We’ve made it something of our personal mission here at Bob’s Watches to do everything we can to dispel the myth that Rolex watches are expensive.
Where a casual observer could visit the Swiss legend’s website and see prices that would buy them a pretty decent car, the clued-in collector sees instead one of the rarest instances of a luxury item that will not only retain its value but also appreciate over time. While that car does nothing but lose money with every tick of the odometer, a Rolex represents a genuinely savvy investment—hold on to one for long enough, and you will end up making a profit.
Just how much profit depends on the model, and the specific version of that model, you buy. Some watches will always be in demand, the popularity of others ebbs and flows on the whims of fashion.
If you’re looking for one watch that does everything—timeless styling and a rock-solid security—the Rolex Submariner is a perfect choice. Whether you’re an old hand adding to your collection, a newbie just dipping your toes into the murky waters of the vintage market, or simply someone who appreciates iconic design and peerless engineering, the Sub has all the bases covered.
What Does a Submariner Cost?
In constant production since 1953, the Submariner is quintessential Rolex and possibly the most recognizable form in the horology world. Its long life has been marked by countless upgrades, improvements and progressions and left us with a vintage and pre-owned market populated with examples ranging in price from the pleasantly surprising to the outright terrifying.
It can be a minefield for even a seasoned enthusiast, so below we’ve put together a set of guidelines to give you an idea what you should expect to get for your money.
And, as with everything in the vintage watch world, who you buy from is just as important as what you buy—and doubly so with a Submariner. Holding the dubious distinction as the most counterfeited watch in the world, it’s believed there are now more fakes in circulation than the real thing. Found a Sub for a price that’s too good to be true? Chances are, yes you have! While genuine Rolexes aren’t expensive, bogus ones are extortionate. Do your homework on the seller and tread carefully.
The Rolex Submariner for $5,000-$10,000
The $5,000 to $10,000 range is stocked primarily with steel versions of the world’s favorite dive watch, although you can still find excellent gold examples at the higher end of the scale without too much trouble.
An especially tempting purchase in this price bracket, for a couple of reasons, is the last of the non-Cerachrom bezel series, the steel ref. 16610 date or the ref. 14060 no-date models, introduced in 1989.
Firstly, they can be the least expensive buy-in to the Submariner family; a beautiful, robust watch that gives a lot of bang for the buck. And secondly, take a quick look at some examples of any hardworking Rolex sports model from a generation ago, and you’ll see the sort of time-faded aluminum bezel that has a story to tell—and vintage collectors love a story.
The new ceramic material Rolex has been using in the Submariner’s latest incarnation since 2010, while technically impressive in terms of strength, has been designed to resist fading, robbing modern watches of the chance to develop a unique patina that sets them apart from any other. The versions that precede this series-wide innovation are likely to become highly sought-after future classics.
The Cerachrom Subs themselves, of course, benefit from a number of modernizations that keep them at the forefront of the industry, and you’ll come across plenty of these models too for under $10,000.
Along with the high tech bezel, the Submariner ref. 116610 also saw its caliber, the Cal. 3135, receive the Parachrom Bleu hairspring that improves timekeeping accuracy and offers up to 10 times greater shock protection.
In addition, it was the Sub to introduce the Maxi dial to the range, with its fatter hands and indexes giving an uprated readability, helped even more by the inclusion of Chromalight, Rolex’s new lume. The replacement for Superluminova, Chromalight casts a bluish-green tint that glows brighter for longer.
The bodywork too, while still the standard 40mm diameter, wears larger thanks to what Rolex calls the Supercase. Beefed-up lugs and a crown guard almost twice the size of its predecessor left the watch with much more wrist presence. And to top it off, and delight fans who have complained about it for years, the Oyster bracelet now comes with solid links, giving it not only a more worthy feeling weight but going a long way to combat the unwanted bracelet stretch of older models.
For between $5,000 and $10,000, you can expect to come across some stunning examples of the steel Submariner, as well as a healthy number of yellow gold and Rolesor models from the 1980s through to the 2000s. More likely to fluctuate in value due to the ever-changing price of precious metals, they make an eye-catching alternative to the utilitarian original.
As a side note, it is possible to find Subs for less than our $5,000 start point, but if you do, it will be worth your while triple-checking the reputation of the seller.
Rolex Submariner for $10,000 to $20,000
A move into five-figure territory opens up access to some very special references of the Submariner.
The most recent release of the two-tone ref. 116613, crafted from 904L steel and 18k yellow gold from Rolex’s own foundry, can be easily sourced at just over the dime mark. Available with a blue dial and bezel (LB) or in black (LN), they each successfully tread the line between out and out tool watch and a timepiece versatile enough to wear with just about anything.
If green is your color, the Sub marked its half-century in 2003 with the introduction of the ref. 16610LV, a steel, Maxi-dialed celebration ringed with an emerald bezel. A shock to the system on its launch, the unorthodox color scheme from the usually straight-laced Swiss has now become an enticing target for collectors. Seven years later, Rolex built on the success of the Kermit, as the 16610LV was quickly labeled, and brought out the Rolex Submariner 116610LV, with a green dial to go alongside the Cerachrom bezel, and earning it the nickname The Hulk. Both watches sit comfortably within the $10k-$20k range.
The step up in price also brings some of the truly classic vintages within reach, important slices of Rolex history with unrivaled pedigrees.
The ref. 5512 was released in 1958 and enjoyed a 20-year run that sealed the Sub’s reputation as an icon, a status done no harm at all by it appearing on the wrist of Steve McQueen. Although he is more often associated, erroneously, with the Explorer II, it was the clean lines and no date symmetry of the 5512 for the coolest man who ever lived. In 1962, the ref. 5513 joined in, another no date Sub that ran until 1989.
Without getting into the fine details over the distinctions between the two, which could fill a post of its own, the 5512 and 5513 are, very generally speaking, the same watch, but most 5512s contained COSC rated movements, whereas the 5513 did not. It is this subtle difference that added an extra two lines of text to the 5512’s dial, designating it as a ‘Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified’.
As is the way with vintage Rolex collectors, it’s minute details like this, along with seemingly trivial changes to elements such as bracelets, bezel coloring and even the font used in the wording, that can add huge premiums to the price of a classic watch.
For under $20,000, some excellent versions of these two much-loved pieces are certainly attainable, considered the last of the ‘pure’ Submariners by hardcore fans, before the arrival of the ref. 1680 in 1969 brought the hotly-debated date function and even more dividing Cyclops lens.
$20,000 and Beyond
$20,000-plus for a watch is a lot of money in anybody’s language (possibly with the exception of the Paul Newman’s new owner), and it buys an awful lot of Submariner.
The two most opulent variations occupy much of the pre-owned market space at the lower end of this price point. The ref. 116618LB, an attention grabbing all yellow gold model, and the 116619LB, the truly stunning white gold example known as the Smurf can both be found in their newest, blue dial and bezel editions for between $20k and $30k.
As well as introducing more precious metal options, higher prices tend to open up real curiosities and special editions, going back through the Sub’s illustrious history. Here, you’ll find the kinds of names that are music to the ears of every die-hard vintage Rolex collector.
The famous ‘Single Red’ ref. 1680, the first of the Submariners to have that date function, or the ref. 6536/1, known as the ‘James Bond’, will take you past, sometimes way past, the $30k mark, depending on their condition and countless other tiny details.
Beyond that, there is only really the question of how much you want to spend. It’s not unusual to find Subs breaking the $100k mark, for which you are entitled to something extraordinary—ultra rare specialist pieces or even one offs. The most expensive example ever sold was auctioned off this year, a unique white gold prototype of the ref. 1680 that reached $628,572.
In the End…
The Submariner is probably the most important sports watch ever made, a trailblazer emulated by many but never surpassed. Whether your budget stretches to the archetypal steel original or off into the stratosphere, you will become the owner of a timeless piece of watchmaking virtuosity.
And feel free to use our guide to see current Rolex prices.