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The history of the Rolex Submariner is a true legend within the world of watchmaking. But why is this purpose-built sports watch also heralded as one of the most famous elegant dress watches of all time?
Perhaps it has something to do with its classic and highly versatile design. Or perhaps it is due to the famous names associated with this historic timepiece: Jacques Cousteau, James Bond, Sean Connery, Thor Heyerdal , the British Royal Navy, and COMEX (a famous French expeditionary diving company) - just to name a few. Beyond all the history and marketing hype, the Rolex Submariner simply has that timeless and sophisticated design that true watch aficionados want to see when they look down at their wrist.
The Submariner’s story begins in the early 1950s when Rolex director, Rene P. Jeanneret, who was also an amateur diver, encouraged the company to develop a sports watch specifically for scuba divers. Between 1953 and 1960, Rolex tested the limits of their famed Oyster case, as Auguste Piccard and his son, Jacques attempted a series of world diving records with an experimental Rolex watch - the Deep Sea Special - strapped to the outside of their submersible. By 1960, not only was the pair successful in taking their bathyscaphe, the Triste, to a new world record depth of 10,916 metres (35,800 feet) below the ocean’s surface, but the Rolex that accompanied them had survived too.
Around the same time in 1956, Jacques Cousteau made a documentary film about the Mediterranean Sea titled The Silent World, which ended up winning an Academy Award. Of course, Rolex made certain the famous oceanographer was prominently wearing a Rolex Submariner in all of the film’s shots, which helped cement the Submariner’s reputation as a serious tool for ocean exploration.
Despite experimenting with dive watches since the early 1950s, Rolex formally launched the Submariner in 1953 with the reference 6204. The new timepiece was highly water resistant and could withstand depths of 100 meters (330 feet), something no other watch company had previously been able to accomplish. This model (in addition to the ref. 6205), was a bit more slender than the “experimental” ref. 6200; however all three references were released within the span of a single year, and all were made available for sale to the general public by 1955.
Although the release of this new watch was considered wildly successful, it would not be until the 1960s that the Submariner would experience mass appeal. The groovy era is when the Submariner showed up on the wrist of Sean Connery in several James Bond 007 films (in the form of the ref. 6538), including some famous underwater scenes. In fact, the Submariner has shown up in no less than nine Bond films throughout the years, which is partly responsible for its widespread popularity.
What made the Submariner perfect for diving - other than its ability to work at incredible depths - is its rotating bezel that allows divers to keep track of elapsed time while they are submerged. Additionally, many of the Submariner’s other unique features were specifically created to accommodate the needs of professional divers, such as the Submariner’s famous latching safety clasp with wetsuit extension system.
Throughout the decades, the Rolex Submariner has slowly but steadily evolved. Despite constantly refining their design, Rolex has only made minor and incremental changes to the classic Submariner dive watch. In 1959, Rolex increased the case size of the Submariner to 40mm in diameter, and added crown guards to better protect the watch’s screw-down winding crown. Additionally a date-displaying version (complete with “Cyclops” magnification lens) was added to lineup in 1966 with the introduction of the “Red Submariner” ref. 1680, and a date-displaying Submariner has been an option in the Rolex catalog ever since.
Starting in the 1970s, Rolex also began transforming the Submariner into a more colorful timepiece. For years, all Submariner watches were craft from stainless steel, and were fitted with black dials and bezels. However, the Submariner watches produced from the 1970s onwards were also available in yellow gold and two-tone, and Rolex even offered the option of bright blue dials and bezels for the various precious metal versions.
In 1979, the Rolex Submariner saw a major update with the introduction of the ref. 16800. In addition to the updated Caliber 3035 movement, the new generation of Submariner watches also benefited from a ratcheting, unidirectional bezel and a scratch-resistant sapphire crystal (rather than acrylic like on previous models). Due to its more robust case design, the depth rating for this new generation of Submariner watches increased to 300 meters (1,000 feet), which is the same water resistance rating as the contemporary Submariner watches that Rolex manufactures today.
Additionally, since the late 1980s, Rolex has used 904L stainless steel (now known as “Oystersteel”) for the construction of its Submariner dive watches. This ultra corrosion-resistant steel is almost exclusively used within the aerospace and chemical industries, and is able to take on a remarkable shine when polished. In fact, no other company in the world except Rolex has the expertise or economies of scale to use this exclusive material for everyday timepieces.
In 2004, Rolex launched the green bezel (or LV as in “lunette verde”) version of the ref. 16610 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Submariner. Internally, this anniversary edition Submariner is identical to other ref. 16610 watches; however it features a black “Maxi” dial that has larger hour markers, slightly thicker hands, and a bright green aluminum bezel insert. Due to its appearance, the ref. 16610LV has earned the nickname the “Kermit” among many fans and enthusiasts, and this unique commemorative Submariner reference is now highly sought-after by today’s collectors.
The most recent major update to the Submariner came in 2008, when Rolex completely redesigned the case and bracelet of their iconic dive watch. First introduced on the solid gold version of the Submariner, and then carried over to the two-tone and stainless steel variants in subsequent years, the updated “super case” of the current generation of Submariner watches may be the most drastic update yet.
Although the watches retain the Caliber 3135 movement of their predecessors, they received a chunkier case, a “Maxi” dial with larger hour markers, thicker hands, a bracelet with a new clasp and solid center links, and a bezel insert made from Cerachrom (Rolex’s proprietary scratch-resistant ceramic material). Although the re-designed “super case” has the same 40mm diameter as the previous model, the lugs and crown guards have been made significantly thicker, giving the watch a much more bold and chunky overall appearance.
Despite the numerous changes, at its core, the contemporary Rolex Submariner is very much the same watch that Rolex first unveiled to the public more than a half century ago. Additionally, since its introduction in 1953, the Rolex Submariner has been the blueprint for contemporary sports watches, and nearly all dive watches that exist today were (in some way or another) influenced by the Rolex Submariner. A key part of the Submariner’s enduring success and one of the many reasons why it is so special lies in the fact that the Rolex Submariner has retained its rugged and sporty appeal throughout all these years, while simultaneously always being sophisticated enough to wear to a formal dinner party or boardroom meeting.