The Complete History of the Rolex Submariner

Ask any watch collector worth their salt and odds are they either pine after a Rolex Submariner or possess at least one in their collection. That’s because not only is the Submariner one of the most refined dress watches of all time, but it’s built with conviction by the most recognizable luxury watch brand in the world.

But what exactly is the story behind these elegant timepieces? And at what point did both performance and elegance become a mandatory selling point within the watch community? Well, we can trace the history of the Rolex Submariner back to the prosperous post-war mid-century world, where the tenets of excess and upward economic mobility were once again proven merits held with high regard in a newly globalized economy. Since then, the Submariner’s been featured in Hollywood flicks and worn by movie stars and well-to-do gentlemen over the many years following its initial introduction. Submariners also adorned the wrists of notable men like Jacques Cousteau, Sean Connery, Steve McQueen and the British Royal Navy – solidifying the already assumed notion that this was one timepiece that would never go out of style.

Early Beginnings

Form/Function/Resistance

It’s no secret Hans Wilsdorf, the founder of Rolex, was a both a visionary and marketing mastermind. This sort of mindset also facilitated smooth communication within the company between Rolex’s employees and Wilsdorf himself. Notably, between Rene-Paul Jeanneret – a member of the board of directors for Rolex and an avid diver – and Wilsdorf. It was here where Jeanneret first expressed interest in a Rolex diving watch, a proposal that would later blossom into an entire division of luxury sports watches. With a heightened level of water resistance in mind, Wilsdorf then insisted upon self-winding movement and the screw-down crown. After all, these were Rolexes. With this new and elegant dive watch came a new standard for both Rolex and the luxury watch industry at large.

Fortunately for Rolex, the brand had previously been in cahoots with Panerai – a watchmaker that also sold diving equipment. Collaboration between these two brands already manifested itself in the iconic oyster-shaped cases the Submariner would eventually sport, so adaptation was relatively easy at the onset. This stylish aesthetic – along with proprietary caliber movement built by Rolex themselves – served as notable selling points for Jeanneret when pitching the new gentlemen’s dive watch. In fact, part of the Submariner’s R&D phase included a dive test where professional divers Auguste Piccard and his son Jacques brought the watch with them on a record-breaking 10,335 ft dive in their bathyscaphe. As for the Submariner? It survived the dive, ticking along handsomely when they resurfaced.

It was through these various trials, prototypes, and experiments – tested and proven once again by August Piccard at a depth of 3131 meters – that Rolex ended up with the handsome professional diver’s watch we all know and love today.  The watch was later launched to the public in 1953 and at the time was the first diver’s watch that was waterproof to a depth of 100 meters.

A New Standard

From the Boat to the Boardroom

With this new and elegant dive watch came a new standard for both Rolex and the luxury watch industry at large. This would later include a more masculine appearance, steel bracelet, and ceramic bezel – a continued style even to this day. Ironically enough, the Submariner’s first appearance on the big screen actually came a year before its launch in Jacques Cousteau’s documentary about the Mediterranean Sea titled The Silent World which actually went on to win an academy award and served as a bit of a teaser for what the brand would soon release.

Notable Milestones in Submariner History

1953: First Rolex Submariner showcased at Basel Watch Fair
1955: British Royal Navy Chooses Submariner reference 6538
1956: Updated hands; bezel gets a minute index for the first quarter
1959: Crown guards introduced
1966: Date window introduced, as is their cyclops plexi crystal glass
1969: Submariner reference 16618 becomes available in gold
1979: Sapphire crystal implemented and water resistance increased to 300 meters
1981: Uni-directional bezel introduced
1988: Caliber 3135 movement introduced
2003: 50th Anniversary model introduced with green bezel
2009: Ceramic bezel introduced on the Submariner

More importantly, it wasn’t just the incredibly sturdy construction that made the new Submariner appealing to divers and oceanographers. In fact, this new dive watch created a utility standard thanks to a handful of features built specifically for divers. For instance, its rotating bezel kept track of airtime when divers were submerged and its handy flip lock clasp was built specifically for convenient handling with neoprene gloves. Later innovations, though the baseline design and mechanics remained relatively untouched, also included a thinner crown guard (initial crown guards would not be fitted until after 1960), a helium escape valve, 31 jewel movement, a “Cyclops” magnifying glass for underwater legibility, and Superluminova hour markers.

Rolex also offered three different models during the first production year of 1953 for consumers. All of which carried a similar appearance except a few varying characteristics. They were the Submariner reference 6200 featuring a self-winding caliber A.296 movement (water resistance of 200 meters), the Submariner reference 6204 (water resistance of 100 meters), and the Submariner reference 6205 featuring a self-winding caliber A.260 movement (water resistance of 100 meters).

Pop Culture and Modern Transformations

Life on the Big Screen

Even though the Submariner debuted back in 1953, it wasn’t really until the early 1960s when the watch’s popularity began to soar – due in part to one of the greatest advertising mediums at the time, movies. It was here where the Rolex appeared on the wrist of Sean Connery in several James Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, Goldfinger, and Thunderball) and was actually featured in several underwater the scenes as well during that time. Naturally, the message was received loud and clear: here was a watch that was durable enough to withstand an underwater stealth mission yet classy enough to fit right in at any black-tie affair. Rolex had struck gold, so to speak, and with a timeless design, there was little need to switch up the formula for success. Here was a watch that was durable enough to withstand an underwater stealth mission yet classy enough to fit right in at any black-tie affair.

It’s this almost instantaneous nostalgia that allowed Rolex to iterate only slightly over the following years. Small adjustments here and there were then implemented as more modern timepieces (dive watches especially) entered into direct competition with Rolex. So, to help keep up with current trends without compromising integrity, Rolex began offering more colorful Submariners as opposed to the standard silver steel and black face options that marked the original. For instance, Submariners were soon available with two-tone, yellow gold, or blue faces to make them more appealing to a larger audience.

Later, to mark the timepiece’s 50th anniversary, Rolex launched a handsome green-faced iteration – dubbed “lunette verde” to commemorate this milestone achievement. The watch manufacturer now also uses a proprietary 904L stainless steel on their latest models. It’s an aerospace engineered and chemically-sound corrosion-resistant, shock resistant steel that Rolex uses to construct their everyday timepieces. A statement no other watch brand in the business can make.

Despite these minor construction changes, the overall design has remained constant throughout the years, facilitating a level of demand unlike any other luxury watch of late. It’s why after over six decades, the Rolex Submariner remains a high ticket classic timepiece recognizable from across the cocktail lounge or the aft deck of a research vessel.

Now, Here are Some of the Best Dive Watches Available Today

It’s a good bet you’ll find the Rolex Submariner, along with several other viable options, featured in this list of the best dive watches on the market. Just have a look and see for yourself.

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