Head to Head: Rolex Sky-Dweller VS Rolex Yacht-Master II
by Owen Davies ; @86imaging | October 06, 2017
We’ve gone all-gold in this month’s head-to-head. I’m taking a closer look at two literal heavyweight Rolex watches firmly in the high-end luxury sports bracket. The Sky-Dweller and the Yacht-Master II in 18k yellow gold have a presence like few other watches, but if you were in the market for a serious gold Rolex, which one of these is the right choice and why?
I’m aiming to find out by comparing them over three different categories: design, movement and wearability. The winner, and also my recommendation, will be the watch with the best score out of three rounds.
The Yacht-Master II, as its name suggests, is designed to be used on the water and has purpose-built features for competitive sailors. The brilliant white dial combined with blue hands offers plenty of contrast for legibility and the gold-edged hour markers and small-second dial add a touch of luxury to proceedings.
However, the most noticeable features of the Yacht-Master II are the very elements that separate it from the other ocean-faring watches in the Rolex range. The royal blue cerachrom bezel and 0-to-10 countdown track are for use during regatta races, where competitors are given a 10-minute warning before the race begins. The complication is essentially a programmable 10-minute flyback chronograph, which sounds somewhat more complicated than it is and is something I’ll get into later. From a visual standpoint though, it’s what makes the Yachtmaster II unique in the Rolex lineup and nicely contrasts the colour of ether steel (or in this case yellow gold). I think Rolex has also done a great job keeping the dial as clutter free as possible considering the amount of information on display.
Elsewhere the Yacht-Master II is based on the trusty Oyster case and fitted with the Oyster bracelet, but can be considered the super-sized version at 44 mm in diameter. The chronograph pushers have a nice rounded design to them, but lack the screw-down locks that the Daytona has. Finally, we come to the most obvious design element of this watch and that is gold. Lots of gold.
In terms of practicality, there is no reason for the Yacht-Master to come in gold. It’s a soft metal and the mirror polish finishing on the watch leaves it susceptible to dents and scratches, particularly if you’re running around the deck of a yacht during a regatta. From a visual standpoint though, the 18k yellow gold used in this watch is simply stunning. Rolex have their own foundry for creating all of their gold alloys (yellow, rose and white) and apply their renowned meticulous standards to the quality and colour of the metal.
As hard as I’ve tried, my images of the watch don’t do the finish justice. Rolex has managed to form the case out of solid gold whilst still maintaining the sturdy machined feel and sharpness of the stainless steel version. The gold really does shimmer as the light moves across the case and all thoughts of practicality are quickly thrown overboard.
Like all Rolex watches, the Sky-Dweller is designed for a purpose, allowing frequent travellers to track two time zones. Where it differs from the GMT Master II is that the Sky-Dweller can display both of these time zones simultaneously and in real-time. At first glance, the watch looks like an oversized Day-Date with a large Oyster case and fluted bezel, but it’s easily given away by its unique dial. The large numeral hour markers and offset white ring make the Sky-Dweller stand out from other models in the range and offer fantastic legibility at a glance.
A more subtle addition and one that a lot of people miss is the annual calendar complication included in the Sky-Dweller. Around the outside of each hour marker is a small rectangle that fills in black to denote the month of the year. The rectangles not in use are finished in the same colour as the dial, blending in and creating more space. The extra space makes the dial feel a lot less cluttered than a more traditional annual calendar watch, let alone one with a second time display built in and it’s a truly innovative piece of engineering and design from Rolex.
Like the Yacht-Master II, the Sky-Dweller I’m reviewing is finished in the same 18k yellow gold alloy and is all the more striking for it. I could see some people finding it a little overbearing, so thankfully Rolex also offers the watch on a leather strap to tone things down a little.
These are two unashamedly bold watches that each have their own unique design touches and subsequent fan bases. I personally prefer the layout of the Sky-Dweller dial and the slightly smaller size, making it my winner in the design category.
The Sky-Dweller is powered by the Rolex calibre 9001 which is one of the most complicated movements ever made by the company. It is (of course) a fully in-house made calibre and was created specifically for the Sky-Dweller. Rolex aren’t known for making watches with complications, so for them to produce a watch with a date display, second time zone and an annual calendar was huge news when the watch was announced in 2012. The 9001 has a power reserve of 72 hours, a frequency of 28,800hz and like all Rolex perpetual movements, it’s COSC certified.
The Yacht-Master II is a little less complicated than the Sky-Dweller, but still boasts some impressive technology in comparison to other watches in the Rolex range. It’s powered by the Rolex calibre 4161 movement, which like the 9001 has a power reserve of 72 hours and is COSC certified. The 4161 features what is effectively a flyback chronograph complication in the Regatta timer and reportedly took Rolex 35,000 hours to develop—one of the patented functions comprises of 360 components alone!
Both of these watches have sophisticated movements that have been specifically developed to power their unique features. As with all Rolex watches, the calibres are produced in-house and are among the most reliable and accurate movements in the mechanical watch industry.
With that in mind, I can’t call an outright winner on this one. Both watches are designed for specific uses and therefore have the complications suited for their purpose. The annual calendar in the Sky-Dweller is amazing, but it just wouldn’t make sense in the Yacht-Master II (likewise a flyback chronograph in the former). I think it would be unfair to call a winner here, so I’m declaring a draw!
Wearability & Functionality
Let me start this section by saying that from a practicality standpoint, yellow gold would not be top of my list. It’s considerably softer than stainless steel and weighs significantly more. If you’re looking for a wearable watch that will take a bit of rough treatment, the precious metal Rolex watches are not the best choice.
As I mentioned earlier though, that consideration goes out of the window as soon as you see the watch in the flesh and your face resembles Vincent Vega's from the briefcase scene in Pulp Fiction (link for the uninitiated). So the following comparison takes into consideration that if you’re looking to purchase one of these watches, you’re most likely already aware of the aforementioned facts and don’t mind one bit.
Starting with the Yacht-Master, the brilliant white dial is highly legible and displays all the necessary information at a glance—even if you’re aboard a speeding boat. The regatta timer display is also very clear with the red outlined arrow clearly pointing to the current minute in the countdown timer.
The operation of the watch is quite unique to the Yacht-Master as it uses a ring command system to set the regatta timer. The user first rotates the bezel 90 degrees to the left and then presses the reset pusher so it remains depressed. The crown then needs to be unscrewed to the first position where it can then be turned to set the required number of minutes for the countdown timer (between 1 and 10). Once the minutes have been selected, the bezel can be rotated back to the initial position, resetting the pusher. Simply screw the crown back in to ensure water resistance and the timer can be started (and stopped) with the top pusher. The timer can also be reset on the fly to synchronise with another time source. This is the flyback function and it can be operated by pushing the reset pusher whilst the timer is counting down.
The really clever thing about this is that if the currently timed minute has gone over 30 seconds, re-synching will advance the minute counter onto the next to ensure complete accuracy. The time and date are changed in the traditional way once the bezel is returned to its usual orientation and are nice and quick to set.
On the wrist, the Yacht-Master II is obviously heavy, but comfortable. The Oyster case and strap are thankfully as good to wear in gold as they are in steel, which is testament to Rolex’s manufacturing processes and quality control. The deployant clasp features a double-lock to ensure the watch stays on your wrist and can be micro-adjusted to suit weather conditions.
The Sky-Dweller is not quite as legible as the Yacht-Master in the Champagne dial variant I tested, but the numerals are well spaced and can be read at a quick glance. I also love the integration of the annual calendar into the dial and think it’s probably one of the most innovative ways of displaying the information I’ve seen in a watch.
The Sky-Dweller also has a ring command system to operate the watch, but unlike the Yacht-Master, it is used to set all of the functions. The bezel has four selectable positions that change the operation of the crown. The neutral position allows the movement to be wound manually—particularly useful if the watch hasn’t been worn for some time. Position 1 allows for the date and annual calendar month to be set. Position 2 sets the local time via the jumping hour hand, much like the GMT Master II. Finally, position 3 allows for the reference time—i.e. the minute hand and 24-hour disc—to be set.
It takes a little getting used to, but I really like the functionality of the Sky-Dweller and much prefer it to pulling out fiddly crowns to do the same thing. The tactile feedback from the bezel as it snaps into the next position is really satisfying and honestly, just feels like a cool way to set the watch. Bravo Rolex!
On the wrist, the Sky-Dweller is much the same to wear as the Yacht-Master II. The Oyster case and bracelet are very comfortable and the slightly smaller width and height of the case make it a little less scary to wear around hard surfaces and doorways. My only criticism would be the deployant clasp only having one lock stage. For a watch in precious metals I would really like to have the extra level of security the twin lock system offers and I’m unsure as to why Rolex don’t include it in this model.
This was a difficult category to pick a winner in. Both of the watches have fantastic ways of operating and are very comfortable to wear. I was certainly seduced by the satisfying heft of the gold case and bracelet and would be happy owning either watch.
Still, I think it would be a bit cowardly of me to call another draw and to be honest, I preferred the way the Sky-Dweller wore on my wrist and in my day-to-day life an annual calendar and second time zone are more useful features to me than a chronograph timer.
The winner in this all-gold showdown with two wins to one is the Rolex Sky-Dweller. I love the overall design of the watch, coupled with the fantastic movement and unique way of operating its functions. The Yacht-Master is great in its own right, but I think it’s a little more niche than the Sky-Dweller. I’d say that those wanting a chronograph Rolex, but not needing the regatta timing function, would be better choosing the Daytona in a precious metal.
For more analysis and opinion on these watches and other Rolex models, follow our magazine, or for more pictures, prices and options try our pre-owned Rolex catalogue.