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The Rolex Submariner: Then & Now

Paul Altieri

Initially introduced in 1953, the Rolex Submariner was the first wristwatch to be water-resistant to a depth of 100 meters. Although the Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was technically the world’s first dive watch, it was the Rolex Submariner that ultimately became the archetype of the modern diver’s timepiece. By employing the use of Rolex’s patented, screw-down crown and Oyster case, the Submariner was able to achieve a greater depth rating than the Fifty Fathoms, and also benefited from more reliable, water-resistant seals.

Since its initial release more than six decades ago, the Submariner has remained in continuous production; however, despite its remarkably long and illustrious history, the overall aesthetic of the Submariner has remained incredibly consistent – and for good reason too. The Submariner is a true classic, and its appearance is one of the most timeless and widely recognizable designs from any timepiece manufacturer.

While it was not the first watch to be specifically designed for SCUBA diving, no timepiece has played a greater role in shaping and advancing the overall dive watch category than the Rolex Submariner. The Submariner ranks among the most iconic and widely imitated designs in the entire wristwatch industry, and nearly every dive watch manufactured today has in some way been influenced by the aesthetic and feature-set of the original Submariner.

The Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner 6204

Rolex Submariner Key Features:

– First introduced in 1953

– The first watch to achieve 100-meters of water resistance

– Luminous hands and hour markers

– 60-minute rotating timing bezel

– Rolex Oyster Case w/ screw-down crown and case-back

– The original watch featured in the James Bond films

– Versions issued to branches of the Military

– Offered in both Date and No-Date formats

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

Rolex Submariner

Then: Rolex Submariner Reference 6204

First Rolex Submariner Reference

Submariner 6204 Key Features:

Case: 38mm, no crown guards

Material: Stainless steel

Dial: Black, time only, pencil hands, gilt-gloss

Lume: Radium

Crystal: Acrylic

Movement: Caliber A260

Water Resistance: 100 meters

Three different Submariner references were released within the first two years of its production; however, the reference 6204 is widely considered to be the very first Submariner that Rolex ever put forward. Early Submariner references were largely based on the design of Rolex’s existing Turn-O-Graph watch; and as a result, the reference 6204 consisted of a 38 mm stainless steel case (without crown-guards) that was fitted with a black rotating timing bezel, a thick acrylic crystal, and Rolex’s now-iconic, “sport” dial.

For the first decade and a half of its existence, the Submariner was a highly water-resistant, self-winding watch that was capable of displaying nothing more than the time of day with a running seconds hand. Due to its incredibly early place within the Submariner’s history, the reference 6204 pre-dated the introduction of “Mercedes” style hands, and instead was fitted with “pencil” style hands, like those found on the original Turn-O-Graph.

As with other Rolex sports watches of the era, the Submariner ref. 6204 features a glossy black dial with gold-toned accents (nicknamed the gilt-gloss dial) and uses radium for luminescence. It’s also important to note that while the dials started out glossy, many original 6204 dials should have taken on a matte finish after six decades of existence.

Additionally, its friction-fitted, timing bezel rotated bi-directionally and it was paired with a black aluminum bezel insert graduated to 60 minutes. It is common for original bezel inserts of vintage Submariners to be scratched and faded due to prolonged use and exposure to saltwater and sunlight.

Rolex fitted the ref. 6204 with the sporty and durable three-link Oyster bracelet and since then, the brand has only offered this particular bracelet style with Submariner watches. Powering the watch is Caliber A260, which was Rolex’s most robust automatic movement at the time, complete with shock protection.

Now: Rolex Submariner Reference 124060

Rolex Submariner 124060 No-Date

Submariner 124060 Key Features:

Case: 41mm, crown guards

Material: Oystersteel

Bezel: Bidirectional, black, aluminum

Dial: Black, time only, Mercedes-style hands

Lume: Chromalight

Crystal: Sapphire

Movement: Caliber 3230

Water-resistance: 300 meters

In 2020, Rolex released the newest generation of its flagship dive watch with the Submariner ref. 124060. Like the long lineage of time-only Submariner models that preceded it, the Submariner ref. 124060 is exclusively available in stainless steel and fitted with a black dial and black bezel. As such, the reference 124060 is the modern-day equivalent of the original Submariner 6204.

However, given the almost 70-year gap between the two models, many details have naturally been upgraded, modified, and amplified along the way. The Submariner 124060 features a 41mm case, which happens to be the largest Submariner size ever made, taking over from the once-traditional 40mm case size. The unidirectional bezel includes a Cerachrom insert, which is Rolex’s proprietary ceramic alloy material that’s both scratch and fade resistant.

The black glossy dial of the reference 124060 is home to Mercedes-style hands and the familiar mix of triangular, rectangular, and round hour markers – all coated with Rolex’s Chromalight luminous material that offers a long-lasting blue glow in the dark.

Like the preceding generation, the Oyster bracelet of the Submariner 124060 (which features solid links and solid end-links) benefits from the sturdy Oysterlock safety clasp and practical Rolex Glidelock extension system. However, to accommodate the larger case and broader lug width, the Oyster bracelet is now 1mm wider, measuring 21mm at the end-links.

Finally, one of the biggest advancements of the latest Submariner is its movement, the Caliber 3230. Entirely designed and manufactured in-house, the Caliber 3230 launched in 2020 and it joins the other new-generation Rolex automatic movements that are based around the brand’s proprietary Chronergy escapement and boast 70 hours of power reserve with accuracy ratings of -2/+2 seconds per day.

Also Now: Rolex Submariner Date Reference 1266xx

Green Rolex Submariner 126610LV

Submariner 126xx Key Features:

Case: 41mm, crown guards

Material: Oystersteel, yellow Rolesor, yellow gold, white gold

Bezel: Unidirectional, Cerachrom, black, green, blue

Dial: Black, blue, date window,

Lume: Chromalight

Crystal: Sapphire with Cyclops lens

Movement: Caliber 3235

Water Resistance: 300 meters

Though Rolex has clearly continued the legacy of the original Submariner tool watch with the current Submariner 124060, there’s another subset of the collection that’s positioned more so as the ultimate luxury sports watch rather than utilitarian diver: the Submariner Date. The first Submariner Date made its debut in 1967 with the steel Submariner ref. 1680. Since then, Rolex has expanded the collection to include other material options and bezel and dial colors.

For 2020, Rolex released an entirely new lineup of the Submariner Date in several materials and colorways. These new references all feature the larger 41mm case size, wider 21mm Oyster bracelet, and new-gen Caliber 3235 automatic movement.

– Submariner Date 126610LN: Oystersteel, Black Bezel, Black Dial

– Submariner Date 126610LV: Oystersteel, Green Bezel, Black Dial

– Submariner Date 126613LN: Oystersteel and Yellow Gold, Black Bezel, Black Dial

– Submariner Date 126613LB: Oystersteel and Yellow Gold, Blue Bezel, Blue Dial

– Submariner Date 126618LN: Yellow Gold, Black Bezel, Black Dial

– Submariner Date 126618LB: Yellow Gold, Blue Bezel, Blue Dial

– Submariner Date 126619LB: White Gold, Blue Bezel, Black Dial

Interestingly, Rolex has selected to pair the steel and white gold versions exclusively with black dials, even on the versions with different color bezels. Conversely, the two-tone versions and solid gold versions continue the tradition of matching the dial color with the bezel color.

Rolex Submariner 41mm Watches

The Evolution of the Rolex Submariner Case

As the Submariner has gotten older, its size has gradually increased. Depending on the era, Rolex has made the Submariner with the following case sizes:

– 38mm: 1953 – 1962

– 40mm: 1959 – 2020

– 41mm: 2020 – Present

The earliest versions of the Submariner not only had 38mm cases but they also did not include crown guards. In 1959, Rolex launched the Submariner ref. 5512 with a larger 40mm case and protective shoulders around the winding crown. This reference established the Submariner size and silhouette for the next 60 years.

2020 marked the next biggest change to the Submariner case when Rolex increased it to 41mm, which is now the standard for the famed dive watch. Another significant feature of the Submariner case is, of course, its water resistance, which has since tripled from its original 100-meter rating to its current 300-meter rating.

Vintage Rolex Submariner Reference 6204

The Evolution of the Rolex Submariner Bezel and Crystal

One of the major design features of the Submariner is its bezel, which thanks to its 60-minute markings and ability to rotate, allows wearers to track how much time has been spent underwater during a dive.

Like almost all Submariner components, the bezel has undergone some major changes over the years. For instance, while the bezel could originally rotate in both directions, Rolex began rolling out unidirectional bezels in the late-1970s starting with the Submariner Date ref. 16800 and then the (no-date) Submariner ref. 14060 in 1990. The reason for this is to prevent underestimating immersion times in case an accidental knock causes the bezel to be moved out of place.

– Bidirectional Bezel: 1953 – 1979

– Unidirectional Bezel: 1979 – Present

Aside from the turning structure, Rolex also improved the bezel insert material throughout decades, starting with aluminum and then graduating to Cerachrom ceramic in 2008. While aluminum is lightweight, it is prone to scratching and fading. On the other hand, Cerachrom is exceedingly resistant to scratching and fading. Furthermore, rather than a printed scale as on the aluminum inserts, the Cerachom bezels have the markings and graduations engraved and then coated with either gold or platinum for an ultra-luxurious finish.

– Aluminum Bezel: 1953 – 2008

– Cerachrom Bezel: 2008 – Present

Sitting just beneath the bezel is the crystal shielding the dial, which also has evolved with the progression of the collection. Submariner watches were originally fitted with acrylic (aka Plexiglass) crystals. Yet, like aluminum bezels, acrylic crystals can get scratched rather easily. So Rolex switched to scratch-resistant sapphire crystal towards the end of the 1970s and early 1980s with the Submariner Date ref. 16800 and then later with the no-date Submariner ref. 14060.

– Acrylic Crystal: 1953 – 1979/1980s

– Sapphire Crystal: 1980s – Present

Gold Rolex Submariner Black Dial

The Evolution of the Rolex Submariner Dial and Lume

Aside from a few notable exceptions, Submariner watches all have Mercedes-style hands and a mix of triangular, rectangular, and round hour markers. Generally speaking, there are three distinct eras of the Submariner dial (though there is some overlap): gilt-gloss, matte, and glossy with gold surrounds.

Gilt-gloss dials are characterized by a glossy black finish and golden colored text while matte dials are defined by matte black dials and white printed text. Finally, the last and current iterations feature glossy backgrounds and applied 18k gold surrounds (either white or yellow) framing the hour markers.

– Gilt-Gloss: 1953 – 1967

– Matte: 1967 – 1989

– Glossy with Gold Surrounds: 1982 – Present

An essential feature of the Submariner dive watch is its ability to glow in the dark to permit wearers to read it in murky waters. The type of luminous material used to illuminate the hands and indexes has changed throughout the history of the Submariner, starting with radium, then tritium, then LumiNova, then Supe-rLumiNova, and now Chromalight.

– Radium: 1953 – 1963

– Tritium: 1963 – 1998

– LumiNova: 1998 – 2000

– Super-LumiNova: 2000 – 2008

– Chromalight: 2008 – Present

Radium and tritium are radioactive and therefore self-luminous, however vintage Submariner watches that originally used these paints typically no longer glow today. LumiNova and Super-LumiNova are both photoreactive and first need a light source to activate, then they glow green in the dark. Rolex’s proprietary Chromalight display also needs an initial charge by light, but then it glows blue.

Black Rolex Submariner 124060 No-Date

The Evolution of Rolex Submariner Materials and Colorways

Whereas Rolex has only ever made the Submariner in stainless steel and with black dials and bezels, the Submariner Date range is much more expansive with options in steel, steel/gold, and two shades of full gold.

The first yellow gold Submariner Date was launched in 1969 with the introduction of the ref. 1680/8. Then in 1983, Rolex unveiled the first two-tone steel and gold – also known as yellow Rolesor – version of the Submariner with the Submariner Date ref. 16803. Finally, 2008 was the year Rolex released the first white gold edition with the Submariner Date ref. 116619LB.

– Steel Submariner: 1953 – Present

– Gold Submariner: 1969 – Present

– Two-Tone Submariner: 1983 – Present

– White Gold Submariner: 2008 – Present

In addition to more material choices, the Rolex Submariner Date range has also included various dial and bezel color options other than black. Depending on the particular reference, there are stainless steel Submariner models with black or green bezels and black or green dials. The following are the green bezel versions.

– Submariner Date 16610LV: Steel case, green aluminum bezel, black dial

– Submariner Date 116610LV: Steel case, green Cerachrom bezel, green dial

– Submariner Date 126610LV: Steel case, green Cerachrom bezel, black dial.

Moreover, solid yellow gold and two-tone Submariners have always come with the option of a black dial and bezel or a blue dial and bezel combination. Finally, white gold Submariner watches have exclusively been fitted with blue bezels but the first generation included a blue dial while the newest version has a black dial.

– Submariner Date 116619LB: White gold case, blue Cerachrom bezel, blue dial

– Submariner Date 126619LB: White gold case, blue Cerachrom bezel, black dial

A quick way to tell a Rolex Submariner’s material and bezel color is to look at the reference number since the last digit indicates the metal and the letters denote the color of the bezel.

0 = Steel

3 = Yellow Rolesor

8 = Yellow Gold

9 = White Gold

LN (Lunette Noir) = Black Bezel

LB (Lunette Bleu) = Blue Bezel

LV (Lunette Verte) = Green Bezel

It is also important to point out that the specific type of steel used for Submariner watches has also evolved. In 1988, Rolex switched from industry-standard 316L steel to more corrosion-resistant 904L steel, first starting with just the Submariner cases and eventually rolling it out to the entire line of watches. In 2018, Rolex renamed the 904L steel alloy it uses to make its watches as Oystersteel.

Rolex Submariner Caliber 3235 Movement

The Evolution of Rolex Submariner Calibers

As previously mentioned, there are two main versions of Rolex’s famous dive watch, the Submariner and the Submariner Date. While the first indicates the time and the latter indicates the time and date, all Submariner models are automatic watches. Rolex has used various movements to power the Submariner since its inception in 1953.

Submariner Movements

– Caliber A260: 1953 – 1955

– Caliber A269: 1954

– Caliber 1030: 1954 – 1959

– Caliber 1530: 1958 – 1966

– Caliber 1520: 1963 – 1989

– Caliber 3030: 1990 – 1998

– Caliber 3130: 1998 – 2020

– Caliber 3230: 2020 – Present

Submariner Date Movements

– Caliber 1575: 1967 – 1979

– Caliber 3035: 1979 – 1988

– Caliber 3135: 1988 – 2020

– Caliber 3235: 2020 – Present

Vintage Rolex Submariner 6204 Dive Watch

The Rolex Submariner, Then and Now

Each new generation of the Rolex Submariner brought about incremental changes both in terms of aesthetics and mechanics, which has resulted in significant improvements over the course of almost 70 years. Though the Submariner has progressed since its introduction in the mid-20th Century, the link between the first and current model is undeniable.

A Submariner, regardless of its age, will always be recognized thanks to Rolex’s unwavering ability to stay true to the fundamentals while continuously and painstakingly improving every detail it can. As the model now approaches its seventh decade of production, it’s no wonder why the Rolex Submariner is the most famous and influential dive watch in the entire world.

Rolex Submariner 126610 LV Green Bezel

Paul Altieri
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