Rolex Deep Sea SpecialsSeptember 30, 2021
If you’ve ever sat at home, surrounded by mountainous piles of loose undocumented cash, and wondered when you’d next get the chance at an astoundingly rare and museum-level interesting watch from Rolex, then have I got an auction listing for you. Actually, two.
That’s right, over the course of the past couple of weeks, both Phillips and Christie’s have announced that their November auctions will feature something of a holy grail among Rolex collectors – Deep Sea Specials.
Known by most dive watch nerds as the watch capable of surviving the trip to the bottom of the ocean, the Deep Sea Special was Rolex’s testbed for creating watches capable of extreme pressure. The project was started in 1953 and resulted in the progressive development of a series of prototypes based on how the watches performed at increasing depths. The total production scale is disputed, but most generally agree that between five and eight prototypes were made and Rolex later created a run of 35 celebratory display examples, which were originally not offered for sale but rather for exhibition in boutiques and museums.
While only three of the early prototypes have ever surfaced (No.1, No.3, and No.5), the original goal was straightforward: To make a watch that could travel to the bottom of the ocean. Now, that is easier said than done, especially as humans can’t simply dive that deep, or really anywhere close (we’re talking in excess of 10,900 meters, or more than 35,000 feet underwater).
Think about that for a moment. If you could stand at the bottom, the distance to the surface is similar to the height of a cruising commercial jet. Want to feel it more? Try more than 6.7 miles. Straight up.
Rolex being, well … Rolex, found a submarine, the Bathyscaphe Trieste, and strapped the watch to the outside of the sub’s observation tower and bid its two-man crew bon voyage. Now one does not just head for the bottom of the ocean on the first outing, and the development of the diving profile (along with the Deep Sea Special) was based on several stages of depth over a window of time, from 1953-1960.
For its most famous dive, the Trieste was crewed by US Navy Lieutenant Don Walsh and Swiss oceanographer Jacques Piccard, and would eventually reach a maximum depth of 10,908 meters (35,787 feet) on the 23rd of January 1960, but that’s the third act of this story, as the diving actually started in 1953.
First, they dove off of Capri to 1,080 meters, then on September 30, 1953, the Trieste hit 3,150 meters (remember this dive). Later, while diving south of Ponza Island in October of 1956, they hit ~3,700 meters. In 1960, Piccard and Walsh made two more plunging deep dives, one to 7,300 meters, and then the record-setting dive on Challenger Deep (the deepest known point in the world’s oceans, located off of Guam) to a depth of 10,908 meters.
For these aforementioned dives, there was a Rolex strapped to the outside of the Trieste, but it wasn’t the same watch for all of these divers. That’s where the Christie’s sale comes in …
The Rolex Deep Sea Special No. 1 Being Offered by Christie’s
Look, I know that reference numbers and such can be confusing, but “No.1” should be pretty clear, no? In a sale taking place on November 8th, 2021 in Geneva, Christie’s is offering the first example of the Deep Sea Special and it’s a watch that accompanied the Trieste on the 1,080- and 3,150-meter dives in 1953. Like, the actual watch. Following the deepest dive of 1953, Piccard is known to have telegraphed Rolex in Geneva to report “Watch performed perfectly. Depth 3150 meters Piccard.”
In the more modern context, it’s a watch that we at HODINKEE (and Christie’s) know pretty well, as this is the Deep Sea Special seen in Reza Ali Rashidain’s episode of Talking Watches – and it’s a watch that he bought from Christie’s in 2005 for a then-impressive $322,400. Like the other documented examples, it uses a Rolex automatic caliber 1000 and is running, wearable, and rocking a caseback proudly showing “Rolex Oyster No. 1 Deep Sea Special,”
Highlighted as part of Rashidian’s collection in John Goldberger’s book A Journey Into The Deep, the Rolex Deep Sea Special No. 1 is a so-called “MKI” example of the Deep Sea Special as it has the “low glass” spec crystal. I know, it’s hilarious if you look at the photos, but the No. 1 is essentially the ultra-thin version of the Deep Sea Special (and features a different crown and crown ring design).
On the idea of No. 1 actually bearing wearable, I had my doubts. But, on a recent phone call, Reza Ali Rashidian assured me that over the nearly 17 years that he’s owned the watch he frequently wore it, even just out for lunch. He compared it to being easier on wrist than many modern large watches.
Later examples – the MKII – benefited from what Rolex learned during the early dives and had been modified with a much thicker crystal (dubbed “high glass”) to deal with all of that pressure. Deep Sea Special No. 3, the watch that was actually used on the record-setting Challenger Deep dive and is currently housed at the Smithsonian Institution, looks quite a bit different from the MKI examples, with its “high glass” and a white dial.
Unable to fight my curiosity, I asked Reza why he wanted to sell such a special watch and he laughed while paraphrasing the famous Patek Philippe ads saying “You never really own a Deep Sea Special … but I’ve been a custodian of it for nearly 17 years and it’s time for someone else to care for it.”
But this is where it started, and it was used in the field, and it comes from a well-known entity within the world of super high-end Rolex collectors. That said, if you think you have a chance at getting No. 1 for anywhere near the 2005 price, you’re out of your damn mind.
In terms of watch collecting, 2005 was an entirely different era. Same bits and bobs, sure, but an entirely different level of attention and free-moving wealth. If you need a hint, Christie’s does not list an estimate for the Deep Sea Special No. 1 and in 2009 (just as the watch internet was starting to heat up) they sold No. 31 of the display examples for roughly $435,000 (or ~$555,000 in today’s USD, factoring for inflation).
May the odds be ever in your favor, but, if they aren’t, the folks at Phillips are offering their own Deep Sea Special, a display example, at their sale in Geneva just days before Christie’s will sell No. 1. But, naming aside, it’s rather a different thing.
Remember how I mentioned that Rolex made 35 display models of the Deep Sea Special? Well, Phillips has managed to source No. 35 of the run examples and it looks to be in lovely condition.
Carrying a pre-auction estimate of CHF 1,200,000 – 2,400,000, it’s worth considering that a guide price for a sale such as this is very difficult to predict. These are very rarely available at public sale and are, let’s be clear, exceedingly rare watches to begin with (we’re talking 35 possible examples, at most, with far fewer having surfaced in recent years).
No. 35 is said to have been produced in 1965 and, along with being kept for a time by a museum in Germany, it was also offered for sale by Antiquorum in 2002. This example uses the “high glass” spec that is even thicker than the already comically thick “low glass” No. 1 mentioned above. That extra thickness helps to ensure a depth rating of 10 kilometers, which is some 33 times the ability of a modern Rolex Submariner. Also of note, and kindly confirmed by Phillips, is that No. 35 is fitted with a Rolex caliber 1570 that has had its winding rotor removed (presumably for fit). Also, note the caseback, which is different in both design and engraving from what was established by No. 1, showing the date and record depth along with the production number, but no mention of “Deep Sea Special” or the Rolex coronet.
Like the waters at the bottom of the ocean, the Deep Sea Special backstory is still somewhat murky at depth and it’s important to understand that these watches – No. 1 and No. 35 – are similar, but not the same. For the original prototype Deep Seas Specials, we’re talking about real running watches with record-breaking deep-diving acumen.
Conversely, while still exceedingly special, rare, and eminently collectible, the display models are more like trophies to celebrate the success of the Deep Sea Special program, as such, some are said to have been delivered without movements, and others have surfaced with automatic movements, like the Rolex 1030 or even later movements like the caliber 1570 (which is what we see in No. 35). If you want to go even deeper (sorry) on the Deep Sea Special story, I recommend you start with this fantastic post from The Rolex Passion Report.
For context, I would offer this comparison to Omega Speedmasters. Deep Sea Special No. 1 is like Speedmaster with Apollo mission provenance. No. 3 – that’s the one that is in the Smithsonian – is like a Speedmaster that was actually worn on the moon. No. 35 is loosely more like the solid gold Speedmaster BA145.022, which was a special 1,014-piece edition made for VIPs and NASA astronauts. While certainly much much more rare and important, Deep Sea Special No. 35 is a commemorative model that celebrates the successes of the program that took the Deep Sea Special to the lowest point on Earth.
Phillips is offering No. 35 as part of their Geneva Watch Auction: XIV that will take place November 5-7 of this year. Those curious about either of these astoundingly collectible watches should mark their calendars.
As a piece of Rolex history and as an early touchpoint in the development of the Oyster case, the Deep Sea Special is a watch designed to find a very specific edge and then survive the return home. It’s a glowing tribute to the mid-century cult of technological advancement, post-war possibility, and it’s the keystone of Rolex’s sporty DNA, one that continues to be endlessly appealing, perhaps never more than today.
According to Phillips, no more than five such Deep Sea Special examples have ever been sold at a public level, so this fall’s auctions represent a rare opportunity for no more than two people (maybe one, if they’re nasty) to join a legitimately rare club that is able to say they own the primordial Submariner – one of the deepest, gnarliest, old-school-est, deepest-diving, thick as the day is long, building blocks of one of the most widely known and respected companies in the world.
And the Rolex Deep Sea Special is all that – and more – without actually being a dive watch. There’s no bezel, no water ingress marker, no lasting lume, no case in which such engineering would be needed for SCUBA or even advanced tech diving. For crying out loud, you can barely put a “high crystal” Deep Sea Special on your wrist, let alone show it a good time underwater.
In one of the press releases for the upcoming sale, the auction house compared the Rolex Deep Sea Special to a Formula One car, in that it was the development bed for technology that would trickle down to consumer-grade product for years (aka, Rolex Submariners, or really anything with an Oyster case). I suppose that’s close enough to being correct, but in looking at the upcoming sales, the Deep Sea Special may be more like a Formula One car than they expected.
As a pinnacle of engineering and human development, having a Deep Sea Special today is a lot like owning a Formula One car that has aged out of relevance in the sport. It’s an icon of achievement in a time that is no longer of use to the modern zeitgeist. As such, many owners don’t drive the cars as much as they keep them like ultimate memorabilia.
Much like we’ve lost our collective taste for manual gearboxes, aluminum space frames, and roaring V10s, the world is, by and large, less interested in what lies 35,000 ft under the ocean. The eras of Cousteau, Piccard, and Gimbel have faded in a fashion similar to the eras of Moss, Prost, and Senna.
With a running period-raced vintage Formula One car (analogous to Deep Sea Special No. 1) you could take it to an event and do a few parade laps or show it off at a truly special event like the Historic Grand Prix of Monaco, but what is the watch-collecting equivalent? Wearing your Deep Sea Special during your nightly warm bath?
Thankfully, for those with the inclination to care (and read this far into such a story), both the toolish prototypes and the trophy-like display models have endured. And they remain as a reminder of past glory and outright achievement in the face of little more than a “why not” attitude and no small measure of bravery.
While these are watches I’d sooner see at an exhibit than ever hope to own in the traditional sense, this is museum-level watch collecting, and only the dutifully provenanced and meticulously cared-for play at this level, and the cash speaks for itself.