“Probably the only diver’s watch you can wear with a tuxedo.”
The Rolex Submariner, originally designed as the quintessential divers’ watch, has become probably the world’s best-known and best-selling luxury Swiss sports watch of all time (it’s definitely one of the most counterfeited). Genuine Submariners are now a definitive statement piece for everyone from businessmen to professional athletes and Hollywood stars. It’s a watch with mass-market appeal, but that doesn’t detract from its quality—rather, it underlines the precision design work that has made it such an icon.
The Birth of a Classic
The Submariner’s development resulted from a challenge to legendary Rolex founder and president, Hans Wilsdorf from board member René-Paul Jeanneret. Jeanneret was a keen diver and friend of famed underwater explorer, Jacques-Yves Cousteau. He felt that current diver’s watches in the Rolex collection–while water resistant–were insufficient for everyday use. Jeanneret saw there was a need for a functional yet elegant watch, and he wanted Rolex to create it.
After several years of experimentation and trial and error, Jeanneret finally had a watch to be confident in.
To build attention for the watch’s planned release, a modified model–the Rolex Deep Sea Special–was affixed to the exterior of a submarine piloted by Auguste Piccard, one of the greatest explorers of the time. When Piccard resurfaced from the 3,000-meter dive, the watch still functioned perfectly.
The Rolex Submariner debuted at Baselworld in 1953. The following year Rolex officially released three models: the 6200, the 6204, and the 6205. Now, divers could not only have confidence that their watch was fully waterproof up to 100m, but they could accurately time their immersion and not have to worry about changing out their watch for something more appropriate back on land.
The Rolex Submariner Through the Years
In 1954, none of the watches had the Submariner name on the dial, and certain established Submariner details such as the crown guards were not yet present. Modifications would follow of course, but over the years, the Rolex Submariner’s instantly recognizable design has changed very little.
Both the 6204 and 6205 were retired before 1960, but the 6200 is now a rare collector’s item, with a large (8mm) crown, no gradation markings on the bezel, and Mercedes-style hands.
1957 saw the Rolex Submariner become standard-issue kit for British military divers with modifications including a strengthened case and bezel. Two years later, Rolex released the Submariner 5512, which came with added crown guards, a larger 40mm case, and the inscription “Superlative Chronometer, Officially Certified” on the dial.
Favored by screen icon Steve McQueen the 5512 was followed by the 5513, with a slight tweak to the crown guards, and a Caliber 1530 movement, upgraded to a Caliber 1520 later that year.
The Submariner’s reputation was further enhanced in 1962 when Sean Connery wore a 6538 model in Dr. No—a breakout role for both Connery and the Rolex Submariner on his wrist. James Bond would enjoy a long relationship with the Submariner that brought the watch to a wide audience. Following this, the Rolex Submariner 1680, introduced in 1966, was the first to feature a date window, with a Plexi crystal, red writing on the dial, and a Caliber 1575 movement.
The 1980s were a particularly important decade for the Submariner. Rolex began by refining the watch in 1981, issuing the 16800 model with a unidirectional bezel for the first time. A few years later came the 16613, the first two-tone gold and steel Sub, with a blue dial and bezel.
If any development cemented the Submariner’s universal appeal, it was the 16610, which debuted in 1988 and is considered by many watch aficionados to be the “classic Sub.” The 16610 has a stainless steel case, a 40mm black dial, and the patented Oyster bracelet, plus luminescent hands and scratch-proof crystal for clarity underwater. Production ended in 2010, but by then the Submariner 16610 was already the world’s most counterfeited watch.
When the Submariner turned 50 in 2003, Rolex celebrated with an anniversary edition of its most popular model, the 16610LV, fitted with a striking green bezel.
While its form has been frequently adjusted over the years, the underlying ethos behind the Rolex Submariner has never changed. This is the ultimate diver’s watch—functional, reliable, and robust. It’s a watch which set new standards in workmanship, but which also possesses a restless nature. The true mark of the Submariner’s prestige, however, is its enduring popularity.