The Rolex Submariner: An Overview Of The Most Iconic Wristwatch Ever
The Rolex Submariner: An Overview Of The Most Iconic Wristwatch EverRafael Dominguez2019-12-13T10:50:38-05:00
The Rolex Submariner is not only one of the most popular models in the industry, it’s also arguably the most recognized and revered luxury watch ever.
The Manufacture themselves call it “The Reference Among Divers’ Watches”, though we’d argue they fall a bit short with this claim (a first for Rolex?)
With notorious cameos on famous wrists as well as in films, and coupled with numerous changes to its design over time, the Sub has managed to remain not only relevant but an industry-leading timepiece.
How did this eternal icon of horology get to where it is today? On this page, we explore just that.
History Of The Rolex Submariner
The below links can be used to jump down to a specific point in time. Otherwise, continue scrolling to take it from the top.
As you will get a taste for on this page, the history of the Rolex Submariner is likely one of the most complex of all Rolex model families. There’s numerous references, particularly in the early years, which are differentiated by very slight variations generally dealing with dial printing styles or crown sizes.
For this reason, on this page we’ve chosen to cover only the most significant models in the Sub’s lineage. There’s many online resources which are highly established who have previously discussed the vintage Subs in a very detailed fashion, and we highly recommend diving into those after exploring the historical recap following below.
In the present day, it’s difficult to imagine a world where the Submariner isn’t one of the highlights of the Rolex catalog. And yet, in the early ’50s, this was exactly the case.
Vintage Rolex Oyster watch. Image: Rolex.com
At the time, Rolex held a reputation as the manufacturer of the Oyster, a waterproof chronometer watch, but individual model families were hardly established or widely recognized. Nevertheless, all of the pieces were there for the brand to transition into the ‘professional’ tool watch realm.
Rolex had in their repertoire a self-winding, robust and most importantly accurate chronometer movement to power their watches. They also had the Oyster case and its water & dust-proof technology, another essential component of a watch intended for use in the field.
Seemingly all that was missing were some external design changes to impart a more utilitarian aesthetic, finally drawing the watch out of the dress category and into a relatively new one, that of the commercial tool watch.
These changes came in 1953, with the release of the Rolex Turn-O-Graph which, although not actually a Submariner, is seen as a direct descendant of the Sub namely due to its rotating bezel.
Soon after the ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph above was introduced, Rolex released the first Submariner to the public, the reference 6204. Very similar in looks to the above Turn-O-Graph, the Submariner was quite direct in its resolve to serve as an underwater instrument, particularly because of its name.
And so the first Submariner was born, with a design that is peculiarly familiar to the modern Subs while also remaining quite distant.
The Submariner Ref. 6204
The first Submariner reference ever, the 6204 boasted a steel Oyster case (100m), a rotating bezel with a diver’s scale, and a black luminous “gilt” dial. It was also equipped with an Oyster bracelet which at the time were produced in the rivet style.
Submariner ref. 6204. Image: Christies.com
Beating inside was Rolex’s self-winding Calibre A260 which, although not chronometer-spec, possessed shock-resistant components that were more than appropriate for the intended applications.
Neither the familiar Mercedes hands, nor a date, nor a crown guard were present on the first reference, though the famed hand style would be introduced only a year later in the Submariner ref. 6205.
Around these years, the Swiss watch manufacturer had few traditions anchoring them to specific aesthetics, or certainly not as many as exist today, so the Submariner saw quite a few tweaks.
These included different dial printings, different crown sizes, different bezel markings and more. Quite honestly, the Submariner models of the time were all over the place.
Submariner 6200 w/ Explorer dial. Image: Phillips.com
Tomes have been written on paper and online outlining the differences between concrete references, which themselves have multiple variations within them. It’s not that these are not important; in fact, these slight variations can signify massive price fluctuations at auction.
But for our purposes, it’d be way too much detail to go into, so we’ve elected to gloss over these minutiae to avoid having your own eyes gloss over this page if we tried to break them all down.
In short, here is a list of some of the Submariner references that saw daylight from the official release in 1954 until the ref. 5512 was introduced in 1959: 6200, 6536/1, 6538, 5510, 5508. These were not produced one after the other, in fact there is tons of overlap in production runs, a factor that certainly adds another layer of complexity.
The Submariner Ref. 5512
Submariner 5512. Image: Phillips.com
After much trial and error with the early Sub references, Rolex introduced the 5512 (1959), marking the birth of what we’ve come to know and love as the Submariner.
The watch now featured crown guards, the modern style of knurling on the bezel, the 0-15 minute calibrations on the bezel insert, Mercedes hands, a black luminous dial, and a 200m depth rating. It was powered by a Rolex Calibre 1560, a movement that would receive some upgrades but also remain structurally unchanged for many decades. Most notably, the Calibre 1560 would mark the first time a Submariner achieved COSC chronometer certification.
As with the previous Submariner references, the 5512 would likewise see many iterations though all would keep the same reference number.
Rolex 5513. Image: Phillips.com
For example, the 5512 is famous for featuring many different styles of crown guards: some are flat on the ends while others are more slanted (“eagle beak”) or pointed (“pointed crown guards, PCG”). Truth be told, the differences are slight and, once more, it’s difficult to tell what is exactly what. Of course, it is these small differences that collectors live for.
Three years after the 5512, Rolex introduced the 5513 which was essentially the same exact Sub as the 5512 except its movement was not COSC-certified. Other than this internal difference and the printing (or lack thereof) of the “Superlative Chronometer…” text on the dial, the two were the same watch.
The 5512 was produced until 1980 when it was finally discontinued, making it one of the longest-running Submarine references yet.
The 5513 was the first of three Submariner references under which special ‘military’ versions were created. As the name implies, these MilSubs were made for the military; more specifically, they were commissioned by the British Ministry of Defence for use by the Special Forces.
MilSubs are recognized by their sword-shaped hands, the “(T)” on the dial (indicating Tritium was used), a fully-hashed diver’s bezel insert, and welded lug bars (as opposed to the standard, removable spring bars). As far as production numbers, no one really knows how many were made but it’s clear that these are rare. It’s also been said that many of these MilSubs were retro-fitted with normal Submariner parts after being decommissioned, which makes an original condition example highly coveted.
Rolex MilSub 5513. Image: Phillips.com
The Rolex Submariner Ref. 1680
With the prominence of the Submariner Date 116610LN in the modern watch industry, it can be hard to imagine that there ever was a time when the Sub existed solely in a no-date version. But it wasn’t until 1969, more than 15 years after the introduction of the first Submariner, that the Submariner Date was released as the reference 1680.
Red Sub ref. 1680. Image: Phillips.com
Even more curious is the fact that the Sea-Dweller, a close cousin and ‘spin-off’ of the Sub, was introduced with a date before the Submariner itself possessed the complication. In fact, the movement in the 1680 was the same that was being outfitted in Sea-Dwellers of the time.
The Submariner 1680 was almost exactly like the 5512 except for the date and cyclops additions, which themselves were accompanied on the face of the watch by another aesthetic twist: a red text “Submariner” marquee. It’s not clear why Rolex chose red font for the model name, one could suppose it was to differentiate it from the 5512 though the date already accomplished this.
Whichever the case, what is clear is that the font color paved the way for this specific variation of the 1680 to be nicknamed the “Red Sub”.
First Gold Submariners
The 1680 series also served as the platform for the original full-gold Submariner, first introduced in 1969.
Yellow gold Sub ref. 1680. Image: Phillips.com
The watch boasted the same design as a steel Sub except for some small tweaks that resided mostly on the watch face. The center hands were crafted in 18K yellow gold to match the case; the same was true for the hour indices which were in the “nipple dial” style. Lastly, as pictured above, the gold sub could be ordered with a President bracelet, also in matching gold, though examples with an Oyster bracelet were more common.
While the first all-gold Sub had a black-on-gold theme, only a few short years later Rolex released the blue-themed gold sub, making for yet another classic gold Sub style that remains alive and well in the present day.
The COMEX Submariners
The reference 1680 Submariner holds a place in history for yet another reason: it was gave birth to the COMEX Subs.
The Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX) was a French company specializing in deep underwater operations and engineering. The line of work involved sending divers on missions hundreds of feet below the surface, often keeping them in pressurized chambers so that the work could continue over days or weeks.
COMEX Sub ref. 1680. Image: Phillips.com
It didn’t take long for the two companies to associate given that the industrial saturation divers required professional-grade timepieces to survive the depths; Rolex, on the other hand, would likely find no better challenge and promtply set out to create various series of COMEX-branded Subs. These were mostly under the 1680 reference number, though various 5514 COMEX Subs have come up in past auctions as well.
The COMEX Subs featured not only the French logo on their face but also a helium-escape valve (HEV) on their flank. Originally encountered only on the Sea-Dweller, the COMEX Subs are made even more special by the presence of the HEV, a function that has not been seen on a Submariner model since.
In 1978, the Submariner 1680 would eventually be replaced by the 16800. It was a newer, increasingly modern reference that brought with it more than just dial printing changes. After a couple of years of production, this reference family would also produce the first two-tone (Rolesor) Submariner in the ref. 16803 (blue bezel & dial).
The 16800 Sub possessed the same 40mm steel case but was now rated to 300m of depth and was equipped with a scratch-resistance sapphire crystal, two firsts for the model. The iconic diver’s bezel was there, as expected, but it only rotated in one direction, which was yet another innovation for the Sub.
Submariner 16800. Image: Phillips.com
Over its decade-long life, the dials on the 16800s would transition from a matte to glossy finish. The hour indices would also evolve from ‘painted’ luminous to hand-applied, luminous-filled plots.
Last, and perhaps most important, the 16800 was equipped with a Rolex Calibre 3035. This new movement had a quick-set function as well as the brand’s latest anti-shock and anti-magnetic technology. It’s also quite similar in construction to the Calibre 3135, the movement found in the contemporary Rolex Sub
The 16610 & 14060 Submariners
The end of the “transitional” 16800 came 10 years after its introduction when, in 1988, Rolex introduced the Submariner ref. 16610. The 16610 boasted all of the latest features of the 16800 – the glossy dial, applied hour indices, 300m depth rating, etc… while also improving upon the previous model’s engine. In the new 16610, the movement was the Rolex Calibre 3135, the same engine found in the Submariner of the present day.
Submariner Date 16610. Image: Phillips.com
Around the same time, Rolex also introduced the 14060 “No-Date” with a Calibre 3130 to replace the historic ref. 5513. The relationship between the 14060 and the 16610 was quite similar to that of the 5513 and the 5512. This is to say, the 14060 was the non-date, non-COSC version of the 16610.
Both the 16610 and 14060 would serve as the face of Rolex until they were discontinued circa 2010. During their lifetime, they would also undergo various minimal updates that included the lug holes going away, solid links (center and end) for the bracelets, and updated clasps.
In the modern day, the 14060 and the 16610 have become the go-to choice for those who want a Submariner but find the contemporary super case Submariner to be too large. Indeed, these two Sub designs possess a traditional Rolex aesthetic which is unmatched by the modern (ceramic) Submariner, and one which can only be had by reaching into the pre-owned watch market.
Their prices have started to increase gradually with the rising tides affecting all steel sports models, but it seems only a matter of time before watch collectors realize that there’s a limited number of these pre-Super Case Submariners, and that their timeless design will be hard to recreate, even by Rolex themselves.
Submariner 50th Anniversary “The Kermit”
Submariner 16610LV “Kermit”. Image: Phillips.com
The year 2003 marked the 50th birthday of Rolex’s most emblematic watch model and the brand looked to commemorate it in some way. The accomplished this with the Submariner 50th Anniversary reference 16610LV AKA The Kermit.
The Kermit featured a very similar look to its ‘cousins’ the 16610 (black) and the 14060 save for the bezel and dial. The diver’s bezel insert on the Kermit was executed in green, Rolex’s color, and the dial now featured larger indices which gave birth to the name “maxi dial”.
Interestingly enough, this maxi dial style that began with the Kermit would proliferate throughout most of Rolex’s modern catalog and become a hallmark of the most advanced Submariners and GMT-Masters of today.
The Kermit was discontinued in 2010 on the eve of a new era of Sub – the ceramic Submariner.
The Ceramic Sub
What we’re referring to here as the Ceramic Submariner is the latest generation of Rolex Submariner. As you can gather, the watch is renowned for its ceramic bezel insert, but with this new era of Sub came many other important changes.
First and foremost, the case. The modern Submariner features what is known as the Super Case. This case retains the 40mm diameter but is marked by wide lugs and crown guards. Overall, the Super Case is much beefier than the previous Oyster case, making for a more substantial feel when the watch is on the wrist.
As we already alluded to above, perhaps the biggest highlight of this generation of Submariner is its ceramic (Cerachrom) bezel insert. For decades, Rolex worked to invent ways to avoid the fading effect that plagued their dials and bezels. In the late 2000s, they finally figured it out; the answer was ceramic.
New Heights Of Luxury
Aside from imparting significant scratch-resistance and a beautiful luster, the presence of ceramic also adds a level of luxury never before seen on a Submariner. And while many believe this evolution took place decades before, it can be said that the birth of the Ceramic Sub is what cemented the Submariner more as a status piece and less as a professional instrument.
The first ceramic Subs were released around 2008 and boasted all-gold or two-tone constructions. It wasn’t until 2010 that Rolex would introduce the all-steel (Oystersteel) versions of the Sub and the Sub Date; these were the 114060LN and the 116610LN, respectively.
At the same time, and to the surprise of many, Rolex stepped out of their own shoes for a split second and introduced the Hulk, a green ceramic bezel, green dial Submariner unlike any in history. The use of color in such a drastic manner, particularly on a model as sacred as the Submariner, is truly unusual of Rolex.
Yet, it’s clearly worked out, making the Hulk one of the most sought after Subs on the market today, once more showing how, even when they’re seemingly not acting like themselves, you’ve got to keep your trust in “The Crown.”
Over the past few years, Rolex watches and especially the Submariner have seen a massive increase in demand. So much so that as of this writing, it is impossible to walk into an authorized Rolex dealer and purchase one outright, even with cash in hand.
Only time will tell where the watch industry is headed, but it’s quite difficult to imagine a time where a Rolex and more specifically a Submariner becomes irrelevant. Its design is timeless and though it has evolved significantly over the decades, the essence of that first 1954 Sub is still alive and kicking.
If you’re looking for something to do while you wait for the Sub to go out of style and finally drop in price, we’ve got plenty of watch content to keep you occupied in the mean time. Check out some of our most popular horology guides below:
"I'm a big fan of the Submariner line as a whole though there's something about the vintage models that makes them more appealing than the new versions. Either way, and in any variety, the Sub is undoubtedly an eternal classic!"