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.
Submariner 1953

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.

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.

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.


Ross Povey


October 2020


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