For the first 15-years or so of its life, the Rolex Submariner clung on steadfastly to its tool watch roots. Available only in stainless steel and with an exclusively black and white color scheme (the highest contrast for easy legibility underwater) its biggest early upheaval came with the necessary introduction of crown guards at the end of the 1950s. It was, by any measure, a robust, action-centric timepiece for professionals, good enough for the likes of the British Armed Forces (which adopted it as standard-issue), as well as their greatest fictional spokesperson, James Bond.
However, that sort of celebrity endorsement led to the Sub becoming massively popular, even amongst those for whom a tool watch wasn’t an absolute prerequisite for the job. Very quickly it started to be touted as a luxury dive watch, with more and more emphasis placed on the ‘luxury’ part. Its handsome versatility meant that it was as acceptable in the boardroom as it was on any aquatic adventure, and pretty soon there was a far greater number being worn with business suits than wetsuits. Recognizing this, Rolex set about adding one touch of extra convenience for their new audience, and in 1969 they issued the ref. 1680, the first Rolex Submariner with a date function.
The Rolex Submariner Date References
Although the ref. 1680 was another great success in a long line concerning the Rolex Submariner, some purists believed it marked the end of the model as purely a dive watch and the beginning of another role, as a status symbol. Many didn’t see the point of having a date display at all, and also decried the unbalancing effect it had on the dial, especially topped by the magnifying Cyclops lens fixed to the crystal. As a compromise, Rolex split the range in two and we have had, since that point, both date and no-date Submariner models.
There is, of course, evidence that the traditionalists were right. Although the early run ref. 1680 watches were still made of steel, the first solid yellow gold version appeared shortly thereafter. Called the ref. 1680/8, the precious metal was even used for the entire bracelet, which now had polished center links as opposed to the more workmanlike brushed finishing on previous references. Clearly no longer something that most people would dare risk on an actual dive, the watch was an undeniable sign of wealth and affluence.
A couple of years later in 1971, a new colorway made an entrance when Rolex issued the ref. 1680/8 with a bright blue bezel and dial to run alongside the conventional black version. Standing out even more in a crowd, the novel palette was another popular addition and has remained in the lineup ever since. The dials on the gold pieces also differed slightly, with the hour markers now raised conical shapes with a luminescent dot in the middle. Very much of their time, they have since become known as the ‘nipple dials’ by members of the vintage collecting world.
Submariner ref. 16800
In 1979, the ref. 16800 took to the stage. Sometimes overlooked as a pre-owned buy, it was actually one of the more important references in the Submariner’s run and introduced a host of features that we now take for granted. It was the first Sub to be waterproof to 300m, where the previous models had been safe to 200m max. It also debuted a sapphire crystal over the dial, replacing the former acrylic. The bezel became unidirectional after the patent for the device (held by Blancpain for the Fifty Fathoms) had expired. A unidirectional bezel is a vital safety feature in a dive watch because if it accidentally gets knocked, it will overestimate immersion time rather than underestimating it.
However, perhaps the biggest change came with the movement, which was updated to the Cal. 3035. That caliber brought the now-standard balance frequency of 28,800vph, an increase from the 19,800vph of the previous Cal. 1575. Again, the gold editions turned out to be highly sought after (the ref. 16808, both black and blue) and they were joined by another type in the mid-80s. The ref. 16803 was the first Rolesor Rolex Submariner, its bodywork and bracelet a combination of stainless steel and yellow gold. This was also the model that introduced the so-called Serti dials. Taken from the French word ‘sertir’, meaning ‘to set’, these dials were finished with gemstone hour markers, a mix of diamonds and sapphires against a champagne or rhodium face.