Reference Points: Understanding The Rolex Submariner
We go as deep as you can on the most legendary watch of all time.
Reference Points was dreamed up as our way of offering definitive guides to the world’s most important watches, giving collectors a place to look for accurate, comprehensive information presented in a digestible way. Going all the way back to the first installment in 2014, it has consistently been one of our most requested features, while also being one of the most time-intensive to produce. The resources required to gather together dozens of exceptional watches, to partner with leading experts in the collecting community, and to properly document decades of history are extraordinary. As a result, we’re extremely proud to present Reference Points for the Rolex Submariner.
A silly question that we get asked quite a bit here at HODINKEE is, “What is the best watch?” Sure, I get why people ask it and what they’re getting at, but it’s impossible to say anything is “the best” when you’re dealing with something as subjective and personal as wristwatches. What you like aesthetically, the history that’s meaningful to you personally, and the idiosyncrasies of how you live your life all impact that answer of that question. However, there’s a similar question that we also get asked a lot, for which I do think there are a few good answers: “What is the most important watch of all time?” The Rolex Submariner is a pretty darn good answer. It’s not the only answer, but it’s one that I find tough to argue with.
Since its introduction in 1953, the Rolex Submariner has in many ways defined not only the dive watch category, but the sport watch category more broadly. When you say “wristwatch” I think a large percentage of people picture something similar to a Rolex Submariner in their heads, whether they know why or not. The Sub has been worn by world luminaries, icons of the silver screen, sports legends, and basically any other set of noteworthy people you can name. The very notion of a black-dialed stainless steel watch with a rotating timing bezel, luminous hands, and a comfortable bracelet was broadly popularized by the Submariner.
Despite all of that though, the Submariner is an often-misunderstood watch. There have been well over a dozen distinct references of the Submariner, with up to a few hundred total variants depending on how thinly you want to start sub-dividing individual references based on dial text, lume plots, and more. We thought it was about time that we break things down and make the whole range of Submariners a little easier to understand. As you’d expect though, we had to set some boundaries for ourselves: We are only covering vintage Submariners here, starting with the first proper 1953 Submariner and working our way up through the last of the classic ref. 5513 Submariner. All of the watches here have four-digit reference numbers and acrylic crystals. Once we get into five-digit reference numbers, sapphire crystals, and other technical innovations, we get into squarely modern watches, which are a tale for another time.
To make this all possible, we teamed up with Eric Wind, longtime HODINKEE collaborator and founder of Wind Vintage, who tapped deep into the vintage Rolex collector community to drum up more than three dozen truly world class watches for us to shoot and study.
The Genesis Of The Submariner
As we noted in Reference Points: Understanding The Rolex Sea-Dweller, the Rolex Submariner was among the very first dive watches on the market and it quickly became the most iconic. The Sub represents a sort of inflection point for Rolex as a company and how it would go on to become what it is today. Prior to the 1950s, Rolex was making mostly watches that today we’d describe as dress watches or all-purpose watches of one kind or another. Bubblebacks, two-register chronographs, and Datejusts were the brand’s core offerings. Yes, these included important innovations like the waterproof Oyster case and the so-called “perpetual” automatic movements, but they weren’t proper sport watches as we’d recognize them today.
All of that started to change as the ’40s tuned into the ’50s. The earliest Rolex Explorer models made their way to the summit of Everest (you can see the original right here, in fact) and the brand began experimenting with a new kind of design language that would come to dominate its offerings over the next decade. White and silver dials turned to black, lume plots got much bigger and started standing in for applied hour markers, cases started to get a bit beefier, and rotating bezels became the norm. Combinations of these traits would result in the Explorer, the GMT-Master, the Milgauss, and more.
The year 1953 would turn out to be a huge year for Rolex. It was that year that the unusual ref. 6202 Turn-O-Graph, the Explorer (in a few references), and the ref. 6204 Submariner all debuted. The first of those is very closely tied to the Submariner, though a bit smaller and slimmer, with a flat or honeycomb dial and sleek hands, though it still has that now-familiar look and feel. This trio of watches would kick off the era of Rolex design that today we most closely associate with the brand and its iconic status. They were sport watches with refined design elements and a cohesive language that spoke to finding simple solutions to complex problems. They were, in many ways, the very best kind of tool watches from the get-go.
So, without further ado, here is a rundown of every Rolex Submariner reference from the very first through to the start of the modern era. Take a deep breath. Let’s go.
This is it: The very first watch to say “Submariner” on the dial. Typical literature will tell you that the Submariner was first launched in 1954, but that’s just when Rolex officially announced the watch and started marketing it. These earliest pieces are actually dated to late 1953 by serial number and the stamp on the inside caseback, with the earliest pieces showing “II.53” production timing.
Looking at the reference 6204, you can clearly tell that the watch is a Submariner, but a number of the key traits are slightly different. First off, the case is still relatively thin compared to later models. Combined with the very small 5.3mm crown, this watch is believed to have been water resistant to 100 meters, though there is one known early advertisement out there that claims a 200m depth rating. There’s also the bezel, which is a bit bolder in style, without smaller graduations between zero and 15. You’ll also notice that the gilt dial is much more sparse and that instead of the Mercedes hand set we have extremely slim pencil-shaped hands and a seconds hand with a small lollipop at the tip.
These early 6204s were powered by the Rolex caliber A260, which was repurposed from earlier Oyster Perpetual models, including a number of later bubblebacks. It was the most robust automatic movement Rolex had at the time, with built in shock protection, making it the right fit for the fledgeling Submariner.
If you’re looking to pick up a watch like this yourself, it’s best to consult with a true expert first. There are all kind of little variations and quirks that you’ll want to make sure are kosher before you initiate that bank transfer, and this is still very much from the Wild West era of the Submariner, where documentation is scarce and misinformation plentiful.
There are two main dial variations for the 6204: the earliest examples by serial number have a “split logo” that typically has “Oyster” and “Perpetual” spaced further apart (some with the typical flat dial and some with honeycomb textured dials) and the more typical version you see here that has “Oyster Perpetual” placed together below Rolex like we see on Submariners today. There is also a very unusual version that says “Sub-Aqua” instead of “Submariner” that was produced for the British market, but these are exceedingly rare. One other thing to look out for is the texture of the non-honeycomb dials – despite being from the age of glossy, gilt dials, these 6204 dials tend to get a matte, mottled finish. If you see one that’s too shiny, it’s probably too good to be true.
Reference 6205 (Clean Dial & Pencil Hands): 1954
Wait, did we just go backward? This watch doesn’t say “Submariner” on it anywhere, but it does in fact come after the reference 6204 with “Submariner” at six o’clock. Being the opaque black box that it is, we don’t know why Rolex decided to briefly remove the signature text from the dial in early 1954, but they did, and the result is this so-called “clean dial” Sub. The only two lines of text on the dial are the Rolex signature and “Oyster Perpetual” underneath, but otherwise it’s very similar to the gilt chapter ring dial of the 6204. The hands are also similar, retaining the pencil-and-lollipop configuration. This is the last Submariner to not feature the Mercedes hands.
Two important changes you want to make sure to notice are the case and the crown: The former is a bit thicker and the latter was upsized from 5.3mm to 6mm. There’s no increased water resistance yet, but the idea was to make the watch a bit more rugged and the crown a bit easier to manipulate (those tiny 5.3mm crowns are fiddly to say the least). As far as dial variations go, they’re very similar to those of the 6204, except for this “clean dial” which is unique to this reference.
Reference 6205 (Signature & Mercedes Hands): 1954
While this is the same reference as the watch directly above, it’s starting to look a lot more like Submariners that you see all over. The word “Submariner” is back on the dial at six o’clock and finally we’ve got the distinctive Mercedes hour hand and a seconds hand with a straight tip after the lollipop. One thing to note about those hands though is how long they are. They’re much longer than what you’ll see in a bit on 5512s and 5513s, with the shaft between the central point of the dial and the Mercedes part of the hour hand being longer and the minute hand reaching all the way out to the chapter ring. If you see shorter hands, you know they’re a later set from service or funny business.
You’ll notice that the 6205 has the same no-hash bezel as the 6204. Sometimes you’ll see these fitted with bezels with the red triangle at 12 o’clock at 0/60 and the hash marks from that point until 15. These are later additions and not correct for this watch, since the red triangle and hash marks didn’t appear until later. Another thing to look for with these is whether or not the bezel itself (not just the insert) is period-correct, with the coin-edge instead of the larger knurling – otherwise it could be an outright swap.
Reference 6200 (Explorer Dial): 1955-1956
Now things start to get really wild. This watch came two years after the 6204 but has a lower reference number. Why? Nobody really knows. The best guess is that it was in development earlier but Rolex decided to hold it for some reason. But any other guess you have is probably just as solid, if we’re being honest.
The 6200 is one of the all-time great Submariner references and one that the most serious collectors get very excited about. It’s often called the “King Sub” by those in the community. It was the first Submariner to use the 8mm “big crown” with the “Brevet” signature on the outside. It also introduced a new dial to the mix, the Explorer Dial, so-called because of the 3-6-9 markers that connect it to that other famous Rolex model. We’re still well before the days of depth ratings and chronometer certifications, so these dials have an open, clean look to them that we wouldn’t really see again on future Submariners. This puts all the focus on those big Arabic numerals, which, rendered in radium, certainly stand out.
The case on the 6200 is a bit thicker and broader than those found on earlier models too. Combined with the larger crown, this offered double the water resistance (200 meters) of earlier models. Within the 6200 reference, there are two main variations, one with the small logo (above) and one with the large logo (below). The former does not say “Submariner” at six o’clock, while the latter does. Both versions have the familiar extended Mercedes hands and no-hash bezel from earlier references.
You can see just how massive a difference the size of the logo detail makes in terms of the overall feel of the watch. There are no exact numbers on how many of each were produced, but it’s thought that the total number is somewhere around 300, with many more large logos produced than small logos. However, because the reference is so rare to begin with and examples in good condition are even more elusive, there’s not a substantial difference in price between the two logo variants, with condition and originality playing a much more important role.
While it’s certainly not the most important thing about the ref. 6200, it’s worth noting that it got a new caliber as well, the A296. In terms of technical features, the movement was pretty similar to the A260 caliber, but it was a bit larger at 29.5mm (instead of 26.4mm), making it a better fit inside the larger big crown case.
Reference 6536/1 (Earliest Version): 1956-1957
Now we’re getting into the weeds. Up until now, most of the Submariner references have been relatively straightforward, with a few little differences here and there. With many of the references from 1956 forward being produced for multiple years, the differences and variations increase and the minutiae becomes much more important for collectors today.
The earliest reference 6536 examples were actually “double reference” models with the 6538 (which we’ll get to in a minute), where they had the smaller 6mm crown instead of the 8mm crown, with the 6538 crossed out by lines on the case and case back, with 6536 engraved below that. Only a small number were made before they got their own dedicated case and reference, the 6536/1.
For the ref. 6536/1, there are three main generations we want to highlight. Up first is the earliest version of this watch. Production started in 1956, overlapping a bit with production of the 6200. But this is a very different watch in many ways. First off, it’s only rated to 100 meters and features the smaller 6mm crown and the slightly slimmer case of the 6205. This is also the first instance we have of a “four-line” Submariner dial, which says “Rolex / Oyster Perpetual” at 12 o’clock and “100m = 330ft / Submariner” at six o’clock. The dial itself is still gilt, with ample radium lume plots and a chapter ring. The no-hash bezel is also still present, but the hands have started to evolve – we’ve got a set of Mercedes hands with a shorter hour hand and a bright white seconds hand that was supposed to increase legibility.
With the 6536/1, Rolex also finally moved away from the bubbleback calibers, instead fitting the Submariner with slimmer movements. Interestingly, the caliber 1030 that powers the 6536/1 dates back to 1950, the very same year as the A260 and A296, and can be found in a number of Oyster Perpetual and Explorer models as well, including the famous ref. 6610. It’s a 2.5 Hz (18,000 vph) movement that measures just 5.85mm thick, allowing for a caseback that sat closer to the case profile without giving up the automatic winding rotor.
Reference 6536/1 (Intermediate Version): 1957
The middle version of the 6536/1 is extremely similar to the first, but with two key differences: the bezel and the seconds hand. This is the first time we see a Submariner with the famous red triangle at the 0/60 position, something we’ll go on to see in later models as well. Additionally, the lume plot in the white seconds hand is a bit smaller this time around. Some people call the former a “lollipop” seconds hand to differentiate, despite there still being a pointed tip at the end of the larger lume plot.
One thing to note is that if you look at these first two 6536/1s side by side, you get a great sense of just how much variation there can be watch to watch when it comes to vintage Submariners. The dials presumably started out mostly the same colors and finishes, but over the decades they’ve faded differently and the printing starts to appear different. In this case, both dials are exactly as they should be, despite looking very, very different.
Reference 6536/1 (Final Version): 1957-1958
The reference 6536/1 culminated in the watch you see here, made just two years after the first 6536/1s rolled out to retailers. Again, we’re talking small differences here from version two to version three. Most notably, the bezel has again morphed, this time adding the hash marks between the 0/60 position and the 15 minute mark. Also, for the watches with this later bezel, you’ll want to make sure the watch has the proper handset: the white seconds hand is gone, in favor of one in brass that matches the other two hands (the lume plot is even smaller too, incidentally).
While this watch has a red triangle in the bezel, there were 6536/1s with hash bezels and no red triangle too. You can see one that has lived a heck of a life in Jason Heaton’s report right here.
To further complicate matters, at the same time Rolex was producing the “small crown” reference. 6536, it was also producing the “big crown” reference 6538. For a lot of people, this is the Rolex Submariner. It’s the watch that Sean Connery famously wore as James Bond in Dr. No (1962) and it’s got that beefy tool watch feel while still oozing vintage charm.
The 6538 came in two basic flavors, those with four lines of text at six o’clock and those with two lines of text in that position. We’ll talk about the former first (which is the watch you see above). In addition to the “Rolex / Oyster Perpetual” signature at 12 o’clock you’ll find four lines reading “200m=660ft / Submariner / Officially Certified / Chronometer” at six o’clock. This is the first Submariner to feature the chronometer certification on the dial, and you’ll notice the complexity of the color scheme on the gilt chapter ring dial – the model branding is all in gold while the other text is in a white/silver color.
The 8mm Brevet crown, no-hash bezel with red triangle, and broader case all contribute to this watch’s serious wrist presence. If you’ve never had the opportunity to try one of these early, big crown Subs on your wrist, try to find a collector or dealer with one who will let you give it a shot. It’s a totally different feel to the smaller Submariners or those with crown guards, but it’s also visually very different from the 6200 because of all the additional dial text. I remember the first time I ever saw one of these in the metal it total blew my mind – it’s easy to understand why this became such a classic.
Reference 6538 (Two Line): 1956-1959
While four-line 6538s were chronometer certified, there were also some watches of the exact same reference that were not. On these non-certified watches, you’ll find a simplified dial, without the chronometer certification in the six o’clock position. The result is a watch that has a slightly more open dial with some additional breathing room. The example above has faded to a beautiful dark shade of tropical brown, while the example below is still inky black – again, these watches were born identical but have become extremely different in their 60+ years of life.
A good rule of thumb: If there is no chronometer certification on the dial itself, the watch is almost certainly not COSC-certified. But, as with all things vintage Rolex, there are some exceptions.
While the dials of later 6538 examples are a bit more open, the bezels got a bit of extra detailing in the form of the hash marks from the 0/60 position to 15. These also have the red triangle at 12 o’clock, which we see intermittently throughout the first seven or eight years of the Submariner’s life.
Similarly to its smaller cousin, the 6536, there are multiple different hand sets that are correct for two-line 6538s. They can have either the slimmer white seconds had or the slim brass seconds hand – this is in contrast to the four-line 6538, which, in theory, should always have a large white seconds hand if it’s in true original condition.
Reference 5510 (The Last Big Crown Reference): 1958
The reference 5510 represents the end of an era. This is the very last Submariner to use an 8mm big crown. As you can see, it was produced concurrently with a number of the references above, which is part of why this era in Submariner history is so complicated. You really have to look at old advertisements from the period, authorized dealer materials, etc. to see what was in market when and what it would have looked like in new, original condition.
If you’re looking at this and saying “Wait, that looks just like the last two-line 6538 you showed me up above!” you’re not going crazy. The key traits – the big crown, the hash bezel with red triangle, the smaller Mercedes hand set – are all the same. When I asked a few dealers and collectors how to distinguish the two, they almost unanimously said “You just look between the lugs for the engraved reference number.” Easy enough.
The 5510 was also the first Submariner to use the significantly more modern caliber 1530 movement. This was a movement first introduced in 1957 and slowly implemented throughout the Rolex line-up. The movement itself evolved over its lifespan, so though it was used in 5510, 5508, and 5512 models for some time, it also changed throughout its lifespan. When first implemented it was a 17-jewel movement, though eventually 24 and 25 jewel versions were made too. Likewise, the shape and size of the winding rotor and the colored teflon gear coatings changed a bit too.
Reference 5508: 1958-1962
You’re probably sensing a trend right now. While the 6538 had its small crown cousin the the 6536/1, the 5510 has its own more diminutive relation in the 5508. This watch has the slimmer 100m-water-resistant case and crown, while evolving the design language of the 6536/1. We have a more consistent, low-key Mercedes handset right from the start and dials that exhibit exceptional balance in terms of how the markers and typography are laid out.
Two things did evolve though over the five years of 5508 production. The first is the bezel, which transitioned from a red triangle bezel to a silver triangle bezel (always with the hashes though). The second is the luminous material used on the dials. In the early 1960s, people started to become aware of just how dangerous radium paint was for both watchmakers and customers, and in 1963 Rolex would fully transition over to tritium lume on all of its future watches (until synthetic materials became available in the 1990s). But the 5508s produced in the early 1960s often show a lighter color of luminous compound that uses a lower concentration of radium. You can easily see the different in the two watches above, with the first being an early example and the second a very late one.
There’s one more critical point to make about the 5508: It’s the very last Submariner made to feature a case with no crown guards on the right side of the case. After 1962, all Submariners would feature the signature protectors on either side of the crown, giving the watch a slightly bulkier profile while making it a more robust tool. Remember, we’re still very much in the heyday of dive watches being actual dive tools, so designers were less worried about how the watch would look behind the wheel of your 911 and much more concerned about how it would perform underwater.
Reference 5512 (Square Crown Guard): 1959
The introduction of the reference 5512 in 1959 marked the moment that the Rolex Submariner became more or less the watch we know today. The 5512 has the approximately 40mm wide case, with its beveled lugs, crown guards, and slightly larger 7mm crown, the hashmarked dive bezel, the restrained dial with text at 12 and six o’clock, the 200m depth rating, and the standard Mercedes hands. It’s all there.
However, the reference 5512 would end up being produced continuously for over 20 years, from 1959 through 1980, and there are dozens of variations (more if you ask some collectors). Here we’re going to walk through many of the most important versions of the 5512, especially those that include structural changes to the watch or have important historic tie-ins. What we’re not going to do is get into every variation of serifs in the Rolex font or start giving funny nicknames to different coronet logos. That’s another thing for another time.
This very first 5512 is something of a transitional watch, taking us from the no-crown-guards Subs through to the more contemporary crown-guards Subs. Like its predecessors it has a beautiful gilt dial and a hashmark bezel with a red triangle at 12 o’clock. And then there are those crown guards. These are unlike any that we’ll find on later watches, with the ends totally squared off. When you look at the watch in profile it’s extremely striking and you can sort of tell that Rolex was still working through exactly how to design these. While they offer ample protection in this form, they make it a bit hard to access the crown for setting the time.
Reference 5512 (Eagle Beak Crown Guards): 1959
During this period, Rolex was constantly iterating on its products. While this had the end result of making the watches better on a consistent basis, it makes tracing the history a bit complicated. After realizing that the square crown guards could be refined, Rolex reshaped them to what collectors today call “eagle beak” crown guards because of how they taper down to their final point. It’s thought that these might have been made by shaving down cases with square crown guards, allowing Rolex to quickly change what they were doing without requiring a whole new manufacturing process.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably wondering if someone could just take a square crown guards 5512 today and shave it down to this shape if they wanted to replicated the effect. The short answer is yes, they probably could. But, square crown guards are much rarer and more valuable, so there’s little incentive for anyone to be deceitful in that way. If it were the reverse, we very well might have a problem on our hands.
Reference 5512 (Pointed Crown Guards): 1959-1963
At this point, we’re still dealing with classic, gilt dial 5512 Submariners. The crown guards continue to change though, and here we have a “PCG” or “pointed crown guards” 5512. If you look at just the crown guards, you’ll notice a straighter profile on these when compared to the eagle beak crown guards above. This shape cannot be derived from the square shaped guards, showing us that Rolex retooled and was making new cases in this shape from the start. After approximately four years of production, the gilt dial 5512 would end up with the rounded crown guards that the majority of Subs feature (and that you can see on the matte 5512s and gilt 5513s below).
There’s another change here too though – the additional of the “Superlative Chronometer / Officially Certified” text to the bottom of the dial. It was right around the time that this watch was made that the reference 5513, which was Rolex’s non-chronometer Submariner, started rolling off the line. These extra two lines of text were the main way that you could tell the two references apart from one another going forward. We’ll have a lot more on this below. Stay with me.
The particular example you see here also has what collectors call a “Swiss Exclamation Point” dial. If you look closely at the very bottom of the dial, right where the crystal starts to distort things, you’ll notice a “Swiss” signature outside the chapter ring and a circular lume plot just below the rectangular one, forming the “!” shape. This was an idiosyncrasy of Rolex’s sport watch production at this time and you can find exclamation point dials on the GMT-Masters and Explorers too.
To further complicate things, 5512s with pointed crown guards can feature one of two movements. The earliest versions (which featured bezels with red triangles at the 0/60 position) used the caliber 1530, while the version you see here introduced the caliber 1560. First phased into select references in 1959, the caliber 1560 was a 2.5 Hz (18,000 vph), 26-jewel movement with some added KIF shock protection and a free-sprung hairspring. This would remain the Submariner caliber for the next half-decade, taking us though the gilt dial era and into the beginning of the matte dial era.
So it might be a bit of a tangent, but do you remember that time we showed you one of these bad boys that had been found at a Philadelphia flea market for $10? If not, check that story out right here. It’s bananas.
This watch contains a few milestones. First off, we’ve got one of the very first matte dial Submariners. It was around this time in the mid-1960s (circa 1967 by most accounts) that Rolex rolled its production over from the galvanic gilt dials which had glossy finishes and gold text to the so-called “matte” dials which had a softer matte black finish and printed white text. For collectors today, the most basic taxonomy dividing Subs into two camps is probably gilt vs. matte, though as you can see here that’s a wild oversimplification.
If you look at the bottom of the dial – where you found the “Swiss” signature on the watch above – you’ll find “Swiss – T<25” which indicates that the luminous material is a) tritium and b) within an acceptable range of radiation that makes it safe to wear. Basically anytime you see a “T” somewhere on a watch dial you can safely assume that it has to do with the use of tritium in order to make the watch safer to wear. Looking at this part of the dial, you’ll also notice that there’s no more chapter ring connected to the hash marks for the minutes. This disappeared very late in the era of gilt dials and by the time Rolex moved to matte dials this was entirely gone.
Moving on from the dial, this watch shows us the final (or final-ish) shape of the Submariner’s crown guards. They’re a bit more rounded than on previous versions, being neither squared off or pointed at the ends. This makes it a little easier to manipulate the crown while still offering protection from bumps. This is the case that most vintage Submariner fans are probably familiar with and it was used for the bulk of the Submariner’s production in the 1970s and ’80s.
You’ll find the occasional gilt dial without a chapter ring, but you shouldn’t ever see a matte dial with one.
We said we wouldn’t get too into the minutiae of various font and logo variations, since that’s essentially a bottomless pit, with collectors and dealers giving new nicknames to watches on a daily basis in order to drum up interest or add value. However, this is what’s called a “Neat Font” dial, and it’s a second generation dial for a matte, meters-first ref. 5512 Submariner. What differentiates it is clean edges to the printing at both 12 and six o’clock, with the typography’s more open style giving the impression of a crisper, less hand-drawn feel.
Starting with the “neat font” 5512, we get yet another new movement for the Submariner, the caliber 1570. Based on the same architecture as the 1560, this movement upped the frequency to 2.75 Hz (19,800 vph) and refined a few of the gear and rotor finishes. Come 1972, the caliber would get upgraded again to have a hacking seconds mechanism, though the designation would remain 1570.
Reference 5512 (Matte Dial, Feet First): 1969-1980
The final generations of 5512s displayed two substantial changes from their predecessors – though substantial is, of course, a relative term here. First off, the depth ratings on these dials are “feet first” as opposed to “meters first.” This is exactly what it sounds like, with the feet coming before the meters in the depth rating equation. This watch reads “660ft=200m” instead of “200m=660ft” as we’ve seen on earlier watches. The actual capabilities of the watch didn’t change at all, this is merely an aesthetic change. There’s speculation that this might have to do with the U.S. becoming a more important market for Rolex, but, as with many things related to vintage Rolex, that’s just conjecture.
This is also a version of what collectors call a “Maxi Dial,” which refers to the enlarged lume plots for the hour markers. If you quickly scroll back and forth between this watch and the watch directly above, you’ll spot it immediately. The goal here was to make the watch even more legible. Technically, this is a mark iii maxi dial, as there were multiple configurations, but there we go again getting a bit too far into the weeds…
Reference 5513 (Pointed Crown Guards): 1962-1963
Ok, it’s time for a pivot. So far, in the world of Submariners with crown guards we’ve been focused exclusively on the reference 5512. This is, however, another critical reference for no-date Subs: the 5513. This watch was introduced in 1962, just three years after the 5512 made its debut, and the main difference between the 5513 and its predecessor is that it does not contain a movement certified as a chronometer by COSC. Yep, it’s a simple as that.
Consequently, the first 5513 we have here is extremely similar watch to the third 5512 featured above since it was made at approximately the same time. The “Superlative Chronometer / Officially Certified” text seen on the 5512 is not here, but otherwise it would be really difficult to tell these two watches apart side-by-side. Everything from the cases to the bezels to the styles of printing on the gilt dials is nearly identical. Both even feature the “exclamation point” at six o’clock.
The early generations of 5513s use the caliber 1530, the same caliber that you’d find in the non-chronometer 5512s. Because this movement wasn’t intended for chronometer certification, it made perfect sense for Rolex to roll it into the 5513 as it distinguished the 5512 by fitting it with COSC-certified calibers.
Reference 5513 (Explorer Dial): 1962-1965
This is one of the most collectable 5513s out there, and it looks unlike any other watch bearing that reference number. This 5513 has the so-called Explorer dial with the 3-6-9 subbing in for the rectangular lume plots at those hours. There are also slim luminous batons at the other hours (instead of dots) and the dial text is all reduced in size a bit to give the luminous numerals room to breathe.
These Explorer dial 5513s are the very last generation of Explorer dial Submariners, and they look substantially different when compared to the earlier Explorer dial ref. 6200 and ref. 6538 models. Keep in mind, we’re talking about just over a decade between the earliest 6200 and the last Explorer dial 5513, which really drives home how quickly the Submariner was evolving during this period. Today we think of it as a solid archetype, but it was still extremely malleable back in the ’50s and ’60s.
There were also Explorer dial 5512s produced around the same time as these watches, and, curiously, most seemed to have been made for the UK market. It’s unclear why that market would have received nearly all of these watches, but such is the strange history of these unusual pieces.
Reference 5513 (Underline): 1963-1964
This 5513 has a special version of a gilt dial with an “underline” printed just below the depth rating and “Submariner” signature at six o’clock. These underline dials can be found across the Rolex sport watch range, and represent a transitional period in the company’s history.
While Rolex has never outright confirmed this, the underline marking is understood to denote that the dial featured tritium lume with a lower level of radiation than would be found on the radium dials that had been used up to this point. The thought is that some dials were already printed, but not lumed, so Rolex decided to add the underline to existing pieces to note that they were different. Considering that all underline dials date to approximately 1962-64, the facts do line up here, and experts I’ve spoken to confirm that these watches do feature lower radiation levels than their predecessors. Outside of this, the watch is just a beautiful gilt 5513 through and through.
Reference 5513 (Double Swiss Underline): 1963
As if things weren’t complicated enough, there’s another variation of the underline 5513 that you need to know: the “double Swiss” underline 5513. The first thing you’ll notice is that the underline itself is in a different place here – it sits quietly under the Rolex signature at 12 o’clock instead of down at six. This watch still has a case with pointed crown guards, by the way, though it’s among the last 5513 to feature them.
More importantly though, there are two “Swiss” signatures at the very bottom of the dial, one gilt that sits in line with the open chapter ring and one white just below. This extra signature at the bottom is very unusual and takes this watch to the next level. The “Double Swiss” designation isn’t unique to the Submariner though – check out Ben’s report on the Double Swiss Underline Daytona right here for more.
Reference 5513 (Gilt Dial, Open Chapter Ring): 1964-1966
Now what happens if there are no extra “Swiss” signatures, no hidden underline, and no exclamation points? You get this watch. This is a later generation gilt dial 5513, which is indicated by the open chapter ring around the outer perimeter (what makes it “open” is that the gilt hash marks are not connected by a solid ring on the outside edge).
It’s funny that we’ve gotten to a point in vintage Rolex collecting that we consider this a “normal” or “standard” watch, considering that such examples were only made for a few years and that most were worn hard and without a hint of preciousness. Don’t let some collectors’ blasé attitudes get you jaded though – finding a gilt 5513 in outstanding condition, with a clean dial, a nicely faded bezel, and a sharp case is no easy task. This is one seriously nice watch right here.
Don’t be afraid to look things up if you’re unsure. There are so many dial variations for the Submariner that you’d be a fool to think you could know them all by heart.
Sometime toward the end of the gilt-dial era, the 5513 transitioned to a new movement, the caliber 1520. It’s a sort of strange movement, especially when you put it side-by-side with the caliber 1530, which was by many accounts a superior movement. The 1520 ran at a slightly higher frequency of 2.75 Hz (19,800 vph), but used a lower-cost regulator and balance spring, so with a bit of innovation came a bit of cost-savings. It was never intended to be COSC-certified, thus making it a good fit for the 5513.
Reference 5513 (Bart Simpson): 1966
Alright, to close out the gilt dial 5513s we figured it was worth having a little fun. In the land of minutiae, one of the things collectors and dealers most like to seize upon is the shape of the Rolex coronet. For a company logo, it sure did change and vary a lot over the middle part of the 20th century. The basics were always the same – a five-pointed crown with an open bottom and a serif font for the signature – but sometimes it was shorter, other times it was taller; sometimes it was wider, other times it was thinner; and sometimes the points of the crown were closer together, other times they were further apart.
The variation we have here has been nicknamed the “Bart Simpson” because the coronet is thought to look like the famous animated character. The deep yellow color of the coronet (due to the galvanic process of the gilt dials) amplifies the effect.
One side note here: there are Bart Simpson 5512s too, though they’re much rarer than the 5513 version.
Reference 5513 (Matte Dial, Meters First): 1967-1969
This is another moment where we see the 5512 and 5513 change in tandem. As Rolex phased out the traditional gilt dials, both Submariner references moved over having matte dials with white printing instead. Like the 5512, the 5513 would eventually transition over to a “feet first” depth rating, but this is an earlier model that still has the metric units first.
While a lot of the watches we’ve shown here have substantial patina, with faded bezels and dials, the watch here is basically a time capsule. The rich black color of the matte dial, the rich custardy hue of the lume, and the glossy black of the aluminum bezel insert are all intact. This is pretty close to what this watch would have looked like right out of the box in the late 1960s.
Reference 5513 (MilSub): 1972-1976
This watch sits right up there with the Explorer dial variant as one of the most collectable 5513s out there today. There are three basic variants of the MilSub, the 5513 you see here, later 5513/5517 double-references, and also 5517 single references (these last two references only exists as MilSubs, not as regular Submariners). The watch we have here is also what we’d call a “full-spec” MilSub, as it’s retained all the key variations that define this watch against a typical 5513. In many cases, watches were modified after being decommissioned and aren’t quite what they used to be. What you want though is a piece like this.
Now about those distinguishing features. What you’re looking for is the following: the special bezel, graduated in one-minute increments all the way around (a bezel that never appeared on any civilian Submariner), the sword-shaped hands, the circle-T logo at six o’clock to note that the watch uses safe tritium lume instead of radium, and fixed bars between the lugs (not removable spring bars). If any of those things have been altered, you might still be looking at a genuine MilSub, but one that’s lost a bit of what makes it so special.
With all vintage watches, having proper documentation will invariably increase a piece’s value. But with military watches, paperwork and documentation is even more important than usual. The potential profit to be made by doctoring up a typical 5513 and faking a MilSub is substantial, and there are people out there trying to do it with some regularity. So if you’re looking to buy one for yourself, going through a trusted source and looking for one with a proper paper trail is essential.
MilSubs are a rabbit hole all their own, and you can learn a bit more about the very earliest versions right here if you’re interested. (Spoiler alert: You should be interested.)
Reference 5513 (Matte Dial, Feet First): 1969-1982
As the stories of the 5512 and 5513 weave in and out from one another, this is their last point of contact. Made for over a decade, there are dozens of variations within this one family of watches alone. The watch you see here is nearly identical to the last 5512 shown above, with a matte dial and a feet-first depth rating. The lume plots are the larger “maxi” size and we’ve reached an era where the tritium lume generally ages to a lighter pale yellow color instead of a dark orange and beige tone. This is essentially the last generation of the true vintage no-date Submariner.
Reference 5513 (Last Generation): 1982-1989
This is the youngest watch that you’ll see in this story. Dating to approximate 1988, it’s one of the last 5513s made before the reference was retired after its 27 years in continuous production (indicated by its serial number beginning with “L”). You’ll notice immediately that the watch is very different from those we’ve looked at thus far. This is because it sits halfway between a true vintage Submariner and the five-digit references that Rolex would start making around 1990. This is the “missing link,” if you will, between the Submariners of yesteryear and the ones that you can still buy today (if you’re lucky enough to find one, that is).
The most important traits introduced with these late series 5513s are the glossy black dial and the white gold surrounds that encapsulate each of the tritium hour markers. You’ll also notice a number of changes to the fonts on the dial, the detailing of the bezels, and more. However, in terms of case, profile, and movement, this is every bit as much a 5513 as the earlier watches.
Reference 1680 (Red Sub): 1969-1975
Behold! The Submariner with a date! It might seem hard to believe today, but it took 16 years before the very first Submariner rolled out of Rolex with a date complication at three o’clock. It’s worth noting that the earliest Sea-Dwellers, which featured a date from the beginning, came out two years earlier too. It did however use the same caliber as those early Sea-Dwellers, the caliber 1575. (For more on the Sea-Dweller, be sure to check out Reference Points: Understanding The Rolex Sea-Dweller.)
When adding the date, this time with the magnifying Cyclops over the top, Rolex gave the Submariner a totally new reference in the 1680. The earliest iterations of the 1680 feature red “Submariner” text in the four-line signature at six o’clock, giving the watch its common nickname: The Red Sub.
For a period of time in the mid-2000s, the Red Sub was the entry point into collecting special vintage Rolex watches – it was the watch that you’d step up to after having owned a more basic matte dial sport watch or a Datejust. It was also one of the few Submariners with a date that drew as much attention as the no-date models. Now, as collecting has gotten more sophisticated, there are a lot of options here, especially once you get into gilt dial watches, but there’s no question that the Red Sub is still one of the most classic Submariners of all time.
What a lot of people don’t realize is that while the Red Sub is certainly rarer than a lot of other Submariners, it’s not one of those “one year only” kind of references. In fact, the watch was made from 1969 until 1973 and went through a few iterations or “Marks” during that time. Depending on who you talk to, there are seven or eight distinct versions of the Red Sub (some people collapse the Mark II and Mark III into one), and you’ll even notice that the two examples we have here are noticeably different, with the former showing meters first in the depth rating the latter showing feet first.
For the date Submariner, Rolex obviously needed a new movement with the additional complication. They opted to use the caliber 1575, a version of which was also being used to power GMT-Masters and Datejusts (and had been since its introduction in 1965). From the beginning the movement ran at 2.75 Hz (19,800 vph) and had an instantly jumping calendar wheel, but in 1972 the movement would get an upgrade in the form of hacking seconds, letting you set the watch more precisely. These movements rolled out slowly to various models, but if your 1680 hacks, you know it had to come after this date.
Reference 1680 (18k Yellow Gold): 1969-1979
Solid. Gold. Submariner. You had to know this was coming, right? I mean, how much cooler does it get? In 1969, Rolex (finally?) added a solid gold version of its classic tool watch to the catalog. For some people, this meant the death of the Submariner as a true sport watch; for other people, this was the Submariner’s ascendance into being a true luxury watch. Personally, I see it both ways, but I choose to celebrate the pure awesomeness that is a solid gold Sub instead of standing on principle and complaining about. Plus, let’s be honest, Rolex doesn’t care about what I say on the matter anyway.
The solid gold 1680 we have here is the same shape and dimensions as its steel cousin, down to the Oyster bracelet, just rendered in 18k yellow gold. The bezel looks familiar too, though the numerals and markings are in a matte gold color instead of silver, to coordinate better with the case. Likewise, the date disc is also a champagne color, which prevents it from looking jarring against all that gold. The biggest difference is the dial, which collectors call a “nipple dial” because of the raised hour markers with luminous centers. I don’t think I have to explain that any further, do I?
The version you see here also has a meters-first dial, which is extremely rare, only produced for the first year or two of the reference. After that, you’ll only see much more common feet-first examples.
Reference 1680 (18k Yellow Gold, Blue Dial): 1971-1979
The solid gold Submariner was a hit and Rolex continued to evolve the model over the years (it’s still part of the collection today, by the way). One of the first major variants was the one you see here, with its distinctive bright blue dial and bezel. Now, over time, a lot of these dials and bezels faded to various shades of blue and purple, but this one is still looking rich and saturated like it was when new. Personal tastes vary here, but I love when you get a punch of color like this.
Another thing to note here is the President bracelet mounted on this watch. No, this was not a later addition, swapped in from a Day-Date. Back then, if you wanted the watch on this bracelet your retailer could special order it for you – you’ll notice that the end links match up properly and everything here, so there’s no funny business at all. Most of the gold Submariners (as well as gold GMT-Masters) found on these bracelets can be traced back to Mexico.
Reference 1680 (COMEX): Mid-1970s
What the MilSub and Explorer dial are to the no-date Sub, the COMEX dial is to the date Sub. This is the biggest and baddest of all the date Submariners, these watches were made for the French Compagnie maritime d’expertises (COMEX for short), which specialized in underwater engineering. Their workers needed watches for long stints working underwater and living in submerged habitats, and Rolex was happy to oblige.
These watches feature the COMEX logo on the dial, just above the depth rating and “Submariner” signature at six o’clock, filling up the bottom portion of the dial. There are also deep COMEX engravings on the backs of the watches, which can be one of two sizes. What you see here is the “big numbers” COMEX, which is a bit rarer and tends to be more desirable (in a funny bit of contrast to the logo printing on the ref. 6200, if you’ll remember).
There’s an important side note here: not all COMEX Submariners are 1680s. There are two other types of vintage COMEX Submariners that fall under the references 5513 and 5514, the latter being a special reference reserved exclusively for COMEX-issued watches. The two watches are technically identical, and some feature COMEX logos on the dials while other are seemingly normal. What sets these pieces apart though are the helium escape valves (like what you’d see on a Sea-Dweller) on the left flank of the case. This makes these watches a sort of hybrid between Rolex’s two best-known dive watches. What you see above is a COMEX 5513 – note the small HEV in the bottom left corner of the photo.
Reference 1680 (Matte Dial With White Submariner): 1976-1979
Once you get past the early examples with the red text, the solid gold variations, and the COMEX watches, the 1680 is one of the simpler Submariner references to understand. Since it was never produced during the era of gilt dials, changing lume, and quick iterations on branding and logos, there are far fewer variations than you see with something like the 5512 or 5513.
This is what a typical, matte dial 1680 without the red “Submariner” looks like. You’ve got a packed four-line signature at six o’clock and the date sitting under the Cyclops at three o’clock. One variation you’ll find in the date is that earlier date wheels feature sixes and nines that are “open” – meaning the characters look like they were drawn with one stroke and there’s a separation where the circular part meets the straight part – and later date wheels feature sixes and nines that are “closed.” Otherwise, a basic matte 1680 is pretty much a basic matte 1680.
We’ve now shown you nearly three dozen Submariners, and, to be honest, this isn’t even close to everything. These are the most critical touch points for understanding how the Submariner evolved, its key features, and what collectors care about today. As mentioned earlier, there are truly countless dial variants, nicknamed sub-references, and unusual historical side notes. This is, in the truest sense, a bottomless pit.
However, all the watches we’ve shown you above break down into roughly four categories: those without crown guards, those with gilt dials, those with matte dials, and those with military provenance. We thought it would be interesting to interview experts in each field, inviting them to shed some additional light on what you should be looking for when you’re shopping for your next Sub.
I asked each expert to answer three questions:
1) For each type of Submariner, what is the most under-appreciated aspect that collectors need to pay attention to?
2) What’s the biggest mistake people make when looking at this type of Submariner?
3) What is your holy grail within this category of Subs?
Let’s check out the answers:
1) With respect to Submariners without crown guards, the one under-appreciated aspect that collectors should look for is “clear”…pun actually intended…and that’s gloss. Big crown and small crown Subs from the 1950s were made with radium dials, and their corrosive nature often ate away at the original gloss finish of the surface of the watch’s dial. Consequently, the specialness of finding a 1950s no crown guard Sub with some measure of original glossiness on the dial still intact shouldn’t be overlooked.
2) One significant error is unknowingly buying a no crown guards Sub with a later service dial, made with primarily tritium and lacking corrosive radium. As a result, they often appear to be in deceivingly superior condition. You think you’re getting one thing, but you’re actually getting something else entirely.
3) The 6538 Explorer dial with red depth rating is the big crown with the rarest dial configuration and is an ultimate treasure most collectors will never own. We more typically see it on 1960s gilt 5513 Subs, so when it appears with additional red depth reading on an early 6538 big crown, the iconic James Bond Submariner, you have the perfect storm of rarity of case and dial design. Very few are known to exist and as a result it’s an ultimate treasure most collectors will never own. Produced in 1956, in my view it represents the holy grail of no crown guard Subs.
1) Gilt 5512 and 5513 Submariners are not rare by any stretch, but they are rare to find in great condition. Many that I have handled from original owners and original families have seen a lot of action in their 50+ years of life, with it being common to see replacement hands and bezel inserts from Rolex given their nature as tool watches. It is also common to see these gilt dials re-lumed. I examine the condition of the gilt dials first, given how sensitive the lacquer is to damage, then the condition of the case, which I prefer to have the original proportions and chamfered edges if possible.
2) I often see new collectors buying gilt 5512 and 5513 Submariners that are in poor condition (sometimes with disclosed or undisclosed restoration) for what they see as a value purchase, when they would be better off buying an excellent example of a matte dial 5512 or 5513 for a similar amount. The multiple in value between a poor condition model and exceptional model is extremely high for Submariners, and only growing with time.
3) I love Submariners with the 3-6-9 Explorer dials and particularly like the reference 5512 version with the small-hash minute track and exclamation point dial. The minute markers on this version are almost like dots and the lacquer seems to stay preserved very nicely on these. The first one of these I ever held was one we sold at Christie’s in Geneva while I worked there. It was consigned by the original owner who bought the watch new in 1962 in Knightsbridge and wore it during his service as a police officer in London. That watch is now in the collection of a prominent Rolex collector in Hong Kong.
1) While gilt/gloss dials many times suffer from crazing, spidering, peeling, and hand drags, the matte dials are by contrast very well preserved for the most part. However, the one area where these dials are prone to damage is where the edge of the dial and larger minute markers meet the mid case. During a service, as the dial and movement are placed in the case and rotated into position, it’s not uncommon for the larger minute markers to break or chip. Consequently, it’s not uncommon to see some Submariners, especially the earliest 1680s to have three or four broken minute markers. Keep an eye out for this.
2) With few exceptions, collectors want their watches to be all original or at least period correct. So, it’s important to make sure that the dial in the watch is consistent with the serial number between the lugs and the year the watch was made. This might seem like common sense; however, there are nine different 5513 matte dials produced between 1966 and 1984, and because the same 1520 movement was used, it’s not uncommon to find a dial from the late 70s having replaced the original dial from a watch from the mid ’60s. Make sure everything checks out before buying.
3) While the gilt/gloss Rolex Submariners produced prior to 1965/66 have garnered the spotlight for many years, some of the later produced matte dial versions have reached grail status as well. The 1680 began its life as a matte dial Submariner, separating itself from its 5512 brother with the addition of a date function. An unmolested Mark I, meters-first Red Sub from the first year of production would certainly qualify as a grail matte dial Submariner given the aforementioned parameters, as would an 18k 1680/8 with a meters-first dial.
1) With less than 1,200 British military Submariners issued, there are few alternatives. The exception would be private purchase watches: Submariners bought be serving military personnel at the NAAFI (Commissary) for their own use. Although the British M.O.D. (Ministry of Defence) never issued Tudor Submariners, it is possible to find both Tudor and Rolex Submariners, bought by soldiers and sailors who engraved their military particulars on the watches, and wore them through their period of service. A “private purchase” Submariner, with an interesting provenance, can be a very rewarding find!
2) The entry-level British MilSub is likely to be a “low-spec” 5513: a watch that has lost its sword hands (and is fitted with Mercedes hands), has been fitted with a 15-minute-marker bezel, perhaps has had a bracelet fitted, has had the case back crossed with another watch or the military engravings polished off. Prices for something like this will be under $20,000. But buying this watch with a view to upgrading it is false economy: genuine Rolex sword hands are worth $30,000+, a 60-minute-marker bezel $30,000+; and most – if not all – of these “add-ons” for sale in the market now are fake or after-market.
3) There are several reference of MilSubs, including the A/6538 (1950s), a small number of 5512s (late 1950s-early 1960s), several batches of 5513s, “double reference” 5513/5517s, and 5517s (all 1970s). For me, a full-spec 5517 (for Army “W-10” or Royal Navy “0552” issue, signified by the case back engravings) is the holy grail of military Submariners. It is a unique reference Rolex reserved exclusively for British military issue watches (similar to the COMEX 5514), with around 150 watches produced in total.
Editor’s Note: I’d like to offer a huge thank you to Eric Wind, without whom this story would not have been possible. We would also like to thank Paul Altieri, Jeffrey Binstock, Jack Feldman, Adam Golden, Erwin Grose, Norman Harris, Geoff Hess, Jay Liu, David Marcinek, Stephen Moore, Grady Seale, Lavi Rudnick, Leon Shoykhetbrod, Jon Yu, and an anonymous collector who goes by @watch.me_watch.you on Instagram all for lending us their precious watches. Eric Wind also wants to thank Glenn Mariconda for his excellent scholarship on the 6204 and 6205 models in particular. If you had any doubts about how great the Rolex collecting community can be, this should clear them right up!