Rolex Submariner: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Leading Luxury Dive Watch

Rolex Submariner: The Ultimate Guide to the World’s Leading Luxury Dive Watch

Few watches have achieved the worldwide fame and collectibility of the Rolex Submariner, one of the very first purpose-built dive watches and the one that established the formula that so many others still emulate. Nearly every luxury divers’ watch on the market today owes some stylistic debt to the Submariner, which remains to many collectors the gold standard of the category. The Submariner’s association with James Bond, which stems from its being worn by Sean Connery in the iconic movie role, doesn’t hurt its case either. Here’s what you need to know about the Rolex Submariner and why it continues to be an industry trendsetter in the modern day.

Origins: The Rolex Oyster Case

Rolex Oyster Mercedes Gleitze ad

While most watch historians rightly pinpoint the 1950s as the era that gave rise to the modern, purpose-built diver’s watch, Rolex began paving the way as early as the 1920s. Hans Wilsdorf, who founded Rolex in 1905 and moved its headquarters to Geneva, Switzerland in 1919, was one of the earliest and most prominent proponents of making wristwatches more waterproof. It was a challenge that had plagued watchmakers for years, ever since pocket watches began fading from common usage in favor of the wrist-worn timepieces that gained wide acceptance in the wake of World War I. Wilsdorf’s 1926 invention, the so-called Oyster case, proved to be (no pun intended) a watershed for an evolving industry. Its innovative design combined a threaded, hermetically sealed caseback and a crown that screwed securely into the side of the case for a water resistance never before achieved in watches. It took its name from the bivalve mollusk whose traits it emulated, except that its function was the opposite, with the two “shells” of the case clamping tight to keep water outside, rather than inside.

Rolex Oyster watch 1926

The first Oyster watches, released in 1926 (example above), took their name from the groundbreaking invention. One year later, in what would become the first of many celebrity-driven marketing initiatives over the years, Rolex partnered with Mercedes Gleitze, a British professional swimmer, for a widely publicized campaign. Gleitze wore a Rolex Oyster watch on a necklace during her first (unsuccessful) attempt to become the first woman to swim the English Channel. The watch was still ticking when she returned to shore, allowing Rolex to tout the waterproofness of its watch in a big way in subsequent advertisements.

Bathyscaphe Trieste

Rolex’s partnerships with record-seeking pioneers in the realm of ocean exploration continued into the following decades, culminating in 1953 with the first expedition of the Bathyscaphe Trieste (above), a manned submersible research vessel designed by Swiss inventor and explorer Auguste Piccard. For that historic mission off the Isle of Capri, in which the Trieste descended 3,138 meters to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Mediterranean Sea, Rolex produced a prototype wristwatch called the Deepsea. The bulky, rugged timepiece, attached to the outside of the Trieste’s hull, survived the extreme submergence and was still running when the vessel returned to the surface — much to the delight of Rolex’s marketing team, which was preparing for the launch of a professional- and consumer-targeted watch that same year, a watch that was neither as massive nor as waterproof as the Deepsea prototype, but historic in its design and capabilities nonetheless.

1953: The First Submariner

Jacques Cousteau

Like other now-iconic Rolex models — like the GMT-Master that followed on its heels — the development of the Submariner came in response to consumer demand brought about by a cultural shift. After World War II, diving had evolved to become a recreational and commercial pursuit rather than strictly a military skill set, and the historic invention of the Aqua-Lung by Jacques Cousteau (above) ensured that this new generation of recreational divers — called SCUBA divers, for their use of “Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus” like the Aqua-Lung — could remain underwater for longer periods. Thus, a new type of watch was needed that not only could remain reliably waterproof at greater depths but also enabled a diver to keep track of his air supply. 

Panerai Radiomir with Rolex Oyster caseRolex’s Oyster watches, while rightly touted for their robustness and water resistance, were not built to these modern dive-watch standards, but Rolex had, in fact, already contributed its expertise to some of history’s first purpose-built dive watches, for the Florentine firm Panerai in the 1930s and ‘40s. These watches (as above), issued to Italian Navy frogmen during World War II, were assembled by Rolex and featured Oyster cases whose cushion shape detracted from their water resistance. Omega, Rolex’s longtime rival, had taken another stride forward in 1948 with the release of the first Seamaster, not technically a watch for diving but a “town, sea, and country” dress watch that used a pioneering waterproof technology, centered around the use of a rubber O-ring gasket of the type used in submarines to seal the crown and case against leaks. (The first Seamaster divers’ watches equipped with this technology wouldn’t appear until 1957.)

It was Blancpain, a venerable Swiss manufacture more than a century older than Rolex, and headed by an avid diving enthusiast, which was the first to release what is now regarded as the first modern dive watch; the Fifty Fathoms, in 1953. I delve into that model’s story here. A lesser known Swiss brand, Zodiac, released a more affordable model called the Sea Wolf in that same seminal year. But it was Rolex, already an industry leader and trendsetter, that produced the most impactful diver’s watch in the watch industry's history.

Rolex Submariner - 1953 

The first Submariner was Ref. 6204, which established the template for the model — 37mm steel Oyster case, black dial with inverted triangle at 12 o’clock, alternating circle and bar indexes at the hour markers, and a bidirectionally rotating bezel with a 60-minute scale that a diver could set to keep track of his time underwater. The Submariner was touted as the first watch that was waterproof to 100 meters — a significant claim, as the Fifty Fathoms, the iconic dive watch that had preceded it to market, was tested only to the 91.44 meters that matched up to its name. 

Subsequent references of the Submariner, starting with the Ref. 6205, added the familiar “Mercedes” handset and even more robust water-resistance ratings, of 200 meters, and eventually 300 meters, which is the standard for the model today. The 6200 series of Submariners established the “oversized” winding crown that would, after alternating with smaller-crown models over the next few years, become a standard Submariner feature. The first models were equipped with the automatic A260 caliber and featured the name “Submariner” on the dial — except for some models sold in Britain, which used “Sub-Aqua” instead. Some models from subsequent years, for reasons possibly connected to trademark issues at the time, left the “Submariner” name off the dials, at least until 1956, when the name became standard among the various text indications, along with “Oyster Perpetual'' – the latter term referring to the self-winding, aka “perpetual” movement inside — and the depth rating (at the time, “100m/330 ft”).

1962: Dr. No and the "James Bond" Sub

James Bond - Sean Connery - Rolex SubmarinerThe Rolex Submariner’s journey from a tool watch aimed at diving enthusiasts to one of the world’s most coveted luxury items kicked into high gear beginning in 1962, when its appearance in the film Dr. No forever established the model as the original “James Bond watch.” Actor Sean Connery famously wore a Submariner, specifically the Ref. 5638, notable for its oversized 8mm “Big Crown” and aluminum bezel insert, in the next two movies in the long-running spy series as well — From Russia with Love in 1963, and Goldfinger in 1964. This model, introduced just shortly after the series’ debut in 1955, was also one of the first Submariner references to achieve the 200-meter water resistance that was the model’s standard until the late 1980s. 

Rolex Submariner James Bond watch

As a former naval officer turned spy, who often found himself in underwater danger, Bond’s choosing a Submariner as his go-to timepiece on missions certainly made sense. In Dr. No, the Sub was mounted on a brown leather strap; in Goldfinger, the same watch (presumably) was attached to a notably thin, striped nylon NATO strap. The Submariner's association with the suave superspy undoubtedly aided in its transition from pure tool watch to sport-luxury icon over the years; many purists will forever identify the Ref. 5638 model in particular as the quintessential Bond watch despite Rolex rival Omega’s now-decades-long presence in the movie series. 

1969: The First Submariner Date

Rolex Submariner Date 1969

In 1967, building upon the success of the Submariner, Rolex introduced another diver’s watch called the Sea-Dweller, a “spinoff” model designed for an even more extreme style of underwater exploration. Equipped with one of the watch industry’s first helium-release valves, for wearers spending extended periods inside a hermetically sealed divers’ bell, the Sea-Dweller also introduced an element to Rolex dive watches that had previously been absent, namely a date display. The presence of such a practical, day-to-day element to a watch clearly not designed for civilian daily wear (Sea-Dwellers weren’t even sold commercially until 1971) undoubtedly led to Rolex’s addition of a date to the Submariner, a watch that had become far more widely popular outside the world of diving, in 1969. Reference 1680 (above, photo via Sotheby's), aka the first Submariner Date, powered by the Rolex Caliber 1575, not only added a date numeral in a window at 3 o’clock; it magnified that numeral via a signature “Cyclops” lens, a practical innovation that Hans Wilsdorf first introduced on the Datejust in 1948 and an element that has been fairly omnipresent on Rolex Oyster models ever since. (Legend has it that Wilsdorf came up with the feature after his wife lamented to him how difficult it was for her to read the date on her watch, and that the idea came to him after a droplet of water fell onto his watch’s crystal over the date window while he was washing his hands in the bathroom.) The Submariner Date would go on to eclipse the “no-date” Submariner in popularity, though both models remain on the market today.

Rolex Submariner Date 16800The Submariner Date can also claim another first in the history of the popular series. It may surprise many avid Submariner fans who consider it the quintessential luxury diver’s watch that the Submariner didn’t acquire one of the technical elements most  strongly associated with the model — and in fact, with all modern dive watches — until 1979. The Submariner Date Ref. 16800 (above, photo via Analog:Shift) was the first Submariner with a dive-scale bezel that rotated in one direction, counterclockwise, rather than two. This was a practical and potentially life-saving innovation — first introduced on the Fifty Fathoms by Blancpain, and patent-protected for several decades  — which prevented a diver from accidentally jarring the bezel in the wrong direction for an inaccurate reading of how much time he’d spent underwater and thus miscalculating how much oxygen he had left in the tank. The classic, no-date Submariner was finally updated with this feature (which is now among the necessities a watch must have to be certified as a diving watch under international ISO standards) in 1990, with Ref. 14060. Submariners have been equipped with this type of bezel ever since — even though the materials used to make the bezels, like many other aspects of the watch and its movement, have evolved over the years. 

Rolex Submariner Kermit

The Submariner’s original 100-meter water resistance could be considered downright pedestrian by the rugged standards of today’s models. As noted above, Rolex doubled the Submariner’s water resistance almost immediately after its debut, to 200 meters, in 1955, and as technology marched on throughout the late 20th Century, the company was poised for another milestone in 1987. That was the year it released Ref. 16610, the first Submariner boasting a 300-meter water resistance while retaining the 40mm case diameter that had become the model’s standard. This model and its variants, mounted on three-link Oyster bracelets and featuring aluminum inserts for the dive-scale bezel, remained in production with few changes until 2010. Perhaps the most famous representative of this generation of Submariners is the so-called “Kermit” model (Ref. 16610LV), released in 2003, its Mupper-inspired nickname derived from its bright green bezel (or “Lunette Verde”).

21st Century Submariners: Innovation Inside and Out

Rolex Submariner Smurf

One of the reasons why the Rolex Submariner is so iconic and enduring in its popularity is that it is a rare example of a watch that has remained more or less true to its original conception over the decades, changing only subtly in its overall aesthetic: a Submariner from the 2020s still looks a lot like a Submariner from the 1950s or ‘60s. However, Rolex has made adjustments to its classical design elements, and to its movements, all of them geared toward more robustness of build, practicality of usage, and efficiency of timekeeping, many of them in the years following the turn of the 20th Century. In 2008 came the first Submariner with a bezel made of Cerachrom, Rolex’s proprietary ceramic material that is exceptionally scratch-resistant and fade-resistant; Cerachrom bezels have now replaced aluminum ones on most Rolex watches. The bright blue Ceracherom bezel on one of the original models, Ref. 116619LB (you guessed it, “Lunette Bleu,” above), with a case and bracelet of white gold rather than steel, earned it the nickname “Smurf.”

In 2012, the (dateless) Submariner underwent more mostly discreet evolutions, some of which were exterior — like the Cerachrom bezel, used for the first time on a steel-cased Submariner; the Glidelock mechanism on the bracelet, allowing for more precise wrist adjustments; and the use of Rolex’s proprietary blue-glowing Chromalight material on the dial — and others interior, such as the hairspring of the movement being made from a patented alloy called Blue Parachrom, which is uncommonly shock- and magnetism-resistant. The case remained at 40mm, but the movement inside was an upgrade: the automatic, COSC-certified Caliber 3130 — a dateless variant of Caliber 3135, introduced in 1999.

Rolex Submariner "Starbucks"

Both the Submariner and Submariner Date underwent another soft revamp in 2020, with the case diameters bumped upward from 40mm to 41mm, the sapphire crystal now sporting an antireflective coating on the underside for increased legibility, and the Oyster bracelets upgraded with an Oysterlock clasp and Glidelock extension adjustable by increments of 2mm. The most substantial change was on the inside, with the Submariner Date containing the recently introduced Rolex in-house Caliber 3235 and the Submariner, the new Caliber 3230 — both boasting the very latest in Rolex movement technology and patented features, including the energy-efficient Chronergy escapement, made of magnetic-resistant nickel phosphorus, a blue Parachrom hairspring, a 70-hour power reserve, and all the other attributes that enable the movement to meet the strict criteria of Rolex’s own “Superlative Chronometer” certification, which ensure an accuracy of +/- 2 seconds per day — double the precision promised by the standard chronometer certification awarded by COSC.

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