Phillips to auction Rolex Deep Sea Special – and my own encounter with a real monster of the deepJason Marsden
Early November will see Phillips auction a very unusual, and not made for public, Rolex Deep Sea Special. This watch was based on the experimental Rolex that rode the outside of the Trieste bathyscaphe that, in January 1960, dove to the bottom of the Mariana Trench, some 10,900 metres deep.
Following the successful dive and survival of the Rolex (serial number 3), similar display watches were produced across the following years. These were only offered to museums, science institutes and other high importance recipients.
The model for sale this coming November in Geneva is number 35, one of only five ever known to have come up for private purchase. This watch has been up for sale at least twice before, previously passed in at a 2002 auction at which number 32 sold for 124,500 Swiss Francs. Number 35 was again later auctioned in Germany with an unknown outcome.
It is not known exactly how many display models were produced but number 47 was on display at the Marina Square Rolex Boutique, Singapore, in 2016.
Aside from the brutal mass of the domed crystal which makes a Corum Bubble look like a slim dress watch, the two tone colour scheme is most striking. This definitely closes the book on the negative feedback the two tone Rolex Sea-Dweller received upon its launch in 2019!
Whilst Rolex may have lost the space race to the Omega Speedmaster Professional (although many NASA astronauts have worn their Pepsi GMTs inside their space suits) no one can argue with Rolex’s dominance underwater.
From an engineering perspective it is much harder to make a watch that will survive the transition from one atmosphere to 1000 atmospheres, 10km below the ocean’s surface, than a watch that only sees a transition from one atmosphere to zero atmosphere and back again.
As an aside, for space use, in lieu of an escape valve, you actually want relatively weak seals to allow the easy passage of gases. Perhaps this goes some way to explain the Speedmaster’s often decried low water resistance. The more visually diver style Omega X-33 still only carries a 30m water resistance rating. A well-sealed watch may blow out a crystal under vacuum or perhaps see internal condensation form in the cold of space.
I have always had a fascination with dive watches. Growing up in the ’70s watching Jacques Cousteau, my first serious luxury watch purchase was the modern steel Omega Ploprof. Perhaps an unusual choice, but even today it remains one of my top four favourites in my collection.
Having turned down the first version of the Rolex James Cameron, the release of the updated version fixed what I considered were the flaws and suddenly I had to have it. Of course by this stage they were just about impossible to get (I had no Rolex buying history). After driving the entirety of Route 66 looking for one (that will be another article) I got the call from my local AD some three months later. This purchase justified a trip from New Zealand to Australia to save the 15% GST. It just so happened that the Australian National Maritime Museum was hosting its James Cameron- Challenging the deep exhibition whilst I was there. This exhibition featured the actual #3 Rolex Deep Sea Special from the 1960 dive (on loan from the Smithsonian Institute) as well as the 2012 Rolex Deep Sea Challenge watch. The 2012 version was attached to the exterior of James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenger vessel during his solo dive also to the bottom of the Mariana Trench on 26 March 2012. I even managed to get a very poor photo of my newly acquired Rolex James Cameron through the exhibition case along with the two ultra-deep Rolex models in the background.
It is very hard to put an estimate on how much number 35 could sell for. Whilst the cynics may say it is a display novelty watch, the story, brand and relative scarcity may see it reach a hefty price in keeping with its own physical presence. Phillips certainly have taken this view with an auction estimate of 1.2-2.4 million Swiss Francs. ($1.7-$3.5m)