The Rolex Deep Sea Special is not the most famous Rolex tool watch in its storied collection – indeed, it might be one of the last models to roll off the tongue after you’ve named the Explorer, the Daytona, the Submariner, and more – but it’s role in the brand we know and love today shouldn’t be downplayed.
First created in 1953, the Deep Sea Special was never intended to be a consumer watch, in fact it was never available for public purchase, instead it was the testing grounds for Rolex’s pursuit of a watch that could withstand extreme atmospheric pressure. Ask any watch nerd about the DSS and they’ll tell you this was the first watch to reach more than 10,000m into the inky depths of the ocean (the clues in the name), but more than that, this was Rolex flexing its horological might – much in the same way that a Formula One car pushes the limits of internal combustion engines or the Space Race brought space travel forward by generations. It wasn’t about fitting a trend or consumer demand, it was about proving the art of the possible, and filtering this technology down into future commercial models.
The story begins with the Rolex Oyster – today one of the world’s most famous watchmaking trademarks – which began life in the early 1920s as the very first concept of the Oyster case. The invention of the Oyster case was groundbreaking – with a hermetic case, watches were now water resistant and could be worn during a number of physical and professional activities.
In 1926, Rolex English swimmer Mercedes Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster and crossed the English Channel, establishing the Oyster name.
Roll on to 1953 and Rolex had moved on from crossing the channel to crossing an even greater feat of watchmaking durability: the creation of the Deep Sea Special and its subsequent dive to 10,000 meters below sea level.
This watch would ultimately inspire Rolex to go even further, pushing the watchmaker to create the Rolex Deepsea: a watch that James Cameron wore while embarking on a record-breaking solo dive to the Mariana Trench; the deepest oceanic trench on Earth.
Rolex might have moved on from the furious research and activity of the 1950s, but this period is crucial to understanding the Swiss giant’s position as the leading tool watch manufacturer. In response to the increasing demand for waterproof watchesin the 1950s – whether it be for recreational, professional or military use – Rolex decided to further the concept of its original Oyster case.
Not just content with making watches waterproof, Rolex sought to further develop their line of underwater professional watches to withstand incredibly high pressure from the depths of the ocean – further than any of its previous models.
Most notably, this decision to innovate coincided with the launch of the Submariner in 1953, the iconic underwater tool watch for divers. Thus, Rolex contacted Professor Piccard, renowned Swiss oceanographer and engineer, to test watches during his diving experiments. Piccard accepted and Rolex engineers developed a watch fitted with a special case and a domed crystal to hold up against extreme pressure. In 1953, Rolex tested the first prototype by strapping it on to the outside of the Bathyscaphe Trieste Submersible. The watch was first tested at 1,080 meters, then submerged to 3,150 meters that same year.
Having completed initial tests, Rolex embarked on a second mission in 1960 with a second prototype, pre-testing the new model with a high pressure chamber, tweaking and constantly updating details to improve the watch. This time, the new Deep Sea Special was created to withstand the most extreme conditions, having submerged to over 10,000 meters below sea level, having completed its test in the Marina Trench, with Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh.
Rolex Deep Sea Special
According to Phillips, the first batch of a handful of pieces were used for professional testing with some being entrusted to Piccard. Following the successful deep dive in 1960, Rolex produced in the subsequent years a commemorative series such as the present watch, numbered 35, in celebration of this incredible achievement and offered to only the most distinguished science, technology and watch museums, along with the most trusted, longstanding retailers and high profile partners and executives who contributed to the development of the model.
Most notably, the Deep Sea Special, numbered 3, which was strapped to the Bathyscaphe, is currently on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC. Other museums include the Beyer Museum, London Science Museum, and Switzerland’s Piccard Museum Nyon (Switzerland), to name a few.
The present model museum-quality Rolex Deep Sea Special in stainless steel and gold with centre seconds. It was made in 1965 and has never before been publicly available for purchase. It’s one of just five of its kind to have been sold in the public sphere, with the last model sold 12 years ago.
The sheer idea of a watch that can withstand a dive of 10,000 metres is simply mind boggling
Here’s Alexandre Ghotbi, head of watches for Phillips’ Continental Europe and Middle East division, to tell you more: “The Deep Sea Special fully deserves the Special in its name, the sheer idea of a watch that can withstand a dive of 10,000 metres is simply mind boggling! However, more than the technical aspects and sheer rarity of this piece, it is its historical significance that needs to be highlighted.
“The DSS is the watch that defined what Rolex is today, it is the philosophy behind its creation that led Rolex to focus on tool watches in general and dive watches in particular. Without the Deep Sea Special there would be no Submariner or Sea Dweller as we know it. The DSS is a watch that was never available for public purchase and the arrival on the market of an example is a once in a decade event for collectors and watch aficionados to celebrate. We are humbled to have been entrusted with such an incredible piece of horological history.”
Rolex might not have invented the tool watch, but the watchmaker certainly paved the way for much of the popularity it enjoys in the modern era. You might think of the Daytona or the Submariner when you think of these highly specialised timepieces, but the Deep Sea Special is pivotal to much of the success of Rolex’s professional-grade watch lineup.
For its part, Phillips has no shortage of experience when it comes to the sale of historically important Rolexes. Back in October 2017 at its New York auction house, it sold Paul Newman’s Rolex “Paul Newman” Daytona reference 6239 for a cool $17.8m – the highest result ever achieved for any vintage wristwatch at auction – and while this present example of the Deep Sea Special won’t reach the same heady heights, you can bet your bottom dollar that competition will be high among elite watch collectors.
Rolex Deep Sea Special, numbered 35, estimate: CHF 1,200,000 to 2,400,000.
The Geneva Watch Auction XIV begins 5 November. For more information, see phillips.com/watches