A Week On The Wrist: The Rolex Submariner Ref. 124060

A Week On The Wrist: The Rolex Submariner Ref. 124060

It’s the world’s most scrutinized dive watch, so any tiny change reverberates like an earthquake. But the truth is that the new Sub feels a lot like the old Sub – which is to say, exactly right.

Dive watch, tool watch, sport watch…the Rolex Submariner is all of these things. If you trace it back to its roots, you’ll find a timepiece that defied its underwater branding to become something else entirely: A stone-cold icon on dry land.

Naysayers often grouse that the Submariner is too common, that it’s an uninspired choice, that it’s basically a cliche. None of that is true. But the thing is popular, and that’s because it’s good. And has been for decades.

The Rolex Submariner was first released in 1953. It was conceived as a true tool for divers and has a long history as a military-issued watch (those versions being called MilSubs). It wasn’t an overnight sensation. While we’d all like to think that our grandfathers (or great-grandfathers) sported Big Crown Submariners throughout the 1950s, they almost certainly didn’t. The Submariner took some time to become the crossover hit it is today.

A Rising Star In Hollywood

About a decade into the Submariner’s existence, Sean Connery – a young Scotsman with a pelt of chest hair – brought Ian Fleming’s dashing James Bond to life on the silver screen. His watch of choice was a rugged crown-guard-less Submariner ref. 6538. That helped. But even then, the watch didn’t surge in popularity. A few other actors had to help it along.

The Rolex Submariner ref. 6538

Robert Redford, Steve McQueen, and Charles Bronson took the Sub to greater heights, wearing the watch on and off-screen throughout the 1970s. For the most part, these weren’t prop watches, but rather personal pieces owned by each respective actor. Redford – fittingly – wore a Red Submariner ref. 1680. McQueen had a no-date chronometer-certified ref. 5512. Bronson wore a classic 5513. There’s an earnest, honest quality to the way they wore their Subs on-screen. You can just tell the watches belonged to them.

Steve McQueen taking a break on-set with his Submariner ref. 5512 Photo: Getty/ Anwar Hussein

Robert Redford, with 70’s mustache and chest hair, with his signature Red Sub ref. 1680 Photo: Getty/ Ernst Haas

As far as we know, these stars of the screen didn’t use the bezel to time decompression during long saturation dives. They wore the Submariner because they liked it, because it could handle anything, and because it was cool. In the process, they plucked the watch out of the same dive watch category you’d have found Seiko or Doxa, and made it one of the most versatile (Redford wore his with a tuxedo to the Oscars) and widely known wristwatches of all time.

Changing Without Changing

A reason for this power is how relatively unchanged the no-date Sub has been since its inception. It’s maintained its core design ethos: Black bezel, black dial, large markers, and the iconic oyster bracelet. Any evolution has been subtle. In 2012, the Submariner became a more elevated version of the aluminum-bezel, stamped-clasp watch that withstood six decades. The updated Submariner ref. 114060 was the watch reborn. It had a new heavy-duty bracelet and clasp system, as well as a sleek (and oh so shiny) Cerachrom bezel. The cool watch got a lot more luxurious but, to the naked eye, it was the same. It had the same spirit and could take more of a beating than ever before.

Eight years later, in August of 2020, Rolex made simultaneously its biggest and most unnoticeable changes to the Sub by introducing the Reference 124060 – a 41mm watch with an improved case profile, slimmer lugs, slightly different bracelet construction, and a new in-house movement. So a watch that had come to be defined by its 40mm sizing was now no longer 40mm in diameter. How would that change the wearing experience, the cool factor, the Submariner-ness? I wore one for a week to find out.

On The Wrist

I was fully expecting this watch to feel wrong, as if meddling with the 40mm case size would somehow throw it out of balance, but spending time with the new Submariner felt, well, familiar. Much like Stephen, who wrote up the watch when it was first introduced, I didn’t even notice anything had changed when I strapped it on.

The first thing I noticed was how the new sizing solved the issue of the boxy maxi case shape. Who knew upsizing the case could have such an impact on its profile? I just imagine a group of Rolex designers spending years in front of a whiteboard until one sleep-deprived night resulted in a light bulb moment. “What if, to make it look smaller, we actually make it…bigger?”

Now, this might come as a shock, but I’m no diver. In fact, I live a particularly non-extreme lifestyle. I view the Sub less as a tool for underwater shipwreck exploration, and more as a day-in-day-out companion. But that’s the best part about this watch. It is so classic and so timeless that it has a chameleon-like ability to fit into any scenario. And in the event you do need to get wet, it’s ready.

My exploits with this watch were quite tame – the closest I came to the open sea was a ride on the Staten Island Ferry. But I view the Sub as a potential one-watch collection for many potential owners, so I wanted to test the new Submanriner’s abilities to just hang and go with the flow. With visions of McQueen and Redford wearing their Subs with the cameras turned off, I wanted to see if the 124060 maintains the cool factor.

My adventures took me from Brooklyn Bridge Park, overlooking the East River, to Greenpoint, where I enjoyed a classic New York slice and a trip to a record store. I hit up a local coffee shop and enjoyed my cup in a park with the passion of Special Agent Dale Cooper.

The watch never felt out of place. As the lucky owner of a vintage Submariner 5513, I can say that the new 124060 felt like an old friend – equally capable of tagging along for the mundane errand as it would be timing a dive, assuming I knew how to do that. I paid careful attention to how it felt on my wrist given the new sizing. It felt like a Sub – only improved. The new movement was also confidence-inspiring as I needed to keep track of the time to not miss my ferry ride.

Of course, it’s worth taking a deep dive into the changes, however minuscule, that are present in this new watch.

The Case

The Submariner 124060 looks damn near identical to its predecessor. In fact, the changes to the case actually make the watch appear slimmer. The old maxi case (so named for its boxy, squared-off profile) is gone. Instead, the 41mm size coupled with a 21mm lug width creates a case profile that looks far more like the Submariners of old than the 114060.

But let’s get pedantic! On paper, the new Submariner reads as 41mm in diameter, but when we measured it ourselves, it came out somewhere between 40.6 and 40.8 depending on where you catch the case with the calipers. This 41mm designation is more a product of rounding up than a meaningful representation of the case diameter.

The lugs have been slimmed down as a result of the slight increase in case size. Other than the size, the case looks like it always has. We have the same 904L steel holding it all together, the solid caseback, the crown guards, the signed crown, and the combination of both brushed and polished surfaces.

The Bracelet

If there’s one thing that has remained a visual staple for steel Rolex sport watches, it’s the oyster bracelet. Its all-brushed, toolish nature is every bit as iconic as the watches it’s held secure to our wrists.

Much like the entire watch, the new Submariner bracelet is both the same and different. At a quick glance, this is the same bracelet as on prior models. In reality, however – with the 21mm lug width – it’s now wider than on previous Subs. The increased width at the top of the bracelet results in a less drastic taper down to the clasp.

On the wrist, these changes are virtually unnoticeable. For one thing, the Sub still has the same clasp system it introduced back in 2012 (and it’s a beefy clasp at that). To that end, a millimeter or two of difference in bracelet taper matters very little when dealing with a clasp this large.

Even though the clasp is unchanged, it’s not outdated. In fact, it’s still one of the best systems available. For one, it features the signature flip-lock enclosure ensuring stability. But the best part is surely the Glidelock extension system allowing for on-the-fly adjustments. Under the clasp, you pull on the bracelet to unlatch it. A series of notches allow you to slide the bracelet forward and backward in increments of 2mm. This allows for great sizing adjustments for when your wrist expands and contracts depending on your weather (or your pizza consumption).

The Bezel and Dial

The overall styling of the new Submariner is (noticing a pattern here?) the same. That satisfyingly clicky uni-directional bezel still features the black ceramic insert and luminous pearl. Each of the numerals on the bezel is recessed and platinum filled for both durability and legibility. I’m sure there are a few people out there who would like to have seen a lumed bezel – but again, this is a Submariner. Changes are incremental, so let’s not get carried away.

Looking to the dial for changes is an exercise akin to playing Where’s Waldo. He’s in there, you just might need to bust out a magnifying glass to find him. It’s become something of a Rolex tradition to mark its dials in some fashion as an indicator of a new movement or some kind of change to a given model.

In recent years, the indicator of choice has been a small coronet between the words Swiss and Made. In previous iterations of the Submariner, the Swiss Made moniker was separated by a small hash mark. Other than that, changes are minuscule if not totally non-existent (especially on wrist). The dial is the same deep gloss black with maxi (read, large) markers in stark white with white-gold surrounds. To put it simply, this is the dial you expect to see on a Submariner.

The Movement

Internally is where the watch has its biggest improvement, thanks to the new Rolex in-house caliber 3230 movement – effectively the no-date version of the existing 3235. It features two patented Rolex creations: The Parachrom Blue balance spring and the Chronergy Escapement, working in tandem to ensure improved accuracy and performance.

Rolex introduced the in-house caliber 3235 in 2015, but took until 2020 to unveil the 3230 and insert it in both the new Submariner (no-date) as well as the 36 and 41mm Oyster Perpetual models.

Taking into account the quality of the movement itself, as well as the brand’s stringent chronometer certification standards, the new Submariner notches +2/-2 seconds per day accuracy as well as 70 hours of power reserve.

The Competition:

Omega Seamaster 300M

Ah, yes, the “Bond Seamaster.” This is a watch often compared to the Submariner for all manner of reasons – starting with the fact that they’re both divers worn by 007. Omega has the heritage, the quality co-axial METAS certified movements, and the design. The Seamaster 300M is one of the core models for the brand outside of the Speedy. It shares certain traits with the Sub like the 300m water resistance, ceramic bezel, and steel case and bracelet design. Unlike the Submariner, it features a helium escape valve and an exhibition caseback while also measuring a millimeter larger. Coming in about $3,000 under the Submariner, the Seamaster can’t be dismissed.

Blancpain Fifty Fathoms Bathyscaphe 38mm

Born right around the same time as the Submariner, the Fifty Fathoms has serious dive watch credibility (but maybe not the consistent staying power). Like the Submariner, the Fifty Fathoms utilizes a historically significant design without falling into homage territory. It features a ceramic bezel insert, 300m water resistance, and a similar dial layout. Of course, it comes fitted to a strap rather than to a bracelet, and it has a date window at 4:30. While many of the Fifty Fathoms offerings from Blancpain come in at 45mm, this is an immensely wearable 38mm in diameter. Still, it’s costlier than the Sub by more than $1,000.

Panerai Submersible

Panerai and Rolex have something of an intertwined history. At one time, early Panerai watches utilized a variation of Rolex case and movement designs. While the core offerings from Panerai are vintage-inspired sandwich-style dials, the Submersible is indisputably its most modern and dive-ready offering. You get the recognizable Luminor Crown protector in an unabashedly modern package. In a market flooded with capable divers with a similar look, this one no doubt stands out.

Tudor Black Bay

Can we really talk about Rolex without mentioning Tudor? We cannot. In terms of fit and case profile, the Black Bay 58 seems like the logical comparison here, but it would be wrong not to pit two 41mm divers – born of the same charitable trust – up against one another. The Black Bay is all about the heritage (the gilt-style printing is a dead giveaway). While still a capable 200m water-resistant dive watch, its main knock would have to be the case thickness. The Submariner brings 100m more water resistance and a thinner case than the Tudor, but it also costs effectively double the price.

Concluding thoughts

The new Submariner is an evolution of a singular, simple design. Some say this watch is boring, but that has less to do with the Submariner than the fact that it’s managed to stay so very much the same – with only incremental changes over nearly 70 years. The Sub is familiar, functional, and cool. It’s the sort of watch you put on and forget about, and know it’ll just work.

Everything that made the Sub work for James Bond and Steve McQueen still holds true today. Sure, it’s not the flashiest on the block, and it’s also not a bargain, but there’s a special magic in this watch. Spending time with the 124060 for a week confirmed that you can change the size, alter the bracelet, and improve the bezel without losing an ounce of ineffable Submariner cool.

The Rolex Submariner ref. 124060. Stainless steel case with black dial and black Cerachrom bezel. Water resistance to 300 meters. Rolex manufacture cal. 3230 with Chronergy escapement and 70 hours of power reserve vibrating at 28,800 vph in 31 jewels. Stainless steel Oyster bracelet with Glidelock clasp. Price: $8,100. For more, visit Rolex.

Lead Photo: David Aujero

Photos: Kasia Milton

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