The historical importance and undeniable lore of the Submariner are rooted in two truths. First, it boasts objectively good form and function. Second, like the NFL’s #12 jersey, a long line of great men have donned it, mutually cinching the quality of the watch and the wearer.
Born in 1953 after three years of development, reference 6204 debuted at 1954’s Baselworld as the first timepiece in history with water resistance at 100m. Rolex’s MVP continues to rack up championships since then. Today, we’re going to explore this evolution through the history of the Rolex Submariner. By looking at this icon’s references over time, we’ll see how Rolex’s focus on functionality made the Submariner the most famous watch in the world. Here is a quick primer on the rich history of the Rolex Submariner.
The Rolex Submariner’s precursors
Rolex was unknowingly building the Submariner for decades before its debut. In a way, the Sub is an assemblage of the crown’s best practices since 1926, when they introduced the Rolex Oyster. It was the world’s first waterproof watch, worn by Mercedes Gleitze during a 1927 swim across the English channel. The path to the Submariner continued in 1931 when Rolex leveled up the Oyster with a patented perpetual rotor, a self-winding mechanism.
While the waterproof Oyster is the Sub’s forefather, the Rolex Turn-O-Graph, reference 6202, is the missing link. The Turn-O-Graph came out in 1953, and is considered a precursor to other Rolex lines as well. It was essentially an Oyster Date, just souped up with a rotating bezel, which was first used by Rolex on reference 3346 in 1937.
With most of the template there, all Rolex needed to do was improve the watch’s water resistance. After three years of production and testing, the Submariner came out, standing on the shoulders of giants. At $150 though, this dive innovation was meant for every kind of guy.
The History of the First Rolex Submariners
Men of your grandfather’s generation would fully recognize the Submariners of your generation. The original reference 6204 has the same design language as today’s Sub. Its crisp-clicking bezel features a triangular 60-minute marker. The hour indices are batons for 3, 6, and 9, a triangle for 12, and bubbles for the rest. And just like most of today’s standard Submariners, it has a recognizable black dial. The 6204’s case was 37mm, which is much smaller than current Submariners, but was the standard in the ‘50s.
In 1954, more 6200 references introduced the iconic Mercedes hand on a gilt dial. Uniquely, reference 6205 features a “clean-dial” version, and lacks the “Submariner” appellate on the face. Save for a few quirky turns, like versions with Explorer-style Arabic numerals (now highly coveted) and some of-its-time solid-gold constructions, the Submariner’s evolution was mostly practical and well-calculated.
In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, the small-crowned 6536 duked it out with its big-crowned brother, reference 6538, for dominance. The “Big Crown Submariner” took control of the pride. Maybe it was because the bigger crown was easier to use, or maybe it was the sight of the big crown on the wrist of the world’s most famous fictional, martini-sipping spy.
Submariner History: Timeless yet evolving design
Other important developments include reference 5512, which feature crown guards and a bumped-up case size of 40mm. Reference 1680 gains the controversial date window that Rolex’s more robust, less practical Sea-Dweller was already equipped with. Despite how polarizing this development is even today, the date version outpaced the original in sales. The Submariner Date is so popular, it often gets mistaken for the standard version, with people referring to the actual standard as the “Submariner No-Date.”
Bucking trends and into the modern era
The Submariner remained honorably conservative in the ‘80s, which was a funny time for watches. First, the quartz movement caused sales of mechanical watches to plummet in the ‘70s. Because of this, heritage brands were thoroughly spooked by the time President Reagan rolled around. Second, every Wall Streeter was in competition for the biggest, loudest, and most unique timepiece, which caused an identity crisis with some traditional models.
Competitor Omega Seamaster experimented with several fashion-focused trends to the point of being unrecognizable. It only came back to the light in the ‘90s, with some help from Pierce Brosnan’s Bond. Conversely, in the ‘80s, the Sub focused mostly on upgrades in function and construction.
The accumulation of these superior functions is seen in today’s 41mm Submariner: A sapphire crystal, a unidirectional bezel, and Rolex’s patented Triplock crown which ups the water resistance to 300m.
The scratch-resistant Cerachrom bezel is an important modern innovation. Since it’s impervious to ultraviolet rays, its unearthly vibrance will last forever. As of 2020, Subs run on the in-house 3230 and 3235 movements, which feature yet another innovation. The blue Parachrom hairspring is 10 times more precise than standard hairsprings. And naturally, all modern Rolex watches are COSC-certified chronometers, meaning they’re subjected to several tests for accuracy, precision, and stresses by The Official Swiss Chronometer Testing Institute.
The Rolex Submariner Club
Legendary men not only rocked this tool watch, but helped develop it. Rolex founder Hans Wildorf focused on wristwatches in an era of pocket watches and was fixated on waterproofing. In a way, this makes the Submariner the Rolex brand’s True North. Additionally, René-Paul Jeanneret, a French scuba diver and friend of Jacques Cousteau, was a member of the Rolex Board of Directors in the ‘50s. He was the one who convinced fellow board members to support the development of the Submariner.
Jacques Cousteau himself was known to wear a Submariner on his acclaimed ocean adventures. Even more fascinating is that Cousteau sported a Sub prototype in his documentary The Silent World, which started filming in 1953. This powerful validation would be like if Jimi Hendrix wanted in on the ground floor of your undeveloped guitar model.
Patron saint of the cool guy, Steve McQueen, also famously loved his Submariner, as does director James Cameron. In 1960, Swiss physicist Auguste Piccard took a specially-designed Submariner on the U.S. Navy bathyscaphe Trieste down 10,916 meters into the Pacific. Moreover, reference 5513 was a trusted Submariner used by the British Ministry of Defence in the ‘70s.
The Bond watch
The most important member of this esteemed fraternity is a man who doesn’t even exist. Bond creator, Ian Fleming, strapped an unknown Rolex to the titular spy in his novels. 007 even used it as a knuckle duster to slug a henchman in the 1963 novel, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
And of course, Sean Connery made waves when he paired a Submariner (a tool watch!) with his black tuxedo 1962’s Dr. No. Connery’s Bond did this again with the now ubiquitous ivory dinner jacket in Goldfinger. 1973’s Live and Let Die saw Roger Moore getting out of tight situations using his buzz saw-integrated Submariner—the 5513 model he wore was real, the buzz saw function was not.
Well into Bond’s Omega era, a self-aware scene in Casino Royale has Vesper Lynd asking if Daniel Craig’s Bond is wearing a Rolex. He corrects her that it’s an Omega. This encapsulates the Bond watch journey in a 3-second exchange, while paying homage to the Submariner despite its lack of product placement.
Bond gave the Rolex Submariner mass street cred. Men could wear it as an everyday timepiece because it’s a durable tool watch. And thanks to Sir Connery, they could also wear the Submariner with a tuxedo and look tough and refined at the same time.
The Rolex Submariner’s legacy
There’s no getting around the fact that Rolex is a high-end brand. However, the standard Submariner’s legacy is that its quality and reputation match its price. It’s not a huge flex like the Day-Date, and few guys would hassle you for dropping a few digits on a watch that will literally last forever. This is true functionally, since mechanical watches can always be “revived” with servicing, and this is true style-wise, since the Submariner set the standard for the dive aesthetic.
The dive watch that launched a thousand homages boasts a rich history and is also the best bet for investment buyers. The Rolex Submariner generally increases in value. After all, Sotheby’s auction house put well over 100 Rolex Submariners on the block in 2020 alone.
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