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A Historical Look at the Very First Rolex Submariner: The Reference 6204

The Rolex Submariner has long been one of vintage-watch collectors’ most pursued and celebrated timepieces, and it is, without a doubt, one of the most iconic and recognizable wristwatches ever produced – by any manufacturer. To many collectors, the Submariner is synonymous with the essence and spirit of Rolex, and today we are taking an in-depth look at the very first Rolex Submariner ever released to the public: the reference 6204.

THE HISTORY

In 1953, Rolex introduced their Submariner line of dive watches in the form of the reference 6204. At the time of the Submariner’s initial release, scuba diving was still a very new sport, and the concept of a watch specifically designed for underwater use was still just in its very beginning stages. Although Rolex had no idea of it at the time, their Submariner line of watches would go on to become one of the most storied and successful timepieces on this planet.

 

The Submariner’s DNA has its roots in the reference 6202 Rolex Turn-O-Graph that was released shortly before the Submariner made its debut. Within the very first year following its initial introduction, the following three Submariner references were released.

  • Reference 6200
  • Reference 6204
  • Reference 6205

There is some debate regarding the exact commercial release of these three different Submariner references - along with some production overlap, which complicates things further; however all three references made appearances within the same year, and it is generally believed that the reference 6204 holds the honor of being the very first. Based on serial number records, among these three early Rolex Submariner references – the 6200, 6204, and 6205 – the earliest serial number case engravings appear on reference 6204 watches that have caseback stamps from II.53.

Now, the specific Submariner reference that was developed first by Rolex is a matter of some debate, as the reference numbers are out of order if you follow a sequential serial number sequence. Logically, the reference 6200 would be first, followed by the reference 6204 and 6205; however the serial number engravings argue otherwise, and it is the belief of many collectors that the reference 6204 was actually the first Submariner to be commercially released to the public.

As far as the reason behind this numerical inconsistency, many believe that Rolex started development of the reference 6200 first; however - for some unknown reason - the watch was not ready for production by the time Rolex wanted to launch their Submariner line, and so the 6204 was released first, quickly followed by the reference 6200 and 6205. The fact that the reference 6202 Turn-O-Graph made an appearance before the reference 6200 Submariner proves that reference numbers were not the end-all determining factor for when Rolex would release a watch, so it is highly possible that Rolex had the concept for the reference 6200 first; however it was ultimately the reference 6204 that was the first Submariner to be sold to the public. Although Rolex has yet to comment on this matter, this appears to be the most plausible explanation.

rolex gmt 16750

Rolex designed and marketed the reference 6204 Submariner as a true waterproof diver’s watch that could be used reliably underwater at great depths. Consequently, Rolex equipped it with a black rotating bezel, which could be used to time events while submerged. Although this feature resulted in a less dressy and more purpose-built appearance, this was completely fitting for the Submariner, as it was designed to be a serious piece of diving gear, not the luxury lifestyle icon that it is today.

Upon its release, the Submariner was the first watch in the world to be guaranteed water resistant to a depth of 100 meters. Unlike later Submariner models, the vast majority of reference 6204 dials did not specify the depth to which the watch could be submerged; however it is generally understood that it was rated to a depth of 100 meters (330 feet) - the same depth to which other, later-production “small crown” Submariner references have been certified.

By the time the Submariner first made its appearance, Rolex had already built a strong reputation for being able to seal a timepiece against harmful moisture and dirt. However, up until this point in history, there was no real need for a wristwatch that could function flawlessly at significant depths underwater. Some marketing material around the time of its release claimed that the reference 6204 Submariner could handle depths of 200 meters (660 feet), so it is possible that Rolex was not yet able to achieve consistent depth tests, and therefore could not formally certify the reference 6204’s depth rating or have it printed on its dial.

Rolex approached the initial design of the Submariner, along with all of its subsequent iterations, with an eye towards long-term functional use. It is due to this purposeful approach to design, that the current production model of the Submariner still largely resembles the very first version to ever leave the Rolex factory. Its design followed its functionality – as should always be the case with a “tool” watch. However, with minimal ornamentation and a rugged, timeless aesthetic, the Submariner has since gone on to become a true industry icon, and represents the apex of functionality and understated elegance.


THE CASE

The earliest reference 6204 Submariners have serial numbers that fall within the 900xxx range, and were released in early 1953. The reference 6204 is truly a “small crown” Submariner – in fact, it is the only Submariner to bear a 5.3mm winding crown. All later “small crown” Submariners were upgraded to the larger, 6mm Twinlock winding crowns.  

The stainless steel Oyster case of the reference 6204 Submariner is comprised of three main parts: the middle case, the screw-down (bubble-style) caseback, and the crystal/bezel-retaining ring. Early Submariners were fitted with self-winding A260 and A296 movements, and are often referred to as “bubble back Subs” because of both the movement used, and the rounded shape of the casebacks that were required to house them.

The case of the reference 6204 Submariner was mostly brushed/satin-finished, rather than gloss/high-polished. When they originally left the Rolex factory, all reference 6204 cases were brushed along their side surfaces, with a high-polished finish only on the bevels of the lugs. The top surfaces of the lugs on the reference 6204 were brushed circularly – as they are on most Submariner references, and the overall lack of high-polished surfaces give the reference 6204 a very utilitarian and purpose-built appearance. Due to their age, limited production numbers, and history of rough and demanding use, it is becoming increasing less common to come across a reference 6204 Submariner that still has its original, factory-finished case.

The reference 6204 Submariner was able to achieve its 100 meter water resistance with the help of Rolex’s screw-down winding crown and extra-thick “Tropic” acrylic (plastic) crystal. Original Rolex Tropic crystals are easily identified by their domed shape, and are a signature detail on all vintage Submariners (the original crystal for the reference 6204 Submariner is known as a “Tropic 16”). The space between the outer edge of the crystal and the top of the case was made watertight via the crystal/bezel retaining ring - which, when applied with pressure around the crystal, sat flush with the middle case to create a strong waterproof seal. The crystal/bezel retaining ring is known as such because it is also the component to which the rotating bezel is secured around the face of the watch.

Rolex Submariner 6204


THE BEZEL

The rotating bezels on early bubble back Submariners, like the reference 6204, have the lowest-profile among the different Submariner bezels, and are craft from a brass alloy and plated in a white-metal to match the rest of the watch. You will frequently see “brassing” along the sides and edges of the bezel, which is simply where the original brass base metal is peeking through the worn plating on its exterior surfaces. These early bezels often wore out or broke, and were subsequently replaced during routine service with later-era bezels that have a taller profile than their predecessors. The original low-profile bezel is a subtle but important detail that serious collectors love to see on well-preserved vintage Submariner references.



The bezel insert for the reference 6204 was the very first in the long evolution of Submariner inserts. The very earliest, “no hash” inserts have minute demarcations only at the 10-minute intervals, while later 1950s Submariner bezel inserts incorporated minute hashes. Additionally, the earliest reference 6204 bezel inserts have no hole inside the triangle at the 60-minute marker, and are now incredibly rare.

The most common style of “no hash” reference 6204 bezel inserts have a small hole drilled partially through the insert, inside the 60-minute marker triangle. Glowing radium was then applied to the area inside the recess. With time and use, the radium paint in these pips often cracked and crumbled out, leaving only the hole behind.


THE DIAL

From 1953 until about 1966, all Rolex Submariner dials were printed galvanically. Consequently all reference 6204 watches were originally fitted with dials of this general style. Known as “gilt” dials among collectors, these galvanically printed dials are easily recognized by their distinct gold text and gloss black surfaces. Rather than applying gold ink on top of a black background, gilt dials are created by a metal treatment process in which the gold writing is an inversely printed under the upper gloss black layer.

If you examine a gilt Rolex dial closely under a decent level of magnification, you will see that the gold colored, galvanically-printed text is slightly recessed when compared to the adjacent black background, A coat of clear protective lacquer was then applied to the surface, adding a glossy finish to the surface of the dial.

Certain watches have additional ink printed atop their glossy protective layers – the text is usually duller and not as reflective in the light as the galvanically printed lettering. On reference 6204 watches, dial text varied – despite its incredibly short production run, and surviving examples can be found with different combinations of galvanically printed lettering, and additional text printed atop the clear protective lacquer.  

The final step in creating the dial of the reference 6204 was the application of luminous material to the areas within the hour indexes. During the 1950s, highly radioactive radium was used to give the hands and hour markers their glow-in-the-dark properties, and a reference 6204 Submariner that still has its original dial and hands will have a high radiation reading when measured with a Geiger counter, but will emit only a slight glow when exposed to a UV light.

It is important to note that these early reference 6204 Submariner dials used a natural nitrocellulose lacquer that almost always ended up deteriorating over time, and the vast majority of original reference 6204 dials now have a more matte, or bubbled texture to them. However, it is more than likely that these early Submariner dials were never as glossy as the late 1950s gilt dials, even when they were brand-new.

There are also some early reference 6204 service dials that were produced during the late 1950s and early 1960s that have the same dial layout and text format; however their surfaces are extremely glossy. It was also quite common for early reference 6204 watches to have been re-lumed at some point in time, and it is now safe to say that there are more re-lumed reference 6204 Submariner watches than there are those that still have their original radium luminescent markers intact.  

The earliest Submariner dials, including those originally fitted to the reference 6204 (which was around between 1953 and 1954), were most likely produced by a company called Stern. Many Stern dials, including those found on the reference 6200 and early reference 6538 watches, with serial number engravings that correspond to production dates ranging from 1954 to around 1956, are readily identifiable by the star-shaped Stern hallmark that is stamped into the rear side of the dial plate, While many reference 6204 and reference 6205 dials that are confirmed to be original lack any rear hallmarks, the timing of their production would be consistent with when Rolex was fitting Stern-manufactured dials to their Submariner dive watches.

Since they were equipped with either A260 or A296 movements, all of the early “bubble back” Submariner references were originally fitted with dials that slightly curved downward along their outer edges, towards the movement below. This detail, combined with the curvature of the heavily-domed acrylic crystal, gives the faces of these watches a great amount of depth and a unique presence, especially when worn on the wrist.

The earliest reference 6204 watches were fitted with what has become known as “split logo” dials by today’s collectors. The “split logo” name refers to the text across the dial, which is printed on either side of the center hole where the hands are mounted to the movement (hence the “split logo” designation). A similar format of printing can be found on the dials of reference 6202 Turn-O-Graph timepieces from roughly the same time period.

Split-logo reference 6204 Submariner watches are extremely rare and most commonly found with serials numbers in the 949xxx range. While earlier examples with honeycomb or textured, “waffle” dials are known to exist, there are confirmed records of about a dozen split-logo Submariners in the 949xxx serial number range. These earliest reference 6204 Submariner watches have block-letter-style hallmarks on the inside of their casebacks, and are usually dated II.53.

Additionally, there are several variations of the “split logo” dial. The two primary versions are the “honeycomb” or “waffle’ dials, and those with smooth surfaces, which offer a similar overall text layout. However, within those two main categories are several subtle variations.

The more common, split-logo dial has the word “Submariner” printed on the top half of its surface and reads, “Submariner Perpetual” – in a layout that is similar to the dials found on reference 6202 watches from the same time period. The bottom half of these dials reads “Officially Certified Chronometer.” There’s also a version of this dial that does not bear the OCC markings, but instead reads, “Oyster Perpetual” at the top in a split format, with “Submariner” printed on the bottom half.

The most common dial variation for reference 6204 watches appears in the 988xxx serial number range. This dial format has “Rolex” printed on the top half, followed by “Oyster Perpetual” right below it. The bottom half of the dial is either left completely plain, or emblazoned with the word, “Submariner” – which is either galvanically printed, or (on far fewer examples) printed in gold ink on top of the layer of lacquer.

As Rolex serial numbers approached the 1,000,000 mark – roughly around the end of 1953 or early 1954 – the company decided to “reset” their sequential numerical system, rather than adding an extra digit to the serial numbers that were engraved on the cases of their watches. After the Rolex serial number system reset, the reference 6204 Submariner emerged again – this time under the “Sub-Aqua” name – giving these new reference 6204 watches serial numbers in the 42xxx range.

It is believed that the “Sub-Aqua” reference 6204 was sold exclusively on  the U.K. market, and despite its different name, was the exact same as other, Submariner-branded, reference 6204 watches – just with different text printed on its dial. Some theories exist that this was due to issues surrounding a trademark on the “Submariner” name, which affected Rolex’s ability to use it in certain markets, In either instance,  it was a market-specific release, the “Sub-Aqua” text was applied on top of the lacquer layer in gold ink, rather than being galvanically printed.

THE HANDS

The reference 6204 was produced with several different hand configurations. The very first examples were fitted with “pencil-style” hands (like those found on many reference 6202 watches), paired with a seconds hand that has a small circular tip filled with luminous material. Additionally, there are a few styles of seconds hands – one with its lume-filled circle placed directly at its outer tip, and others with their circles located further down, closer to base of the hand (like on later-era Submariner references).

Beyond that, the size of the luminous circle can also vary. Some reference 6204 watches have “big bubble” sweep seconds hands, while others – typically those with their luminous circles placed directly at their tips – have circles that are significantly smaller than those found on almost any other Submariner reference.

You can identify original pencil-style hands by the wide diameter of the barrel of the hour hand, which appears as a pronounced rim extending beyond the rim of the barrel of the minute hand. Lastly, some reference 6204 watches do not have pencil-style hands at all, and instead bear the “long hour” Mercedes hands paired with a big bubble seconds hand.

A HUGE RANGE IN PRICES

As the very first Rolex Submariner ever, the primary value behind reference 6204 watches resides in their collectability. While market prices for contemporary Submariner watches are incredibly tight-knit, there exists a massive range in values when it comes to rare vintage references. Condition is paramount in determining value, and due to the variation that exists among early Rolex sports watches, it is not uncommon for one vintage Submariner to sell for several times more than another example of the exact same reference.

Prices for well-preserved examples of reference 6204 Submariner watches have absolutely exploded in recent years, and now can reach into the six-figure territory. The vast majority of surviving reference 6204 watches have had parts replaced over the years due to wear and damage, and a watch that still has its circa-correct components is often worth exponentially more than an otherwise-identical timepiece that has been fully restored and had a number of parts replaced. This massive difference in prices is not at all due to a tumultuous market, but rather how much certain factors like condition and originality can impact the value of vintage Rolex watches.

THE ONE THAT STARTED IT ALL

Although it was designed specifically for scuba diving, individuals from all different lifestyles purchased the Submariner for its robust design, highly legible display, superior water-resistance, and classic good looks. Over the course of the next half-century, the Submariner’s recognition and popularity would grow, making it one of the most iconic and sought-after watches in the entire world.

With a 37mm case diameter, pencil-style hands, and a small (but proportional) winding crown, the reference 6204 shares more in common with early reference 6202 Turn-O-Graph watches than later-era Submariners without crown guards, which were manufactured several years thereafter. However, as the very first Submariner, this is appropriate, since the reference 6204 marks the point where Rolex’s sport watches became adapted for life underwater, and the legendary Submariner collection was born.

Given that it is the very first Submariner ever, the reference 6204 holds a truly special place within Rolex’s history; however it also possesses a number of traits that make it especially interesting for vintage collectors, and which significantly help separate it from other, later-era Submariner watches. Additionally, the numerous dial, bezel, and hand variations that can be found on surviving reference 6204 watches adds to the diversity and overall excitement that surrounds this very special and important timepiece from Rolex’s early dive-watch history.

The reference 6204 Submariner was only manufactured for one year, and due to its age and incredibly short production run, surviving examples - let alone those in all-original condition, have become insanely rare and valuable today. The Submariner is the quintessential dive watch and a keystone figure within the entire wristwatch industry. The vast majority of dive watches in existence today are in some way influenced by Rolex’s Submariner; and as the very first Submariner ever, it could be argued that the reference 6204 was the watch that started it all.

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