The evolution of the Rolex Submariner

The Rolex Submariner has been an institution in its own right since 1953. Now the classic dive watch has undergone another pitch-perfect evolution.
The evolution of the Rolex Submariner
There are dozens of waterproof dive watches available on the market, and there have been since the early 1950s. However, if you asked 100 people to name a dive watch, I’m pretty sure that 90-plus would name the Rolex Submariner. Much more than a tool watch, the Submariner has become an icon of both horology and style. With or without a date, it is a classic that Rolex have slowly and gently revised over the years, yet it is still as true to its DNA today as it was nearly 70 years ago. In 2020, the new era of the Submariner is here for both the Submariner and Submariner Date. True to form, these watches are an evolution rather than a revolution, but the tweaks Rolex have made — modifications to the case, movement and bracelet — are important. The Submariner has for the first time since the late 1950s had an increase in size, from 40mm to 41mm, and the proportions of the bracelet are a little different, too, with a slightly broader presence. The Submariner is fitted with calibre 3230, while the Submariner Date houses calibre 3235. The Submariner Date comes in four guises: steel with black dial and black Cerachrom bezel; a version with black dial and green Cerachrom bezel; the Rolesor (steel and gold) version with a royal blue dial and blue Cerachrom bezel; and the white-gold version with a black dial and blue Cerachrom bezel. All the watches feature the new 41mm case and redesigned Oyster bracelet.
2020 Submariner
To understand these developments, let’s take a look at the Submariner’s roots. The first and most obvious aspect of the Sub is the Kaizen-esque way that Rolex have guided the model on its journey since 1953. Hold up an example of the original Sub from 1953 next to the latest iteration of the no-date watch, and, while the lines may be a little different and the dial execution more technical on the modern example, the layout and look are essentially unchanged. Invoking a musical example for a minute, think about Slash, aka Saul Hudson, the lead guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. Sure, he’s played Fender guitars, and even a B.C. Rich Mockingbird, but it’s the Gibson Les Paul, another timeless design, that he loves and that he’ll be remembered for. Also consider the Porsche 911. Again, this car’s modern production model is still true to its roots. The year 1953 was vital for the Rolex sports line of watches, as two of the longest-running and most successful watches were unveiled at the spring Basel fair — the Explorer and the Submariner. It was also the debut year for the Turn-OGraph reference 6202, a cool but short-lived opening of the ToG saga. By 1953, Rolex’s reputation as the de facto maker of waterproof watches was well established, helped by such advertising opportunities as the Mercedes Gleitze crosschannel swim. Ever the canny entrepreneur, Hans Wilsdorf, the Rolex founder, made sure that the first British woman to swim the English Channel was wearing a Rolex Oyster. This advertising is considered key in Rolex’s becoming the world’s most famous watch brand. With their reputation in place, it was a natural progression to making professional watches aimed at the emerging watersports industry.
Mercedes Gleitze in 1927.

Rolex’s early Subs

By the early 1950s, modern diving equipment was becoming commercially available. The systems of the early 1940s, as well as developments after the second world war, meant that more people were able to dive recreationally. Rolex was one of the leaders in providing a wristwatch that could serve as an essential piece of safety equipment, and the Submariner reference 6204 was the first dive watch to be rated to a depth of 100 metres. The watch had a highly legible dial layout, with painted hour hands that were filled with radium. This allowed the wearer to tell the time in dimly lit environments (such as under water). The rotating bezel allowed the wearer to measure elapsed time by moving the triangle, which also had a luminous filling, to where the minute hand was at the beginning of the dive, therefore showing exactly how long they had been submerged for. It sounds simple, but this was life or death information, and no diver would dive without a high-quality waterproof wristwatch. The Submariner has always been a three-piece design, unlike the ‘monoblocco’ cases of the forties and early fifties. The three-piece watches consisted of steel mid-cases on to which a screw-down caseback was fitted. An acrylic crystal was pressed over a rehaut on the front of the case and then sealed with a bezel-retaining ring (on to which the rotating bezel also clicked). The winding crown was then screwed down against the side of the case, thus making the watch hermetically sealed. This was the Oyster system, and it was very, very good. For reasons of operational ease of use, in 1955 Rolex unveiled the reference 6200, which had a much bigger winding crown that was easier to unscrew and had a much thicker case that enabled Rolex to depth-rate it to 200 metres. This watch co-existed with the 6204 and 6205 (released in 1954); the 6205 was similar to the 6204 but had Mercedes-pattern hands, whereas the 6204 had pencil hands. The 6200 was the first of what collectors now refer to as ‘Big Crown’ Submariners; by default the 6204/5 iterations were known as Small Crowns. These watches were fitted with the A296 and A260 movements, respectively. These early Subs were experimental and market-testing pieces, which Rolex consolidated into two references in 1956: the Big Crown was reference 6538 and the Small Crown was reference 6536. These watches were fitted with Rolex’s new 1030 calibre. Finding these watches complete with their original gilt dials and original inserts is a collector’s dream. There were so many different dial variations that it would take a story in its own right to cover. In 1958, Rolex released the Big Crown 5510 and Small Crown 5508, both of which housed the latest Rolex calibre, the 1530. These watches are viewed as transitional models, mainly due to the fact that they housed the base movement that would stay in the Submariner watches for the next 30 years.
The first Submariner, from 1953.
A 1972 advert about world records achieved with the diving operations firm Comex.
Deep Sea Special, 1960.

Late fifties to early eighties

In 1959 the Sub went through its biggest transformation. Gone was the small 6mm crown and gone also was the large 8mm crown. Instead, the new Twinlock 7mm crown was introduced on reference 5512, a non-date Submariner that had new crown guards. These crown guards flanked the winding crown and offered protection for arguably the most vulnerable part of the watch. The crown guards had four different profiles — square, ‘eagle beak’, pointed, and rounded, the last of which was used for decades. The 5512 was fitted initially with a non-chronometerrated 1530 movement before eventually moving to the 1560/70 chronometer-rated movements. The 5512 had a two-decade run before being discontinued in the second half of the seventies. The 5513 was introduced in the early 1960s and was also fitted with the 1530 movement (which pretty quickly was changed to another non-chronometer movement, the 1520). The 5512 was upgraded to chronometer status in 1963, so for a year they co-existed on an even keel. The 5513 outran the 5512 and had a staggering run of 27 years. In 1969 Rolex introduced the reference 1680 Submariner Date, which was about the most complicated a diver’s watch needs to be. As a Rolex fan I’ve often pondered the question as to why the date function was added. Was it because the brand wanted to cater more for the everyday guy who was wearing the watch, or was it, as per the Sea-Dweller, to enable divers who were on commercial dives and decompressing for days on end to keep track of the days? Either way, the Submariner Date has been a companion to the no-date from 1969 until now. The 200-metre-rated 1680 featured the calibre 1575 and the introduction of a new shaped crystal with straight edges and a date magnifier known as a cyclops. The early versions of the watch had the word ‘Submariner’ in a red colour before switching to white text. Between 1979 and 1981, the watch was revisited and updated to include a new unidirectional bezel and sapphire glass, which meant the watch was depth-rated to 300 metres. The reference 16800 kept the matte dial with painted hour markers until 1984, when the dials became glossy with applied white-gold markers with luminous filling.
The evolution of the Rolex Submariner.

Late eighties to the present day

The term ‘transitional’ is often used when collectors make sense of the chronology of Rolex models. The Submariner Date perfectly illustrates this with reference 168000. Produced for a matter of months in 1988 before the introduction of reference 16610, it’s virtually impossible to tell the difference between a glossy-dial 16800 and 168000, as the only difference is the steel that was used. The 168000 used the new 904L steel, which replaced the traditional 316L steel. In 1989 the 16610 Submariner Date was introduced, which was again virtually identical to the 168000, except for the movement, which was the calibre 3135, replacing the 3035 from the 16800. The 16610 had a 21-year run that included the 16610LV watch in 2003, which was released to celebrate 50 years of the Submariner. The LV had new ‘maxi’ hour plots that were noticeably bigger than a regular 16610, and the watches had a green bezel insert that led to the collector’s nickname ‘Kermit’ (as in the frog). It’s worth noting that the Kermit is now one of the hottest watches on the modern-vintage market, so it’s not surprising that in 2010, with the launch of the reference 116610 Submariner Date, featuring the so-called maxi case with ceramic insert, that two versions were available: a black dial with black bezel and a green dial and green bezel. The new green watch had a new nickname: the ‘Hulk’. The no-date Sub was a late developer in terms of changes to the watch. The reference 14060 was the successor to the 5513 in 1989, and while it maintained the aesthetics and character of the 5513, it was re-packaged for the new era of sports watches. Out went the scratch-prone acrylic crystal and in came a new flat sapphire glass. Rolex kept the steel bezel ring and aluminium insert, albeit a little bigger for the sapphire glass, but the bezel featured was a unidirectional bezel with a click spring that was technically an improvement to the old washer spring system. The 14060 also heralded the arrival of the new 3000-series calibres, which utilised some of the new developments in calibre technology into which Rolex had invested so much research and development. In 2001 Rolex updated the movement in the 14060 and gave the watch the letter ‘M’ at the end of the reference number to represent the updated movement. The calibre 3130 was chronometer-rated and so the text ‘Superlative Chronometer Officially Certified’ was added to the dial, making them ‘fourline’ dials, not seen since the 5512 in the early 1970s. The reference 114060 was introduced in 2012, that version of the non-date Submariner that featured a number of Rolex’s latest technological innovations. The calibre 3130 was still deployed to drive the Sub, but it was housed in a new steel case with much wider proportions, especially the lugs. Known by collectors as the maxi case, this fat-lugged case was used on the GMT-Master and Submariner Date, too. The dial continued to have the four lines of text on the lower half and the hands and hour plots were filled with the latest Rolex proprietary luminous compound, Chromalight. The watch also housed a Cerachrom ceramic bezel insert, which was fade-proof and scratch resistant. And so in 2020 we have been treated to the latest chapter in a long and illustrious saga. Will the new Submariners be popular? Yes, indeed. Will they be hard to acquire? Almost certainly. Will they be worth the wait? Without even the slightest hint of a doubt. That’s the incredible thing about the Submariner: whether you are 300 metres below the North Sea, snorkelling in Nice, driving your 911 across the desert, or having a drink at The Connaught, it’ll never disappoint.
Oyster Perpetual Submariner
Oyster Perpetual Submariner