When it comes to vintage Rolex, it is the tiny, almost undetectable differences that account for thousands, even tens of thousands of dollars in value. Among Submariners, several references stand out and are highly regarded by aficionados and collectors. Rolex introduced the Submariner in 1953 so all those early models from the 1950s will be valuable. One particular reference to note is the vintage Submariner ref. 5508 that debuted in 1958. By no means was it the first Submariner, but rather, it represents a crossroads in the watch’s history and the end of a particular style for Rolex’s now-famous diving watch.
Join us as we lay out the history, evolution, and importance of the vintage Rolex Submariner 5508.
About the Rolex Submariner 5508
Rolex Submariner 5508 Quick Specs
- Production Years: 1958 – 1962
- Case: 38mm
- Crown: 6mm, No Crown Guards
- Material: Stainless Steel
- Bezel: Bidirectional Rotating; Black Aluminum
- Dial: Black Gilt Gloss, Chapter Ring, Mercedes Hands, No-Date,
- Lume: Radium
- Caliber: 1530 Automatic Movement
- Original Water Resistance: 100 meters (330 Feet)
Brief History of the Submariner 5508
Rolex introduced the Submariner 5508 in 1958 following about half a dozen other references. All these Submariner references in a matter of five years since the launch of the Submariner model are hard to imagine today as we’ve become used to Rolex producing the same reference for at least a decade.
The company was experimenting with the design of the Submariner in the 1950s, trying to nail the perfect balance of legibility, durability, and performance to produce the ultimate diving watch. This wasn’t an exercise to create the most luxurious sports watch in the world – it was the pursuit of making the most dependable tool watch for underwater divers.
Those early Submariner models from the fifties varied in terms of water resistance, dial details, and crown size. Before the 5508, there were incongruences among Submariner dials. Some featured dials with hour markers- similar to those on contemporary Submariners, while others contained Explorer-style dials with 3, 6, and 9 indicators. Many collectors divide these vintage 1950’s Subs into “Big Crown” and “Small Crown” groups.
The Submariner ref. 5508 is a “Small Crown” variety, featuring a 6mm crown (for comparison, the “Big Crown” Submariners included 8mm crowns) and a slightly slimmer case. Rolex produced the Submariner 5508 until 1962 and its production run overlapped with other models like the Submariner 6538, 5510, and 5512.
Another key adjustment that came with the 5508 was the switch in Submariner reference numbers to the 55xx string, which lasted all the way into the 1990s.
Rolex Submariner 5508 Design Details
- The last 38mm Submariner
- The last no-crown-guard Submariner
- The last 6mm “Small Crown” Submariner
- The last 100m (330 feet) water resistant Submariner
Like all Submariners that came before it, the Submariner 5508 featured a 38mm steel case, black aluminum rotating timing bezel with a 60-minute scale, and a black dial with a trio of hands to indicate the hours, minutes, and seconds.
Since this is a vintage model, the dial is gilt-gloss (characterized by a glossy black background punctuated with gold-colored text) and the luminous material used was radium. However, the 5508 was made during the time when the dangers of radium became more widely understood; therefore, Rolex used a lower concentration of radium on later 5508s.
For the Submariner 5508, Rolex opted for the Mercedes-style hands and a mix of round and rectangular hour markers, along with the inverted triangle at 12 o’clock. This layout has since become the standard for Submariners.
While the reference 5508 marked a company trend towards standardization, it was also one of the last references to feature characteristics that were emblematic of the very first Submariners. Chiefly among these features is the lack of crown guards. Although crown guards are now a quintessential element of the contemporary Submariner, none of the first references had them – a change that took place shortly after the 5508. The Submariner 5508 was the last model to not include crown guards and to feature a 38mm case. What followed was the larger 40mm Submariner 5512 with guards protecting its 7mm crown.
An additional classic feature of the 5508 was its depth rating. The very first Submariner (reference 6204) had a water resistance of 100 meters, and the vast majority of Submariners that followed in the 1950s also featured 100-meter depth ratings (some boasted 200 meters). The reference 5508 was the last Submariner to have 100m water resistance as subsequent references featured depth ratings of 200 meters or more.
One notable change that happened during the production of the Submariner 5508 is the evolution of the bezel. The earliest versions included a red triangle on the bezel (at the zero position), similar to the preceding Submariner 6538. However, Rolex eventually changed it to a silver-colored triangle with later examples. Regardless of the color of the triangle, all Submariner 5508 bezels include hashes for the first 15 minutes followed by marks (alternating between numbers and sticks) every five minutes after that. Unlike modern Submariners with unidirectional bezels (for better safety), the bezel of the vintage 5508 turns both ways.
Powering the reference 5508 is the Caliber 1530 nickel-finished lever automatic movement, featuring 25 jewels and a monometallic compensation balance. Both this movement and the one that came before it (caliber 1030) are known as “butterfly movements” due to the shape of their rotors, however, the caliber 1530 is more modern and reliable than its predecessor.
Submariner 5508: The End of an Era
The Rolex Submariner Reference 5508 is highly regarded because it is both the first and the last to feature certain pivotal characteristics.
When a company has been around for as long as Rolex, and when it has made as few changes as it has to the Submariner, references that mark the end of certain features and the beginning of others certainly have their place in the hearts – and on the wrists – of true collectors.