properly, which left the pressure inside the watch way higher than that of the decomp chamber.
The end result of this was that his Submariner gave up at its weakest point, the crystal, which popped off in quite the dramatic fashion.
Think champagne cork and shaken bottle and you get the picture without the science.
Barth wrote an analysis of what had happened and suggested a helium valve. This analysis which was heavy on the technicalities was condensed by his diving pal T Walker Lloyd who sent to Rolex to wrap their heads around solution-wise.
The divers current DIY solution was to unscrew the crowns of their submariners during decompression to let the gas escape, but this wasn’t ideal or long term as forgetting to un-screw or re-screw presented issues that can be briefly described as “a pain in the backside”
In response, Rolex designed the helium release valve. A relatively simple spring loaded one way valve which activated to release the helium when the pressure within the watch became greater than the pressure outside.
The Sea-Dweller emerged equipped for the depths and was named in a nod to the SEALAB divers who were the first men to Dwell at the bottom of the Sea.
Interestingly though, there are Dwellers out there that DON’T have the valve which are marked by having a single line of red text rather than two.
These are super early examples which look like Submariners on steroids and date to when Rolex was bringing the Sea-Dweller into existence but hadn’t picked up the idea of the Helium valve offered by Barth and Lloyd.
That said, there is ONE known single red Sea-Dweller with a helium escape valve which was owned by Dr Ralph Brauer.
As far as anybody knows, its the only example out there and is thought to be a prototype which once proven to be viable paved the way for the helium valve to become a permanent feature on the “Double Red” 1665 which was in production from 67-77.
Rolex weren’t awarded the patent for the valve until 1971 despite applying for it close to 3 years beforehand. Its good to know that bureaucracy back then was as irritating as it is now, right?
I’m the first to admit that plowing through the various twists and turns requires some paracetamol at a minimum and a large shot of tequila at best.
Some of you may be scratching your heads here with all the discussion of SEALAB and wondering why I haven’t mentioned the other company widely associated with Rolex and their oceanic endeavours - COMEX - Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises.
When the Sea-Dweller first came into production, COMEX were working exclusively with (the nemesis) Omega.
Rolex needed to find another partnership when the US navy wound up testing underwater environments partly due to being otherwise occupied with the Vietnam war, and partly because SEALAB 3 had been a disaster which had led to loss of life, so the mission was shelved.
This left Rolex with significant twitchy bum as they had lost the testing grounds for their Sea-Dwellers, and Omega teamed with COMEX were testing their own super diver which worked on the different principle of just not letting helium into the watch in the first place.
Seamaster 600 Ploprof, anyone?
Rolex needed to do something or risk losing the ocean as well as the space race to Omega, so, they filched COMEX by reaching out to the booming dive company and offering to give all COMEX divers free Sea-Dwellers and Submariners in exchange for their analysis of the watches performance.
In 1971 the deal was sealed and Omega had been dealt a battle blow.
Coincidentally 1971 was the same year that the Sea-Dweller became available for members of the public to purchase.
Rolex and COMEX partnered incredibly successfully until 1997, which is where we’ll leave the history bit for now and get to having a good nose at this particular double red sea-dweller as i’m sure thats what you’ve all been waiting for..
This is a Vintage “Double Red” Sea-Dweller from 1977 making it a Mark 4 dial. So called as collectors track changes to the dial print fonts and spacing as they evolve.
Its got a beautiful creamy patina to the tritium lume plots and matching hands, and the all important red writing. Combined with the silvered date disk, and sharp fat case, we’ve got an absolutely smashing example of a classic.
This particular example enjoyed a full and eyewatering Rolex service and has been a vault-dweller ever since so its ready to see some action once again.
If you’re interested in having a little bit of Double-Red Rolex history on your wrist, you know where to find us.