The History of the Rolex Submariner

The Complete History of the Rolex Submariner

The Submariner can be described as the most iconic, recognizable, influential, imitated and important sports watch of all time.

It also carries the unfortunate title of being the most counterfeited watch.

Introduced in 1953, the Rolex Submariner was the first diver's watch waterproof to 100 metres.

It features a 60-minute rotating bezel to help divers keep track of the time they have spent underwater, and the dial is generously coated with luminous paint to improve visibility in the dark.

The first Submariners were made from stainless steel and had a black bezel paired with a black time-only dial.

Later, Rolex added the Submariner Date model, available in a variety of metals and colors.

Naturally, the specifications, functions and materials have improved over the past 60 years, but the basic design has remained largely unchanged since its creation in 1953.

Throughout its long and eventful history, the Rolex Submariner has evolved to become a masterpiece filled with fascinating details and rich cultural significance, making both modern and vintage models essential pieces for any serious watch collection.

But how did the Submariner come about?

This concludes all our dive watches, tracing the birth and evolution of the dive watch.

Rolex Submariner

Until then, watches were only worn by aristocrats, were fragile, had very low accuracy, and were little more than jewelry. However, they began to be properly valued as men's ornaments.

Two Rolex inventions demonstrated that a new breed of wristwatch was robust and convenient enough for men to wear, effectively putting an end to the pocket watch, which had been the universal way for gentlemen to tell time for centuries.

Rolex Submariner

Diver's Watch

Rolex's relationship with the sea goes back long before the Submariner.

Rolex, which had been working on the challenge of making watches waterproof since the brand was founded in the early 20th century, perfected the famous Oyster case in 1926.

This technological innovation means that your watch can now be worn every day, all day, in a variety of extreme conditions.

Furthermore, Rolex's Oyster case and the automatic perpetual movement perfected in 1931 dramatically changed the practicality of wristwatches.

Two of Rolex's key technologies were put to best use in the brand's first true diver's watch.

Rolex Communications Director René-Paul Jeanneret

The Submariner was conceived in the early 1950s by then-Public Rene-Paul Jeanneret.

An avid diver, Jeanneret was instrumental in creating the concept of the tool watch, the idea that a watch could do more than simply tell the time.

This concept ushered in a true Golden Age for Rolex, with legendary models such as the Explorer, GMT-Master, Milgauss, Turn-O-Graph and Daytona being released one after the other within a few years.

But the Submariner was just as impressive.

Rolex Submariner

Reaching New Depths

In September 1953, Swiss scientist Auguste Piccard's bathyscaphe (a small deep-sea exploration vessel) was fitted with a specially designed Rolex diver's watch on the outside and dived to a depth of 3,131.8 metres, returning to the surface without any signs of flooding.

The following month, the Deep Sea Laboratory in Cannes published a test report stating that the vessel had successfully completed 132 dives over a five-month period, at depths ranging from 12m to 60m.

I dived it multiple times with the crown pulled out to the time-setting position and never saw any signs of water getting in.

Meanwhile, watches from other brands have all been reported to have malfunctioned along the way.

As a final test, the watch was strapped down and lowered to a depth of 120m for over an hour, with no signs of water ingress detected even after exceeding the rated resistance of 20m.

Rolex Submariner

Rolex's first Submariner

Although the Rolex Submariner is the most famous diver's watch in the world, it was not the first diver's watch ever made.

Depending on your definition, that honor might go to the 1932 Omega Marine or the 1936 Panerai Radiomir (a watch made for the Italian special forces, the Regia Marina, which used a Rolex case and movement).

However, a French brand, designed in collaboration with the Navy, could be said to be the first modern diver's watch as we recognise it today.

The Blancpain Fifty Fathoms was a model that really defined what was needed in an underwater timing device, and was conceived by two military divers, Captain Robert Maloubier and his adjutant, Lieutenant Claude-Jean Riffaud.

They raised a unit of underwater agents (Nageuers de Combat) in 1952 for the French Ministry of Defense.

Since there was almost no suitable equipment available, we had to take matters into our own hands and make the equipment that suited us.

The result was the creation of a guide to diver's watches suitable for combat.

The black dial with white indexes and hands emphasizes high contrast for visibility, the automatic movement minimizes the need to use the crown - a weak point of waterproof watches - the rotating bezel allows the time to be measured after the watch has been submerged in water, and, of course, a robust waterproof case is required.

Unfortunately for Rolex, who was following roughly the same path, Blancpain was ahead by just a few months.

The Fifty Fathoms was introduced in 1953, the same year the first Submariner models were made, but it didn't go into full production until the following year, debuting at the 1954 Basel Fair.

Rolex Submariner

Reference 6204

The Reference 6204 is generally considered the Submariner's debut and was an instant hit, but shared many of its attributes with the Fifty Fathoms.

The dial (either shiny gold-plated or honeycomb) is jet black, and as seen on the current model, the hour markers feature a mix of dots and bars, with an inverted triangle at 12 o'clock.

All of them were coated with luminous paint (which was still radium at the time).

The hands are plain stick or pencil-style, rather than the Mercedes style seen on many recent Rolex sports models.

The bezel is engraved to 60 as usual, but is missing the first 15 graduations (hash marks).

This was introduced in later models and allows for shorter periods of time to be determined more accurately, making it easier to time decompression stops, etc.

However, there was one minor but unavoidable drawback.

Blancpain has patented a unidirectional rotating bezel (a bezel that only rotates clockwise).

It was the brainchild of Blancpain's CEO Jean-Jacques Fiechter, an avid diver, and was meant to act as a rudimentary fail-safe.

The unidirectional rotating bezel ensures that if the bezel is accidentally moved underwater, it will simply over-read the dive time, preventing the diver from suffering from decompression sickness.

Because Blancpain owned the rights, Rolex Submariners would stick with bidirectional rotating bezels all the way through the 1980s.

But Rolex owned the rights to arguably the more significant innovation, developed specifically for the Submariner.

Introduced in the mid-1920s, the Oyster case construction featured a special winding mechanism in which a waterproof gasket was attached to the crown and screwed into a tube inside the case.

This provides great protection and prevents moisture and debris from getting into the movement and seizing it.

However, for this dedicated diver's model, the mechanism had to be significantly strengthened.

The final result was the Twinlock crown, which uses two O-rings to form a twin waterproof seal within the winding stem assembly, making the Rolex Submariner the first diver's watch waterproof to 100 metres (330 feet).

Rolex Submariner

A Decade of Fine-Tuning

The Rolex Submariner was immediately greeted with enthusiasm, but it came with many challenges.

Over the next six years, Rolex would release a total of eight references of dive watches, some running simultaneously, each with some sort of change to complete the overall design.

The successor models to the Ref. 6204 are as follows:

Reference 6205 (1954) - This has a slightly thicker case and a slightly larger crown than the reference 6204.

Reference 6200 (1955-1956) - Thicker case with an 8mm crown, this was the first of the so-called Big Crown Subs. Water resistant to 200m.

Reference 6536 (1955-1959) - A thinner case and smaller crown featured the Cal. 1030 movement rather than the Cal. A296 or Cal. A260 found in previous models.

Reference 6536/1 (1957-1960) - Nearly identical to the reference 6536. Almost identical to the 6536, but with a chronometer caliber.
Reference 6538 (1956-1959) - Also a Big Crown, available in chronometer spec, this watch was immortalised as the Bond Sub when worn by Sean Connery in the 007 film series Killer Number.

Ref. 5510 (1958) - Similar to the Bond Sub, the Ref. 5510 was the first Submariner to feature the Caliber 1530.

Reference 5508 (1958-1962) - Small crown model, successor to the reference 6536. This was the first Superior Chronometer Submariner.

Rolex Submariner

The History of the Rolex Submariner and James Bond

The Rolex Submariner has always been elegantly styled and more than just a diving tool.

Its sleek minimalism worked with everything from a t-shirt and jeans to an impeccably tailored tuxedo.

Agent 007 paired the Submariner with everything from wetsuits to dinner suits, wearing it on a total of eight outings.

In Ian Fleming's first Bond film, legendary actor Sean Connery wears a Submariner Ref. 6538.

The watch was the personal property of producer Albert Cubby Broccoli and is believed to have been loaned to Connery during the filming of "007."

The Submariner 6538 quickly became the symbol of the gadget-loving, dapper spy and went on to appear in epic Bond films such as "From Russia with Love," "Goldfinger" and "Thunderball."

Subsequent Submariners that appeared in the Bond series were the Reference 5513 and Reference 16610.

007 is the killer number (1962) Submariner 6538 Big Crown

From Russia with Love (1963) Submariner 6538 Big Crown

Goldfinger (1964) Submariner 6538 Big Crown

Thunderball (1965) Submariner 6538 Big Crown

On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969) Submariner 5513

Live or Let Die (1973) Submariner 5513

The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) Submariner 5513

The Living Daylights (1987) Rolex Submariner 16610

By the time the 6538 was retired from the Bond series, Rolex had introduced two other iconic Submariner models.

The classic Ref. 5512 and Ref. 5513 were launched in 1959 and 1962 respectively, and are both known as the grandfathers of the modern Submariner dive watch.

Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner Takes Hold

After a tumultuous first few years in which Rolex constantly changed the Submariner's design, in 1959 the reference 5512 was introduced.

With the introduction of this reference, everything fell into place effectively, and the basic structure of the watch remained unchanged for the next half century.

This model was the first to combine various elements that had been active in the previous eight Submariner versions.

The Reference 5512 featured a 40mm case, Mercedes hands, a redesigned full markings on the bezel, and most importantly, the introduction of a first-time element: crown guards.

In fact, all of the elements found in modern versions of Rolex's iconic dive watches began here.

The results were so amazing that there was essentially nothing left to be done as far as the core aesthetic was concerned.

Until the introduction of the Super Case in 2010, the only major changes to the Submariner collection were improved materials, updated movements, and minor design tweaks, and it wasn’t until 2020 that Rolex changed the size of the Submariner to 41mm.

The Ref. 5512 and the non-COSC-certified Ref. 5513 were both long-running models.

The reference 5512 was produced from 1959 to 1980, and the reference 5513 from 1962 to 1989.

These weren't the only two Submariners during this time.

In the late 1960s, Rolex introduced the first Submariner with a date display, the reference 1680, which divided the Submariner family and ultimately divided opinion among enthusiasts.

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner References

It's important to note that while Rolex currently produces Submariner watches with and without a date display, those with a calendar function are technically classified as Rolex Submariner Date watches.

We'll explain this in more detail below.

Listing the various non-date Rolex Submariner models produced since 1959 with their movements and approximate years of production.

Reference 5512 (1959-1980) - Calibers 1530, 1560, 1570

Reference 5513 (1962-1989) - Calibers 1520 and 1530

Reference 14060 (1990-1998) - Cal. 3030

Reference 14060M (1998-2012) - Caliber 3130

Reference 114060 (2012-2020) - Cal. 3130 (Super Case)

Reference 124060 (2012-2020) - Caliber 3230 (41mm)

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner Date Watch

The reference 1680 is almost identical to the references 5512 and 5513, but differs in that it was the first in the series to feature a date function and a Cyclops lens.

For many critics, this feature signaled the end of the Submariner as a diver's watch and the beginning of its eventual ascension to status symbol status.

According to critics, a real diver doesn't need a watch that tells the date.

In fact, there are many more non-divers buying a Submariner than divers, and the same is true for most of the brand's other models.

For example, you're unlikely to see a Rolex Daytona watch in a typical speedway paddock, or an Explorer on the summit of Mount Everest.

As for Rolex, with the introduction of the Reference 1680, it has come to be known as a status symbol in every respect.

Early models of the reference 1680 are known as the Red Sub, as they have the word SUBMARINER written in red on the dial.

Rolex produced red Sub models until 1975, when they introduced the white Submariner 1680.

The 1680 generation, the first Submariner to feature a date function, also saw the first 18K yellow gold model.

The 1680/8 also introduces a blue dial and bezel option, making it the first time it's available in a color other than black.

In 1979, the Rolex Submariner received a major update with the introduction of the ref.

In addition to the updated Caliber 3035 movement, the new generation Submariner benefits from a ratcheted unidirectional rotating bezel and scratch-resistant sapphire crystal.

Due to the more robust case design, it now has a depth rating of 300m (1000ft), the same water resistance rating as the Submariners currently produced by Rolex.

Introduced in 1984, the reference 16803 was the first two-tone Submariner.

Additionally, since the Reference 168000 in the late 1980s, Rolex has used 904L stainless steel (now known as Oystersteel) to make its Submariner dive watches.

This extremely corrosion-resistant stainless steel is used almost exclusively in the aerospace and chemical industries, and when polished it exhibits an incredible shine.

In fact, no other company in the world has the expertise and economies of scale to use this exclusive material in the manufacture of cases and bracelets other than Rolex.

Since the introduction of the reference 1680, Rolex has made many more changes to the Submariner Date than the non-date model, introducing new metal combinations and a variety of colorways.

The non-date Submariner has always remained in stainless steel with a black dial and black bezel, and continues to be a favorite among enthusiasts who appreciate purity.

Rolex Submariner

Rolex Submariner Date Reference

Below is a list of the various Rolex Submariner Date models, along with their movements and approximate production years.

Reference 1680 (1969-1979): Cal. 1575.

Reference 1680/8 – (1969-1979): Cal 1575 (18k yellow gold)

Reference 16800 – (1979-1988): Cal. 3035 (first high-beat movement, 28,800vph)

Reference 16808 – (1979-1988): Caliber 3035 (18k yellow gold)

Reference 16803 – (1984-1988): Caliber 3035 (first two-tone Rolesor Submariner)

Reference 168000 – (1988-1989): Caliber 3035 (first Submariner in 904L steel)

Reference 16610 – (1989-2010): Cal. 3135

Reference 16618 – (1989-2010): Caliber 3135 (18K yellow gold)

Reference 16613 – (1989-2010): Caliber 3135 (Yellow Rolesor)

Reference 16610LV – (2003-2010): Caliber 3135 (50th Anniversary model, steel, green bezel, aka Kermit)

Reference 116610 – (2010-2020): Caliber 3135 (Super Case debut, lugs and crown guards are roughly twice as thick)

Reference 116618LN – (2008-2020): Cal. 3135 (18K yellow gold, black bezel)

Reference 116618LB – (2008-2020): Cal. 3135 (18K yellow gold, blue bezel)

Reference 116613LN – (2009-2020): Caliber 3135 ( yellow Rolesor, black bezel )

Reference 116613LB – (2009-2020): Caliber 3135 ( yellow Rolesor, blue bezel )

Reference 116619 – (2008-2020): Caliber 3135 (first Submariner in white gold with blue dial and bezel, commonly known as the Smurf)

Reference 116610LN – ( 2010-2020 ): Cal. 3135 (black bezel)

Reference 116610LV – ( 2010-2020 ): Cal. 3135 (green bezel and green dial, aka the Hulk)

Ref. 126610LN – ( 2020- present): Cal. 3235 (size up to 41mm)

Reference 126610LV – (2020 -present ): Caliber 3235 (41mm, green bezel, black dial)

Reference 126618LN – ( 2020-present ): Caliber 3235 (41mm, 18k yellow gold, black bezel)

Reference 126618LB – ( 2020 - present ): Caliber 3235 (41mm, 18k yellow gold, blue bezel)

Reference 126613LN – ( 2020 - present ): Caliber 3235 (41mm; yellow gold, black bezel )

Reference 126613LB – ( 2020 - present ): Caliber 3235 (41mm, yellow Rolesor, blue bezel)

Reference 126619 – ( 2020 - present ): Caliber 3235 (41mm, 18k yellow gold, blue bezel)

Rolex Submariner

The Modern Rolex Submariner

In 2003, the Submariner celebrated half a century since its introduction.

To celebrate the occasion, Rolex has introduced a new stainless steel model, the reference 16610LV.

LV is an acronym for Lunette Verte, which means green bezel in French.

Although green is a popular color for Rolex as a manufacturer, this was the first time they used it in the design of a world-class diver's watch.

It quickly became affectionately known to collectors as Kermit, and has become one of the most popular Submariners of the neo-vintage era.

The next generation, the Reference 1166xx series, saw the first major changes to the watch's appearance since the Reference 5512 in 1959.

The bezel insert is made of Cerachrom, a ceramic material borrowed from the 50th anniversary GMT-Master II.

This unique ceramic material is fade and scratch resistant, so it will stay looking like new for years to come.

Cerachrom first appeared on the solid gold Rolex Reference 116618 (yellow) and Reference 116619 (white) Submariners in 2008 and was adopted across the range of models over the following years.

Cerachrom has had a profound effect on the aesthetics of the watch and at the same time has made the bezel much more durable.

At the time, the new generation Submariner featured a maxi dial with larger hour markers and thicker hands, as well as an upgraded Oyster bracelet with a new clasp and stronger center links.

Rolex Submariner

New case shape

With the growing opinion that 40mm was too small for a modern sports model, Rolex introduced the Super Case with the Submariner 1166xx series.

While keeping the same dimensions, the lugs and crown guards have been significantly thicker, giving the impression that it is much larger.

Like the launch of the date function, the Super Case was met with mixed reviews.

Many appreciated the increased wrist presence, while others were nostalgic for the flowing lines of past references.

It took Rolex until 2020 to find a way to please both parties.

The new Reference 1266xx series is the first Submariner to exceed 40mm by even 1mm.

The large, angular elements of the Supercase have been softened, returning to a more elegant, curved silhouette, while still retaining the angular design.

More importantly, the movement has finally been upgraded.

The Submariner Date has been powered by the Caliber 3135 for over 30 years before the latest models hit store shelves.

Known as the pinnacle of mass-produced movements, this caliber was due for retirement as many other Rolex models were equipped with next-generation movements several years ago.

Rolex's latest time and date standard, Cal. 3235, replaces and improves approximately 90% of the parts of the older Cal. 3135, making it the world's finest movement of the new era.

Rolex Submariner

Military Submariner Watch

A clear indication of how superior the Submariner was is how early the military began reaching out to Rolex.

In 1956, the British Ministry of Defence was looking for a standard issue watch for the Royal Navy's Special Forces.

On that occasion, approximately 50 civilian model Reference 6538 (Bond Sub) watches were provided and put through some of the most rigorous road testing imaginable.

In 1957, the Ministry of Defence requested some tweaks to the off-the-shelf watches, with the biggest change being a slight reshape of the bezel, which Navy divers found difficult to turn while wearing gloves.

Rolex responded by increasing the diameter of the bezel so that it overhangs the side of the case and changing its edge from coin-like to its modern-day serrated edge.

In addition, the insert has been changed from the previous brass to nickel silver, making it less likely to crack when subjected to impact.

Other changes, such as replacing the standard spring bars with solid bars soldered between the lugs to better secure the NATO strap, helped the Rolex Submariner live up to its reputation as the toughest diver's watch on the planet.

Renamed the A/6538, the model performed well until 1967, when the Navy temporarily switched to the Omega Seamaster.

The Royal Navy returned to sourcing from Rolex in 1971, adopting three more references: the Ref. 5513, the double-stamped Ref. 5513/5517, and the military limited edition Ref. 5517.

These four models are known as Rolex Mil-Subs and are considered some of the most hallowed objects in any vintage Rolex collection.

Rolex Submariner

Buying a Rolex Submariner

For many people starting a Rolex collection, the Submariner is the first purchase.

The Submariner is often the reason people start collecting in the first place.

How much would it cost to add a Submariner to your collection?

The good news is that a Rolex Submariner isn't as expensive as you might think.

Prices for an entry-level model range from 1.3,500 to 1.6,200 USD. An example for this price would be a 1990s reference 16610 (or its non-date equivalent, the reference 14060).

It predates the Supercase and has many modern attributes, including a scratch-resistant sapphire bezel , a flawless internal movement, and a one-of-a-kind, most recognizable design.

If you are fortunate enough to have a larger budget to spend, there are plenty of options for higher-end Rolex Submariner models.

Some of the oldest vintage models are incredibly rare and can sell for staggeringly high prices, sometimes even exceeding hundreds of millions of yen.

The first Big Crown Submariner was the reference 6200, better known among enthusiasts as the King Sub.

The Reference 6200 had a short production run of less than a year and it is believed that only around 300 were made.

Even more unusual, the dial features the 3, 6, and 9 o'clock hour markers commonly found on Rolex Explorers.

It last sold at auction in 2017 for $579,000 (approximately ¥78 million).

Similarly, an ultra-rare example, a Reference 6538 with an Explorer-style dial and red depth indicator, sold for over $1 million at auction in 2018, but was missing both the bezel and bracelet.

Luckily, there are models in between these two extremes that can fit any budget.

Available with a black or blue dial and bezel, two-tone Rolesor remains extremely popular.

Reminiscent of the 1980s, the Cerutti dial is also featured on a gold watch with jewelled indexes.

These too can be purchased at surprisingly reasonable prices, with most examples ranging from 1.82 million to 2.02 million yen.

Rolex Submariner

Historic Submariners

It's crazy to think that a watch originally designed as an underwater timing tool for the nascent recreational scuba diving industry has evolved into some of the world's most famous and instantly recognizable luxury watches.

But the Rolex Submariner is such a versatile and successful core design that this dramatic evolution is both appropriate and entirely expected.

Despite numerous changes, the core of the modern Rolex Submariner remains largely the same as the one Rolex first introduced to the public over half a century ago.

Furthermore, since its introduction in 1953, the Rolex Submariner has been the foundation of modern sports watches, with almost every dive watch in existence being inspired in some way by the Rolex Submariner.

The key to the Submariner's enduring success is that the Rolex Submariner has maintained its rugged, sporty appeal over the years, while remaining sophisticated enough to be worn to formal dinner parties and board meetings.

The Rolex Submariner is a timeless example of perfect industrial design and will forever remain the benchmark by which all other watches are measured.

Are you ready to add a Rolex Submariner to your collection?

Rolex Submariner