The Rolex No-Date Submariner - Seven Decades of a Classic

The Rolex Submariner has been an institution in its own right since 1953. An icon of both horology and style, the new era of the Submariner was welcomed in 2020.

There are dozens of waterproof dive watches available on the market and there has been since the early 1950s. However, if you asked 100 people to name a diver’s watch I’m pretty sure that 90-plus of those asked 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’s a timeless classic that Rolex has slowly and gently revised over the years, but is still as true to its DNA today as it was nearly 70 years ago. And last year Rolex gave the line a tweak to include modifications to its case, movement and bracelet. So let’s take a look back at the Submariner’s roots as a timeless icon of style.

The first and most obvious aspect of the Sub is the kaizan-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 whilst the lines may be a little different and the dial execution more technical on the modern example, the layout and look are essentially unchanged. Going over to a musical example for one minute, think about Slash. Sure, he’s played Fender guitars and even a BC 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 very true to its roots. As the saying goes - if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!

1953 was a key year for the Rolex sports line of watches, as it was the year that two of the longest running and most successful watches were unveiled at the spring Basel fair - the Explorer and the Submariner. 1953 was also the debut year for the Turn O Graph 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 cross-channel swim. Ever the canny entrepreneur, Hans Wilsdorf made sure that the first lady swimmer to make the cross channel swim from France to England was wearing a Rolex Oyster. This advertising is considered key in Rolex’s journey to being the most well-known watch brand on the planet. With that reputation in place, it was a natural progression to making professional watches aimed at the emerging water-sports industry.

By the early 1950s, modern diving equipment was becoming commercially available. The systems of the early 1940s and post World War II developments meant that more people were able to dive recreationally. Rolex was one of the leaders in providing a wristwatch that would serve as an essential piece of safety equipment. Although Blancpain were slightly ahead of Rolex with their Fifty Fathoms watch, the Submariner reference 6204 was the very first dive watch to be rated to a depth of 100 metres. The watch had a highly legible dial layout, with hands that like the painted hour hands were filled with Radium. This allowed the wearer to tell the time in dim-lit environments such as underwater. The rotating bezel allowed the wearer to measure elapsed time by moving the triangle, also with luminous filling, to the where the minute hand was at the beginning of the dive and therefore knowing exactly how long they had been submerged. Sounds simple, but this was life or death information and so no diver would dive without a good quality waterproof wristwatch.

The Submariner has always been a three-piece design, unlike the monobloc cases of the 40s and early 50s. The three-piece watches consisted of steel mid-cases onto which a screw case back was fitted and an acrylic crystal was pressed over a rehaut on the front of the case and then sealed with a bezel-retaining ring (onto which the rotating bezel also clicked). The winding crown 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 which 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 being similar to the 6204 but with Mercedes pattern hands where the 6204 had pencil hands. The 6200 was the first of what collectors now refer to as Big Crown Submariners and by default the 6204/5 were known as small crowns. These watches were fitted with the A260 and A296 movements.

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. In 1958, Rolex released the Big Crown 5510 and Small Crown 5508, both of which housed the latest Rolex caliber, the 1530. These watches are viewed as transitional models, mainly due to the fact that they housed the movement that would stay in the Submariner watches for the next 30 years!

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 twin-lock 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 5513 was introduced in the early 1960s and was 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!

The reference 14060 was the successor to the 5513 in 1989 and whilst it maintained the aesthetics and character of the 5513 it was re-packaged for the new era of sport 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 a unidirectional bezel that was technically an improvement to the old spring washer system. The 14060 also heralded the arrival of the new 3000 series calibre, 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 ‘four line’ dials – not seen since the 5512 in the early 1970s.

2012 saw the introduction of the reference 114060, 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 bezel insert, which was fade-proof and scratch resistant.

In 2020 the new era of the Submariner was welcomed. True to form these watches are an evolution rather than a revolution of the Submariner, but the tweaks are important. The Submariner has for the first time since the late 1950s had a size increase from 40 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, whilst the Submariner Date houses calibre 3235. That’s the incredible thing about the Submariner; whether you are 300 metres below the North Sea, snorkeling in Nice, driving your 911 across the desert or having a drink at The Connaught, it never lets you down!

Contributor

Ross Povey

Published

February 2021

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