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The Complete History of the Rolex Submariner Watch

December 11, 2020

BY Paul Altieri


There is a long list of adjectives you will come across when reading anything about the Rolex Submariner, nearly always preceded by the word ‘most’ (or another superlative of the author’s choosing). It can reasonably be described as the most iconic, most recognizable, most influential, most emulated, and most important sports watch of all time. Add to that the dubious honor of also being the most counterfeited and you have a pretty impressive spread.

Today, just as Rolex itself has transcended the notion of being merely a watchmaker and has evolved into the ultimate illustration of attainment and luxury, so too has the Submariner moved to a higher plane. The Rolex Submariner is now just a watch in the same way that The Beatles were just a band. Yes, technically, but everything that has come after has (in some way) been shaped by it. Through its long and eventful life, one awash in fascinating detail and rich with cultural significance, the Rolex Submariner has evolved to become an essential milestone for any serious watch collection – in either its modern incarnation or one of its many hyper popular vintage examples.

That ‘new versus old’ concept raises an interesting point. Even for a Rolex, a brand famous for how little it changes its designs over the years, the Submariner is one of the least visually altered models in the company’s history. Nearly every fundamental physical element from the first reference is to be found on the very latest model, with only the internal movements going through any sort of radical overhaul. That is the benefit of getting things right the first time.

But how did it all originally come into being? Below, we trace the creation and progression of the dive watch to end all dive watches.

Rolex Submariner History

Rolex Submariner History

Rolex Submariner Timeline

1953 – Rolex introduces the Submariner dive watch.

1959 – Case increases to 40mm and crown-guards are added.

1967 – Switch from gilt to matte dials.

1969 – Rolex introduces the Submariner Date; first gold Submariner.

1979 – First sapphire crystal on a Submariner watch.

1984 – Switch from matte to gloss dials with white gold markers; first two-tone Submariner.

1988 – Switch form 316L to 904L stainless steel for the Submariner

2003 – First Submariner with a green bezel (ref. 16610LV)

2010 – Ceramic bezel and Super Case design introduced.

2020 – Case increases to 41mm and lugs get redesigned.

Click here for our Ultimate Buying Guide on the Rolex Submariner.

Rolex Submariner Watches

Rolex Submariner History

Before the Rolex Submariner

Rolex’s relationship with the sea goes back long before the first Submariner surfaced. The company had been tackling the challenge of waterproofing its watches almost from the formation of the brand at the turn of the 20th century, finally coming up with the famed Oyster case in 1926. This, and the self-winding Perpetual movement that it perfected in 1931, transformed both the utility and, crucially, the image of the wristwatch. They could now legitimately be seen as a male accessory, whereas before they had been worn solely by aristocratic ladies and were largely viewed as fragile and woefully inaccurate pieces that were little more than jewelry.

Rolex’s twin innovations saw to it that the new breed of wristwatch was robust and convenient enough for men to wear and effectively sounded the death knell of the ubiquitous pocket watch, which was traditionally the way a gentleman told the time for centuries. In fact, the two inventions were so ahead of their time they still form the backbone for the vast majority of the brand’s output today, nearly one hundred years later.

Rolex Submariner History

A Purpose-Built Dive Watch

Rolex’s two key technologies also found their most effective home to date in the brand’s first fully-fledged dive watch. The idea for the Submariner was hit upon by the company’s then-Public Relations Director, René-Paul Jeanneret sometime in the early ‘50s. A passionate diver himself, it was Jeanneret who was responsible for much of the work in formulating the tool watch concept – the idea that a watch could do far more than merely display the time.

This concept led to a mass of legendary names all being released within a few years of each other, including the earliest references of the Explorer, GMT-Master, Milgauss, Turn-O-Graph, and (a little later) the Daytona, all ushering in the first true ‘golden age’ for Rolex. However, above all these was the Submariner.

The idea of diving for recreation was still very much in its infancy, and was building on technology developed during the recently concluded Second World War. A French naval officer and underwater pioneer named Jacques Cousteau, together with associate Emile Gagnan, a compressed gas engineer, had designed and built the first Aqua-Lung in 1942. A step up from the pure oxygen rebreathers used by military divers, which delivered a continuous airflow, the Aqua-Lung supplied air only on demand, greatly increasing the amount of time the user could remain submerged.

It was Cousteau’s remarkable films of the undersea world that helped cause the explosion in popularity of Scuba diving and, as a close personal friend of Jeanneret, he was also enlisted to consult on what was needed to make the perfect dive watch.

Rolex Submariner History

The First Rolex Submariner

Despite its position as the most famous dive watch in the world, the Rolex Submariner was not, as is occasionally touted, the very first dive watch ever created.

Depending on your definition, that honor could be attributed to either the Omega Marine from 1932, or even the Panerai Radiomir from 1936 (a watch made for the Regia Marina, the Italian Special Forces diving unit, and one which, coincidentally, used Rolex cases and movements). However, it was another model designed in conjunction with the navy, the French one this time, that can most reasonably claim to be the first modern dive watch as we would recognize it today.

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was the model that really set down what a working underwater timing device needed, devised as it was by two military frogmen, Captain Robert ‘Bob’ Maloubier and his second-in-command, Lieutenant Claude Jean Riffaud. Between them they set up the Nageuers de Combat, or combat swimmers division, for the French Ministry of Defense in 1952. With little to no suitable equipment in existence, they were forced to create their own, leading to them drawing up a set of sound guidelines for a battle-ready dive watch.

Among the stipulations were a black dial with white indexes and handset for high contrast readability, an automatic movement so the crown (traditionally the weakest point in any waterproof watch) would need to be used as infrequently as possible, a rotating bezel to help track immersion times, and (naturally) a robust waterproof case.

Unfortunately for Rolex, who was proceeding along almost identical lines, Blancpain was first to the punch by mere months. The Fifty Fathoms was released in 1953, the same year the initial Submariner was built, but it wouldn’t make it into full production until the following year, making its entrance at the 1954 Basel Fair.

Rolex Submariner History

The Reference 6204

The ref. 6204 (generally accepted as the debut Submariner, although there is some debate) was an instant hit and shared the majority of the same attributes as the Fifty Fathoms. The dial (either gilt or honeycomb) was jet black and ringed with the same mix of dots and batons for hour markers and an inverted triangle at the 12, that you will see in the current-production examples. All were filled with plenty of lume (still radium in this era). The hands had not yet graduated to the Mercedes style present on most Rolex sports models these days and were a plain stick or pencil type.

As for the bezel, it was marked for 60-minutes as usual but was missing the hashes for the first 15. These were included on later editions and helped wearers more accurately record the end of a dive, when the precise timing of safety or decompression stops becomes more critical. However, it did have one minor and unavoidable drawback.

Blancpain held the patent for the unidirectional bezel (as in one that turns only counterclockwise). The idea was the brainchild of the brand’s CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter, another keen diver, and acted as a rudimentary failsafe. The unidirectional bezel ensured that if the surround get accidentally moved underwater, it would only over-read the supposed time spent submerged, thus helping divers avoid the potential dangers of decompression sickness. With the copyright belonging to Blancpain, the Submariner had to make do with bidirectional bezels all the way up until the 1980s.

However, Rolex did own the rights to an arguably more important innovation of its own, one the brand expanded on expressly for the Submariner. Part of the Oyster case construction from the mid-1920s was a specific winding crown system, where the crown was fitted with a gasket that would screw into a tube inside the watch case. It provided an impressive amount of protection against moisture and various other debris getting in and jamming up the movement. For the new purpose-built dive model though, it was obvious this was going to have to be beefed up significantly.

The eventual result was the Twinlock crown, an arrangement which utilized two sets of O-rings to form a pair of watertight seals within the winding stem assembly, enabling the Rolex Submariner to be the first dive watch rated down to 100 meters (330 feet).

Rolex Submariner History

A Decade of Fine-Tuning

The Rolex Submariner had hit the ground running (or swimming), but even though it had captured the imagination of a wide and appreciative audience, there was still plenty of work to do. The next six years saw a total of eight total references of Rolex’s dive watch being released, some running concurrently with others, and each with some kind of alteration intended to perfect the overall design.

Without getting into the exhaustive detail, the models which followed on from the ref. 6204 were:

Ref. 6205 – (1954): Slightly thicker case than the ref. 6204 and marginally larger crown.

Ref. 6200 – (1955-1956): Thicker case with an 8mm crown, making it the first of the so-called ‘Big Crown’ Subs. Waterproof to 200m.

Ref. 6536 – (1955-1959): A thinner case and small crown, but given the Cal. 1030 movement rather than the Cal. A296 or Cal. A260 found in former models.

Ref. 6536/1 – (1957-1960): More or less identical to the ref. 6536 but available with a chronometer-rated caliber.

Ref. 6538 – (1956-1959): Another Big Crown, this too was available as a chronometer-rated model and found eternal fame as the ‘Bond Sub’ after Sean Connery wore one in Dr. No.

Ref. 5510 – (1958): Identical to the Bond Sub, except the ref. 5510 was the first Submariner to house the Cal. 1530)

Ref. 5508 – (1958-1962): A small crown version which replaced the ref. 6536, and the first ‘Superlative Chronometer’ Submariner.

Rolex Submariner History

The Rolex Submariner Settles Down

Following its turbulent first few years, the Submariner reached a point of some consistency in 1959, when the ref. 5512 emerged. With the arrival of this reference, all the pieces fell into place so effectively that the underlying architecture of the watch remained the same for the next half century.

The model was the amalgamation of all the various elements that had worked from the previous eight versions of the Submariner, joined together for the first time. The reference 5512 had a 40mm case, the Mercedes handset, the complete markings on a redesigned bezel, as well as its most significant previously-unseen addition, the introduction of crown guards. In fact, everything you will find on the modern-day version of Rolex’s iconic dive watch had its start here.

So successful was the outcome that there was essentially nothing left to do as far as the core aesthetic was concerned. Right up until 2010 with the arrival of the Super Case, most of the major alterations to the Submariner collection pertained to either improved materials, updated movements, or minor revisions in design.

However, there was one exception. The ref. 5512 and its non-COSC certified sibling, the ref. 5513, were both extremely long serving references. The ref. 5512 ran from 1959 to 1980, while the ref. 5513 from 1962 all the way up to 1989. With that in mind, they were not the only Submariner watches around during that time. In 1969, Rolex split the Submariner range, and the opinions of the watch’s legions of fans, by releasing the first Submariner with a date, the reference 1680.

Rolex Submariner History

Rolex Submariner Date Watches

In most other respects, the ref. 1680 was practically identical to the 5512/5513 references. However, it brought a date function to the series for the first time. For many critics, that one relatively modest inclusion signaled the end of the Submariner as the purpose-built dive watch and heralded the start of its ascent into status symbol territory. According to critics, real divers had no need of a watch that tells them the date of the month.

Despite the naysayers, the Rolex Submariner had always been styled elegantly enough to be more than just a dive implement. Its sophisticated minimalism matched with everything from t-shirts and jeans all the way up to perfectly tailored tuxedos – just ask the greatest advertisement any timepiece ever had, James Bond. Agent 007 wore a Submariner in a total of nine outings, starting with Connery in 1962’s Dr. No, and the watch was paired with everything from a wetsuit to dinner suit.

In truth, the Submariner has always been bought by far more non-divers than divers, and it is the same story for most of the brand’s models. You won’t see all that many Rolex Daytona watches in the paddock of the average speedway or Explorer watches on the summit of Mount Everest either these days, for example.

As for Rolex, the brand decided to embrace the status symbol tag wholeheartedly with the ref. 1680’s arrival. Along with being the first Submariner with a date complication, it would also be the first released in 18k yellow gold as well. That piece also debuted a blue dial and bezel option, representing the first time that it had appeared in anything but all-black.

Ever since the arrival of the ref. 1680, Rolex has poured far more variety into the Submariner Date than the No-Date models, gifting them with a host of new metal combinations and different colorways. The no-date Submariner has remained as it always was, an exclusively stainless steel creation, still loved by the purists.

Rolex Submariner History

Rolex Submariner Date Watches

Below is a list of the different Rolex Submariner Date watches, their movements, and approximate years of production.

Ref. 1680 – (1969-1979): Cal. 1575.

Ref. 1680/8 – (1969-1979): Cal 1575 (18k Yellow Gold)

Ref. 16800 – (1979-1988): Cal. 3035 (First high beat movement; 28,800vph)

Ref. 16808 – (1979-1988): Cal. 3035 (18k Yellow Gold)

Ref. 16803 – (1984-1988): Cal. 3035 (First ever two-tone Rolesor Submariner)

Ref. 168000 – (1988-1989): Cal. 3035 (First Submariner in 904L steel)

Ref. 16610 – (1989-2010): Cal. 3135

Ref. 16618 – (1989-2010): Cal. 3135 (18k yellow gold)

Ref. 16613 – (1989-2010): Cal. 3135 (Yellow Rolesor)

Ref. 16610LV – (2003-2010): Cal. 3135 (50th Anniversary Edition, in steel with green bezel, aka the Kermit)

Ref. 116610 – (2010-2020): Cal. 3135 (First appearance of the Super Case, with lugs and crown guards roughly twice the thickness of before)

Ref. 116618 – (2010-2020): Cal. 3135 (18k yellow gold)

Ref. 116613 – (2010-2020): Cal. 3135 (Yellow Rolesor)

Ref. 116619 – (2010-2020): Cal. 3135 (First Submariner in white gold, with blue dial and bezel, aka the Smurf)

Ref. 116610LV – (2010-2020): Cal. 3135 (Green bezel and dial, aka the Hulk)

Ref. 126610 – (2020-Present): Cal. 3235

Ref. 126610LV – (2020-Present): Cal. 3235 (Green bezel and black dial)

Ref. 126618 – (2020-Present): Cal. 3235 (18k yellow gold)

Ref. 126613 – (2020-Present): Cal. 3235 (Yellow Rolesor)

Ref. 126619 – (2020-Present): Cal. 3235 (18k white gold, with blue bezel)

Rolex Submariner History

The Rolex Submariner in the Modern Era

In 2003, the Submariner reached its half century. Rolex commemorated the occasion with a new stainless steel edition, the ref. 16610LV, with the ‘LV’ standing for Lunette Verte, or “green bezel” in French. Although a popular color for Rolex as a manufacturer, this was the first time it had used green in the design of its world-class diver. Immediately nicknamed the Kermit by collectors, it has since become one of the most sought after variants of the Submariner’s neo-vintage era.

The following generation, the ref. 1166xx series, brought about the biggest change to the watch’s appearance since the ref. 5512 in 1959. To start with, the model’s bezel insert was now crafted from Cerachrom, a proprietary ceramic material that had recently debuted on the 50th anniversary GMT-Master II. Both fade-proof and scratch-proof, it is pretty much guaranteed to stay looking brand new forever.

Even more than that, in response to increasingly vocal calls for a larger example of the Submariner, with some suggesting 40mm was too small for a modern sports model, Rolex brought out the Super Case. While still the same dimensions on paper, the lugs and crown guards were made significantly thicker, giving it the impression of being a far bigger watch. Just as with the arrival of the date feature, the Super Case also divided fans. Many appreciated the upturn in wrist presence, while others missed the flowing lines of references past.

It would take until 2020 until Rolex found a way to keep both sides happy. The new ref. 1266xx range is the first to have grown past the Submariner’s self-imposed 40mm limits, even by just 1mm. However, the Super Case’s bulky, squared-off elements have been softened, returning to a case that with a more elegantly sweeping silhouette, while still keeping the more angular design of the previous generation.

More importantly, the movement has finally been upgraded. The Submariner Date had been driven by the Cal. 3135 for more than 30-years by the time the latest iteration of the watch hit the stores. A superb caliber though it is (and it is recognized as one of the finest mass-produced movements ever made) its time was up long ago, with many of Rolex’s other models having already received their next generation of mechanisms. The latest time-and-date standard for Rolex, the Cal. 3235, has replaced or improved upon around 90% of the components from the outgoing Cal. 3135, resulting in a world beating movement for a new age.

Rolex Submariner History

Military Intervention

The clearest sign of just how good the Submariner was can be found in how quickly the military started knocking on Rolex’s door. As early as 1956, the British Ministry of Defense came looking for a new standard-issue timepiece for the Royal Navy’s fledgling special forces combatants. They were given around 50 examples of the civilian version of the ref. 6538 (the Bond Sub), pieces which were subsequently given the most rigorous field testing imaginable.

In 1957, the MOD returned, respectfully asking for just a couple of minor adjustments to the off-the-shelf watch available to everyone else. The biggest change was a slight reshaping of the bezel, which the navy divers were finding hard to turn while wearing gloves. Rolex responded by increasing its diameter so it overhung the sides of the case, and by altering the edging, from its coin-edge style to the serrated type we know today. Rolex also made the insert from nickel silver rather than the previous plated brass so it was less likely to crack under impact.

Other than that, along with a request for the standard spring bars to be replaced by a solid bar soldered between the lugs to more securely hold the NATO straps, the Rolex Submariner had more than proved its reputation as the toughest diver’s watch on the planet. Those models, rechristened the A/6538, served with distinction right up until 1967, when the navy switched briefly to the Omega Seamaster.

However, the Royal Navy was back to Rolex in 1971, adopting three more references for its unit, the ref. 5513, the double stamped ref. 5513/5517, and the straightforward ref. 5517. Together, the four iterations have become known as the Rolex MilSub watches and represent some of the holiest of holy grails in all of vintage Rolex collecting.

Rolex Submariner History

Buying a Rolex Submariner

More often than not, a Submariner is the first port of call for anyone starting their journey into Rolex collecting. In fact, the Sub is frequently the reason the journey starts in the first place. So how much will you need to spend?

The good news is, probably less than you think. Entry point ballpark figures are around $7,500 to $8,000. For that, you will likely find an example of the ref. 16610 (or the no-date equivalent ref. 14060) from the 1990s, a pre-Super Case watch with most modern-day attributes (the key exception being a ceramic bezel), a faultless internal mechanism, and the most identifiable form horology has to offer.

Lucky enough to have an absolutely enormous amount of money to throw around? Don’t worry, there are plenty of Submariner options at the top end too. Some of the earliest vintage references are incredibly rare and consequently cripplingly expensive.

The first of the Big Crown Submariners, the ref. 6200, better known among fanatics as the King Sub, was in production for less than a year and it is thought only around 300 were ever made. Even more unusually, the dial has the 3/6/9 hour markers more commonly associated with the Rolex Explorer. The last time one was sold was in 2017, changing hands at auction for $579,000.

Fortunately, in-between those two extremes, there is a model for just about every pocket. Two-tone Rolesor pieces remain extremely popular, each one with the choice of either a black or blue dial and bezel. For the quintessential 1980s throwback vibe, the ‘Serti’ dials were sometimes fitted to these and the all-gold watches, featuring gemstone indexes. These too can be bought for surprisingly realistic figures, with starting prices hovering around the $10,000 mark.

Rolex Submariner History

Final Remarks

It is almost strange to think that a timepiece that was originally designed to be a purpose-built underwater timing tool for the budding recreational scuba diving crown has evolved to become of the most famous and instantly recognizable luxury watches in the world. However, the Rolex Submariner is so versatile and successful in its core design that this drastic evolution seems entirely appropriate – even almost expected.

So there we have our history of the Rolex Submariner. There is obviously much more information about this one watch than would fit into a single article, and we encourage you to have a search through our many blog posts on the subject to learn all there is to know.

The Rolex Submariner remains eternal, a timeless example of immaculate industrial design and a watch that will forever be the benchmark by which all others are measured. So, are you ready to add one to your collection?

Rolex Submariner History



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