5 minutes

Christie’s and Philipps to Auction off Million-Dollar Rolexes

By Donato Andrioli

Photo: Philipps

Geneva is the place to be for watch enthusiasts this November. Between the 5th and 8th, Christie’s and Philipps auction houses are each auctioning off a copy of the Rolex Deepsea Special, a unique piece of diving watch history. Philipps estimates the value of their watch to be between $1.3 and 2.6 million, while Christie’s expects their Deepsea Special to sell for between $2.15 and 4.4 million. 

So, what exactly makes this Rolex diver so special? Is it possible to find a slightly less rare watch with just as much history that won’t cost you an arm and a leg? Read on to find out! 

Rolex Deepsea Special: Made to Break Records

You can tell by its exterior alone; the Rolex Deepsea Special is anything but a watch for everyday wear. Indeed, Rolex designed this timepiece to prove that their watches could withstand any challenge thrown their way. While the exact number of Deepsea Special timepieces produced is not common knowledge, we do know that seven prototypes were built for use on diving expeditions between 1953 and 1960. The very first of these is the Deepsea Special No. 1 – the very same watch that Christie’s will auction off next week.  

Photo: Philipps 

This watch is steeped in history. Let’s go back to the beginning: September 30, 1953 near the Italian island of Ponza in the Mediterranean. The Deepsea Special was strapped to the outside of the diving vessel “Trieste,” manned by physicist Auguste Piccard and his son Jacques. The watch survived a dive down to 3,150 m (10,335 ft) unscathed. However, this was just the beginning for Rolex’s very first diving watch. 

Photo: Philipps

The real challenge came on January 23rd, 1960 when the Deepsea Special No. 3 made it to the deepest point in the Marina Trench. This time, Jacques Piccard and American naval officer Don Walsh reached a record-setting depth of 10,916 m (35,814 ft) in the “Trieste.” This watch now resides in the Smithsonian. In addition to the seven prototypes, Rolex manufactured a few so-called “display” models for use at exhibitions and trade shows over the years. The watch that will feature in this weekend’s  Philipps auction, namely the Deepsea Special No. 35, is one such display model. The seven prototypes and the display models all differ slightly from one another; some of the watches are made of steel, others contain gold. The case heights also vary; for instance, the plexiglass on the No. 1 is slightly flatter than the crystal on later models. However, every Deepsea Special has a few things in common: Each is an extremely rare timepiece with a great history. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Philipps estimates its model to fetch up to $2.6 million. 

Rolex Deepsea Special: Cheaper and More Wearable Alternatives

Watch enthusiasts across the globe will undoubtedly be following these auctions with great interest. Events like this allow us watch lovers to lose ourselves completely in our shared hobby. While big-ticket auctions are exciting, very few individuals are actually able to afford either of the watches up for sale. Let’s take a look at some alternatives that sit at a much more accessible price point. These watches may not be as rare as the Deepsea Special, but they certainly offer exciting and intriguing stories of their own.  

In the Footsteps of the Deepsea Special: The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue Ref. 126660

Fifty-two years after Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh made history with their record-breaking dive, film director and diving aficionado James Cameron followed in their footsteps. On March 26, 2012, Cameron made the first solo dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep (35,754 ft/10,898 m below sea level) in the deep-sea submarine “Deepsea Challenger.”  Cameron was accompanied by the Rolex “Deepsea Challenge,” a very appealing version of the Sea-Dweller Deepsea from 2008. The timepiece was strapped to the outside of his submersible. This watch is strikingly similar to Deepsea Special from the 1950s, a version of which  Cameron had on board as an homage to dives past. 

With a diameter of 52 mm and a height of nearly 29 mm, this is no modest timepiece. The diver is water-resistant to 12,000 m (39,370 ft) and survived the extreme depths unscathed. However, the watch I actually want to talk about is the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea “D-Blue,” also known affectionately as the “James Cameron.” This timepiece has a blue-to-black gradient dial that is supposed to symbolize the depth of the sea – an unusual finish for Rolex. The green “Deepsea” lettering, on the other hand, comes from the submarine’s color scheme. This watch is a clear nod to the director and his legendary feat in 2012. The Rolex Deepsea “D-Blue” is visually very similar to the timepiece from the expedition; however, the latter model is more appropriate for everyday wear. It is water-resistant to 3,900 m (12,795 ft) and sufficiently robust to be taken anywhere. Standing 18 mm tall and measuring 44 mm across, the watch is still on the larger side, but if you have the wrist for it and like watches with historical significance, the Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue is an excellent choice. Plus, you can purchase one on the free market for around $23,000. 

New Rolex Deepsea Image Rolex
A tribute to James Cameron and the Deepsea Challenger submarine: The Rolex Sea-Dweller Deepsea D-Blue

The Civilian Deepsea Special: Rolex Sea-Dweller 1665

The bulky Deepsea Special made a lasting impression after its legendary dive in 1960. In 1967, Rolex released a watch that remains an integral part of its collection to this day. You could even call it the “civilian” version of the Deepsea Special. At first glance, this watch may look like an ordinary Rolex Submariner, but looks can be deceiving. The first Sea-Dweller, the ref. 1665, offers two extra features that are indispensable for divers. First, it has increased water resistance to 610 m (2,001 ft). However, the greatest advantage over the Sub is the helium escape value developed in partnership with COMEX. This feature prevents the crystal from popping out during decompression – a weakness of the Submariner. While the Rolex ref. 1665 offers a date complication, it lacks the famous Cyclops lens. To start, this model also featured plexiglass, but Rolex later switched to sapphire crystal, making the watch even more robust. The Sea-Dweller combines the DNA of the Deepsea Special with the portability of the Submariner – at just 40 mm across, it is the perfect everyday wearer. Prices for the ref. 1665 vary quite a bit depending on the dial variety. Let’s take a closer look at the so-called “Double Red” variant with two lines of red text.  

The first Sea-Dweller ref. 1665.
The first Sea-Dweller ref. 1665.

This edition is particularly coveted among collectors and regularly sells for upwards of $55,000. On the other hand, versions with the COMEX logo are extremely rare and can reach prices between $230,000 and $600,000. The ref. 1665 also has something to offer those with more modest budgets. A standard timepiece without any special logos or lettering typically sells for around $20,000–35,000. With a bit of luck, you may even find one for less than $20,000. The Sea-Dweller is one of Rolex’s most important models to date, but the ref. 1665 is extra special. It is the watch that first carried on the spirit of the Deepsea Special. 

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About the Author

Donato Andrioli

With the purchase of my Tudor Black Bay 41, I discovered a passion for mechanical watches. I am particularly drawn to iconic watches with long and exciting histories.

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