The story of the Rolex Submariner

Alan Wood is a trusted vintage watch dealer with over 35 years of private collecting experience. After founding Vintage Gold Watches in 2011, his deep knowledge and infectious passion for mechanical timepieces earned him a highly respected reputation in the industry. Vintage Gold Watches has become a renowned dealer thanks to Alan’s expertise and skilled team of restorers. Alan’s love for vintage watches started as a young Mechanical Entrepreneur and grew into an obsession. He believes the finest watches were made in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, and he is thrilled to share them with others. 

The story of the Rolex Submariner 

The Rolex Submariner is so successful it has come to represent not just a model or brand, but the entire concept of a ‘sports watch’. From its inception in the early 1950s until today, it continues to mesmerise the masses.  

It really cannot be underestimated just how big an impact the Rolex Submariner has made on the world over the years. It is arguably the most copied watch design of all time.  

Let’s take a look at the Rolex Submariner’s history and some of its most well known and collectible references. 

The world before the Submariner 

The exhausted post-war public was in desperate need of escapism. With the drama of the space-race still a decade away, it was the undersea world that drew their imagination.  

Military technology was repurposed for leisure and the sport of scuba diving was born. The invention of the Aqualung in 1943 allowed divers to spend longer underwater. Jacques Cousteau delighted cinema audiences with his short films on subaquatic life from the mid 1940’s which culminated in 1956 with a Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for his documentary The Silent World.  

A selection of vintage Rolex watches

The divers of this pioneering period were intrepid, often reckless, mavericks and the tools they used retained a level of glamour, including their watches. It was in this market that Rolex launched their first dive watch, the Submariner. Catering not just to the adventurous aquatic explorers, but also to the hordes of wannabe divers watching on the screen.  

Rolex had been tackling the challenge of waterproofing its watches since the company’s inception, finally coming up with the famous Oyster case in 1926. This innovation turned the wristwatch into something that could be worn all-day, every day and throughout a variety of different demanding conditions. It was this waterproof case that allowed the Submariner to be born. 

A brief history 

1953 saw the first production of the Rolex Submariner but with no confirmation from Rolex itself, details of which reference came first are shrouded in the mists of time. What we do know is that ref. 6204 was launched at the 1954 Basel Watch Fair. This reference had a slim case and was rated to 200m – meaning it could be taken 200m underwater and still work perfectly (although there was no depth rating on the dial at the time).  

Later the same year, the ref. 6205 arrived with the same movement but only 100m water resistance. These early Submariner references featured 37mm steel cases, no crown guards around the winding crown, and radium-based luminescence. Unsurprisingly, these models are very rare and incredibly sought after by vintage watch collectors today. 

It appears that Rolex had been producing the ref. 6200 before the 1954 formal launch, without the Submariner name, as a test piece for scuba divers. Even the name Submariner was not fixed at this time, with Rolex registering names such as Frogman, Skin-Diver, and Dive-o-Graph. The Submariner was finally registered to the brand in the 1960s.  

Submariner Evolution 

In true Rolex fashion, the various versions of the Submariner were tweaked and improved throughout the 1950s. Ref’s 6536, 6538, 5508, & 5510 came to the market with bigger crowns and the Submariner features such as the minute markers for the first 15 minutes of the rotating bezel and the ‘Mercedes’ handset appeared across the range. 

These watches all lack the crown guards found on later models and are collectively referred to as ‘James Bond’ Submariners despite the fact that only a few references appeared on James Bond’s had quite the impact of Bond’s later ‘gadget’ ref. 5513 Submariner.  

At the close of the 1950s, Rolex began to add crown guards to Submariner cases. These evolved over time from an initial squared-end profile, through pointed ends, finally reaching their familiar rounded profile by the mid-1960s. Through the 60s and 70s, the Submariner continued to evolve with the release of ref’s 5512, 5513, & 1680.  

The ref. 5512, launched in late 1959 and was capable of chronometer-level accuracy, although this was not reflected on the dial, as is with most chronometer rated watches nowadays. The 5513 is the longest surviving Submariner reference, produced from 1962 to 1990, although the dial continued to evolve with changes to the surface coating, the luminous material, and the text layout.  

The key development of the 1960s was the addition of the Submariner Date ref. 1680. Incorporating the distinctive ‘cyclops’ lens over the date aperture as a magnifier to the new date function. The word ‘Submariner’, which was initially printed in red, was gradually (over many years) changed to white.  

The James Bond influence 

The Submariner famously made its debut in 1962 in the James Bond film Dr No, with the Reference 6538 worn by the actor Sean Connery. It went on to feature in three more Bond films throughout the 60s. This level of exposure meant that the Submariner surged in popularity, helping it to become the iconic timepiece it is today. 

Reference 5513 was also famously showcased in several 1970s James Bond films. The ‘Bond’ version with its chunky bezel captured the imagination of watch fans. More importantly, the pairing of a bulky dive watch with Bond’s trademark slick tuxedo established Rolex as a luxury brand. Just in time to compete with cheaper quartz alternatives that flooded the market during the 70s. 

Moving into the 80s and beyond 

In 1979, the Submariner underwent a major update with the introduction of Reference 16800. This represented the first use of a sapphire crystal in a Submariner, a durable scratch-resistant option that we take for granted in modern watches. The 16800 crown was upgraded to the new Triplock version, first seen on the Sea-Dweller, which allowed an increased depth rating of 300m. In the early 1980s ref. 18600 continued to be tweaked. The bezel was updated to be ‘unidirectional’, a feature so associated with the Submariner that people are amazed it only started to appear at this time.  

During the 80s, other improvements appeared as technology advanced. The luminous markers changed from tritium to Luminova, the bracelets lost their rivets and became more robust, with end-links forming a solid block, rather than just folded steel. And lug holes disappeared making changing the bracelet a little bit more tricky.  

The Submariner, being the timeless superstar that it is, continued to evolve and see references added to the line throughout the 80s and 90s and into the 21st century. New references of this time include ref. 14060, 116610, 114060 and into the new century with ref’s 126610 and 124060. 

New vs. Old 

Submariners are so highly sought-after that to buy a new retail Submariner is almost impossible unless you are an existing high-spending customer of Rolex. The waiting lists are several years long, and with only 1 million Rolexes (all models combined) manufactured every year, this won’t change any time soon. 

Vintage Rolex Submariners are easier to obtain, although still highly prized. The earlier, more rare references are the stuff of collectors’ dreams. As are the infamous James Bond references of the 60s.  

Having said that, there are quite a few vintage Submariners on the market, and whilst not the cheapest vintage Rolex models to buy, they do hold value incredibly well and steadily increase year on year. This makes them excellent investment pieces, as do all vintage Rolex models. 

When you buy a new retail watch it will go through a depreciation curve. In its first 10 years it will lose market value, before it gradually recovers, and depending on the brand and model, will start to appreciate. This is one very good reason to buy vintage over a new retail model. 

The Rolex Submariner

Vintage Rolex Submariners 

While perhaps not the model with which to start your collection, the Submariner is an iconic watch that looks set to retain its top spot as one of the most desirable vintage watches of all time. You can see here the Submariners that are currently for sale at Vintage Gold Watches. Many details affect the price of a specific piece, such as originality, condition, reference number, rarity and calibre type. 

The Rolex Submariner reference 5508, is an example of a highly desirable vintage Submariner. Produced between 1957 and 1965, the 5508 was the last Submariner to feature a small crown and no crown guards. So they are much sought-after amongst collectors as they represent the original Submariner design, as seen in the first four Bond movies. 

This particular model is in outstanding condition with original brass. One of the most exciting elements of this watch is the extremely rare ‘Exclamation Dot’ dial, whereby a small dot appears above the 6 and below the baton indices. A further rarity, contributing to its value, is the highly desirable sign of ageing in the ‘Ghost Bezel’ whereby the bezel has bleached over time from black to grey. All of these factors affect the price and make the watch an excellent investment and heirloom piece. Even though vintage Rolex prices continue to rise, we believe excellent examples such as this remain undervalued. 

If you would like to explore the vintage watch market, for Rolex Submariners or any vintage watch types, get in touch with us at Vintage Gold Watches. If we do not stock the watch you are looking for, we will be happy to explore the market and provide advice where we can. 

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