Rolex Submariner
Rolex Submariner

The Must-know History Behind Rolex’s Iconic Submariner

Words by Jody Hume | 10.22.14
The Rolex Submariner is one of the most iconic watches ever made. Its simple, classic design has spawned thousands of look-alikes, and practically defined the style of the hugely popular divers watch. Found on the wrists of captains of industry and captains of fishing trawlers in equal measure, the Submariner is famous the world over for its timeless style and bulletproof toughness. This combination of iconic design and flawless functionality make the Sub a supremely desirable watch. Its worth is recognized globally, and not only do Subs hold their value, but the market demand for vintage models has steadily increased over the last two decades.
But how did this simple steel watch, developed in 1953 become such an icon? Well, the secrets to the Sub’s success are, in equal measure, its consistent design, its reliability and the fact that, for many years, it was James Bond’s watch of choice.
The Design
The Rolex Submariner has been in production for 60 years, and while it’s been released in a range of reference numbers with small design tweaks, the overall core design has remained surprisingly unchanged. The bezel with luminous insert (or pearl) and the Mercedes handset are the most obvious features, but the oyster bracelet, the dial with its distinctive pattern of indices; triangle at 12, large hashes at 3, 6 and 9 and dots for every other hour — on their own all these design details don’t seem particularly significant, but add them all together and the watch you end up with can only be the Rolex Submariner.

Rolex Submariner

Some of the reasons vintage Rolex Subs are so desirable, however, are the exceptions to the above rules, and the slight variations. So it’s a world full of reference numbers, and nicknames – Subs come with big crowns, sword hands, explorer dials, gilt dials, four lines, two lines, tropical dials, Bart Simpsons, and other more esoteric features. Some of the most popular vintage references are the no date 5512 and 5513 models that are loved by watch purists who feel the date window mars the harmony of the dial.
The Real Deal
Rolex Submariner
Because Submariners are so popular, and as the models get rarer (like military issued Subs or explorer dialed Subs) the prices start going up exponentially, you really need to do your research and buy from reputable, trusted sources.
Not only are Rolex watches the most widely counterfeited watches in the world, there also exists an industry in genuine Rolex watches that are doctored with a few fake or altered parts (most commonly dials), to turn a regular Sub into one which could be sold to an unknowing buyer for a whole lot more cash. It’s a jungle out there, so do your research and if the deal seems to good to be true – it probably is!
The 6538 – The ‘Bond’ Submariner
Rolex Submariner
One particularly famous Submariner is the reference 6538, one of the ‘big crown’ Submariners, which lacks the guards most Subs have on each side of the crown. The 6538 is famous because it was the first watch worn by James Bond – and not just any Bond, but Sean Connery’s Bond. And as such it’s become an instant, iconic symbol of masculine cool. Interestingly, Connery didn’t wear his Bond Sub on the usual oyster bracelet in Dr. No, but rather on a nylon strap favored by divers as it was easy to fit over a wetsuit.
The Deepsea
Rolex  Deepsea Sea-Dweller
It’s important to note that the Submariner isn’t the only dive watch Rolex makes – they also make the Sea-Dweller and the Deepsea. All three of these dive watches look very similar at first glance, and all are from Rolex’s professional series of watches — timepieces designed and built as functional tools, not just accessories — but these watches are built to be especially robust, often with more water resistance and more robust movements. Of this family the Deepsea is without doubt the toughest – like a Submariner on steroids. Its case is more massive, and it can handle depths of up to 3900 meters.

Rolex  Deepsea Sea-Dweller

Few watches have had such a profound impact on watch design as the Rolex Submariner. Not only was it a groundbreaking dive watch, but it is also an enduring icon, and a must-have for every serious watch collection.
Felix Scholz is the editor of Time+Tide.

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