People who follow Perezcope know how passionate I am about early Rolex Sea-Dwellers. To learn more about the amazing history surrounding these watches, I went great lengths and visited Bob Barth – the great American diving legend (US Navy SEALAB) – at his home in Panama City, Florida in October 2017.
The earliest version of the Sea-Dweller, the so-called Single Red Sea-Dweller, is a rare breed that does not come to light very often. Therefore it is my great pleasure to present what Phillips has announced for their upcoming The Geneva Auction: Eight that will take place on Nov. 10-11, 2018.
Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665, 1602913
Dial: Sea-Dweller (red), Submariner 500 m – 1650 ft, SCOC
Case number: 1602913
This is a magnificent Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller Ref. 1665 with the earliest case number registered in my database. One of less than 15 examples that have surfaced so far! This amazing piece of Rolex history is the true star of the upcoming auction in my opinion.
This watch comes with an amazing provenance. The original owner of this ultra rare beast was none other than the famous Deepstar 4000 pilot Robert Palmer Bradley, short Bob Bradley.
R. Frank Busby, the author of “Manned Submersibles”, dedicated his book to Bob Bradley. “Manned Submersibles” is considered to be the bible of manned research submersibles.
This historically important professional Rolex diving tool watch was published in two of John Goldberger’s books. In 100 Superlative Rolex Watches and Goldberger’s latest publication A Journey Into The Deep, which will be available from Dec. 2018 onwards.
The history of the Single Red Sea-Dweller has not been fully revealed yet but it can be assumed that when the feasibility of putting people for several days on the ocean floor was proven by Jacques Cousteau and Dr. George F. Bond (US Navy) in the early 1960s, Rolex began working on a super diving watch that could withstand even greater depths than the Submariner.
The Single Red was an uber Submariner featuring an incredible depth rating of 1,650 ft/500 m. On later badges of the Sea-Dweller – the so-called Double Red Sea-Dweller – the depth rating was increased to 2,000 ft/610 m.
The next picture shows a detail of Bob Bradley’s Single Red Sea-Dweller Mark 0 dial. Did you notice the “Date” is written in larger letters? The date complication was an important feature of these watches. This dial is simply breathtaking!
Diving was no longer just a matter of minutes (max. 5 minutes at 200 ft/60 m), limited by the use of compressed air. In addition, dives beyond 165 ft/50 m were not recommended due to high risk of Nitrogen Narcosis, which would cause divers to lose consciousness and drown.
Thanks to new scientific developments and special breathing mixtures, the divers were now enabled to remain at great depths during days or even weeks, while living in so-called underwater habitats. To help them stay connected with life on the surface, Rolex equipped the Sea-Dweller with a date complication. The name Sea-Dweller originated from the very fact that these early saturation divers would literally “dwell” at the bottom of the sea for a prolongued period of time.
Saturation diving allows divers to work at deep ocean pressure, down to 2300 feet/700 meters (Comex world record). To do this, divers are placed in chambers which increase the pressure on their bodies until it equals that of the ocean floor. To avoid Nitrogen Narcosis, which occurs at a certain pressure while breathing normal air, the divers are required to breath a special gas mixture consisting of high amounts of helium. Beyond the 1000 ft/300 m mark, hydrogen is added to avoid the High-Pressure Nervous Syndrom.
The divers are then lowered to the bottom by a diving bell. When they have finished work for the day, they return to rest in the pressurized chamber. When their work is completely finished, the chamber slowly reduces the pressure (decompression) on their bodies until it again matches the surface atmosphere.
During the decompression process in these early stages of saturation diving, it occured that certain watches literally exploded. Helium slowly made its way into the watch through the rubber gaskets during the long stay at the bottom but could not escape fast enough as the watch went through the decompression process, thus expanding within the watch and causing the crystals to pop.
The inception for the Single Red Sea-Dweller began before the watchmakers became aware of these issues.
Bob Barth was one of the US Navy pioneers in saturation diving. When he became aware of this problem around 1964/65 during SEALAB 1 & 2, he came up with the idea of a one-way valve, which would release the trapped helium gas. His idea reached Rolex in Geneva via T. Walker Lloyd, who was a diver buddy of Bob Barth and as a result of this episode was offered a job as oceanographic consultant at Rolex.
The gas escape valve was a quick fix that saved Rolex from the pain of having to develop a completely new watch.
Omega on the other hand, who started working on their own super diving watch around the same time, developed a completely new concept which did not require a valve. The crystal was “clamped” between the watch case and the bezel. It is said that Omega’s so-called Ploprofs (Plongeur Professional = professional diver) were also air-tight, apart from water-tight, and thus not letting helium in in the first place.
Coming back to the Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller, some of the surfaced examples do have a valve, but the majority do not. Bob Bradley’s Single Red is one of the watches without valve.
Robert Palmer Bradley was born on Sept. 3, 1930. He enroled in the US Navy and became a fighter pilot. An injury forced him to retire from flying. Bob had a pioneer’s sense of adventure and was deeply interested in the Ocean. He graduated in marine biology and soon became a commercial diver for Westinghouse, an American company that had established themselves as a leader in commercial saturation diving thanks to their Cachalot Saturation Diving Systen.
Westinghouse later offered him the job as pilot of the Deepstar 4000, a submersible vehicle designed by none other than Jacques Cousteau and built by Westinghouse. Deepstar 4000 was the first commercial vehicle to become Navy-certified according to certifying procedures instituted by the Navy in 1966.
The Deepstar 4000 submersible was able to dive to 4000 feet/1200 meters with a crew of up to three people.
This project was so groundbreaking, Rolex mentioned it in one of their Submariner advertisments from 1968 (according to Jake’s Rolex World). Bob Bradley is possibly one of the divers in this picture.
In Nov. 1968, during a ceremony to commemorate the 500th successful dive of the Deepstar 4000 submersible at the famous Kona Kai Club in San Diego, Westinghouse and Rolex USA presented the Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller to Bob Bradley.
The following picture captured the very moment Bob was handed over the green Rolex box.
R. Frank Busby’s book confirms 500 dives of the Deepstar 4000 by June 1968:
“In June 1966 Westinghouse Corporation’s DEEPSTAR 4000 (Fig. 3.19) began a diving program for NEL that continued into the spring of 1968 and covered not only the east and west coasts of the U.S., but Central America as well. Including a Westinghouse-financed series of 11 dives in project GULFVIEW in the Gulf of Mexico (33), DEEPSTAR 4000 conducted some 500 dives from June 1966 through June 1968. It is significant that this contract would be the longest Navy lease given to any privately- owned submersible to the date of this publi- cation; the total contract amounted to $2,- 142,155 (34).”
R. Frank Busby – Manned Submersibles, page 53
Office of the Oceanographer of the Navy (1976)
Download: Excerpt Manned Submersibles (page 53)
The caseback of Bradley’s Sea-Dweller was engraved with his name and the date of the ceremony.
These watches were equipped with a Rolex 1570 caliber. The inside of the caseback bears the typical Rolex hallmarks. II.67 refers to the second quarter of 1967. The many watchmaker marks show that the watch was regularly serviced.
Jake Ehrlich from Rolexmagazine.com found this amazing footage from February 1969, where Deepstar 4000 was used to observe the final stages of the lowering and actual touch down of the SEALAB 3 habitat on the ocean floor off San Clemente Island, California. (15:15)
The presence of Deepstar 4000 at the site of SEALAB 3 is further evidence that in those early days of saturation diving, teams of SEALAB, Jacques Cousteau and Westinghouse were closely working together.
Jacques Cousteau’s son, Philippe Cousteau, was a crew member of SEALAB 3.
When the SEALAB 3 habitat reached the ocean floor, the pressure on the inside began to drop. Gas was leaking from the habitat. Bob Barth and Berry L. Cannon were pressurized faster than usual and sent down to stop the leaks. During the second attempt at saving the habitat, Berry L. Cannon died due to a malfunction of his breathing apparatus. SEALAB 3 was abortet.
Deepstar 4000 and its pilot Bob Bradley were mentioned in a newspaper article from June 8, 1969.
Wichita Falls Times (Newspaper) – June 8, 1969
By ROBERT M. BURNETT Associated Press Writer
SAN DIEGO, Calif. (AP)
Writer Goes For A Dive In A Research Submarine
Oceanographic research, in developing the deep diving submersible, also has produced the world’s quickest cure for sea-sickness.
Seconds after the undersea craft drops away from the surface, wave motion ceases and that queasy feeling is forgotten. There is no sense of motion as the Deepstar—4000 descends in a spiral on its way to the ocean floor. Only the flow of sea life past the viewing ports reveals the craft’s progress.
At 100 feet, the water is blue green. Visibility is limited by sea life and other matter. The color turns to dark green at 200 feet. At 300 feet, the darkness is complete.
It’s no place for a fat man or a claustrophobiac.
The crew compartment, a seven-foot steel ball, is crammed with electronic equipment, oxygen tanks and other machinery. Add three persons and the situation becomes cozy.
Pilot Bob Bradley slowed the craft’s descent as it neared the bottom at 600 feet. The ocean floor loomed, through the murky water.
The gray, flat bottom stretched out into the darkness. Huge sea anemones stand like ghostly white palms in a desert of mud.
“There’s no plant life below 200 feet because of the lack of sunlight,” Bradley explains.
Fish, too, were few. Thoughts, primarily concerning the presence of 600 feet of water overhead, flit through the mind.
“It’s a good place to get away from the smog.” commented Bradley.
Evidence of man’s passage was evident, even several miles from shore.
A white bowl, pipes, machinery, cables, buckets and other junk from passing ships littered the bottom.
The Deepstar, developed by Westinghouse, is capable ot dives to 4,000 feet and has made more than 500 operational dives.
It has an oxygen supply good for 48 hours and numerous safety devices designed to get it back to the surface in case of problems, information of comfort to the neophyte voyager to the bottom of the sea.
Download: Newspaper article Wichita Fall Times, June 8, 1969
It is said that Bob Bradley and Jacques Cousteau were close friends and worked together on numerous projects. After his time at Westinghouse, Bob became as a submersible pilot for International Hydronamics, a company founded by three commercial divers in Vancouver, Canada.
Their submersibles of the Pisces class were specially built for the rough conditions of the Arctic and North Sea.
International Hydronamics had a contract with the US Navy to retrieve lost torpedos.
Bob Bradley later started his own company named Arctic Marine, also in Vancouver. Together with International Hydronamics, he reconfigured an existing submersible named Paulo 1 into the Sea Otter, a submersible capable of descending to 1500 feet.
In early 1973, the Sea Otter was finally ready to be deployed for its first serious mission.
On Nov. 28, 1973, Bob Bradley lost his life in a tragic diving accident at 219 feet in the Douglas Channel near Kitimat in British Columbia, Canada. According to Bradley’s son Chris Bradley, the day his father died, was the first time he dove without his trusted Rolex Sea-Dweller, as the watch was being serviced.
R. Frank Busy, the author of Manned Submersibles, dedicated his book to Bob Bradly:
“Had I the chance to peel away the years and once again decide which path to follow, it would be towards the sea. I would do this for two reasons: Because it is a most intriguing subject and the most intriguing people are met on and under its surface. Bob Bradley was, what I can only call, a delight and a rare privilege to know. He possessed a sharp, sly sense of humor, a pioneer’s sense of adventure and displayed a scholar’s interest in the oceans. Naval aviator, commercial diver, submersible pilot and graduate in marine biology are not credentials one would expect from a son of the prairies. But in a quiet, certain, almost casual manner, Bob dealt as easily with the deed oceans as he would have the wheatfields of his native Kansas. He was quick to befriend, perhaps too quick, for the waters he felt he knew and understood claimed his life at 219 feet in Douglas Channel, British Columbia. I miss him: so do other friends he left. In a very real sense, an earlier pioneer of the deep oceans. William Beebe described our loss.
“When the last individual of a race of living things breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again.”
I think this speaks for itself. The importance of this diving tool watch cannot be stressed enough. A collectible of this caliber belongs in the most exclusive watch collection.
If you are interested in further information about these amazing watches, in August 2017, I put together all Rolex Single Red Sea-Dwellers I could find.
Read more: All Single Red Sea-Dwellers, Side-by-side
My article was featured twice on Hodinkee:
Read more: Understanding The Rolex Sea-Dweller
History of the Rolex Sea-Dweller
The Rolex Single Red Sea-Dweller plays a central role in the history of professional Rolex diving tool watches. The following infographic shows this model in its historical context.
This graphic is available as a high quality print in two sizes:
- Regular small, 120cm x 68cm (47 x 26 inch): EUR 85.00 (plus shipping)
- Regular, 150cm x 85cm (59 x 33 inch): EUR 120.00 (plus shipping)
Limited: 50 pieces, numbered and signed by Bob Barth, the legendary US Navy Aquanaut who pioneered saturation diving during the famous SEALAB missions. Bob developed the idea for the Rolex Gas Escape Valve: EUR 350.00 (plus shipping). A part of the selling price goes directly to Bob.
Avalable numbers: 19, 22, 32, 35, 45
More information: The history of the Rolex Sea-Dweller at a glance